Book Review: ‘Look, Black Boy’ by Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey

Look, Black Boy

Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey — Independently published

Reading: Caleb Rainey, Look, Black Boy

Prairie Lights Bookstore, Iowa City — Tuesday, June 25, 7 p.m.

Caleb Rainey Spoken Word Performance

Next Page Books, Cedar Rapids — Monday, July 8 at 7 p.m.

With his first self-published chapbook, Look, Black Boy, Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey confronts and challenges his readers while communicating with them on a variety of levels. The central theme of this short collection is how it feels to be a young black man in 2019 in the Midwest. The observations and experiences that Rainey shares in his poetry are not easy ones, but they should be read.

In “Experiential Learning: A Letter to Mr. Johnson,” Rainey — who hails from Columbia, Missouri and studied creative writing at the University of Iowa — confronts an education system that routinely sidelines black students. Rainey writes that the teacher demands the black student “keep my color inside / the lines, sit down and do / what I’m supposed to.” In the visual poem “Shots Fired,” Rainey uses background and strikethroughs to send a message about police and race. “The New 3/5ths” explores black identity expression in a culture that would repress much of it.

In addition to the confrontations with a society that attempts to devalue the black boy at every turn, Rainey celebrates life as well. In “Blk Boi Joy” Rainey celebrates “Black Boi Joy, that running / wild with a free smile, that playing / the dozens with my cousins.” He also turns contemplative in “Black Baggage” when he writes “My Blackness is now / a stone I carry in my pocket / the jagged burden that stabs / into my thigh.”

If one is opening this volume expecting canonical poetry, one will be surprised by the structures Rainey employs. Most of Rainey’s poetry here reflects the fact that he is a spoken-word artist. Tone and structure are built via specific diction and page layouts. Rainey, in two lines from the title poem, sums up his overall theme, confronts society and exhorts his readers: “They wish to sink you, yet / you must keep swimming. / Fair is for the privileged / but winning is for the dedicated.”

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 266.