Poem / Kinship

Lessons We Learn

An anthropologist-poet of the African diaspora holds close family lessons on identity, freedom, and relationship in the midst of an anti-Black society.
A young child in a blue and yellow winter jacket and red hat sits on the shoulders of an adult in a black jacket as they walk across a bridge next to cars.

“Selma to Montgomery: 50 Years Later,” oil on canvas, 16×20, 2016/Carla Keaton

“Lessons We Learn” is part of the collection Lead Me to Life: Voices of the African Diaspora. Read the introduction to the collection here.

Lessons We Learn - Listen

The past flashes
like forty-one winters.

Just yesterday, I was hoisted
onto dad’s shoulders
then paraded around the fairground,

and for the only time in my life,
I was taller than everybody.

Soon, I’d have to learn how to walk alone
but Black sons garner
from Black fathers
the reality of what it is to chaperone—
because they will never
let you forget how Black you are

that seasons for us are shorter

and so, like an heirloom,
we keep lessons close to the heart
like family.

While bobbing, hovering over the crowd,
dad pointed to a bird in the sky and said,
“You will never be a bird,
but that doesn’t mean you cannot fly.”

They say that Black is the absence of light,
is an abyss of nothingness.

But they are wrong.

It is from darkness that light
derives its value, and like birds
ascending to the blue openness,
they are named by those that watch
and yet still do what comes naturally.

Jason Vasser-Elong’s research focuses on identity in a postcolonial context. He was the 2022 SAPIENS poet-in-residence. He studied anthropology and later received his MFA from the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where he is currently a teaching professor in English and African American studies in the Pierre Laclede Honors College and a doctoral student in the College of Education. Vasser-Elong is the author of the poetry collection shrimp. His essay “Treading the Atlantic” was presented at the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Netherlandic Studies conference as an introduction to the keynote lecture on postcolonial memory. He also presented that essay at the American Anthropological Association’s conference “Truth and Responsibility” in Baltimore, Maryland, in 2021.


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