When you can’t love in public: the black boy’s plea in “Chicago high school love letters”
I’ve been trying and failing to write this essay for a month. Watching the blinking of a blank Microsoft Word document in front of me I froze up each time, unable to proceed. This, perhaps, is the best explanation or rendering in prose of my poetic sequence “Chicago high school love letters.” They are poems that exist, quite simply, because they are not something that I feel confident I can say well in any other format.
“Chicago high school love letters” began as the connective tissue for a series of poems that explored the effect of violence on young people in Chicago (or any other locale where such a reality is common). As I approached these poems I was moved to include the “love letters” in order to ask a question to myself. Are young people still young people in the face of hard and complicated circumstances? What I experienced while growing up on the South Side of Chicago offered me a fractured answer to that query. Often, the emotions that I could not freely express in public were those that revealed vulnerability. Love, grief, and fear were unwelcome in the world of young black boys who had to prove their manhood to each other, often without any language or critical idea about what manhood might entail.
In thinking back on that time it makes sense to me that, in order to approach the psyche of young men denied a public outlet of vulnerability, the idea of “letters” would prove invaluable. Those private notes shared between a guy and his lady often acted for us as a haven for feeling. I also enjoyed using short vignettes and fragments to mirror the moment at which I came into adolescence. At that time cell phones and text messaging were just beginning to be widely available. In those days before unlimited texts my homies and I had to be judicious and specific in our crafting of information to lovers. I still remember that to stay under my 200 texts a month budget I had to average about 6 texts a day (and make them count).
The numbering of the sequence is meant to mirror actual numbers of deaths at specific dates in a specific school year (my senior year of high school). This seemed important in order allow the other forms of tenderness often denied young black men to creep through. Fear, grief, love, need for emotional validation are central to the desires that the speaker in the sequence reveals. The speaker needs love and needs it with a specific urgency as he moves through a world where so many of his people are being murdered.