When White People in College Towns Stop Assuming I’m a Football Player and Start Assuming I’m a Football Coach

I correct them all, but I can’t help
the glimmer of pride hiding

behind my eyes as I roll my eyes
on the way out of the textbook store

or DMV. My shoulders are wide enough to push a kid
who’s already in tears into a suicide

drill. My voice is deemed worthy
to command discipline and order,

and the cashiers and office managers swear to me
that those boys damn sure need discipline and order.

I’m one of the good ones.
I get to be a black man instead of a black male:

the difference between handshake and shackle.
In all these eyes that can’t see

color, I am—before I announce I’m only a teacher—a petty
god who demands young sinew and bone

as tribute. I’m trusted
to hold a weapon: a scythe

to trim the boyhood out of black
boys, to craft Davids from Southern clay,

to school young zealots dying to bash their enemy’s skull
and bring it to me as a gift.

John Henry Was only 5’ 1”

That makes me a monster
next to him. I’m seven
inches taller than him. Pay attention. Idris Elba

is seven inches taller than me, and Blake Griffin
is seven inches taller than him, but
we can all be the same height in the chalk

outline holding our spirit after an APB
turns the air to sheeted flame,
turns every white hand into David’s hand

and every black shadow into Goliath’s
bronze helmet. This country
made a giant out of a man barely

the size of a boy scared to let go
of his polo and dress out for P.E.
Alchemy is a dark art, and the god

of America is a god of black
magic, an arch-alchemist turning lead-
skinned bodies and gold-skinned bodies into pig

iron and coal. Years ago,
after watching some Incredible
Hulk movie, a boy saw me

sitting outside the theater and pointed
with a zeal only the young
and the newly converted can harness.

His father told me the boy thought I was nothing
close to a mere man. The boy never saw me;
he thought he saw Shaquille O’Neal.

The father laughed. I couldn’t
help but laugh, and I couldn’t help
but remember every story that teaches

us what we must do to every giant
and monster that wishes
to take some part of this world as its own.

How You Interpret the Legend of John Henry Depends

On how you feel about the hard or soft
version of nigger.

On how much you value the tracks
in every Southern vein.

On your pledge of allegiance to the self-
checkout line.

On how long it took for you to stop counting the dead
bodies who died so you could sigh
one less time on your commute to work.

On whether you can be bothered to recall the law
of conservation, whether you can accept
that his last hammer strike is still striking the earth.

On whether you believe in ghosts
that won’t stop begging you to open up
your mouth and repeat after them.

On who you believe
will touch your body first
when you die on the job.


Jason McCall is an Alabama native, and he currently teaches at the University of North Alabama. He holds an MFA from the University of Miami, and his collections include Two-Face God (WordTech Editions); Dear Hero, (winner of the 2012 Marsh Hawk Press Poetry Prize); Silver (Main Street Rag); I Can Explain (Finishing Line Press); and Mother, Less Child (co-winner of the 2013 Paper Nautilus Vella Chapbook Prize). He and P.J. Williams are the editors of It Was Written: Poetry Inspired by Hip-Hop (Minor Arcana Press).