Mourning Mike-Mike Amid the Madness.

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… 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.

For Now, We Are Still Alive.

Beloved, the hope that I owe you — the hope to which you are entitled — is not something I can cloak in gossamer metaphor. I cannot paint you the Pangaea that all parents feel they should.

But neither will I speak to you as though the very sky is a fraud, as though our lives are a set breaking down, are a studio lot in foreclosure. There is no walking away from this, as we would from a dimly lit theatre at the close of a sobering film. 

We are real. And for now — just for now — we are still alive. 

When the time comes, we will not speak of expectation. I will tell you what happened to the lanky boy down South, taking the shortcut to a home after dark in what once was a sundown town. It will be more than a familiar narrative, even the first time you hear it. It will be an ancestral refrain; it will moan from within your own marrow.

I will tell you: at the moment when his murderer was acquitted, I did not hold you closer, as many black parents do in these seminal moments. I did not hold you at all. For a moment, my arms would not lift. For a moment, you were all but alone. You were smiling, your dark eyes dancing with gorgeous mischief, as you held out a box of Teddy Grahams you weren’t supposed to have.

Distracted, I poured you more than a handful. I poured you all that was left.

The murderer smiled when he heard he was free and his lawyers boasted of their own legal prowess. They preened and grandstanded like heroes. They clucked over how long it took for the murderer to be granted his freedom and surmised that he would never have been charged at all if he were black like the boy that he killed.

The State Attorney also smiled, as she had many months ago, when the murderer was in fact arrested — 45 days after he left the boy dying in the grass, of a gunshot wound to the heart. I remember her then and how she basked beneath a press conference halo, being alternately terse and coy, playing to the rafters with actress’s affectation. “Those of us in law enforcement are committed to justice for every race, every gender, every person, of any persuasion whatsoever. They are our victims,” she’d said.

I recall the “our” clearest of all. (Few words, you’ll learn, are more disingenuous than “our” when a black child has died in the street and black folks begin to understand that the law will not hold his killer accountable.) 

Last night, before I could reanimate enough to embrace you, I watched the State Attorney grin again, just after she chastised all the parents and advocates and media — both social and mainstream — for raising our voices loudly enough to force an arrest in the first place. “For a case like this to come out in bits and pieces served no good to no one.” 

Here is all that you should know: we are the only our there is. There would be no case for her to concede had our bits and pieces not been lain at her feet and then cobbled together to give voice to the gun-silenced child. 

No, I will not speak to you of expectation. Expectation of any protection at all feels an increasingly empty enterprise for black mothers. But I will find the hope I owe you. It will be communicated with candor, not fear. I will stoke it with dreams of an imagined eternity, where every man gives answer for every of his actions. I will build it, floor up, in communities constructed with care and by choice. We — you and I — will get through this, together. We — us and our own — will invite the bewildered to join us. And when we have amassed enough hope to shore us up, we will run toward this behemoth, which cradles in its bottomless belly a legion of unavenged black bodies.

If we die, we won’t do it afraid. We will do it while standing our ground. 

Mirages.

I crawled into you and set up camp. You were warm, steady as a strong-blooded pulse, and I was shivering. I came because I was sure I could survive. But you wanted me, remember? I did not invade; I was invited.

Soon enough, I learned you were a desert. Everything that grew easily had been gutted. You were no mirage; I touched you, beveled, pocked, and longing. Every space where you hurt hummed under my hands; I saw the blood. Sometimes, I walked away with a spot of it staining a dress. Old blood, crusted yet somehow fresh: oozing from regenerative wounds.

I saw enough — felt enough — when I leased this square inside you, already so overrun with other squatting things. I thought I understood. There were memories and guilts and sadnesses you must nurse and not evict. They are the true lay of your land. And though I did not set out to save you, I still cradled a garden in my palms: every seed I thought you’d need not to die. I still prayed that I’d grow the right balm to properly bandage your gashes.

It was easy to ignore how dry your tongue remained after giving you so many gourds of water. Your kind of thirst is difficult to quench; you wish for a well whose waters bend time. At my best and on the keenest-eyed of voyages, I will never scout you this. But we remained silent on the subject. It seemed enough that, even when your eyes were sallow, listing, they still lit when they locked on my face.

(Didn’t they?)

Sometimes I followed your gaze and saw them: a family, waiting, their laughter carrying across these empty arcs of dust and air. You would rather be with them. Our circle of seeds was inadequate.

You could see what I had yet to: the futility of tilling. But it brought you the briefest of hopes. You have always wanted a garden. Something must’ve appealed to you: the gentleness, perhaps, with which I lifted sand and primly patted it back, my cracking lips dropping promises: someday, we’ll dine. You could see it, once, couldn’t you? A feast of eggplant and lentils, of grapes so pregnant with juice that their skins pulled away from the stems?

