New Orleans: Imagine It Educated

Their America is seventy-percent against them,
but they do not know, these kids in New Orleans
their ebony faces eager or sullen or lost in some other world
lugging heavy booksacks on their narrow shoulders
facing teachers tired of trying to pretend
reading of themselves in textbooks they cannot translate
into their short-term teen idiom
between commercial breaks

It is their America because it is just like them
stubborn, proud and undereducated
looking in the rear view mirror, not to see what’s gaining
but to fix their hair and make sure their teeth are clean
one hand on the wheel, the other on the cell phone
loaded with ring tones by Mozart, who they’ve never met
talking smack about their teachers
planning what dress to wear this Saturday night

They think of America like the French Quarter, but clean
not knowing of the patina left on the great melting pot
from colors that tried to mix in and remained seared, on the edges
they shout out “Black Power” without benefit of Carmichael
in the Dirty South, greet Malcolm like a friend at the movies,
assigned Ellison’s Invisible Man every February without fail
their indignation rising with each chapter
hating themselves for needing MTV and Cosmopolitan

It is their America because they do not know
that seventy percent of the world is like them
different shades against which white pales
language not heard in the broadcasters’ flat Midwest
like the French Quarter, but dirtier
filled with cardboard shacks and rusted tin hovels
no yearly prom dresses, new cars or bling bling
and roaches more fierce than meek palmettos

Their America is seventy-percent black
because the world is like New Orleans, right?
And most will never see beyond the Huey P. across the river
where the white sheets hang damp on the clothelines
fresh-washed after a night of bonfires
marking the line across which Louis Armstrong
swore never to come back,
and they made him the city’s patron saint, anyway.

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