Sorry there’s no clever title for this blog post (and no poetry in its prose), but I just wanted to write a brief note to let readers know where else they can find me this week.
Before I get started, I’d like to welcome new subscribers. There’ve been a lot of you since the beginning of this month (and the beginning of this year, for that matter) and I appreciate you all. Thanks for your continued readership.
Because I’ve taken down the other recent post about PBS NewsHour and HuffPost (since the HuffPost appearance was canceled), here’s the link and below is the video for the brief talk I did with host Hari Sreenivasan:
A few days later, I was also a guest for PBS NewsHour’s Twitter chat on social media’s efficacy in activism. Here’s a link to those tweets.
Yesterday, I was a guest on Slate’s “Mom and Dad Are Fighting” parenting podcast. The other guest was R. Dwayne Betts, whose writing I’ve long admired. Many thanks to host Allison Benedikt for inviting me! Listen here:
On Wednesday, my day job featured the first five of my blog posts on Michael Brown and Ferguson, which was a great honor. The sixth one posted yesterday, in case you missed it and would like to read it.
And next week, I should have another announcement, God willing and the creek don’t rise. If you follow me on Twitter, you may have caught me errantly announcing it too early before a super-quick tweet-deletion. Pro-tip: don’t announce things before the person who offered you the opportunity okays it. Another pro-tip: don’t announce things until you know that you know that you know they’re a done deal. It’s a rookie-level error to jump the gun. As the old adage goes, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” (And more pointedly don’t tell people about your chickens until you’ve got eggs to sell.)
Thanks again for rockin’ with me. It matters. A lot.
… So for sixteen days we all had to bide time until the boy could be buried. It would be sixteen days before his body could, at last, be lowered into the uneasy, overturned earth, and all the while, he was taken apart and reassembled, both in organ and in character. Each day brought some new revelation about the placement of bullets, each day a new besmirching of his personality.
During those weeks’ wait, his death spun out like shrapnel, dust, detritus, like tear gas and rivulets of milk, like whispers of revolt and like war cries. His passing meant too many things to strangers and had settled under their skin, left burns, begun to scab.
It became hard to remember Mike-Mike in the madness, hard to recall the exact name of his college or his precise height and weight. We couldn’t quite tell each other the color of his eyes. None of us knew what could invariably make him laugh. Too many images loomed larger: law enforcement in riot gear, rifles trained on children, threats — nay, promises — of more murder and bodily harm at the hands of local police.
We were so haunted we couldn’t remember that we’d never known the actual boy at all.
When someone dies unjustly, all his journals are judged as unauthorized memoirs. Every article we pen about him is its own invasive autopsy. We learn too much, the intimate and the inconsequential: last few breakfasts, innermost fears. We read or overhear that he had been dreaming of bloodied bedsheets. In his last few fits of slumber, he could hear a bell of reckoning. He thought it tolled for friends, for relatives. He did not know it knelled for him. We learn all about the poorness of his high school, how for senior portraits, the graduating students had to circulate a single cap and gown. We learn mortifying, mystifying things. Injustices long swallowed rise up in our throats like bile till Mike Brown becomes a battle cry.
But sometimes, when all is said and done, we realize we’ve learned nothing we should’ve.
He was buried on a Monday and by the time it happened, he was cause, he was principle, a platform for voter’s registration, a morality play, an archetype, a cautionary tale. But only for the people who knew the clouds that could pass through his eyes when he worried, who remembered the day his squeaky voice dropped, whose thoughts of him toggled between more than convenience store and corpse… only they could truly mourn his simply as a boy. Their boy.
The family allowed us to mourn their boy, letting television cameras live-stream his funeral. They gave the press exclusive access to their grief. They implored us to understand the skin, the bone, and the murky, thoughtful, aspirational mind of their son. We tried. At least some of us tried. But it is hard enough to understand people we’ve met and near impossible to truly know a young man we may never have seen, had he not been riddled with bullets on a random summer afternoon. It had been difficult, then, not to co-opt him, difficult not to project onto him our own fears, our own sorrows. Because those boundaries were becoming so blurred, this final access rankled some and was welcomed by others. Some of us needed to watch his homegoing; others needed nothing so much as to look away. But in truth, from the time the boy’s body became public spectacle, lain bare for four hours on a sleepy street in Ferguson, we’d been given more access to him than he or his parents or any of us would ever have wanted.
Like Mamie Till-Mobley before them, Lesley McSpadden and Michael Brown Sr. wanted the world to continuing seeing the injustice that what was done to their baby.
I have always found it discordant to attend a funeral where the songs are uptempo and the attendees are rejoicing. I do not know how to call a funeral a homegoing or death a transition, though they are, of course, all of those things. What I want most when laying someone to rest is the space to sob as I recall him, the arms to hold me as I buckle, company of a great cloud of witnesses. But everyone needs different things in times of unthinkable sorrow, laughter as much as mourning, the catching of the Holy Ghost as much as a graveside howl. All I can hope is that, by letting us in, on Monday, as they have on every day since they lost their eldest son, the family and friends of Michael Brown Jr.’s had all that they needed. I hope that in the months and years to come, the cavern of that need will never be hollowed and always be filled.
