Children, Church, and Charleston-Writing at Vox and WaPo.

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Last week, I spent four evenings at a local United Methodist Church where my daughter was attending Vacation Bible School. My grandmother suggested I sign her up. She’ll be five on the first day of August and she’s reached a tipping point as it relates to social interaction.

When I moved back to Baltimore from Grand Rapids when she was one, I did it in part because my mother, my grandmother and her father’s parents were here. (The other major factor in moving had to do with the a greater breadth of career opportunity on the East Coast, as opposed to the Midwest.) But I didn’t take into account that by moving here, she wouldn’t have access to a single cousin. I’m an only child. My mom was raised as an only child. Her dad’s closest brother lives four hours away (and all three of his daughters are just about grown). She has zero extended family, beside grandparents, here.

I’d forgotten how big a deal that is. I wasn’t raised near cousins, either. And without siblings, I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. Most of my social interaction occurred at church. I still keep in touch with my church friends because of that; they kept me from complete childhood and adolescent isolation in ways they’ll never be able to imagine.

Most of the kids at VBS knew each other; they were a part of that church’s family. Many of them also had siblings and were attending with them. Only two girls were around my daughter’s age and they weren’t really playing with her because they had big sisters to shadow. Instead, my kid found herself surrounded by protective, older boys. They took her hand to lead her to the next station or small group activity. They gave her bear hugs. They looked down at her to make sure she was mouthing the right words and making the right gestures during song time.

It wasn’t lost on me that we were gathering in a church at night, that we were mostly black congregants, that predominantly black church gatherings at night have become sites where we have to worry over our safety in ways we haven’t had to in over 40 years.

I was introducing my daughter to church not just as a place for Sunday worship but a space where one’s sense of family is expanded. I’ve never seen as much joy on her face as I did on those nights.

Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse
Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse

I watched her beam and I thought of those girls, Eliana and Malana. I thought of how one of them was there that night, at bible study, waiting on her Daddy to be done for the night. I thought about the trauma etched onto their faces as they were photographed following his casket to the statehouse (under the shadow of a scornful flag). I thought about the bright white bows in their hair as they sat on either side of their mother in the front pew at his funeral.

The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney's funeral
The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral

Church is family to them, too. I hope the other children there help them smile again, deeply smile, even if it may take years for them to see the edifice itself as a site of pure and guileless joy.

I wrote about the enduring importance of the black church now, in my first piece for Vox. You can read it here. (Many thanks to Dylan Matthews and Lauren Williams for the opportunity and editing, respectively!)

I also wrote about Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s new novel, Balm, at the Washington Post and how eerily resonant it is right now, set as it is on the cusp of the Civil War’s end.

It took me about a week after the massacre to submit anything to a publication about it. I blogged here first, as I often do when I’m trying to process something horrible, unsettling or difficult. I don’t have to be as coherent, precise, or formal in this space. And I feel more confident that the people who read me here are patient, nurturing, and supportive, as I try to work through tough emotions within a safe online community context. That’s important for people like me, who don’t have as many people to touch, soothe, or talk to in person as others.

Community matters. To the extent that any of us have a public voice, we owe its credibility and impact to the people who allow us to vet our first instincts and initial thoughts without condemnation.

Thanks to you all.

Black Faith in a Time of White Supremacy.


When the mothers of the church got to casting out demons, they’d set their massive weathered bibles in our tiny laps and tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” And we wouldn’t. We’d clutch those King Jameses in our trembling hands and we’d wait out the after-service exorcisms.

We were children of parents who spoke in other tongues, danced themselves to ecstasy, prayed themselves apoplectic. The adults addressed the devil directly sometimes, told him he couldn’t steal their joy, demanded back the years he had stolen, the relationships he’d severed, the health he’d destroyed.

They told us we were waging a war unseen. We’d best be prayed up and gird ourselves against principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness in high places, miscellaneous, but terrifying minions from hell.

We believed them.


