BY: Andrew Barker
Hip hop is my favorite genre of music. I love the fun songs, and the emotional songs; but most of all I love the songs that have a social context and purpose. A positive message or a call to action. Slam poetry, to me, embodies all of my favorite aspects of hip hop music; emotion, rhythm, cause, and lyricism. It, however, doesn’t have as much materialism, misogyny, and violence perpetuated by corporate controlled (through “cookie cutter boy groups, test-market-research radio and the artificial stability of the U.S. pop charts”) hip hop (Queeley). This blog, though, isn’t about hip hop; it’s about a heartbreaking poem.
Javon Johnson is a highly regarded spoken word poet, winning poetry slam nationals two years in a row (2003, and 2004) and getting third place in the following year (2005) (About Javon L. Johnson). He graduated from Northwestern University with a Ph.D in Performance Arts with a cognate in African American studies. He’s a highly regarded scholar with multiple publications in various magazines and articles in the Huffington Post (Huffington Post) and is currently working on a book, Killing Poetry: Performing Blackness (About Javon L. Johnson).
Javon’s poem is called “Cuz He’s Black,” and it was performed in mid August of 2013, just a month after Trayvon Martin’s murderer was acquitted. This poem was made and performed in the current time of protest over police violence against people of color. As is said in the poem, there are numerous, too many to count, black people who have been unjustly killed by the police. Hazy descriptions of events and cries of self defense and “justified shooting” cloud these killings as police forces refuse to admit and work to combat racial targeting.
The poem is inspired by and recalls a day that Javon had with his four year old nephew in which they were in the car and his nephew was doing what young children do: Asking a million questions. Javon answers as best as he can and they share a laugh as both realize that Javon doesn’t have all the answers to the endless questions.
At this point the boy notices a police car as he glances out the window. The boy “drops his seat and says, ‘oh man, Uncle, 5-oh, we gotta hide.’” Javon immediately doesn’t like the fact that “he learned to hide from the cops well before he learned how to read.” He insists to his nephew that they had no reason to be afraid of authority (the word authority complete with air quotes), but admits to listeners his uncertainty. Explaining that the truth of the matter was far more complex than not hiding, because we all see, too much, the injustice and reality of police relations with people of color in America (Javon Johnson).
Especially powerful in this retelling, Javon says, “black boys are treated as problems well before we’re treated as people,” referring back to his nephew learning to hide from police before he learned to read. Javon continues to express the frustration about the way that young black boys are racialized and treated; that they shouldn’t have to grow up scared (Javon Johnson).
Time and again we see police who get acquitted of killing unarmed African Americans or they don’t get charged or indicted at all. Growing unrest in the streets is transferred to art forms and media. Things like poems and songs are very effective, I believe, in calling the public to action on this issue. As I said above hip hop and poetry can have very intense, emotional performances, as Javon’s poem is.
Currently we have, in the United States, a long standing and continuing racialization of black people. In the film, Ethnic Notions, we see the ways that blacks were racialized during slavery as docile and childish as if they’re happy in and destined for slavery. After slavery ended blacks were portrayed as unruly and brutish. This is a call to return to slavery, because blacks are not fit to live as free peoples (Pittman).
The racialization of blacks men as brutes and as violent continues today. It’s perpetuated through the criminal justice system as 29% of black males will be imprisoned in their life, while that number is just 4% for white males. Even though whites outnumber blacks and drug use across races or similar, 35% of those arrested for drug possession are black, 55% of those charged are black, and 74% of those convicted are, again, black (Pittman).
This is no mistake either, Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, outlines the way that the criminal justice system is used to control the black population. First they are “round[ed] up,” by using the War on Drugs to perform drug raids in poor minority communities to put them in jail. Then they jail them for some years, which effectively segregates minority communities as they stay in jail. Then they are subject to legal discrimination from employers, landloards (or potential landlords), and the education system because they can no longer get federal money to help pay for college.
In this way, we have locked up many people of color forcing them to continue to bear the burden of being racialized as violent and as criminals. The racialization of people of color as violent is the reason that young boys like Javon’s nephew learn so young to be scared of the police. It’s the reason Javon tells his four year old nephew to be “aware of how quickly [his] hand moves to pocket for wallet or ID” (Javon Johnson). Because, apparently, cops are justified to shoot an unarmed person, because if they’re black, they automatically pose a threat.
Through his doubts and fears, though, Javon continues to encourage his nephew. Tells him all the right things to do, “be strong, be smart, be kind,” but his nephew has one last question: What happens if the cop is really mean?
“About Javon L Johnson.” About Javon L Johnson. San Francisco State University. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://faculty.sfsu.edu/~javonj>.
Alexander, Michelle. “5.” The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: New, 2010. Print.
Ethnic Notions. Dir. Leon F. Litwack. Artform Productions, 1982. Film.
Huffington Post. Huffington Post. Web. 12 Dec. 2015. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/javon- johnson/>.
Javon Johnson – “cuz He’s Black” (NPS 2013). Perf. Javon Johnson. Youtube.com. ButtonPoetry, 20 Aug. 2013. Web. 9 Dec. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u9Wf8y_5Yn4>. Pittman, LaShawnDa. University of Washington. 8 Dec 2015. Lecture.
Queeley, Andrea. Hip Hop and The Aesthetics of Criminalization. (2011). In Souls: A Critical Journal of Black Politics, Culture, and Society. Taylor & Francis Group.