Be patient with those of us who are appalled. We thought we had been striding toward some progress, thought our education and integrity, our intellect and analysis were meaningful. We studied history, believed we understood all the ways in which enslavement could impact advancement. We were repairing our middling credit, paying back student loans, electing more people of color into political office. And yes, black blood still flowed in the streets and yes, each week new images of bullets bloodying children and grandmothers gunned down flickered across the six o’clock news. But we had been told to hope, had been assured that it took audacity, but it could be done. Optimism could be sustained. And weren’t we seeing justice sometimes? Weren’t more black students graduating college? Weren’t more of our men hitching up their pants and wearing ties? Weren’t we finally — finally — being legislatively mandated to become our brother’s keeper?
Forgive us for retiring “We Shall Overcome” for a while. Our president was black, and his attorney general had been tasked with tending to what was left of systemic inequity. We overcame! Or at the very least, circa 2008, we felt fairly capable of overcoming.
One of my peer heroes @marclamonthill had a gun pulled on him tonight by police. He had to scream he was media. I'm done. Damn. Damn. Damn.
Yes, even when we couldn’t catch cabs. Yes, even when we were stopped and frisked. Yes, even when a black Harvard historian was accused of breaking and entering into his front door. That was resolved with a beer summit, wasn’t it? Ain’t we some overcomers?
Pardon us for reeling in the wake of this latest reminder that we are still psychically, politically, horrifically, oppressed.
We watched a child bake on the asphalt on a middle American town last weekend, while the cop who killed him fled without calling in the murder or staying on the scene. And while sitting on our seat’s edge waiting for accountability, we had to reckon with the protracted dawning that no immediate responsibility would be assigned, that none of the shooting officer’s higher-ups — from his police chief to his governor — would feel the need to reprimand or hold him wholly responsible.
And while we were still reeling, while we were yet aghast, either time stood still as Ferguson Police teleported back to 1963 or time sped forward and we were all dumped into a near-future dystopia or, likeliest still, today is no different than the day of Mike Brown’s murder. Today is moving at the same predictable clip as every day that came before it.
Pardon me and my language, but I've never felt more like a nigger than I did tonight.
Maybe black progress has only existed within a political Petri dish. Maybe it was merely another of the many experiments this country has conducted on people of color. Maybe the reason it doesn’t matter than children are being scraped off the pavement like dogs and babies are being tear-gassed and the best and brightest of the black literati are begging for their lives while standing before the barrels of Ferguson Police guns is because the Petri dish was secretly shattered, the quantifiable results of black process subsequently classified.
We will never know how many years or dead bodies or exceptional achievements it takes to convince a white supremacist culture to acknowledge the other 2/5 of our humanity.
Excuse us, as this is not easy to accept. When you ask why and how we could be so surprised, we are thinking of Obama’s first inauguration. We are thinking of our parents’ mortgage payments. We are wistfully recalling the Cosbys and thinking about how Dwayne Wayne really did end up running Kenishiwa in the end. Dreams come true, dammit. We are hearing echoes of Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price. We are tasting the water from every fountain where we’ve sipped, without having to bow our heads beneath a Coloreds Only sign. We are touching the bibles handed down from our great-grandparents gnarled hands to our smooth, desk-working ones. We are reciting the promises inside them. Those who are peacemakers will plant seeds of peace and reap a harvest of righteousness. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Yea, though I walk through the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
You promised, we pray, as though we’ve been betrayed. You promised, we repeat, as though we may have been forsaken. But we’d forgotten that we are still walking and that the shadow of death may not look like a hospital bed at the end of a long, storied life, but instead like a city on lockdown, asphyxiating its citizens, imposing a curfew on all who seek justice, donning riot gear and rolling tanks simply to protect a police officer who murdered someone whose skin looked like our own.
(There is still time left, right, Lord? There’s still time, isn’t there, for You to redeem these dark times?)
Please. Please. Just be patient. We are making our way. But you must understand that it is hard, when we are cordoned on all sides by toxic clouds. Surely, you can empathize with how difficult it is to be clear-eyed while gagging on these cannisters of cover-ups.
What struck me was how old they all looked, those boys with the full-grown beards and sculpted biceps, all between 16 and 18, dawdling in front of the schoolhouse before the homeroom bell. I wouldn’t be 14 for a few months and middle school, that hotbed of hormonal awkwardness, had done nothing to prepare me for sauntering through an every-morning gauntlet of upperclassmen.
I don’t often remember high school fondly, but when I do, I recollect walking up to mine that first morning. I recall the thrill of suddenly sharing space with so many of these manchildren and the heady unexpectedness of their appearance. They were boys goofy enough to still prank and preen and bluster for young girls’ attention while toiling at manual labor jobs on weekends or closing restaurants at midnight on weekdays, before driving home in rustbucket cars they’d purchased themselves or sedans their parents were leasing. There was such a chasm, both of responsibility and experience, between those boys and me.
On that first day of high school, I fell in love at least three times before class was dismissed.
Honey, here is a thing you will need to know about young black men: they are icebergs. My lord, how often they’ve been told to shine up the peak that is exposed, how thoroughly they’ve convinced themselves that what lies beneath should stay submerged. The waters are dark and frigid, but when you love any one of those iceberg boys, you will want to plumb his depths. You will long to warm him enough to lift him, to lower the water levels, to expose the many moments that he feels the need to hide. And if you succeed, what you will surely find first is fear.
The footage is grainy and so am I. Days of following this case have made me feel less like a fully composed person and more like a loose collection of snowy particles threatening to drift apart, if it weren’t for the casing of my skin.
