Homage to Akilah*
(For Akilah Oliver
and Oluchi, en memorium)
His body was decomposing her baby her flesh child she once held
at her breast. (He was dead.)
Death took residence in her head.
Neglect. Negligence. Hospital sued
over a young man left in an emergency room.
How was it all became a crap shoot,
fate of offspring we’d nourished, adored,
gave to our last breath? They–our babies girls boys
muchachitos niños queridos
neighborhood kids—pudgy or puny and picked on
or had too many tíos,
Los García or the Walkers mom had Lupus or marido with
bad back & couldn’t work. Nephews nieces mijos mijas
nietos nietas sent out to the war on streets.
Society wouldn’t let them be,
not last century or the one before and not in 2018.
A poet woman mother raised a boy
migrant teacher of language went from campus to campus;
plethora of words in her arsenal Akilah and me, tokens–
brown female evolved spirit
from the Southwest or Southside of any city.
She was a teacher with dreads and sleepy-eyed smile believed—
must have–in doing right doing it strong for the sake of
showing her son right from wrong.
If you stayed steady, she said to herself (must have)
captain on a ship of two, where Ramen noodles or mac n cheese dinner,
night bath regular, a story read, put the child to bed
graded papers ‘til 2 a.m., then started again (must have, like I had)
would benefit fly like Obama had. Success—
at his fingertips.
No one would shoot him down in a ‘good’ neighborhood,
No policeman would kill him dead for reaching into a pocket.
No school would hold him back ‘til he gave up.
Diabetes and other diseases would be kept at bay.
He’d be ready your boy your flesh. your son (& mine)
for the perpetual onslaught.
The time came for round one bell rung Oluchi fists up,
the newly minted Black man fell. Just like that.
Just like that.
When she got the call,
rushed to MLK Hospital,
put her ear next to his lips–
bloated and bluish, parched like onion skin,
having kissed their last-kiss lips, swollen and soundless,
felt no breath,
heard no final “Mama, I love you,” her boy
left to perish on a gurney
her son her flesh,
she began to die, too.
Slow drip of existence oozed through her pores.
Good-bye, far-reaching star,
a round of green mint tea for the house before we move on.
Joy, as she once knew it, vaporized.
I felt it way ‘cross the land of the free and the brave
(belonging to Whites with money and no conscience.) In a world
le monde un mundo where no education,
knowledge of couplets, art, or science,
extent of good works,
lectures attended or charitable donations,
would re-set a heart broken
by a child’s ruin.
not knowing each other
but by the way soldiers instantly bond.
I heard her wail
like a canine hears a dog whistle, ears up, heart pounding.
We’d shared the vanity of affording good nutrition,
books, clean water and little league.
Nothing had saved them,
not we—Amazon mothers.
(Somehow, I’ll say it, absent
fathers failed them.)
One afternoon, standing in her living room,
tired of beating without his, Akilah’s heart stopped.
She hit the rug heavy,
sun filtering through bay windows
kept her lifeless body warm ‘til they found her.
The killing fields are everywhere–
under the viaduct or over the freeway
Chicago L.A. Detroit Denver
Mothers aunts lil sis abuelas
with outlined lips & swaying hips–
single mothers push grocery carts on the sidewalk,
sneak out to dance,
fuck in alleyways hoping for love again,
stretch meals through the week,
have pre-paid phone cards,
spend paychecks in advance—
survive in the cracks.
I’d taught him how
to do shoelaces, his tie, ride a bike,
later, shave and drive a car,
have pride in work, clean house, fry an egg, wash out his drawers,
be respectful of women, neighbors, be an honorable friend.
He was behind bars.
Look at this poet.
Look at her life,
who went down at twenty-one.
Don’t leave your mother
with only the memory of a son.
–*MY BOOK OF THE DEAD: New Poems. (UNMP, Albuquerque, Sept. 1, 2021)
Single mothers of children of color are everywhere. Raising a boy in the U.S. without support of a partner or extended family presents its own challenges. Chicago, our hometown, is infamous in this regard. I did my best as la poeta y maestra Akilah did her best. We are not the women who’ll be hailed by White institutions for our poems. We are among the mothers whose hearts, laid heavy with history and tradition left to dark skinned women for 500 years did our best. She did her best and not long after her boy died out of institutional neglect, her heart stopped beating. I was somewhat more blessed than Akilah. My own son has survived his youth his tumultuous twenties where rage of a racist society consumed you . He is a devoted parent. During this pandemic, they’ve remained well.
If you haven’t read our story please invite your library to order a copy or order one for yourself. We told it because parents and sons like Akilah and her boy and Marcelo & me, are everywhere, we are society, part of your neighborhood, extended family and community, everyday doing our best–to stay sane, to stay well, to be productive and contribute positively to this world, even if no one notices. And to stay alive.