Chapter 16
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“Steve’s Short-Sleeve Shirt”

Book Excerpt: Obama’s Children

FROM THE  CHAPTER 16 ARCHIVE: This poem originally appeared on March 14, 2022.


Steve’s Short-Sleeve Shirt

Steve’s short-sleeve shirts were almost always cut-off,
winter plaid,
flannel shirts as if he knew a next winter
might not come.
Back in ’71, he grew an ugly afro that
he couldn’t figure out how to be proud of, too thin to hold
an afro pick. We were riot-night running buddies,
best friends in the best of times, the worst of times.

We rode the same dull pencil-yellow school bus
during those turbulent school-house years. Our English teacher,
Mrs. Davis, we loved
like young boys love pretty teachers, but
Mrs. Davis wasn’t pretty. White as composition notebook
pages, she taught the deconstruction of complex sentences
written in black and white and red.

Unfazed by head rags of race war, she stole our attention,
kept it, never intending to give attention back. We didn’t
want it back, anyway. She loved Steve, I loved Steve. We all did.

Steve didn’t grow up with us. He moved from the country
to the city our freshman year. Project still-life, still, somewhat,
new. The comprehension of such, I don’t think he ever, fully,
wanted to figure out how to measure. Steve was beyond.

Steve was the most honest person I ever knew. One day
during the quiet-riot time of a yesterday or the day
before a yesterday,
Steve and I roamed, randomly, downtown as we so often
did, in and out of stores and shops that had no need
to see us, serve us, give us the time of a weekday. That day

I decided to steal a pocketknife — it was not glued down.
Steve’s voice frowned ever so godly upon me, “Put it back.”
Putting it back quickly, slowly
I said, “No one’s looking, no one saw me.” “I saw you,”
Steve said,                                                                    “I saw you.”

That was to be the last time any of us war-street danced
slow with Steve. The Wilmington Star-News knew then
of the killing we could not bring ourselves to believe.
He wasn’t on the school bus that Thursday morning
after the Wednesday night fire. Fire truck sirens
were everywhere every night.                               Ordinary,
another ordinary day. I wasn’t worried, none of us were.

Many school day mornings, we missed one school bus,
then took another school bus. Mostly, we
were never late for school. Mostly, we
were good students. Mostly we
were good government-housing-projects-life kids

during those riot-torn years of city police helicopters feeding
teargas to automobiles
our crying eyes could not afford. Somehow dingy white,
wet towels found a way to disguise us
as young Palestinian war-street boys and the “wetness” saved
us most curfew, moonless nights. But then came
that night that was not so kind to Steve, not so kind to us.

Steve was brilliant, a genius. He knew the answers
to questions before questions were asked, but
he didn’t know the mathematics
of his own life,
didn’t know how to calculate that that white policeman
knew how cut-off short
his short-sleeved life was “projected” to be. Somehow

Steve didn’t know the bright bullet light-weight of
a house fire
that night would ignite, without white apology, his shirt,
illuminating so un-beautifully in Negro-ghetto colored
tragic hue,
a weekday Funeral Announcement with his name on it.

“Steve’s Short-Sleeve Shirt”

Copyright © 2021 by Earl S. Braggs. Excerpted from Obama’s Children (Madville Publishing). All rights reserved. Earl S. Braggs is a UC Foundation and Battle Professor of English at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. His awards include the International Jack Kerouac Literary Prize and the Anhinga Poetry Prize. Braggs is the author of 14 previous collections including Negro Side of the Moon and Ugly Love.

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