What the footage shows is two young men in a convenience store. It shows them taking cigarillos from the store as the cashier tries futilely to stop them. The aggressor looms nearly a foot taller than the store clerk. He shoves him then doubles back and uses his size to keep the cashier cowering while he leaves.
Yesterday morning, at a press conference that promised the name of the officer who killed Michael Brown, a police chief whose job performance I’ve grown to despise over the course of this week took the podium and said, “What we’ll be releasing today are details about a ‘strong-arm robbery.'” He presented a timeline of the robbery, insisted he would not take any questions, then proceeded to turn away from the mic. Journalists and protesters erupted.
WHAT IS THE OFFICER’S NAME? they cried.
Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson turned and stammered the shooter’s name, as though a bit taken aback that he was being asked to offer it at all. He spelled it.
He emphasized the cop’s clean six-year record. And then he walked away.
Within seconds, screen shots of the young men in the convenience store were online. Within minutes, the full surveillance video clip was released. Within a half-hour, my social media timeline reluctantly noted the similarities between the bullying aggressor in the video and the boy whose body had lain bloody in the street for hours last Saturday.
By afternoon, Chief Jackson was back on television, admitting that the convenience store theft was not connected to Officer Wilson first stopping, then murdering, Mike Brown.
It took six days for the police to produce this footage. Six days to even mention that Brown may have been involved in a robbery. Six days of the Ferguson Police Department protecting the name of their officer, who shot Brown in a completely unrelated incident. Five days of terrorizing a largely peaceful community, of meeting their placards, convictions, open palms and protest cries with tanks and tear gas and rubber bullets and peppershots and tanks and sniper-mounted rifles and wooden baton pucks. One day of relative peace, after a governor materializes — following a half-week of silence– and appoints a changing of the law enforcement guard.
Seven days without public condolence or remorse.
You have to learn quickly how to read an iceberg boy. Intuit which scents may mean trouble (weed, liquor, and — to the extent that it can sniffed at all — the tang of coursing testosterone, commingling a surge of adrenaline). Sense which sudden movements are harmless and which may connote a palpable menace. If you are wise, you know that none of an iceberg boy’s characteristics are mutually exclusive. He can be both the college-bound teen and the thief. He can be an inductee of the National Honor Society and the type of person who watches or records an assault and helps the video go viral. He can be innocent in one context and quite guilty in the next.
Iceberg boys are not alone in that. So many of us know what it is to perform one identity for a parent and a far different one for a peer. So many of us know the shock that can come from a collision of those identities. Mike-Mike the Gentle Giant may also be Big Mike who shoves a trembling cashier and steals a box of Swisher Sweets.
Neither deserved to be executed for refusing to step onto a sidewalk. Neither deserved to be executed for stealing cigarillos.
The heartbreak here isn’t that the Mike Brown whose humanity we’ve championed in death may have been capable of intense contradiction in life. The heartbreak is that the police department responsible for his death wants to make that facet of his humanness a justification for his murder. The heartbreak is that cigarillo theft pales in comparison to the theft of any opportunity to become the man he might’ve been.
The iceberg boys at my Baltimore County high school seemed desperate to represent some notorious Baltimore City set. They claimed connections to McCulloh Homes or Edmondson Village while living in quiet cul de sacs or sleepy clusters of prefab townhomes.
They would tell us: I’ll be lucky if I make it to 25, even as they filled out college applications or consulted the guidance counselor for career options.
I thought they were exaggerating. I thought they were being a bit ridiculous. I smirked and rolled my eyes. Not everyone black in ’90s Baltimore was living out his own personal Juice, Menace II Society, or Boyz in the Hood.
But iceberg boys do die in suburbs. They really could be swarmed by multiple cop cars in routine traffic stops. They actually are assaulted by officers while they are subdued, nonresistant, and unarmed. I learned — and Daughter, I am sure you will, too — that, as long as we are black, where we live will never insulate us from harm. What those iceberg boys understood even in our predominantly black and middle-class community, was that black skin is a risk, wherever you are, and that living in this skin is its own contradiction, personal behavior notwithstanding. Our skin is at once a particular point of pride and also akin to walking out our lives cloaked within what may someday be our untimely-death shroud.
A lot of the iceberg boys I knew in high school lived. The one whose backpack unleashed a contact high whenever unzipped finished grad school last year and is engaged to be married. One is in real estate. One is a minister. Another became a chef. Some are teachers. Many are fathers of college-bound daughters. Others are parenting iceberg boys of their own.
I am sure that any of them would tell you it was hard being mistaken for men when they were still reasoning like little boys. I am sure that any of them would tell you they are both glad and relieved that they’ve survived.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this post had the subtitle, “On Michael Brown and Other Complicated Lives Cut Short.” A reader pointed out that “complicated” drew an unfair and unnecessary connotation, as it shouldn’t matter how complicated a victim’s life is, when it’s unjustly cut short. I’ve edited the title to emphasize my agreement with that reader and to avoid further misunderstanding. – slb
When your father last visited, he took you past the front yard at your grandparents’ house and sat beside you on a square of sidewalk. I had supplied the chalk — $0.75 on sale in the checkout line at a supermarket — but stayed at home both to relax and to give you two space and time to bond.
Your father is big like Mike Brown was. At 6’5″, his walk has heft, his forearms are a bit like boulders, and whenever I think of him making sidewalk drawings with you in the cool of an afternoon, I am newly amused. He sent me pictures of your handiwork, your name emblazoned in a multicolored blast. For you, the sidewalk became a concrete quilt. For you, it told the story of a family. For now, this is all it needs to tell you. For now, this is just as it should be.
