This semester, no poem has meant more to the students (all first-year black men) in one of my African American literature courses than Reginald Harris's "The Lost Boys: A Requiem." So far, we've read several poems. However, when I gave students the option to select just one poem to concentrate on for the first major writing assignment, nearly all of the students chose that one poem.
"The Lost Boys," published in Harris's volume Autogeography (2013), provides a run down of various boys and young men primarily from the speaker's community who moved away, lost their lives, or lost their way for a variety of reasons. For example:
Jamie killed in a hit and run, aged 10The poem catalogs men who were "lost to AIDS," and there are references to boys and men involved in homicides, as perpetrators and victims.
Wayne--fell from a project window, age 14
Keith--fell off a bridge at 17 (or was he pushed?)
Harris is from Baltimore. The majority of the guys in my class are from Chicago, with some from St. Louis, and still others from different places in Illinois. Age, geography, and other factors separate them from Harris. Yet, the poem and the list of lost ones bring the poet and the students together.
The young men have thought of the many lost black boys and men before, but Harris provides us with a blueprint for chronicling things. Few poems that I am aware of catalog the names and circumstances of black boys and men in the specific way that "The Lost Boys" does. Harris mentions guys with nicknames like Tee-Tee, Bam-Bam, and Little Man. Of course, many of my guys are from various communities knew boys with those same names. Harris calls out the names of guys who are "behind bars," and of course my guys could call out names of guys they know who are behind bars.
And the homicides. I've written about homicide for some time now. In 2016, according to an annual report from the FBI, black boys and men made up 45% of all homicides in the United States. That is, 6,749 of the total 15,070 homicides were black males. The percentage was virtually the same in 2015. If you have connections to black boys and men, chances are you could unfortunately derive a catalog like those compiled by Harris, my students, and me.
Before and after we read Harris's poem, we had conversations about struggles of black boys and men. Still, "The Lost Boys" really helped organize and crystallize our discussions. Not all of the losses mentioned in the poem are clear-cut either. Some of the losses remain mysteries. For example, Harris writes,
Joe, not dead, only restingNot knowing what happened to so many of the "not gone, just not here" guys lingered with us most during our discussion of Harris's poem.
Nathan, not lost, just gone
Troy, not gone, just not here
• A Notebook on Reginald Harris
• Returning, yet again, to Reginald Harris's "The Lost Boys"
• Drawing Connections, Reading Reginald Harris's "The Lost Boys"