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Verlena L. Johnson, A Poem to My Black Teenage Son

Artwork by Verlena L. Johnson

A Poem to My Black Teenage Son

By Verlena L. Johnson

Your voice is just beginning to deepen

and your body is getting both taller and broader.

Your neck that I once cupped in the palm of my hand

so that your head didn’t jerk back and forth

is now linebacker wide

as you dab it with cologne and confidence.

Your hands that I once held

and marveled at

for being so little and perfect

are now bigger than mine.

The distance across your palm

is as expansive as the aching in my heart

because I cannot protect you from being dehumanized.

Each time you are called “nigger”

I can see the light dim in your eyes.

When you said

“Mom, I don’t want them to think I am a monster”

my heart shattered into a thousand pieces

and the shards stuck in my throat

cutting off my airway.

Your shoulders that were once rounded and supple

are now broad and square.

I HOPE that they will be strong enough

to bear the weight of hundreds of years

of oppression and the assumptions

of people who see you as a threat

because you are a tall dark-skinned Black boy (not yet a man).

You are in that in-between stage.

You are not an adult and not quite a child.

And still you think, like all teenagers do,

That you know EVERY/THING.

What I NEED for you to know is

that you are valuable

That you are worthy

That you are enough

That you are Smart

That you are brave

That you are beautiful

That you, my son, are divine!



Verlena L. Johnson was born in Chicago and grew up in Madison and Beloit Wisconsin. She earned a B.A. in Sculpture and a M.A. in Afro-American Studies with an emphasis in Art History from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and a M.F.A. in Sculpture from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Verlena has also studied wood carving with Ghanaian Master Wood-carvers, as well as, at the Haystack Mountain School of Craft and Penland School of Craft.

She has exhibited her artwork in Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, amongst other places. Her artwork has appeared on the cover of the book Approaches to Teaching the Novels of Toni Morrison and the journal Sinister Wisdom. She has taught studio art and art history to children and adults in community centers and colleges.

Her children’s book, The Adventures of Kai and the Magical Machines was published in 2018. Verlena’s current book project is a children’s picture book about a little boy named Jimmie in rural Mississippi in the 1940s. Website:

Purchase Verlena L. Johnson's artwork:

Listen to SOREN LIT's interview with Verlena Johnson:

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