You won’t know this for at least a year or two — we have not started to read books like Henry’s Freedom Box or Freedom on the Menu; you have not heard of Emmett Till, have not seen what it seems that every black child must: his bloated, disfigured face in an open casket — but someday you will understand just how many of our horror stories begin and end with sidewalks.
Whether stepping off of them to let a white man pass or refusing to cross to one on the other side of a street in order to clear a white woman’s path, sidewalks have never been entirely inanimate for us. Our teeth have been broken against them. After tussling unarmed on one, Trayvon Martin was accused in court of using a sidewalk as a weapon, just before his blood was splattered across it. And even now, with no particular law in place to compel us, some confess to still ceding the sidewalk for white passersby, in spite of ourselves.
It is said that the boy in Ferguson was killed because of a sidewalk. The officer who shot him, his anonymity still being carefully guarded even six days later, is said to have told the boy and his friend to get the f–k on the sidewalk. According to Dorian Johnson, the friend who survived, he and Mike Brown were walking in the street, a practice you will someday find is quite popular in sleepy suburbs. When no cars are in view, a street may be a scooter lot, a skateboard park, a strolling path. Preferring the street to the sidewalk is not uncommon for adolescents.
Here in Baltimore it is not uncommon for grown folk — even if cars are barreling toward them. Baltimoreans play fast and loose with their lives when traveling on foot. But in the 25 years I’ve lived here, no one has ever lost his life at an officer’s gun-wielding hand for crossing against traffic. These days, the policing of black pedestrians while simply walking down empty streets or on the adjacent sidewalks, is no longer en vogue. What happened in Ferguson, Missouri on Saturday is an anomaly, one that hearkens back to a time so many of us believed we had left far behind.
But when the boy’s long untended body was whisked up from the street and taken away to be autopsied (to withheld or suppressed result), the town was left grieving on sidewalks. Eventually, the crowds took their grievances into the streets. And we were all swiftly reminded of what it must’ve been like for our elders to have been “put in their place” on the sidewalks of streets across the nation. We knew what it was to be shouted down, to be threatened with capture, detainment, canine attack, to be herded onto sidewalks as though we were cattle (or chattel).
Yes, in just a few years, you will know all about our complicated history with sidewalks in this country. And it will become quite clear how quickly something as simple as a sidewalk can get you killed. But it is not yet time and for that, I am exceedingly grateful. For now, just let the sidewalk be a site for sunshine, a concrete kaleidograph of shapes. Let it be what it hasn’t be for the children of Ferguson since Friday: a safe haven, a play yard, a shore.
I don’t want to talk about the boy and the sneakers peeking out from the sheet crudely draped over his corpse in the street, because I have been happy this month and it is so rare that I’m happy and that you, at age 4, don’t have to touch my knee or shoulder or face and say, “What’s wrong, Mama? You sad?”
I don’t want to think of who will go out on her hands and knees to scrub what’s left of the boy’s blood from the concrete. It will probably be a loved one, her hands idle after hours of clenching them into fists, watching what used to be her breathing boy lie lifeless, as she waited and waited and waited for the police and the coroner and the county to get their stories straight and their shit together and their privilege, sitting crooked as a ten-dollar wig, readjusted till it was firmly intact. All that time they spent, just primping, just holding their whiteness and authority up as mirrors for one another, tuning out the cries of a mourning community — or garbling them, rather. Did they say, “Kill the police?!” As long as that’s the way you heard it, they did. And that is what AP will wire out to every mainstream news outlet who can be bothered to report the death of another unarmed black son on a Saturday night.
Their truth is not our truth.
Daughter, I said I didn’t have it in me to sit with the murder of Michael Brown last night and comb my social media accounts for first-hand anecdotes that would likely be more accurate than anything the news stations would report. I didn’t want to watch the Vines or read the Instagram messages under a photo collage of police presence at the crime scene, wailing friends and neighbors, the boy’s father holding up a scrap of cardboard scrawled with, “Ferguson Police just executed my unarmed son,” and the barely covered body of the boy himself.
But I stayed up anyway, because his neighbors had not gone home. They had held vigil and recorded and tweeted and planted their feet as a helicopter shone floodlight into their faces and a tank rolled into their apartment complex and barely restrained dogs bared their teeth and growled like they were hoping to be sicced.
They could not be intimidated into returning to their homes. They knew too well the coldness that would await them there, the absence of Michael’s laughter and light, the sounds and images of his final moments filling every too-quiet corner.
No. They would cling to each other instead, and I cannot blame them. I know the alternative. There is no honor in bearing death alone, no solace in silent suffering, nothing noble about walking away empty-handed. The community cried and crooked its arms, mobilized and marched. In the dark they headed to the murderers’ doorstep: the police department, demanding accountability for the alleged ten gunshots one of their cops had leveled at an unarmed teen in broad daylight.
They were told they could expect a press conference at ten the next morning. The department needs time, I suppose, to omit and tamper and vilify, time to label the shooting as anything but misconduct, as “manslaughter” and not “entirely preventable murder.”
I logged off when the community received that most minimal sense of closure: a cover-up conference at 10 AM. But I slept fitfully and woke with too many empty words. I always want to write the boys back, always want to revive the little girls. But writing feels like a fool’s errand at times like these.
