19 pages 38 minutes read

Danez Smith

It won’t be a bullet

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 2017

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide


Danez Smith originally published “it won’t be a bullet” as part of their book Don’t Call Us Dead, released by Graywolf Press in 2017. Smith prefers the pronouns “they/them,” to which this study guide will adhere. They are well known in the literary community as a poet of both academic and popular acclaim. In addition to being an established writer, they are also a performer and co-host of the podcast “VS” with Franny Choi. Smith’s work often deals with complex and relevant social issues like violence and injustice against African Americans, being gay, and social justice issues. However, their poems often use humor and wit, drawing on pop-culture figures and tropes to explore complex themes. Some have identified their work as Afrofuturism, a genre that combines topics of African American history with tropes of science fiction. Many of Smith’s poems pose hypothetical, often better worlds for African Americans and others.

Smith is considered a leading voice of the “Golden Age” of poetry, a resurgence of public interest in the poetic arts, specifically among young people and people of color. In “it won’t be a bullet,” Smith discusses the “catalogue of ways to kill a black boy” (Line 4) and explores their own identity as an African American man, a gay person, and an HIV positive member of the Queer community. It is both a referendum on the dangers that society poses to members of their community and a personal exploration of mortality and identity. The poem is also a meditation on death itself and the spiritual transcendence that it promises. Smith said in an interview that they wrote Don’t Call Us Dead at a time when their own mortality was becoming more obvious to them because they had recently been diagnosed with HIV.

Poet Biography

Danez Smith was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, and raised by their mother and grandparents in the Selby neighborhood. Their mother is a secretary at a law firm and an avid reader who took Smith to the library as a child. She herself is a writer in her spare time and has had a novel in the works for years. Smith wrote their first poem for a theater class when they were 14 years old and shortly thereafter began their poetic career in the slam community. They earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and became a YouTube star by the time they were 23 with the poem “dear white america” aggregating over 300,000 views. In addition to Don’t Call Us Dead, Smith published [insert] boy (Yes Yes Books, 2014) and Homie (Graywolf Press, 2020), both of which have earned awards, and they won a 2019 Pushcart Prize for the poem “say it with your whole black mouth.” They identify as a Queer poet and HIV positive and came out to their parents at the age of 16. Their mother was supportive of their sexual orientation, and their grandmother came to accept it over time.

Poem Text

Smith, Danez. “it won’t be a bullet.” 2017. Poets.org.


The title of the poem, “it won’t be a bullet,” starts the first sentence of the poem. Therefore, the first full thought the speaker conveys is “it won’t be a bullet / becoming a little moon—brightwarm in me one night” (Title and Line 1). These lines describe what a bullet would look and feel like if it were to enter their body. However, Smith is emphasizing that it won’t be that will kill them. The next line contains “thank god. i can go quietly” (Line 2) and begins the next part of the poem, in which the speaker imagines the way they will likely die, if not by a bullet. The speaker postulates that they will die in a medical context, and “the doctor will explain death / & [they will] go practice” (Lines 2-3).

In the second stanza, the speaker addresses the reader directly, giving them more autobiographical information. The speaker is a “black boy,” and they say there is a “catalogue of ways to kill a black boy” (Line 4). In this catalogue, they will find the speaker “buried between the pages stuck together / with red stick” (Lines 5-6). They say this is both “ironic,” and at the same time “predictable” (Line 6). Then they command the reader to “look at me” (Line 6).

In the third stanza, the speaker further defines what they are and what they are not. They say, “i’m not the kind of black man who dies on the news” (Line 7). Instead of dying from a bullet, they say, “i’m the kind who grows thinner & thinner & thinner” (Line 8). Again the speaker shows the way they expect to die, which is in a slower and quieter way, “until light outweighs us, & we become it” (Line 9). In this line, the speaker uses figurative language to describe the process of dying slowly, which causes their body to become so small and frail that they are lighter than light and so become one with the light. The speaker uses the term “we” and “us” (Line 9) because they are not only describing their own death but grouping themselves together with other “black boy[s]” (Line 4) and men, comparing their death to the many ways in which others of their community have died. Unlike the other Black boys and men who die from bullet wounds, the group to which the speaker belongs will be with “family” (Line 9) who surround their “barely body telling [them] to go / toward [themselves]” (Lines 10-11). In the final lines, the speaker uses figurative language again to describe the experience of their dying, heading away from their family and the concerns of the world, and going deeper into their personal experience.