Caleb Rainey was 11 years old when he drew his first conclusion about poetry.
“I think poetry is the most boring thing to write, but poetry is not all that bad to read,” Rainey scrawled in his notebook. “I also think when I’m older, most likely, I will write poetry.”
Rainey, now 24, reads the words with a grin, shakes his head in disbelief and admits that he never thought he’d be a poet.
Three months ago, he self-published his first book, “Look, Black Boy.” Its pages are full of poems about growing up black in the Midwest and directly address white America. Rhythmic lines weave together stories of Rainey’s identity, one that did not always feel comfortable.
Growing up in Columbia with a white mother, a black father and among peers who called him “the whitest black person,” Rainey often contemplated his own blackness. Later, settled into the University of Iowa, he felt alienated for being “too black.”
Those experiences over time culminated in the identity that he has given himself — “The Negro Artist.” Rainey read from his book of poems on Aug. 3 at Skylark Bookshop on Ninth Street.
School and slam poetry
Rainey’s mother, Joanne, recalled many nights at the dinner table, unpacking what race meant with her two sons, daughter and husband.
“Race has been a topic of discussion since Day One of his life,” she said. “We talked about it consistently.”
She encouraged her children to speak their experience to educate people around them. But she watched as her son’s frustration grew.
For Rainey, it appeared the more he achieved in school, the less he looked like his peers and the more criticism he faced from teachers.
“A lot of the time the teachers would say, ‘Do you really think that you should be in here? Do you think you have what it takes?‘” his mother said.
He remembers the time a teacher called him dumb.
“I had teachers who didn’t like me because I was being rambunctious, and that was fair,” Rainey said. “And then I had teachers that just didn’t like me for some reason that I couldn’t put my finger on.”
Rainey’s later poems are structured around examples of what he called a “blatant misuse of power in the education system.” But those weren’t the experiences he took to the stage at Hickman High School’s poetry slam during the fall of his junior year.
He’d already begun writing poetry but was drawn to the stage because of a girl he liked.
“I wrote a lot about my identity, but not my black identity,” Rainey said. “I was a teenage boy. I was talking more about romance.”
But his goal quickly changed from impressing a crush to being heard. He rarely felt listened to, he said, unless he was causing a scene. But on the stage, behind a microphone, people had no choice but to listen.
Brett Kirkpatrick, Rainey’s senior year African American literature teacher, was one of those who listened. He remembers Rainey having a certain swagger, and he was impressed by his ability to deliver fully memorized poems.
“When I remember his work, he was interested in mining his identity,” Kirkpatrick said. “Yet, he was comfortable.”
Kirkpatrick, a white man teaching a class about the black experience, addressed his white privilege and fostered discussion among his students, Rainey said. In class, Kirkpatrick, who Rainey calls “KP,” taught differently from the rest of his teachers.
Once, he handed out a quiz that asked students about their racial identity. Then they were asked to compare answers. Rainey turned to his friend Jared, who is also biracial, and began talking.
One question asked the students to rate on a one-to-10 scale how often they thought about race. Rainey had circled a nine. Jared, however, shrugged and said he leaned toward a three or four.
Rainey admitted being shocked to learn that Jared’s answers didn’t align with his own.
“That required me to think a lot about my own relationship with race,” Rainey said. “And it really planted the seed that’s been growing and been intentionally nurtured, which is to learn that the black experience is not one single experience.”
Kirkpatrick and Rainey sometimes butted heads, but the teacher said he liked the challenge.
“You don’t have to think what I think, you just have to think,” he said.
Shortly after Rainey moved to Iowa to pursue training in creative nonfiction, he continued to share his work with Kirkpatrick, though it was never for critique. Kirkpatrick said Rainey instead sent the work because he was proud of it.
Accepting ‘The Negro Artist’
Rainey was introduced to the University of Iowa, home of the famous Iowa Writers Workshop, in the summer between his junior and senior years. He’d been accepted into the Iowa Young Writers Workshop, a two-week intensive program that allowed his creativity to flourish.
He knew he wanted to return to the university for its prestigious writing programs. Once settled, the focus of his work changed. For a while, he felt so black in Iowa — in contrast to Columbia, where he’d always been “the whitest black guy” — that he couldn’t write about anything but race.
“It was a culture shock almost to think like, well, now I am too black and all alone,” he recalled.
When Rainey and his friend submitted their work to two of the campus literary magazines, neither were accepted.
“Our stuff wasn’t terribly worse, and theirs wasn’t terribly better,” Rainey said. “That made it so confusing to us, but both of our work centered around black things.”
In a predominantly white student body, the two saw a crucial need for the publication of black perspectives.
Together they launched a black literary magazine called “Black Art; Real Stories,” which continued to thrive even after the two graduated.
“We wanted to do more than just have a publication. We wanted to try to create a black writers’ community,” Rainey said.
They hired editors, hosted workshops and events, social gatherings and poetry slams. The literary magazine sparked a new type of rebellion in Rainey.
It was his way of beginning to leverage his power by intertwining his poetic talent and black experience. He’s since shared that experience with college, high school, middle school and elementary students, teaching and helping them workshop their own writing.
It was also during his junior year that he made a serious commitment to performing on stage as “The Negro Artist.” The name came from a 1926 Langston Hughes essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”
“Langston Hughes says: ‘You’re a Negro artist, and you will always be a Negro artist. Accept it,‘” Rainey summarized. “There’s beauty in that it gives you access to a whole different perspective in life and culture that other artists don’t get. Appreciate that rather than be mad that you’re not like the others.”
Rainey graduated from the university in 2017, and two years later he was agonizing over the decision to publish his collection of poems. He spent two months making panicked phone calls to friends before he published, ultimately deciding he could not wait.
‘Not changing quickly enough.’
Now, comfortable calling himself a poet and identifying as “The Negro Artist,” Rainey experienced a different kind of reception when he stood atop the wooden stairs at Skylark on August 3.
He greeted the room full of friends and family with hugs and handshakes. It felt like a graduation celebration, he said.
“It was the idea of coming home or having reached a certain point in life in which people want to recognize you,” Rainey said. “And that was really almost profound to me — to think all these people that know me want to experience this moment with me.”
Rainey read eight poems, his words punctuating the space and rippling through the crowd, which responded with snapping fingers and emphatic “Mm-hmm’s.”
Mahogany Thomas, a classmate from high school who had heard Rainey’s earlier work, said his new level of boldness and sense of authenticity was exciting to see.
As a black woman, she said all of Rainey’s poems spoke to her, particularly his school experiences, which she said were similar to her own.
“I was able to make connections as a black body in white America,” Thomas said. “The work compiles us to not only notice black and brown bodies but to cherish them.”
His work speaks to the world prophetically, she said, and what the future will look like if people don’t wake up and notice people on the margins.
One young boy perched on a staircase during Rainey’s Skylark reading called out a question, his high voice carrying across the bookshop: “What inspired you to make this book?”
Rainey’s eyes pooled with tears but he didn’t water down his message to the curious 9-year-old, Isaiah Smith.
“These were experiences that I needed to unpack that I was carrying with me,” Rainey responded. “To know what we’re angry about, why we’re angry and where that anger should be directed. All of that matters a whole lot.”
For his wider audience, Rainey’s book aims to enlighten readers and listeners who believe that racial tension in America is “not that bad.”
“It’s for those people who are leaning far away, but they’re not completely away from the truth,” Rainey explained. “They haven’t turned their backs from it. Those are the people who might turn around.”
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