And so does parenting.
The boys who live are so scarred. I have looked inside more than a few; they are hiding bullets in each quadrant of heart and brain. There are shells lodged in their arteries. Memory, not metal, ticks within them. When they laugh you can hear it rattling like real tin. One false move and their minds or their wills or their ability to feel at all will be gone.
And they will tell you: when I was five, a man nodded at me as he strolled past my house and by the time he reached the end of the block all I saw was his blood. And they will tell you: my brother, my cousin, my best friend, my little sister, my first crush was killed, and the cluster of stuffed bears and balloons we left at the scene was gone within the week. They will tell you: I am not sure how long I will live.
The truth is: you are not sure, either, and there will be very little left to say in the face of that actuality. Besides, it is all the things they won’t say, all the numbness and fatalism and resignation they are too afraid to acknowledge — and the ulcerous pain underneath it — that are the real sites of worry.
I do not want to talk about this anymore because I was happy this month and you just turned four on the first and all I can think about is the promise I see in you. I think about how well you’re hearing these days with the tiny aids that screech when you hug me and hiss when the batteries are weak. I think about how much easier it’s become for you to simply say, “Help, please” instead of throwing a frustrated fit for the language you cannot find. I think about how often I keep you near me and how many people take umbrage with that. She has to learn, they say, how to live in this world.
But how can you learn at 4 to do what still makes me flail and falter at 34? And how can I let you go when a girl a year younger than you was gunned down in our city last week and a boy who would’ve headed off to college for the first time on Monday was executed within steps of his Ferguson, MO home on Saturday?
I’ve no more access to the language for this than you do.
What I have is you and the God who gave you and the God who just may take you away. And I have the resilience of a race who has survived every previous effort to exterminate it (and to compel it to exterminate itself). I have eyes and a watchful heart; they are both weary. I have hope that if the time comes, my community will be like Michael Brown’s, immovable and resolutely together. And what I also have are words that I’m meant to use when I least want to, in hopes that they will reach beyond my grasp and be a reckoning for those who, in the face of immense loss, would just rather we all returned to our homes and kept quiet.
The little boy who used to live on the second floor, the one with the cornrows grazing the back of his neck and the owlish glasses, never stayed indoors. He was always running, chasing the family cat or asking around, home to home, if a new child in the neighborhood could come out to play. He was nine or so, polite and precocious, always noticing things. You dropped this. You’re forgetting that. He held the lobby door open for my grandmother, my mother, and I whenever he saw us coming.
A boy like that catches the eye, out of doors as he so often is. It was easy, then, to notice that his mother hadn’t entrusted him with a key to his family’s apartment. We knew it because sometimes, he’d linger too long outside the locked, intercom-activated lobby door. We knew it because, while walking up to our own third floor residence, we too often noted that his family’s door was kept slightly ajar. He was either rushing in and slamming it or waiting downstairs for someone to open it when he’d locked himself out.
It was risky, his mom opting to leave their whole apartment vulnerable rather than giving him a key. It was risky, too, to reserve comment and to let them sort through that decision and its consequences alone.
But I remember being nine myself and in need of a key after school. I remember losing it too, on many occasions, and begging the rental office managers to let me borrow their spare. I asked so often they would finally have to inform my furious, frustrated mom.
The memory was what kept me quiet on the days when the neighbor boy sprinted confidently up to his cracked door and slipped inside — and it was also what made me ask if he needed to use our phone or wanted someone to wait with him when he was in the lobby alone.
Latchkey life is a series of covert missions, held precariously in place by a cardinal rule: don’t get caught.
I thought about this code when I heard about Debra Harrell, the 46-year-old South Carolina mom who let her nine-year-old daughter play in a park for three days while she worked her shifts at McDonald’s.
If I’d driven by and spotted Debra’s daughter braiding tall grass at 1pm, then passed by again to find her eating fruit under a shady tree at 4, I would’ve thought little of it. Even if, as in this case, she was there for three days in a row. I may’ve asked, as the concerned observer did in this instance, where the girl’s mother had gone. But if she’d shown me the cell phone her mother had given her in case of emergency and if she seemed safe and unbothered, I would’ve moved along.
Just as all who wander are not lost, all who play outside alone — even all day — are not abandoned.
When I moved into my grandmother’s third floor apartment, my daughter was two and noisy. She was not sleep trained and sometimes she’d let out a squeal or leap across the carpet well after 8pm.
“If you don’t get that girl to be quieter, the neighbors downstairs might call the police,” my grandmother admonished one night.
I thought I’d misheard her but she went on, “They’ll say they heard her screaming or that you never have her in the bed at night. Child Protective Services will come up here and they’ll take her away from you. CPS loves to take black children.”
The warning winded me. My eyes stung. My chest heaved. I wanted to tell her how hurtful she was being and I did. “You’re saying that if CPS came and assessed my parenting, they’d still find cause to take my child. You’re implying I’m unfit.”
“I know you love your child,” she said in a voice that didn’t soften. “But I’m telling you the truth.”
It was a court stenographer’s truth, the truth of a woman who had spent over 20 years transcribing heinous crimes, tragic accidents and separations of children from parents, based on everything from hearsay to hard evidence. It was also the truth of an elder for whom the memory of being policed for playing while black — in the wrong park, on the wrong street, at the wrong hour — was still fresh.