I talked to a friend from that childhood church a few years ago, one whose parents, like mine, were on leadership staff there. That one of mutual friends had died suddenly, young and wed and parenting, still zealous about his own faith, was the reason we’d gotten in touch at all. We were trying to make sense of it.

I was thinking of how late we would stay after service as kids, waiting for our parents in the semi-darkened sanctuary, security volunteers posted, yawning, at the entrance and exit doors, all but the most fervent among them, longing to head on home.

“Do you ever think about how we were raised, how different it was?”

I was asking as if gazing back at something we’d survived. I was asking as a woman who considers herself logical and rational now, but who also still hopes for heaven and shivers at the thought of hell.

I wondered if he remembered the bibles in our laps, the prayer warriors and their wrinkled hands, all those conversations about demons conspiring to lure us away from our Lord.

He was calm when he answered. “All I know is that without being raised that way, I’d be dead or crazy now.”

My grip on the phone loosened. He didn’t say any more. But the weight of a dozen secret, sidestepped disasters walled themselves high behind his words. I couldn’t push back, even if part of me wanted to.

I believed him.


We welcomed the white folks in. And over the years, they came. Some poor and some polished, they came. We broke bread with them. We prayed for them. Aware of what we guessed might be their discomfort with our traditions, our language, our liturgy, we sometimes went out of our way to assuage their unease. We laughed alongside them. Thought nothing of it.

They rarely stayed.


I needed time away from church because it began to feel too much like a house of superstition than a respite reserved for communal worship. I did not want the strength of my faith to be predicated on the material blessings I stood to gain by believing. I just wanted to believe. Even when babies were killed by those closest to them. Even if those professing to share the same faith as mine committed unspeakable acts of violence. Even if I never earned more than I did at my poorest. I didn’t want to think that by tithing or praying I was somehow more insulated from harm than my neighbor, that my church attendance or my own unfocused stabs at righteousness would protect me from worst of life’s fates.

John the Baptist was beheaded. Four girls burned. As have countless crosses. Myles Munroe and his wife died unexpectedly in a plane crash, on their way to work for their ministry. Our Christian friends and relatives contract diseases from which they die as often as they are healed. We are not all spared. And what good is our belief if it can be shaken when God doesn’t step in to prevent the calamities we don’t think we deserve? What good is our faith if we base it on the dollar value of the bills we place in an offering bucket or on uttering a certain combination of words during prayer? What makes any of us think we will never have to stare down unimaginable despair, simply because we’re devout?

I needed a God who felt all the more real when the world was at its worst. And to test that He was the one I had vowed all these years to serve, I thought I had to get away from all the other Christians who sought to define Him for me. I had to interrogate what I questioned, what I doubted, what rang false, even after a series of itinerant preachers echoed it during revival.

There comes a time when faith can no longer be absorbed secondhand. Wheat — what you alone are certain you believe — and tare — what you’ve been taught but have never bothered to question — must finally part ways. And the voice that exits your body in prayer must be clearly recognizable as your own. It cannot mimic your mother’s or be tinged with the sweetness of Grandma’s clichés.

This is your life. You alone will answer for it. And the only voice you’ll be able to access then will be your own.

I wandered a while on a long stretch of road, the light on its path possibly dim at turns. It took entire years. I left markers along the dirt, not entirely sure I wouldn’t find myself returning to them.


My meandering days were numbered when I had a child. It was clear to me as she ripped her way out and the nurse rested her in my arms: this girl was not the work of her father and I alone. She had not gotten here by sheer force of my bodily effort. She was not a result of mere biological function and, because of this, part of her would always be unknowable to me. I’d need help then, to reach that part of her. I’d need a mediator whose presence among us was also not the mere work of mortal hands.

The church friends I made as a child are still, by and large, still fervent about church and faith. Even the ones I wouldn’t have guessed would be. Most of them are parents. They are raising their children the way we were raised. They are doing this because it works. If they, having ventured away from our sacred, if cloistered, community, and having seen and survived the darkest days they’d known, and having found themselves right back in the house of God , alive and there to tell, then so would their children. Most of them.

