The first week of the semester, I read Reginald Harris's "The Lost Boys" to two of my introduction to African American literature courses. At the beginning of the semester, both those classes were comprised of 52 and 50 first-year collegiate Black men.
By the end, the courses had 50 and 48 students each, meaning I lost about 4 guys along the way.
Before speaking more about loss though, a few words on Harris's poem and the gains.
I first started covering "The Lost Boys" on this site 10 years ago, when Harris published his volume of poetry Autogeography (2013). Harris offers a catalog, a kind of roll call of Black boys and men and how they were lost over the years.
Some examples from the poem:
Jamie killed in a hit and run, aged 10Keith--fell off a bridge at 17 (or was he pushed?)Tee-Tee, Bam-Bam, Walter, Little Man / Shot in a drive-by over moneyWilliam lost to AIDS / Essex lost to AIDS / Joseph lost to AIDSAndre behind bars / Michael behind bards / Emmett behind bars
You get the point.
Prior to the semester, I reflected on covering Harris's poem in previous years. The guys benefitted from reading and discussing the piece, and I decided to move the piece to the beginning of the semester.
So back in August at the start of the semester, I read the poem to the students. Harris's poem proceeded our coverage of Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and several others. You hear Harris's poem, and it quickly becomes yours, especially if you're from certain neighborhoods that frequently lose black boys and men.
I wanted to start the semester by thinking on the loss of Black boys and men in part because the program I work with for these classes that enroll all first-year Black men is based on our success retaining students.
The program began in 1999, and I took on teaching duties in 2004 after arriving at the university in 2003. Over the last 10 years in particular, the program has gained notice for the most successful program at the university for retaining Black men students. The guys from our program graduate at higher numbers than guys who aren't in the program.
I'm proud of the work we do with the program. I appreciate the praise we've earned. Still...still, you know I can't help thinking about the guys we've lost or the ones we might lose.
Saying that our program is the most successful of any effort at the university to retain and graduate collegiate Black men is not saying we have a 100% success rate. Nope. So I'm constantly thinking back and how and why we lost students.
Why did so-and-so drop out? What led that student to rack up so many absences? Where did that other student go and why? When was the last time we heard from such-and-such?
I probably return to Harris's "Lost Boys" so much because I was writing my own version of the poem in my head for decades. He generously materialized some inner thoughts. He's like Hughes with "Mother to Son" or Margaret Walker with "For My People." Their poems speaking for the masses.