I could be so strange, sometimes, so withholding. But I wrote you so many loving missives in the sand. (You read them? The winds will let you hold them?)

Yours is a house of sorrow but your porch was built of cedar. We sat there, somewhat happily, awaiting signs of life.

It has been months since winter. But yesterday was cold. The frost bit our first — our only — emerald tendril.

(Or did it?)

Deserts are impossible places for love, overrun as they are with so many duplicitous images.

But I know that the family is real. Some of them are waiting. I see them, even when it seems I don’t. They are waiting, but they are also watching. Do not rush to them; they want you alive. They need you to drink and revive, to grow green things again.

So did I.

How Loss Yields Legacy.

Your old men shall dream dreams; your young men shall see visions.                                            — Joel 2: 28b

There is a dividing line in the lives of the young. On one side is an insular existence, where the elders live and govern, taking us into the folds of their ancient skirts, where they will knit us a history. There, we are fed and told who we are. They distill from their founts of wisdom a pablum we are capable of consuming. We do not understand what we have. We cannot quite fathom how fortunate we are, to hold them, to hear them, to trace their veins with our tiny fingers. But we are no so foolish that we entirely take them for granted. We understand their arms as the haven into which we can run when our parents’ discipline feels more alienating than effectual. We understand their stores as confections to relish, their thunderous or rasping voices a theatre around which we sit riveted.

On this side, they are hearty and hale. Even if their spines curve like parentheses or their fingers are gnarled as twine, we do not note these conditions as anything more than accents embellishing their character. We do not recognize them as lashes left by the cruelest of all overseers: Time.

Cross the line, and your elders are no more. Depending on what you believe, they hover above your life, acting as guardians, or they sit at the sidelines, watching with disappointment or wonderment. Perhaps they are praying. Perhaps their prayers are preventive, and you will never know what calamities you’ve sidestepped as the result of their intercession.

What is more certain is the impact of their absence. Gone are the raised and winding veins, gone the comforting feel of the blood coursing through them. Absent also are the courageous creases, deepened through decades spent awaiting abolition, petitioning for voters’ rights, sharecropping too-small parcels of land; losing homes and children and lovers; then yielding to the technological advances that stole their jobs and divided the attentions of their once-rapt grandchildren.

You miss their certainty, their Gilbraltar-like presence. Without them, your borders feel unprotected. They carried the world so artfully, you were never aware of its weight.

Now, there are days when you can barely square your shoulders. And you are finally beginning to understand.

There are a few years yet, before we return to the other side and become for our children’s children what our parents’ parents were for us. Our work must be thorough and quick. We are left to decipher the glyphs and mosaics stitched into the story quilts they left us. We must apply their epiphanies to the balance of our days, embellishing and righting and multiplying as we see fit.

Many days, we’ll fall short of their marks. We will not all find ourselves at the forefront of revolution. We may not wind up scholars of law or titans of art and of industry.

We may merely be the mint-givers, the switch-wielders, the pipe-smokers rocking under the moonlight on our back porches. It is possible that our most significant impartation will be the secret to baking a perfect pound cake.

We are just as significant. They will need us all.

This is the meaning of legacy.

‘I, in my father, have been.’

Gil Scott-Heron (1949-2011)

My social media feeds have become a worldwide wake, elegy, and repast for poet-author-musician-activist Gil Scott-Heron. I didn’t know much about him. So it feels like I’m viewing the body of an elder lying in state. You go to pay your respects, to hear the twenty-one gun salute, to observe the significance of the loss–but it doesn’t touch you as deeply as it does many of those around you, who have where-were-you-when stories about the first time they listened to an album or read a page or prayed for his recovery.

So rather than making this something more intimate than I have any right to make it, I’ll leave you with the (edited and revised) comments I left on Twitter yesterday, after learning of his passing:

I’ve lost a lot of beloved black men in the past few years–great uncles, a grandfather…. Gil Scott-Heron could’ve been any one of them.

There’s a kind of universality to the perils that plague black men and the ills that hasten their mortality.

Jessie Fauset once wrote, “I am no better than you. You are no worse than I. Whatever I am, you in your children may be. Whatever you are, I in my father have been.”

And it speaks to the connectedness of us all, of how there is no real moral superiority. We are all susceptible to self-destructive behavior.

When someone dies as a result of said self-destruction, our response should be to turn inward, to remove the beam from our own eye, and then extend our hand to others.

… Or maybe I’m reachin’.

God rest Uncle Billy. God rest Uncle Warren. God rest Uncle Hosie. God rest Uncle George. God rest Grandpa Mitch.