You can’t log on to twitter without seeing discourse about kids. Black kids, queer and trans kids, Euphoria kids – everybody shares opinions on what kids should be saying, doing, and moving about in the sticky terrain of the 21st century (and they’re often derogatory, often unsolicited). Grown-Up Elementary, D’Mani Thomas’ debut full-length poetry collection, is a book Thomas says he wrote for his little cousin so that he knew “the world is an heirloom he will have to take care of one day.” Through humor; borrowing grade school and traditional forms; and depictions of the beauty and devastation of Black queer childhood, Thomas does just that, and gives readers the rare occasion to listen to, not judge or direct, the kid that lives in all of us.
Grown-Up Elementary starts with an introduction, already painting a picture of the book’s context. It tells us that kids (and not the ones of the past projected onto today’s kids) are living through multiple pandemics: COVID, gun un-control, the prison industrial complex, police antagonism, and – in Oakland (the book’s setting), alongside every populous city in the U.S. – gentrification. How wild is it that we expect kids to learn chemistry and math while so much is happening around them? In this introduction, Thomas states the lens through which he crafts the voice we will come to love, then goes on to his first poem, “Elementary”. In its tightly-packed 10 lines, we get a thesis of sorts that introduces us to the conceit of this book: interrogating systems that started becoming a mainstay in our lives as early as pre-K.
pure kids swallow
christ and virgin giggle
at the boys indoctrinated
into sex culture, the ones who sprouted
mustaches from cherry stems over summer
If you didn’t live it, surely you saw boys, so foolishly eager to be men, that painted mustaches over their hairless upper lips or showed off the little stubble they grew in three months. Surely hindsight is 20/20, so we know that the boys – especially Black boys – in our lives were expected to be sexual beings, to know that they must treat their girl counterparts as a conquest to be won, as early as 7 (unless they wanted the “gay” allegations to come ringing). It is this type of recall, this coy-but-serious playfulness embedded in the real ways that gender and sexuality are socialized that draw readers into the voice in Grown-Up Elementary. With just five lines, Thomas already invokes multiple conflicts (“swallow / christ and virgin giggle… indoctrinated / into sex culture”) of the book: boyhood, sexuality, and coming-of-age in today’s christless climate. Thomas goes on to write:
& called it manhood, the new gender
authority says be one
of us, be cool, be strong, believe
us– your best
friend since waaay back–
There’s a way in which this stanza, more brazen and indicative of the deep thinking needed to pull off a book like this one, calls out the problem more directly (gender dictatorship and reasons why boys are susceptible to inhabiting toxic masculinity). It leaves us with a familiar tone (“your best / friend since waaay back”), the kind that is hard to say no to, or at least one that we’ve seen or experienced on the schoolyards of our past. I can’t think of elementary without thinking of some day I did or said something I didn’t really want to do or say, but did or said it because my friend from waaay back enabled it. This is the story of most masculinities in utero. In “Elementary”, Thomas reminds us of the type of peer pressure experienced as early as k-5th grade, the kind that shapes us into the people we become. Thomas continues this thought process, and pushes it further in poems like “Vocabulary for African American Studies”.
Question: What is Erasure?
Gentrification’s side effect. The theft of culture. Ex: Random French
white men says Nigga. Says it again. And I think it funny, that that
word somehow swam across an ocean that birthed it, just to end up as
a colonizer’s weapon again.
The poem borrows the form of a fill-in-the-blank test in order to tell the story of Black Americans. In yesteryears, our issue was being called nigga; in today’s world, we are gentrified out of our homes and told “nigga” is okay to say since it’s in rap songs. Throughout this book, Thomas borrows forms we encounter in grade school – tests/quizzes, equations, the passing of notes in class, chemical elements, and a yearbook – to real-talk with readers about the many abnormal things (racism, homophobia, toxic masculinity, and more) that we’ve been taught to normalize. It’s genius as much as it is tragic to see, in this poem and others, the kinds of discourse we lost the opportunity to have in grade school, the kind of books that we were denied that could’ve made young lives so much easier. “Vocabulary for African American Studies” is less a test and more an answer key for the questions Black kids spend their whole lives searching for– what is erasure when your culture is constantly erased? In other poems, Thomas also embodies forms familiar to poetry lovers – the ode, epistolary, and list poem to name a few – to teach the kids of today and generations before how to love and look properly.
Another poem that seems to speak to the collection as a whole is “Poem After The Learning”.
I can make a sky out of queer if you give me enough time…
I know there are still those who know the taste of tears more than
Here, Thomas interweaves the speaker’s yearning for a future where Black and queer can coexist while also showing the reality of the now: most Black queer kids know sadness before they know the bliss experienced from running around with your friends. Throughout the book, Thomas asks us to hold true multiple things: the happiness of childhood and the things that must change for that happiness for Black queer beings to not always be fleeting, and holds our hand through the process. It’s lines like these that display Thomas’ talents, which lie in channeling childhood to softening narratives that often are negative, and commanding our attention with beautiful syntax in the process.
This is the kind of book that should be available in every grade school library. Especially in gentrifying cities, especially being read amongst Black/queer/marginalized kids that need to supplement the violent teachings that go on in schools. Generously, Thomas provides a reading guide with prompts and questions to jumpstart conversations about poem sets (such as “Notes Passed in Class” poems) and themes explored in the book, so all that is needed is readers ready to explore the lessons redacted from H-12 schooling. It is the kind of book that I wish I had in high school, one that surely would have made the issues I faced more bearable. But hindsight is 20/20, and we have the opportunity to make future children like Thomas’ cousin more aware of asks the world makes of us.