Two Poems by Matthew E. Henry

an open letter to the white teacher who threw a Black boy out of her class for wearing too much lotion

his skin was ashy. perhaps that’s a concept
you’re unfamiliar with—like seasoned chicken
and leaving vegetables out of Jell-O molds—
but we whose flesh knows what it’s like
to hunger and thirst, will not be so whitened.
you call his basic Black hygiene insubordination,
his social survival disrespect, because you have allergies
and say one whiff of him might make you sneeze?
given the lifetime of nose-holding he’ll have to endure,
can’t you do the same for 64 mins? and if your curriculum
is so unimportant sitting his moist elbows in the hallway
doesn’t impact his grade, the next round of budget cuts
are yours to shoulder. and while I have your attention:
stop touching, smelling, touching, back-hand complimenting,
touching Black girl hair—your brown-rooted blonde,
drowned-poodle locks are no reasons to assault
the magic of their coco-buttered curls. and another thing…

an open letter to those wondering why I’ve called this the most racist place I’ve ever worked

because you’re offended by the title, by the gut-punch
of Black words on a page you wish were blank,
by the accusation you feel personally implied,
as if suddenly blamed for slavery, the King assassination,
and the Clinton Crime Bill (even though your name
was never mentioned in those first 17 words).
because you’re stockpiling an arsenal of responses
in a self-righteous fallout-shelter, a haven of white fragility.
because your emotional antibodies rise to fight
the wrong sickness— lymphocytes filled with “it wasn’t me!”
and “how is that my fault?,” ignoring the cancer
exploding our community’s cells. because you sent letters
of concern when a teacher called racist actions “racist.”
because a committee was convened to combat the scourge
of limited student parking— disenfranchising sophomores
with new BMWs—while “nigger” remained scrawled
across art projects, campaign posters, and Snapchat.
because you minnesota-nicely told people to leave
when they complained. because your misplaced outrage
zigzags like our students of color seeing officer johnson
following them—
through the hallway,
through the cafeteria,
to their classes,
to their bus stop,
to a urinal for a chat—
hand on his holster. because you’re making a list of every time you’ve allowed “one of them” into your car, into your home. because your problem with Black History Month misses the point. because you’ll inaccurately attribute that tension in your jaw, that burn between your shoulder blades, that breath you didn’t know you were holding. because this has all been a Rorschach Test of your conscience, and it’s clear the negative space has coalesced into a white hoodie embossed with the words “all lives matter.”

Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is a multiple Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated poet. His works are appearing or forthcoming in various publications, including Baltimore Review, Bryant Literary Review, Kweli Journal, Longleaf Review, Ploughshares, Poemeleon, The Radical Teacher, Rigorous, Rise Up Review, Spillway, and Tahoma Literary Review. The author of Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020), MEH is an educator who received his MFA from Seattle Pacific University, yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. His work can be found on