This is reason enough to return. This, and days like this one, when the words to explain how this happened, where and when it happened, could not possibly come without divine intervention.



Before the massacre at “Mother” Emanuel in Charleston, SC, I had been inching ever closer to God. He came at church on Sunday, when the pastor told us, “You have to cope before you can conquer,” and later asked us to turn to our neighbors and declare, “I am raising my faith to the level of my fight.” He came though a long conversation with a friend that night. We prayed for one another. No. More accurately, he prayed for me and I stammered a few well-intentioned words in return. But he told me that God did not feel the same way about my faith as I did. He didn’t see it as feeble, flagging, inadequate. He didn’t consider it something I was “struggling with.” I am not a case study in what it means to falter. My faith has been sufficient, even when it’s seemed small, even when I’ve had a hard time voicing it. It’s been sufficient because I wouldn’t let it go. It’s a seed and, as such, it retains its ability to grow.

When we doubt, the friends who believe alongside us are often the light that keep us drawing nigh, lest we float away. We hold onto them when horror rushes in. We remind them, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” In that moment, they are the Word in motion. And if we must die, for welcoming the troubled white supremacist 21-year-old whose boyish face looks as innocent as the brain behind it is wicked, if we must die for praying alongside him, if we must continue waging a war as unfathomable as it is unseen, there is no one better to be with in the end, than the people who kept us feeling closest to God when we felt farthest away.

There is no greater lesson to be gained for believers than to keep believing, right next to those with whom and for whom you would not mind dying. We are what we need most, now and ever.


Yesterday, I sang a worship song. I haven’t done that, unprompted, in a while and I’ve never recorded myself singing one. I am glad to have that moment now, when freedom feels like such an improbable farce.

I echoed the words of a popular tune, one that the congregation had crooned in church on Sunday. I sang that I’d withhold nothing. I meant it and cried as I often do when I sing a prayerful song and every fetter falls and I feel — however fleetingly — free.

I sang it twice.

Hours later, nine other people who likely knew and sang that song and whose hearts promised the same, lay dead just feet from their church’s altar.

Here, Lord, is my desperation.

Here, Lord, lay my anger.

Here is the love I hope won’t not kill me.

Here, my longing for retribution.

Here, the depth of my unforgiveness.

Here, my hopes for their souls’ safe passage.

Here, my desire to see them again, in a life beyond this often terrifying one.

Here, every doubt I have about what was and what is, and what’s still to come.

I deny You nothing.

For Bobbi Kristina.


I hope there is a meadow and treetops without end where you are, the grasses beneath you so thick they catch and hold the voices calling out to you from your bedside. I hope you hear your mother, too, ululant on the wind. You are not alone; hear the voices. You are not alone; tell your demons. You are loved, even by us, the fickle, cruel-faced public. You are loved by the Maker you may be poised to meet. Wherever you are, girl, I hope you are climbing, and from an uppermost perch, I pray you can see clearly the truth of who you are.

We remember the girl you were, the woman we prayed you’d become — even if the becoming itself would’ve required a miracle. Instead, the miracle is that you’ve held out as long as you have. Instead, the miracle is that you still have time.

Over the years, we lamented your odds, raised as you were with parents whose wealth often waylaid their efforts to keep lucid and clean. We rooted for you in spite of them and rooted for them, in spite of themselves. We are still rooting.

But I also understand where you are: someplace distant and exacting. You are hanging from a limb that you are no longer gripping. The snag and the crack are conspiring. Soon that limb will turn you loose. There’s no telling where you will return. Perhaps you will be here, awake, surrounded. Your father weeping, your siblings sighing, your truest friends deeply relieved. Or you may open your eyes elsewhere, a flatline braying in the breeze.