I thought of the boy downstairs, his unlocked door, the infants in the basement apartments who wailed at all hours of night. My daughter wasn’t the only child in the building. Her noise didn’t exist in some disruptive vacuum and it didn’t seem constant enough to warrant complaint.
But I was never able to shake my grandmother’s warning. She was telling me that, as a black mother, loving my child wouldn’t necessarily stop a caseworker from recommending her removal from my custody. It would take months, but eventually, I understood that her conferral of worry was, in its way, her own expression of love.
Cases like Debra Harrell’s frighten me. They reify the idea that the rules are different for my black family. For us, noisy nighttime play or unsupervised daytime play don’t just draw annoyance or concern. They draw authorities. They draw teams of people with the power to determine whether or not our children can come home.
There are parts of parenting that are predicated on privacy, on intimate negotiations of what will and will not be able to work under our own roofs on a given day. Bedtime, dinner, and discipline choices differ from household to household. We have all had moments where we’ve considered ourselves fortunate no one witnessed us bribing our child with candy or snapping at him when a gentler word would’ve been best.
But there are other parts of parenting where privacy is as perilous as it is necessary, like determining when your child is “mature enough” to be left alone for hours at a time. It can be difficult for families with latchkey children — and the strangers who observe their decisions — to know the difference.
At what point does incurious observation become concern? At what point should concern involve intervention? And once authorities have intervened, which infractions should warrant the removal of children from their homes?
Sadly, parents without access to safe, affordable child care often depend on the silence of strangers. For them, that silence is kindness. But true kindness would actually be the opposite. True kindness would be conversation. It would be finding out the full story before it becomes a somber national headline, waiting with the child until her mother arrives, offering to keep an eye on the child at play or helping the family find better local resources.
And it would be educating oneself about the stakes for black low-income and single-parent families. They are higher. More than half of all children entering foster care in the U.S. are children of color. Twenty-six percent of those children are black, which is double to the total population of black children in this country. There is a real precedent for worry that taking a latchkey or unsupervised play situation directly to the authorities will result, not in help for a mother and child, but in a mother losing her child.
The idea that erring on the side of caution can make things worse may seem counter-intuitive until you hear enough stories like Debra Harrell’s, until you have a few latchkey kids as neighbors, until you’ve heard your own family warn you to keep your toddler from being so noisy, lest someone try to take her away.
When the little boy downstairs moved away, it seemed sudden. We hadn’t seen boxes. They’d done the heavy lifting after dark. By the time he said goodbye his family’s apartment was already empty. We both stood there a little longer than we needed to. I was hoping his new neighbors would view his family’s situation as I did: as a negotiation of need, as a case where a simple, “Are you okay?” was often enough to tide the child over until his mother came home. I hoped his new neighbors would be watchful and supportive, the kind of people who considered alerting authorities to the presence of a latchkey kid playing unsupervised outside, as a last resort.
The house was airy, small, like other old homes on side streets in northeast Grand Rapids: set on hills of uneven earth, floors of hardwood, walls my father had painted and trimmed in warm, thoughtful contrasts. It smelled of his soap and his cologne, of the dog he’d sent away in preparation for my arrival. By my early 20s, everyone took for granted that I was afraid of dogs, but my childhood cynophobia was starting to wane then. My father’s family had always taken it seriously — insomuch that I often stayed in their homes instead of his, in part to insulate me from the 60-pound breeds he preferred. When the terror seemed real — at some point, all dogs bared their teeth, gave chase, growled with unnegotiable menace, didn’t they? — I was grateful for their fastidiousness. But over time, all the special arrangements made me feel both guilty and quarantined. Over time, I wondered if the dogs weren’t an excuse for us to spend even more time apart.
The scent of fried fish or ground beef would commingle this air, but now the rooms were crisp and nearly antiseptic. My father loves to cook, his thin fingers skittering on the air over a skillet, drizzling minced garlic into it like rain. It is only after he’s done so that I can imagine any space I share with him as a kind of impermanent home.
I had been told before entering this house for the first time to expect my own bedroom. My aunt said it was lovely, just off the living room, and here it was to the left of the front door. She was right. The walls there were purple, because he knew it was my favorite color. The shag rug matched the walls and the bedspread was zebra print, a species I never would’ve imagined inhabiting a room I’d call my own. It wasn’t quite what I’d call my style, but in truth, I did not have a style. For years, I did not live in homes that allowed tenants to alter the colors of the walls or carpet. Instead, I made collages I rarely hung and slept under comforters I hadn’t chosen for myself. Though the room my father designed for me was not what I might’ve created for myself, it was thrilling to stand in, all the same. It was summer and sun soaked every inch of the space. I basked in it but offered a measured smile. “It”s really nice,” I said hoping I sounded pleased enough, impressed enough, happy enough.
He was between marriages. His first was when I was 20. I sobbed in a bathroom stall at the wedding. The marriage lasted just under two years; during it, I spoke to him on the phone maybe twice. It ended badly, but now that wife was gone and along with her a Great Dane my father had brought into the union and had loved at least as much as he loved me. She had convinced him to have the dog euthanized because its torn claw had bled onto her white carpet. In the dissolution he had also lost some of my childhood photographs. I wasn’t aware that he had been keeping any to begin with. It wasn’t that I didn’t think him emotionally capable; it just hadn’t occurred to me to ask, and now, before I could see for myself what he’d held of me and looked at during our long stretches of silence, they were gone.
