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 sixtimes 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.
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.
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.
Behind the car, feet clear of the puddled shards of glass. Watch their asses. Watch your skin; when the gas gets on it, keep your fingers clear of your eyes. Don’t rub. Protect the membranes inside your nose. Use your shirt, your forearm. Use the person beside you. Shield each other, cover each other with coverage. Charge your phone; share your footage. Watch your foot; it may be run over. Apparently, here in Ferguson, when a cop runs over your foot, it gives him the right to kill you, to leave you, to keep his name hidden from public knowledge for his own protection. Apparently, if a friend survives you, no officers will bother to hear his detailed, dispiriting and harrowing story. Bare your palms. Every few minutes, raise them high, cry don’t shoot! I don’t know if it matters. I don’t know if it’s getting to them, one way or the other. Is it pricking their consciences or making their trigger fingers itch?
I don’t suppose it matters. Maybe nothing matters except you and what’s left to preserve. And what’s left? Can you tell us? What is left? They are shooting rubber and wood at you every night. They are swinging clubs and riding through near-empty streets on tanks, ordering you back to the barracks you used to call homes. But they’re circling you, too, wearing masks and spitting slurs. They are blocking the bridge and barring your entry. They are shooting at you in your yards.
I imagine you asking, Is anyone watching? Is this real or The Rapture? Does it feel like the end of the world to anyone outside of Ferguson? Does it seem to anyone else like a leaving-behind?
I imagine you asking, If home isn’t safe and the streets are lined with bowed knees and shed blood, where is acceptable shelter? Where should we aim our feet and go?
Stay here. Do whatever you can. Duck. Chant. Sob. Rail. But stay. The rest of us are running to and fro in your stead, spreading your words, your footage, your fears, your demands for a demilitarized, diverse police department. We are trying to make the world around you understand how wrong it is for police from multiple counties to bring in heavy artillery on ground and heavy surveillance in sky, in order to subdue the few of you brave enough to venture out each night in search of answers. We are trying to help you hold your county accountable for employing and protecting an officer who would flee down the same street where he opened fire on an unarmed boy and left him there, first to die, then to bleed in open view for several hours.
You will never do as much damage to the town’s businesses as the damage being done to the town’s bodies. Do not try. If there will ever be a way to win, this sort of competition isn’t it. On foot, you cannot play chicken with tanks. Unarmed, you cannot play roulette with rifle-bearing riot police.
The truest catharsis is in the coming together, though it is tempting to torch everything around you that feels like an emblem of inequity. Everything around you seems an emblem of inequity. And we know. You may feel like it’s all closing in. It is. You may feel like facts are taking too long to find. They are. You are right. You are right.
But we want you to live, to prevail, to tell us the tales the nation has been sluggish in reporting. We need you to show the world the Ferguson that is, so that we can try, at least, to help you configure a more equitable version in the years to come. We cannot promise you anything more than our presence, our viral sharing, our amateur abilities to re-publish all that you report to us in real-time. But these small, collective gestures have worth — and we want you to be able to watch that worth appreciate over time.
Stay here: behind the car, right along the police line, chests to the shields. Do not run with your backs to them. We are here with you, we are watching, and with the clarity our safe, observational distance provides, we can say with certainty that you will need to wait. Yes, even longer than all these inequitable, unjust years. Stay here with us, yet longer, and wait. But do not do so silently. And rest assured: you do not wait alone.
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.