In Memoriam: Hadiya Pendleton.

It’s so likely I saw her, amid the Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth reenactors, among the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, and the surprisingly soulful Isiserettes from Des Moines. It’s likely her performance, marching and shimmying as a majorette with the other band members from King College Prep got a shoulder-shake out of Sasha, a mellow head-nod from Malia, a slightly offbeat soul clap from the president.

The most prolific photo of her, splashed across websites under headlines regarding her death, looks like it may have been taken for a school ID. Her smile is faint, but her eyes are soft. At a recent news conference, her father addressed the at-large gunman, saying, “Man, you took the light of my life.” With just a glance at her, so incandescent with promise, it is easy to understand how true that must be.

I watched the entire Inaugural Parade at home with my daughter and my grandmother who, after two solid hours of pomp and pageantry, still managed to say with rapt satisfaction, “God, I love to watch people march.”

Hadiya Pendleton was among those proud marchers, many of whom were black. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that day was among the most blackness-affirming days I’ve ever witnessed firsthand in this country. Our first  biracial president entered his second term in office. The great civil rights stalwart and matriarch Myrlie Evers-Williams brought forth an invocation. He was serenaded by this generation’s most spectacular black pop star. And in his parade, droves of black folks beat drums and channeled black civil war soldiers and performed the soul songs we grew up hearing our mamas play while cleaning on Saturday mornings.

For us, comparatively safe in our living room, it was a good day to be black in America. But it was not a day of ceasefire. Even in DC, just miles from the celebration, someone, somewhere, faced his or her customary threat of gun violence.

The same was true of Pendleton’s native Chicago, where for years, the president lived and worked before moving to another predominantly black city and where daily, our own die at some indiscriminate bullet’s behest.

In inner cities, homicides don’t pause to honor inaugurations, not even of a black president who “should” — by the logic of some — make them feel such a spike in self-esteem that they begin to belt their pants at the waist, tell kingpins they’d rather work at McDonald’s for that good, honest minimum wage, and turn their guns over to nonprofits in exchange for canned goods and GED prep courses.

In inner cities, no one ever says to reporters, in the wake of multiple murders within minutes, “I thought we were safe. I never dreamed this could happen on my block.”

Even Hadiya Pendleton, whose school was in a relatively safe area and who sought shelter in a park not known for violent crime, must’ve known how possible it is for an unarmed child to be killed without provocation in her own city.

She was an honor student.

It’s true that I may have seen Hadiya marching across my TV screen last Monday, may even have glanced at her as I do so many of the young black girls I teach, and wondered how closely her look and her life resemble what my own daughter’s will be when she’s older. But I wouldn’t have needed to to understand what’s happening to her.

Rather that traveling across the Atlantic to Paris as she’d planned, Pendleton is traveling through the national news circuit, no longer a girl, now a disembodied reputation.

Rather than having the luxury of unqualified mourning, those who survive her have to spend these irretrievable moments of reflection and grief stockpiling reporters with Hadiya’s “positive” attributes and exceptional experiences. Those who survive her feel the need to insist that she is different than some of the other black Chicago bodies that are reported as little more than large and senseless homicide numbers. No gang affiliations. No bad grades. No “wrong crowd.” Beautiful, built for greatness. 

She didn’t deserve this.

It is fitting that Hadiya’s connection to the president is being used as her narrative hook: gun control reform is an issue that’s risen to prominence in recent weeks. Addressing it was one of the first orders of post-inauguration business. It would be difficult to write about this girl without twisting the knife of irony: she lived and died in the place where the president began his political career, yet had she not performed in his D.C. parade, no one outside of their city — which has been slowly burning from within for years before recent mass shootings in suburban areas forced the government’s hand on gun laws — would know her name.

Now that we do know it — now that the president knows it — we expect him to amplify it the way he’s so often done when children from the quiet alcoves of the country have been slain. We expect it, if for no other reason, because Hadiya marched and raised her own voice for him.

But he may not. And even if he doesn’t, we have our own imperatives. We have our own voices to raise, our own unctions to march. We are, after all, the ones we’ve been waiting for.


Bunkers: A Meditation on Post-Obama Parenting.

The president’s daughters look like you.

Malia, the oldest, is remarkably tall for a thirteen-year-old. She’s reserved and is said to have her father’s measured, pensive temperament. Perhaps as a rite into adolescence, she has taken to wearing silk blouses with built-in neckties, like a miniature executive. The youngest, Sasha, has been called the firebrand. Her smiles are grander, freer. Candid photographs of her suggest that she’s not above giving her father last minute tips on his stump speeches and the occasional State of the Union address. They attend school in a city with one of the most embattled, economically depressed systems in the country.