I am unbiased. I believe you should float toward the sounds that bring you greater peace. I believe you should be where you feel you most belong.

I was 14 when you were born, the embodiment of your parents’ frenzied, fully public love. You were born under the glare and pop of flash bulbs, the light too harsh for your soft brown eyes. You were pulled toward center stage with pride, and you stood under the beam of your mother’s spotlight. But you were always timid there, waiting where she asked you to, unsure, but echoing the words you were told. It was clear that she wanted to build your confidence. It was also clear that you would’ve preferred those lessons to be meted out in the privacy of someplace sacred and silent.

I remember worrying, in those moments when it was most obvious that your parents were unwell. You were a family, laughing, traveling, spending. You were a family, unraveling. We all worried over you, some of us even voicing unkind predictions. Armchair clairvoyants that we we were, we saw your future forging itself with sorrow.

But this is not what any of us wanted for you. A tub, a tomb, like your mother’s. There are other ways to get back to her. There are other ways to get back at her. I wish you’d found the healthier ones. And maybe you may find them still.

If there is, in fact, a meadow, if there are towering trees and voices in the grass, if there, you can understand how much you are wanted, how imperative it is for you to be well, then where you are is where you should be. And when the bough breaks, may the arms into which you fall be loving, baptismal, and warm.

More at Buzzfeed, on Beauty and Sorrow.


It’s been a really rough week and I’ve written three hard pieces. One is hosted here, about Tamir Rice and his far too untimely, unjust death). Before that, I wrote about how the role of makeup has changed for me after becoming a mother.  That was published last Sunday at Buzzfeed Ideas, but I don’t think many people had time to read about that between all the national tragedy we’ve been managing in the days since.

Then the night of the announcement that the St. Louis grand jury would not be indicting Darren Wilson, despite his testimony about why he murdered Michael Brown sounding like something straight out of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of Nation, I started writing this piece about how the women in my household were processing the news. It went up the next afternoon. (As an aside: I really like writing for Buzzfeed Ideas, and that’s largely because of Doree Shafrir, who edits my work there. Pitch to her, writers.)


I think I was so busy trying to write something about the announcement that I didn’t immediately process it. I also think that because I was so deeply invested in the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial and I’m still not entirely over his acquittal, I couldn’t put much stock in the outcome of this grand jury consideration of an indictment. It’s been clearer with Ferguson. Every agency of authority in the state of Missouri has conspired to protect the shooting officer here. And that’s been terrifying for every day since August 9.

Anyway, it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m trying to hold love and hope and gratitude in the same crowded heart that’s already so swollen with anger and defeat. So I’ll let what I’ve already written speak to what I’m currently feeling. I wrote about Michael Brown and Ferguson six times this summer. Not much has changed there.

On a cooler note, a Twitter friend told me that my very first Buzzfeed Ideas piece, on parenting and empathy, is now available as an audio-read at Umano.

What Solange’s Remarriage Means to Never-Married Single-Mother Me.



1. “Carefree” is a crossroads, the center of four paths: parent and lover, artist and merchant. You dance in the dirt with hydrangea in your hair and you are wild when you’re expected to be tame. This is where people see you, where sun rays collect in the gold of your skin, so that even in the dark you’ll be swathed in phosphorescent spotlight. And dark it will be when you leave here and venture down each of the roads, where destinations are dim and the underbrush, unwieldy.

The road where you mother: The gravel cuts your feet as you carry your sons and your daughters.

The road you create: You dig until your fingertips bleed for art that feels rich and raw, as untapped as underground oil.

The road that may lead you to love: This is the longest most dubious walk and even when you’ll want to travel it solo, you will not often be alone. Here, you mustn’t forget that your child will become your lover’s cargo. He must carry him as carefully as you do. He must accept that when he joins you on the path where you parent, his own feet will also be cut.

You should watch what you are paving. Turn back to the clearing as soon as you can; your love and your art and your mothering find their greatest sustenance and purest ambition there.