The house was on a street called Graceland, and this was fitting — not because of any relationship to Elvis, who my father detested, convinced the crooner was a stone racist, but because I could already tell it was a landmark — a place fit for laughter and reconciliation, with a backyard just big enough to bury all our bygones.
I am accustomed to burial. I don’t remember anything that truly aches. It is all locked somewhere, entombed. I suspect this is why, even at my most joyous, I am also vaguely sad; my subconscious has been hefting a graveyard of suppressed memory.
I don’t remember my father before I was seven. We lived hundreds of miles apart from the time I was four until I was 27. I saw him during summers. And sometimes I only saw his mother and sisters, even when he was right in town. He didn’t call or write much. Some years, I spotted Friend of the Court check stubs in my mother’s bedroom. Some years, I did not. I remember the amount of the checks; it changed. Most years, it was not enough to feed me for a full month, not enough to buy a prom dress or two full new outfits at the outset of a school year. It may have been enough for a sturdy pair of sneakers — on sale — and, perhaps, one dinner entree at a family-style restaurant — with a coupon. No one complained about this. I knew early the cost of such complaints. Some men were jailed. Others ran when they saw their children on the street. They blamed the mothers, blamed the child. The better men also blamed themselves. (The best only blame themselves.) But all this blame was far too large a barter for a few extra dollars in a monthly check.
We kept quiet, and I learned, like most children whose names appear in family court cases, that what a man spends on you is no measure by which to gauge his love. It is no measure of love at all. Men rarely spend much on me. I’m afraid to want it, afraid to accept it. I never ask. And if he does spend more than I can afford for myself, I offer to pay it back. The men I choose tend to accept that offer.
When I was little, my father spent years without consistent access to a telephone. He said he didn’t like them, but what I heard was that he didn’t like me. If he was fine not having a phone, he was fine not talking to me. I have come to consider time as the more telling expenditure. Those with whom you choose to spend yours matter most.
We are still horrible about keeping in touch. We both have phones.
He was only renting the Graceland house, but for the right long-term tenant, the owners would consider a sale. Against my better judgment, I fell for the place, with all its evidence of my father’s enthusiasm to enfold me in his new life’s sanctum. Me! who’d never had a room in a home where he’d lived in all my days. Sure, it had come after I was grown, in the aftermath of a divorce, but perhaps this was best. I was still young enough at 22 to learn what it felt like to be the kind of only child who could, at any moment, command her father’s undivided attention. Here, I could experience him at his least encumbered, his most hopeful.
Dad beams when he’s done something right. Puffed-chested and preening, he pretends in those moments that he is a man who never gets it wrong. His voice can shrug on a cloak of dismissive confidence. Of course. Absolutely.
But when the braggadocio has been rubbed raw, his voice can also quaver, his eyes turning glassy and brimming with watery hope. I’m sorry. I should never have. I won’t again.
He is an actor. I have seen him play any number of leads. Flawed, hulking men who scoff at and cheat on their understated wives, heaving the great sighs of fallen heroes, convinced the whole world has done them wrong. He has been Jelly Roll Morton. Walter Lee Younger. Coalhouse Walker. Troy Maxson. Audrey II. He can pitch himself into any posture. This is a skill that only serves to make his true feelings more inscrutable.
I stayed with him in the Graceland house for an uninterrupted weekend. We fell into our easy pattern of watching rented movies and movies on cable and movies in theaters. He prepared our ritual meals: taco salad, expansive breakfasts, fried seafood. I am always most certain he loves me when I taste the food he’s cooked for me. There is a care, a precision, but also something daring, untraceable, perhaps the singular spice of his hands.
Like many black men, he is an insomniac, nocturnal. On the rare occasions I stayed over with him, I wanted to match him minute for waking minute. We could stay up till 2 a.m. before one of us dozed; it was usually him. And I talked years into those minutes, all those missing months we’d spent apart. I wanted to make him laugh, to keep him current on who I was becoming and what I was accomplishing. I wanted to keep him. On those nights, I sounded most like my mother.
My mother’s voice is a marathon; she is talkative in a way that can be physically exhausting. As a conversationalist, I am more of a leisurely jogger. It is hard to keep up. I am not conditioned to listening or speaking at length. My father is much more like me; when a room has emptied of everyone but us, he doesn’t say much at all. He is comfortable with silence. I suspect he wishes he had more of it.
It’s rare and has been more recent, but I have seen him take off his outside self, the pelt of him that laughs raucously and recounts all the fights he’s gotten into and survived, the actor’s self. And I have found him in a chair, spectacles set low on his nose, peering at the pages of a thick trade paperback, wearing a frowzy sweater. In those moments, he looks ten years older than he is, but happier than I’ve ever seen him.
If I had known that he could be so much like me in that way, I would not have worked so hard to fill our silences. He did not need to be entertained. And I never felt that my performances were good enough, anyway. They served only to teach me another wrong lesson: you cannot expect your love for someone to reroute the trajectory of his life — and it is possible to be deeply loved by someone with whom you will always feel your wants hold too little weight.
Toward the end of the weekend in the Graceland house, my father told me he didn’t know how long he could keep it. He had lost a job shortly after renting it and the payments were beginning to overtax him. Oh, but it’s only a matter of budgeting! I said, sitting up straighter in my chair. We can do this, I thought (and may’ve said aloud; I don’t remember). If you want it enough, we can keep it.
I suppose I knew by the time I walked out of the house that this would be my only visit. I had had enough similar experiences with him to know what he would see fit to hold and what he would turn loose.
