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poetry when asked why “all lives” don’t matter

The poet MEH describes a classroom moment, someone hijacking “communal grief,” and a good teacher’s response.


when asked why “all lives” don’t matter


…after a deep breath,

i attempted to explain. my aunt had breast cancer.

despite a healthy dose of science and Scripture,

prayer and prescriptions, the shadows never dimmed.

we celebrated her life, mourned the hole her grave

dug in ours. we lauded her lovingkindness, questioned

the natural shocks flesh is heir to— why this disease

would claim a wife,  a co-worker, a friend, an aunt.

at the repast heads turned to the future: saving

other sons and daughters, ourselves. a collection was taken

to fund breast cancer research. a medical scholarship

for oncology study discussed. a proposal for new                 

from the back of the church hall, a woman no one recognized

screamed, “what about ovarian cancer?!  and prostate cancer?!

why aren’t you all talking about those?  all cancers matter!”


most of my students nodded into the ensuing silence. but some

blank stares and my job description doomed me

to be more didactic: to explain appropriate time, place, and manner,

intent versus impact, the guilt and shame required

to derail communal grief and hijack a narrative

to make oneself more comfortable.


i explained the human duty to choose:

enter the room willing to bear bodies on our shoulders,

or, arms empty, leave and silently stand outside.


i said, “replace ‘cancer’ with ‘lives’” and waited.


“when asked why “all lives” don’t matter” was originally published in The Radical Teacher (Vol 115), and is forthcoming in Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag Publishing Co.)


MEH is Matthew E. Henry, a Pushcart and Best of the Net nominated poet and educator, with works appearing or forthcoming in Kweli Journal, Poetry East, Rhino, Spillway, The Radical Teacher, Rigorous, Rise Up Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and 3Elements Literary Review. MEH received his MFA from Seattle Pacific University, yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing a MA in theology and a PhD in education. His first collection of poetry— Teaching While Black—is forthcoming from Main Street Rag Publishing Co. His work can be found at