For James LeVan, a 16-year-old Cleveland student at Glenville High School, police brutality became top of mind early this year.

He witnessed an uncomfortable interaction between a young Cleveland man and a police officer. LeVan said he did not know the victim and didn’t feel comfortable getting involved, but the incident stuck with him. “It seemed like [the police officer] was harassing him for no reason,” LeVan said. “It didn’t make sense.”

A scholar in the Fatima Center’s Summer Institute, Le Van channeled his confusion into a poem, “The Mind of a White Cop,” in which he speculates about the thinking of a hypothetical white police officer on his daily beat.

Poetry writing was part of the Summer Institute, said Director Apryl Buchanan, with an emphasis on the works on Langston Hughes. The Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards arranged for guest faculty to speak and teach on Hughes, and on the writing life throughout the six week program.

“Students needed to consider current events, not only in their lives, but things that would affect their generation,” Buchanan said.

LeVan recited his poem, from memory, at the summer institute’s closing ceremony. He said he was nervous. “It was hard getting up there in front of everyone,” he said. “I hoped everyone would like it.”

The Mind of a White Cop

Standing on the corner
Just like I expected
Sitting on the porch with too many people
This means something bad is about to happen
Look, little kids with water guns
Baby jailbirds in training
He’ll be in the back of this car soon
Right along with his dad
Look, those black kids have a white friend
I wonder what he had to do to be accepted
Look, a baby that won’t stop crying
Just give him some crack to calm him down
Oh no!! Six black kids doing the same handshake
I should probably call for backup
No, I could just shoot them and say it was “self-defense”
I’ll be in jail a night or two but I’ll be off eventually
It’s a nice feeling to know I can get away anything
Black man, medium volume, pull him over
White man, volume all the way up, “Can you make it louder?”
Black man walking in front of an abandoned house
Let me investigate
Black boy kissing a white girl with those fat lips
Throw him in jail, “Attempted suffocation of an Innocent girl”
Dreadhead, slam him in the back. Look like he smoke weed all day
I’ll give him a drug test because I feel like it 
I knew it!! I’ll give him 10 seconds to run
I won’t lock up his light-skinned friend
I’m trying to turn one black man against another
We’ve been doing good enough so far 
 

 

“Today I will be reciting my poem, ‘The Mind of a White Cop,'” said James LeVan, 16, as he introduced his work during the closing ceremony of the Teen Leadership Program at the Fatima Family Center in Cleveland. LeVan recited in a deep, law enforcement voice:

 Oh no! 6 black kids doing the same handshake

I should probably call for backup

No, I could just shoot them and say it was “self-defense”

I’ll be in jail a night or two but I’ll be off eventually

It’s a nice feeling to know I can get away with anything

One by one, the remaining 32 participants walked to the front of the gym to recite poems and read essays they created over the summer. Fatima Center Director LaJean Ray smiled broadly from the sidelines.

The facility, nestled in Cleveland’s historic Hough neighborhood, has become an anchor institution over its 30 years. A new building, dedicated in 2000, was designed by renowned Cleveland architect Robert Madison. It contains gardens, kitchens, an early learning center, a youth summer camp, a game room, a library and a computer center. Fatima launches field trips and provides tutoring, parenting and GED classes. It also offers free clothing, health screenings and food.

This year, the summer teen leadership program added an Anisfield-Wolf component: a concentration on the work and life of poet Langston Hughes. The students, aged 14-18, followed a packed schedule: weekly trips to local colleges and visits to business and government offices, including a stop at the mayor’s and a chat with the chief of police.  This was the only summer program in Cleveland to pay teens a $350 stipend, thanks to Ray’s collaboration with Youth Opportunities Unlimited.

Starting last winter, Summer Institute Director Apryl Buchanan worked with Karen R. Long, who manages the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, to present a roster of guest faculty. Current and former Plain Dealer columnists Philip Morris and Margaret Bernstein discussed their careers as journalists and community activists while author Afi Odelila-Scruggs introduced “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and led the students in composing beats for Hughes’ work “Dream Boogie.” Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University, led a discussion of Hughes’ poem “Mother to Son” and familiarized students with the common application used on many campuses..

I had the good fortune to serve as a speaker, discussing how I’ve used social media to build a career. As a writing exercise, I asked students to craft a few paragraphs on what they wanted their lives to look like in 10 years – in the voice of themselves a decade hence. Many described careers and families that inspired me. Students were curious, courteous and inviting, and it became clear that the Fatima summer institute was making headway. I felt right at home with these future leaders.

“They may not appreciate it yet,” Ray cautioned parents at the closing ceremony. “But they will. They’re good kids. They’ll understand later.”