After the summer, he moved in with the woman who would become his second wife. I did not sob in a bathroom stall at their wedding. When I sleep in their home, it’s in a guest room next to theirs. Their two dogs are always present. I am not afraid. They refer to the three of us as their children. Now, they both cook. It is different, but nice.
I have long since let go of the Graceland house; I wasn’t there long enough to grow attached to it. But letting go of the glimpses my best moments with my father gave into what might’ve been a different life, what might’ve been a healthier relationship with him, is much harder. Years ago, we could’ve been capable of more. We could’ve coexisted in that quiet home where what we needed from each other stood a chance of being better understood. And if this had been so, it would be easier now for me to leave other men whose expressions of love feel delayed or intermittent. How hard it is has been to reconcile that which I once knew was possible with that which currently is.
And even this is a lesson: as long as there is life, new grace can be extended and accepted. But we cannot restore what has been left too long to rot. The rot must be discarded, its girders leveled and gutted. It is rigorous work that so many of us are less inclined to undertake in our advancing age. But say we do begin. Say we were to both agree to bruise ourselves, rebuilding again. If new blueprints are drawn, they must be rendered with steady, unflinching hands. Every need — space and time and true forgiveness — should be made more explicit and all that has been buried must be bared.
I was taught nothing of birth control. In the white-walled rooms of youth groups where we buried our noses in bibles and pretended the promise or memory of sex wasn’t palpable, we were not permitted to ask. And in our nightfallen homes, the flicker of TV-light dancing on the weary, work-ashen faces of our parents, we dared not bring it up.
I did not have friends who I knew were on it, did not discuss its dire need among the ones who were already smitten and surreptitious. I wouldn’t hear any of my girls openly, casually discuss it till we were in our mid-20s and even then, the possible side effects sounded terrifying: bloating and rapid weight gain, mysterious acne and blood clots, uncertainty attendant to possible misuse.
Contraceptives felt like contraband, something to be secreted away or shrouded in enigma and shame, if used at all. It would take years for me to truly understand the vital need for a woman’s vigilance around procuring it.
I had sex for the first time at 24, a week before my 25th birthday. A condom was used, and this set a precedent: one partner, one form of contraception, one party responsible for securing and using it (him). My first pap test was during that 25th year, with a black woman in a Midwestern city who did not press me on the issue of birth control. She asked if I was fine with condoms. I nodded meekly. Her lips became a terse line as she jotted this down in my chart. We moved on.
The same happened at my grad school clinic a year later after a pap. “You and your partner are welcome to explore any contraception you wish. Or none, if you’re exclusive and tested. It’s up to you.”
And so it was that I never saw up close the oblong compact I could gingerly open, looking down and comparing it to a theatre in the round: each compartment a tiny seat, each pill a fully paid ticket to bodily freedom.
No one told me there were springy bits of copper and plastic that could be positioned inside you for years, preventing all possibility of pregnancy. I knew little of the patches we could press to the backsides of shoulders or the sexiest curve of our hips, patches that withstood the daily pulse of shower-water and willed their potion firmly under our skin.
I was doggedly incurious and there were many reasons: the long-distance nature of my relationship made physical intimacy infrequent — far too infrequent to warrant the constant use of a contraceptive. And what would come of my body? Would it rebel, resist, reconfigure? Would I be labeled loose if the pills or patch were discovered by the women who’d never seen for to tell me they existed in the first place? Would an IUD lodge itself someplace precarious? Would I forget to use whatever I chose?
Would it fail? Would I?
I was not raised to prepare for premarital sex but rather for any number of punishments that could befall me in its wake.
Indeed, my pregnancy at 29 was considered, by some, to be some sort of handed-down sentence. Among those for whom discussion of birth control remains a hushed or silenced subject, conceiving you seemed evidence of a fundamental failing. And to the extent that it is true that I’ve failed at anything, it is at handing responsibility for my body over to a partner whose stake in its reproductive health is, necessarily, far lower than my own. It is at not investigating all the (then relatively unthreatened) options open to me. It is at leaving so many stones of knowledge unturned.
Contraceptive ignorance is far costlier than a prescription. It limits the conversations we can comfortably enter, armed with an informed opinion, an educated vote. And, to be sure, remaining willfully ignorant of the myriad roles of contraception — those far beyond the mere prevention of pregnancy, far beyond the myopic scope of stigma — makes us complicit in every legislative battle women and men are waging to retain affordable access to birth control and care.
Pretending we are not sexually active often enough to need it directly threatens the rights of those who are certain that they do.
Make no mistake, the decisions to conceive and give birth to you were entirely mine. No legislator told me I had to; I was not barred any preventive prescription I would’ve needed, had I made a different choice. I want you to grow up in a society where the same is true for you.
You are still so little. I am still so out of my depth. How will I give you a wide, unobscured berth of information when I am still cobbling my own knowledge together in bits and pieces? What exactly will we say when we whisper close, over cocoa, ’round issues of sex, reproduction, contraception, and faith?
I have time to yet to figure it out, but I am alarmed at how fast that time is dwindling. I am equally alarmed at how many of your options are dangling in the balance.
There is no way of predicting what, precisely, you’ll need. Every woman is a wonder, in her capacity to decide what is best for herself. And this, of course, is where we will begin. This is your God-given body. This is your God-given mind. This is your God-given will. These are the tools you must use to lay claim to your every choice.