The Life of Lincoln West

Ugliest little boy
that everyone ever saw.   
That is what everyone said.

Even to his mother it was apparent—
when the blue-aproned nurse came into the   
northeast end of the maternity ward   
bearing his squeals and plump bottom   
looped up in a scant receiving blanket,   
bending, to pass the bundle carefully   
into the waiting mother-hands—that this
was no cute little ugliness, no sly baby waywardness   
that was going to inch away
as would baby fat, baby curl, and   
baby spot-rash. The pendulous lip, the   
branching ears, the eyes so wide and wild,   
the vague unvibrant brown of the skin,   
and, most disturbing, the great head.   
These components of That Look bespoke   
the sure fibre. The deep grain.

His father could not bear the sight of him.
His mother high-piled her pretty dyed hair and   
put him among her hairpins and sweethearts,   
dance slippers, torn paper roses.
He was not less than these,
he was not more.

As the little Lincoln grew,
uglily upward and out, he began   
to understand that something was   
wrong. His little ways of trying   
to please his father, the bringing   
of matches, the jumping aside at   
warning sound of oh-so-large and   
rushing stride, the smile that gave   
and gave and gave—Unsuccessful!

Even Christmases and Easters were spoiled.   
He would be sitting at the
family feasting table, really
delighting in the displays of mashed potatoes   
and the rich golden
fat-crust of the ham or the festive
fowl, when he would look up and find   
somebody feeling indignant about him.

What a pity what a pity. No love   
for one so loving. The little Lincoln   
loved Everybody. Ants. The changing   
caterpillar. His much-missing mother.   
His kindergarten teacher.

His kindergarten teacher—whose   
concern for him was composed of one   
part sympathy and two parts repulsion.
The others ran up with their little drawings.   
He ran up with his.
tried to be as pleasant with him as   
with others, but it was difficult.
For she was all pretty! all daintiness,
all tiny vanilla, with blue eyes and fluffy   
sun-hair. One afternoon she
saw him in the hall looking bleak against   
the wall. It was strange because the   
bell had long since rung and no other   
child was in sight. Pity flooded her.   
She buttoned her gloves and suggested   
cheerfully that she walk him home. She   
started out bravely, holding him by the   
hand. But she had not walked far before   
she regretted it. The little monkey.   
Must everyone look? And clutching her   
hand like that. . . . Literally pinching   
it. . . .

At seven, the little Lincoln loved
the brother and sister who
moved next door. Handsome. Well-
dressed. Charitable, often, to him. They   
enjoyed him because he was
resourceful, made up
games, told stories. But when
their More Acceptable friends came they turned   
their handsome backs on him. He
hated himself for his feeling
of well-being when with them despite—

He spent much time looking at himself   
in mirrors. What could be done?   
But there was no
shrinking his head. There was no   
binding his ears.

“Don’t touch me!” cried the little   
fairy-like being in the playground.

Her name was Nerissa. The many   
children were playing tag, but when   
he caught her, she recoiled, jerked free   
and ran. It was like all the
rainbow that ever was, going off   
forever, all, all the sparklings in
the sunset west.

One day, while he was yet seven,
a thing happened. In the down-town movies   
with his mother a white
man in the seat beside him whispered   
loudly to a companion, and pointed at   
the little Linc.
“THERE! That’s the kind I’ve been wanting   
to show you! One of the best
examples of the specie. Not like
those diluted Negroes you see so much of on   
the streets these days, but the
real thing.

Black, ugly, and odd. You
can see the savagery. The blunt   
blankness. That is the real   

His mother—her hair had never looked so
red around the dark brown   
velvet of her face—jumped up,   
shrieked “Go to—” She did not finish.   
She yanked to his feet the little   
Lincoln, who was sitting there
staring in fascination at his assessor. At the author of his   
new idea.

All the way home he was happy. Of course,   
he had not liked the word
But, after all, should he not
be used to that by now? What had
struck him, among words and meanings   
he could little understand, was the phrase   
“the real thing.”
He didn’t know quite why,
but he liked that.
He liked that very much.

When he was hurt, too much
stared at—
too much
left alone—he
thought about that. He told himself
“After all, I’m   
the real thing.”

It comforted him.

Gwendolyn Brooks, “The Life of Lincoln West,” from Blacks (Chicago: Third World Press, 1987). Reprinted by consent of Brooks Permissions.
Source: Blacks (Third World Press, 1987)
More Poems by Gwendolyn Brooks