But, as students at one of the capitol area’s most prestigious private institutions, they will never be touched by that affliction.

Should their father win a second term, they will be nearly-grown women when you are six. One will have selected a college–painstakingly and likely with attention to public opinion. The other will be visiting drought-stricken villages and delivering assembly speeches at foreign academies and orphanages where the children’s faces—but not their experiences—seem familiar to her.

Like their mother, both will be conducting this business in couture fashion.

Their second term will find them at the fore more often than this first. As they grow, their doings will become increasingly difficult to keep hidden from our collective gaze.

In this way, you will be fortunate. You will spend your formative years observing two prominent black girls become prominent black women, observing two prominent black parents govern our country. You have a fleeting vantage, one to which no generation before yours has been privy and, if the nation’s reception of this family is any indication, one that is unlikely to be granted to our immediate successors.

And here is where it becomes critical for me to adjust your lens.

Since, at six, you won’t fully grasp the import of what you’re witnessing, it will be left to me to interpret the times. And the times are, above all, perilous.

Concurrent with the ascendancy of the first black first family, the country has entered a regressive twilight. The hellhounds we thought we’d outrun–hooded menaces turning our loved ones from rib and rising lung to conjecture and corpse; the Great Blue Shield with its selective sight and hearing, with its billy clubs and snarling dogs, its hoses; the branding and the lash—have circled back, baring the fangs that the progress of polite society had been keeping muzzled.

No one’s holding back anymore. The lip service paid to past injustice is reduced to little more than a murmur. The governmental apologies for the African blood soaked into this country’s crop-bearing soil: for the thousands of charred, swinging bodies, for centuries of suppressing literacy, wage-earning, the vote, have all but ceased. And the so-called corrective measures that policymakers swore were being implemented to “level the playing field” are constantly circumvented.

Regardless of era, we’re used to broken promises, to freedoms dangled then yanked out of view. In fact, in more recent decades, this is the type of racism to which we’ve grown most accustomed, this covert, institutional variety that’s so easy to pretend away. We are all too acquainted with accusations of hypersensitivity, of an unwillingness to relinquish the phantom limbs of our past. We are told we are making things up. We are told that we should be grateful for our biracial president and his gorgeous Afrocentric wife—both of whom were educated in institutions that once would’ve barred them (“Just look how far you’ve come!”)—and for their daughters with their natural hairstyles, their crosscontinental jaunts and their Sidwell Friends pedigree.

As a result, my generation is used to swallowing the bulk of its protest. Before Obama, there was, after all, no refuting the gains of society’s gradual progress. Hate crimes were still occurring, but our culture had the good sense to at least pretend a unified moral outrage and a class-based or regional distance: surely, the perpetrators were deep Southern caricatures whose slurs were in no way representative of a whole.

Things felt safer then, with everyone feigning progressive attitudes, and easier, with no one believing those attitudes would be put to the most improbable litmus test of all: a black presidency.

Now, I feel like I’m raising you amid steaming rubble and broken mirrors. Every time some newly emboldened racist verbally attacks a little black girl, I resist the urge to build us a bunker and go underground until I’m able to build us a second skin thick enough to combat all this toxicity. This is not the world to which I’d grown cautiously less guarded and grudgingly accustomed. This is an unfamiliar place, where people are so unabashed in their hatred for women who look like us that they’re using the First Lady and her children as proxies for their vitriol.

You are twenty months old and I am already so exhausted. Outrage is costly. But so is apathy. Neither will equip you with what you need to thrive in a world where people feel this way about you.

What will help you is love.

At the library, there is a children’s room where a dish runs away with a spoon on its low walls and sunlight flooding in on a cushioned rocking chair. In one corner, there are buckets of toys. The last time we went, a father sat in the rocking chair, reading with his eldest daughter while the younger–just a few months older than you–played in the toy bucket corner. When you sauntered up to her, she shared her toy with you and you chatted her up in that indecipherable way you do almost everyone. Her father smiled politely as I sat with the two of you, and though I bristled, hoping he wasn’t regarding me with suspicion, I smiled without reservation at the abandon with which you cheered whenever she pushed a plastic shape into the right space in the sorter.

At the church we’ve been visiting, where we are two of six black attendees, you toddle indiscriminately into every set of arms that opens to you—and there are many. You let them lift you and feed you treats and hug you close, and there, in the sanctuary of their guilelessness, I get a weekly respite from cynicism.

Perhaps, dear child, these are our bunkers.