You should marry at the crossroads, where you child and your art and your industry swirl up from the earth and make a sparkling white column of dust. Bask in how high it rises and in the way it all settles again.

2. Everything is inspiration, and when you are working toward something that inspires you, the sweat of your brow is someone’s aphrodisiac. God bless a working mother. God bless the passionate woman.


3. And sometimes your sister’s sacrifices earn you your freedom. Her years of hiding under an industry’s expectations and artifice allow you to be your truest self out in the open. Then, you coax her authenticity out from the shadows in return. When the world demands your inferiority and calls you a mere facsimile of sun, you keep your light and refuse to be eclipsed.

4. Other lives simply aren’t enviable.

5. We unmarried mothers who have been so afraid have been told to be afraid. We were told we wouldn’t find love, or that the love we might attract would not be worth finding. We were told that missteps preclude forward motion. But there is no shame in having lived through a moment unwisely. Neither mothering after divorce nor having had no husband at all is cause for resignation or shame. The demise of our difficult relationships are no cause to deny ourselves new love.

6. No decision a black mother makes will diminish the Maatkare markers in her blood. We are queens, even us, be we ever so bowed or broken or humbled. We are regal — whether burdened with low-income or beset with incomparable wealth. We are regal when we choose to be, and the choice is all that matters.

Image by Rog Walker

7. Hair, in its natural state, is a halo. But you are well within your rights not to behave as angelically as you appear.

8. Hurt cannot be hidden. It will seep out in the notes and on the page, will be seen in the set of your jaw on the subway. So bare it bravely in the public square, where someone well-equipped to soothe you may see it.


9. When you are young and you’ve found a boy your age and whatever combusts between you feels like a kind of love, it is fine for that love not last. Even if it results in a pregnancy, even when the baby propels you both toward the altar, it is okay to flee. Marriage borne mostly of obligation flings you forward in ways that will disappoint you; the union itself is a stop so short of what you’d imagined for adult life to be that it may be best to run before it feels far too late. Keep running, with your child’s hand in yours, toward hope, toward extended family, toward your older wiser self, toward the kind of love that acts as a reincarnation.


10. Single mothers who wish to marry greatly benefit from seeing other single mothers marry. Wearing white and frolicking, with gold bands ‘round their wrists, reveling with the same village that’s helped to raise their children, enacting intimate, in-joking customs as nontraditional as their their premarital lives, dancing silly choreography with their children, who appear quite secure and supportive and happy. It happens, the nuptials seem to testify. It happens far more often than we’re told to believe. It can happen for you.


Busyness, Business, Birthday, Buzzfeed.

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I haven’t been able to blog here in over a month and I miss it. I didn’t want anyone who follows me here to believe I’ve abandoned this space. It’s my sanctum. But I’ve had the very good problem of being swamped with paid writing work — in so much that some of the things I might’ve written here have been placed — or will be placed — at very cool websites.

Writing on deadline and being increasingly line-edited by people committed to making the work better than I can make it on my own (disjointed as my trains of thought have become with the noise of my toddler, the relocation of her dad to town, after years living on the other side of the country, and the demands of raising a child while working a day job from home) has been rewarding and humbling.

October was a rough month for me. My life felt racked with big, disconcerting change and I wasn’t sure how to adjust to any of it. I’m still figuring that out, but I’ve had experience. I have to remind myself that, in the years since my daughter was born, I’ve transitioned out of adjunct college instruction, moved from Michigan to Maryland, navigated the IEP and pediatric audiological processes with my daughter, written for various national publications, started an online community for single parents of color, and scored a fellowship in social media community engagement. I’m constantly criticizing myself for not being “further along” in my career, but sometimes, we’ve just got to stop and assess the ground we’ve already gained. In fact, if we don’t take the time to do that, we’ll reach a point where it’s difficult to know what’s left to conquer and which direction to turn in order to pursue any of it.

