“Follow Me” by Rayon Lennon

Rayon Lennon


to the teenage black employee who followed me, a black man, in a grocery store

Imagine there’s no light
between us and all
we know is the darkness
that binds us while I decide
if I desire 2 percent or whole
milk. You trail 12 feet behind
as I push a cart of goods
like a baby. You’re a kid,
it seems, a boy of no more
than 19 buried in your cell,
looking once or twice
my way. Your white gray
manager nods oppression.
You don’t think to puncture
commands from high. You spin
time into money. Your work
reduced to studying people
like you and me to see
whether I’m worth more
than the overflowing
cart I struggle to steer.
I have known this earth
for 37 years. I know a few
many things, like everything
is connected, like slavery
to now. You follow me
like an overseer with spoiled
power. I pause at the Aunt
Jemima syrups which are bitter
with stereotypes. You follow
me to the self-checkout
counter, pretending to still
be lost in your cell. I scan
each item and pay for it
all with the sum I earn
as an in-home family
therapist empowering
kids your age to climb
above systems. I show
teeth and tell you to have
a warm week. You say you
were only doing your job. Yes,
I don’t say. The job of keeping
racism alive. The light butcher
shakes his caged dreads. Like us,
tanked lobsters battle each other
with taped claws.

from Rattle #74, Winter 2021
Rattle Poetry Prize Finalist


Rayon Lennon: “I was 13 the first time I was followed in a store. I had just moved from Jamaica to Hamden, Connecticut. The male employee followed me in the dollar store as I looked at items. For some reason, he thought I was there to steal. I didn’t understand it. I had saved up all my lunch money to buy a cheap fake gold chain with a Jamaican flag pendant. After 10 minutes, the man simply asked me to leave. I said I didn’t do anything wrong; I hadn’t stolen anything and didn’t intend to steal anything. He said he was tired of following me. I said I was tired of being followed. He called the police. The snow came before the police. I got on a city bus and saw the police entering the store as the bus moved off. I was 13. America showed me who it was then. It’s particularly disheartening to be 37 and still being followed in stores. It’s even more disheartening when the employee following me is a Black teenage employee (being directed by an oppressive boss). While workshopping this poem, a white member of the group said, ‘Forgive me for sounding ignorant, but why were they following you in the store? What did they think you were going to do?’ It’s such an easy answer. But I thought about it more. Yes. They followed me because they thought I would steal; but they followed me too to try to make me believe I don’t belong, to rob me of my sense of feeling at home in America. Racism is mostly about power—most people don’t want to root it out because they don’t want to lose power/privileges. The Black teen who followed me in the store was probably acting the way he did to share in that power. It’s unfortunate what people must do to survive in this country. I have been asked by managers to do tasks that run counter to my values; I always challenge these requests, but I have made poor decisions as well—decisions which disempowered me and others. A friend said I should have been nicer to the Black teenage employee in the poem. It’s a poem powered by frustration and rage. I didn’t want to take that away from the poem. It’s important that I hold everyone accountable, even an oppressed teen. It’s especially sad and harmful when oppressed people, knowingly and unknowingly, help to spread racist ideology. Awareness is key. I’m a nice guy who only gets angry in my poems. In some ways, I’m not so much angry at the teen as I am angry at a nation which could turn out a vaccine for Covid in a year, but can’t seem to find a social vaccine for racism, centuries later.” (web)

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