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This poet worries about not being able to protect his son from violence

Poet Joseph LMS Green said his poem “Hands” has been a work in progress for more than three years. He started writing it after 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Although he was horrified by the killing of Martin, he was also dismayed by the reaction on social media.

“I was unaware of how social media was being used as a tool of activism. I didn’t see the Facebook and Twitter posts as acts of solidarity. I thought it was people seeking popularity by using buzzwords and hashtags.”

But a year after he initially wrote the poem, he was challenged by a poetry slam coach to use a different lens. As he talked to black activists, he realized that social media was being used as a powerful way to bring people together.

“It’s become the first step in dialogue now and it’s something we all have to address because there’s a generation of young people who have only lived in an age of technology and social media. This is how they communicate. And they’re communicating not just with friends at their school but with people all over the country.”

Green also began rethinking the poem in terms of changes in his own life. He had recently become a father and was worried about how he could protect his son from the violence against black men.

“That’s where I came to grips with the crux of the poem, which is that for all my intellect, activism, knowledge and speaking out, there’s nothing I can do physically with these hands to protect my son, if he found himself in one of these situations. I really wrestle with that knowledge as a parent.”

Green began writing poetry more than 15 years ago as a high school student in a creative writing class. But instead of turning in a written piece, he performed it for the class.

“This was just as spoken word was really coming onto the scene and it suited me well because I was a theater kid and this was such a hybrid of theatre and poetry.”

Green said his early poems were about trying to understand identity and asserting himself in a way that gave him validity at a time when he didn’t feel particularly special. He had grown up in a predominantly white suburb of Washington, D.C. “Poetry for me was a way to identify myself and be seen as an individual.”

READ MORE: Seeking solace in poetry after a mass shooting

Poetry has now become his career. He is the youth program coordinator for Split This Rock, a poetry and social justice organization based in Washington. Prior to that, he created an after-school poetry program in Virginia called Poetry Now. That organization is now housed at Split This Rock and together the two organizations serve nearly 30 schools in D.C., Virginia and Maryland. He says he hopes to help foster constructive conversation with young people about identity, race and culture.

“My job is not to work with young people to create the best poems ever. My job is to give them new tools to express themselves in a world that is still leaning towards ‘testing’ as opposed to ‘expression’; in a world that is teaching to the test instead of teaching to humanity.”

hands (a series of random thoughts on brown skin)

Today I am doused in guilt;
I don’t know what to do with these hands.

Facebook and Twitter have informed me
that my friends have joined together
in solidarity. To fight for our rights
or for their memory or so this never happens again.
Photos from the front line
of our most righteous of selves;
inspirational meme’s and #’s.

I realize
this has happened before.
I wonder if I listen
to the recordings or your murder
will I feel anything different?

To me, your life and death is no more
than a Facebook update, a trending topic.

#ihopesomeoneisprayingforyourmother
#insertyourchildsnamehere
#whatisthemeaninginallofthis
#allblackbodieslookalikeuntilthey’remurdered

I am overwhelmed
by the irrational ranting
of a world too busy arguing
whether black lives are important enough to fight for
to actually fight for black lives.
And as I stand here…ranting,
I realize it’s because I don’t know
what to do with these hands.
That must hold and protect my son;
they are not bulletproof.
They are made of the same brown material
that have seen so many murdered.
But before I kneel
at the altar of suburban flight

I realize,
somewhere, somebody is still crying.

Somewhere a black mother
is confiscating all the suspicious clothing her children own,
dressing the scarecrow in the front yard,
and burning our post-racial society in effigy.

Somewhere a young black college student
is being followed on suspicion of being
a young black.

Somewhere “hands up, don’t shoot”
Remix
Somewhere “hands up, don’t shoot”

Somewhere “why’d you shoot me, you asked me to get my i.d”
Remix
Somewhere “why’d you shoot me, you asked me to get my i.d”

Somewhere “Please don’t shoot, it’s only a…”
Remix
Somewhere “Please don’t shoot, it’s only a…”

Somewhere “I’m sorry my music is too loud for you to hear my humanity”

Somewhere “I can’t breathe”

Somewhere someone is toasting the people who are doing this
and the klans are gathering.
Only this time they won’t be wearing hoods,
they will be dressed in suits.
Cloaked by law. Charged with progressing the doctrine
that if you do not look like you belong here
you can be murdered. That if you look
like you belong here you can be murdered.

I will not always be able to protect my son.
I pray that by then

black children and fear
black women and violence
black trans and assault
black queer and endangered
black male and thug
black body and deceased
are no longer synonyms.

At night,
when I take off my 3 year old son’s clothes,
I say “hands up henry.”
He thinks we are playing a game.

I pray that when the time come
he will know what to do with his hands.


Joseph LMS Green is a Washington, D.C.-based performance artist and educator. He is the youth program coordinator for Split This Rock, a poetry and social justice organization. Five years ago he co-founded Poetry Now, an after-school poetry program in Virginia. Green is also a four-time qualifier and participant in the National Poetry Slam. And he is an actor who has toured with the educational entertainment group Theatre IV, one of the country’s largest in-school touring companies. For the past six years, he has coached the Hayfield Secondary School Forensic Speech Team which has produced several state and national champions.

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