In less than a week, I’ll turn 35 — and it’s a good age, a good time. I’m not at all where I envisioned myself, when I was younger and strained to imagine what it would feel like to be just five years shy of 40. But I’m making my way and it’s been an incredible trip. The past month in particular has been teaching me things I’ve actively avoided learning:

  1. Forgiveness from afar looks different than forgiveness up close. And sometimes you think you’re over things, simply because you’ve enjoyed a great deal of physical distance from them. But there’s always a closing of that distance. There’s always a day of reckoning.
  2. I’m not my best self when I’m afraid. And it’s incredible how quickly and drastically fear can make you regress.
  3. It’s an honor to be receiving an increased number of requests to write. But it’s also okay to decline those requests when I’m overextended or just going through something that’ll compromise the quality (or punctuality) of the work. Not everything is about “writing through it,” and you don’t always have to push yourself. Or, I don’t, at least. I shouldn’t speak for anyone else there.
  4. If you sense that you’re plateauing, you probably are. Take on assignments that won’t be such cakewalks for you. (For me, that’s meant scaling back my unfiltered, unedited blogging here and letting my words go under other writers’/editors’ scalpels. It’s changing the way I compose and making me less certain of where a piece is going — which can be pretty thrilling (if also terrifying and debilitating).
  5. At some point, it can’t hurt to find yourself a therapist. I’ve never had one; finding one will probably be my birthday gift to myself. There are things I need to work on in the next five years that aren’t career-specific or even particularly measurable — social and emotional things — that I don’t think I can handle anymore without help from an objective outside party.

My performance of adulthood has sharpened in my 30s. Like Nicole Richie is saying in the gifs above, I’m finally ready to declare myself a grown-up. Mostly. I’m definitely still living like a glorified commuter student in a lot of ways. And that’s okay. Mostly. There’s no one way to live, no single set of social markers that we have to reach in order to declare ourselves mature or well-adjusted or highly-functioning. We just have to keep going.

So I plan to greet my next year of life, incomparable gift that it is, with contentment.

In the meantime, I’m pleased to announce that I’ve been published in Buzzfeed. Twice. Here, I’m talking about mothering and empathy. And here, I’m talking about Bill Cosby’s pre-Huxtable persona and how it leaves me feeling less shock and betrayal about the “good” doctor’s alleged bad deeds.

Also look out for a short piece on The Hurston-Wright Foundation I’ve penned for the Jan/Feb ’15 issue of Poets & Writers, a piece in The Guardian (hopefully; I’ll edit to embed a link when/if that goes live), and a long feature on black fatherhood in Colorlines, scheduled for publication in the upcoming week.

Another Press Round-Up: PBS Redux, Slate Podcast, Colorlines.

A photo of me and my daughter, taken a day before her fourth birthday. She is the reason for almost every awesome writing thing that's happened to me since 2010.
A photo of me and my daughter, taken a day before her fourth birthday. She is the reason for almost every awesome writing thing that’s happened to me since 2010.

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.

Mourning Mike-Mike Amid the Madness.


… 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.

Michael Brown Sr. (center), surrounding by family at the grave site where his son was laid to rest.
Michael Brown Sr. (center), surrounding by family at the grave site where his son was laid to rest.

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.

Ferguson and Patience for the Appalled.

Photo: Twitter, from a #NMOS14 protest in Washington, DC
Photo: Twitter, from a #NMOS14 protest in Washington, DC

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.

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.

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 righteousnessBlessed 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.

Iceberg Boys: On Michael Brown and Other Lives Cut Short.

Michael Brown (pictured right). Photo: Twitter


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.



Chief Thomas Jackson. Photo: MSNBC
Chief Thomas Jackson. Photo: MSNBC

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.

D-A-R-R-E-N. W-I-L-S-O-N.

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.


Ferguson protestors preventing the looting of businesses last night. Photo: Twitter/@KhaledBeydoun
Ferguson protestors preventing the looting of businesses last night. Photo: Twitter/@KhaledBeydoun

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