We Have Known Boys (But None Have Been Bullet-Proof).


Jordan Davis (1995-2012)

I have known black boys, known them in airless classrooms where the scent of their too-strong cologne worked overtime masking the cling of their sweat to skin and hormones. And I have known their scratching, grabbing, tugging at the belt loops of too-big pants, have involuntarily memorized the plaids and imprints on their boxers.

I have known boys like underripe fruit, a pit of eventual sweetness at the core of them, encased in a bitter pulp, toughening from too little tending or underexposure to light. I have watched them become principles in death when they were not finished learning what it would mean to be principled in life.

I have known them nursing dreams with slimming odds of realization, heard them reasoning with the wardens behind their private walls, scraping at the doors some white man’s stubborn shoulder intended to force closed.

Listen. You have heard them, smelled them, touched them, too. Groping boys. Maddening boys. Boys who, had they the luxury of longer lives, would grow to regret how they treated girls, how they dodged their daughters or fought the smallest dudes on the yard.

Had they lived, they would’ve shuffled home, hats in hand, hugged their mamas, clapped their daddies’ shoulders, nodded like men who understood remorse, who’d been leveled by regret and learned to talk about it.

Had they lived, they would’ve borne enough concussions to concede their desire for millions at the the expense of unscathed minds. And maybe they would’ve been Marines like Jordan Davis hoped he might be, maybe aviators like Trayvon envisioned himself or husbands like Jonathan Ferrell and Sean Bell were so close to becoming. Maybe they would’ve grown to guess that the cost of longer life was a hunching of one’s height at a white woman’s door, a soft knock rather than the screams that often escape the frantic or crowded or injured. Maybe they would’ve conceived children with women with whom they couldn’t bear to live — and all over again, they would find themselves having to grow, to lean toward a quickly dimming light and to become tender when it was far more tempting to coarsen.

They would’ve learned to be less clumsy, less clawing, to kiss as though they had the promise of many unthreatened years. They might have lived long enough to make tenuous sense of the finite number of American fates black men meet, long enough to marry well, then poorly, then well again.


But we are losing them too soon to know, while they are yet boys. We are replanting our underripe fruit, graveyards becoming our gardens, and tending far more memories of boys than moments with full-grown men. It gets harder to talk to these could-have-been-towering trees, these possibly-flowering plants whose fruits we’ll never know.

And every day, there are new boys among us. We raindance for them. Grow. Live. We campaign for them. Grow. Live. We keep them from harm even when harm might be their better mentor. Hide. Grow. Live. And we guess for them. Grow. Live. And we know for them. Grow! Live! Living alone never ensures what a boy will become, but black men, above all, are the boys spared long enough to live. This is the look of hope, our lowest bar to clear: boys reaching bullet-free adulthood and outreaching everyone’s fear.


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. 


I Am No Sybrina Fulton: On Single Mothers, Loss and Hope.

(Cross-posted from BeyondBabyMamas.com)

Sybrina Fulton, center, in happier times. Credit: Twitter
Sybrina Fulton, center, in happier times, with sons Jahvaris Fulton (left), and Trayvon Martin (right). Credit: Twitter

Here is the difference: I can check out. There are days when my heart holds vigil, when I can consume commentary from useful and inspiring angles and I can be useful and inspiring myself. Then, there are days like today, when I am so overcome with empathy and when what’s happened to Sybrina Fulton feels so close to home that I cannot look fully into her face on television. And that’s the difference between single mothers who still have their children and those who’ve lost them in unexpected, arbitrary ways.

We can check out.

From this not-so-comfortable distance, I can admire Ms. Fulton’s unwavering fortitude, her composure, her faith, her love, her ability to lean on her son’s father and admit how much she needs and is grateful for his presence and support. She never appears catatonic or sedated. She is letting as much of reality in as she can, only removing herself from a space when her son’s recorded final moments are being replayed as evidence, and somehow, remarkably, listening to obvious lies about her son, without violent outburst.

I am nothing like Sybrina Fulton. I do not have her grace, and I do not have her courage. I can’t look at George Zimmerman’s impassive expressions or recall his crowdfunding efforts online or read his account of that fateful night’s events without feeling a very rational, concentrated anger and a very real need to remove myself from the sight of him.

I can check out.

(Or can I?)

In Jackson, MI where my mother was born and spent most of her childhood, crime is spiking and, as is often the case in small, economically depressed towns, that crime is hitting black families hardest.

Rakeish Brown's senior photo, Credit: WLNS.com
Rakeish Brown’s senior photo, Credit: WLNS.com

On Saturday morning, June 22, single mother Latonia Hemphill heard what sounded like firecrackers outside her mother’s home. Moments later, according to reporter Justin Dacey, she heard her 20-year-old son Rakeish Brown asking, “Why’d you shoot me, dog?” Those were his last words. His alleged shooter was a neighborhood “friend” he’d apparently run into at a nearby store and offered a ride.

17-year-old Aquilla Flood, Credit: Twitter
17-year-old Aquilla Flood, Credit: Twitter

We are losing our children in the most unexpected ways, whether in suburban neighborhoods during All-Star Games or on Saturday mornings outside their grandmothers’ homes. We are losing them ten days before high school graduation, as in the case of Aquilla Flood, who was reportedly shot while sleeping, allegedly by an ex-boyfriend whose prom invite she’d refused.

In each case, their black mothers — often single, sometimes with the support of a co-parent and usually with extended family and friends lending bewildered, helpless comfort — are left to talk to the press and to appeal to the community. If we live in any major city in the U.S. or any economically depressed community where crime is on a steady uptick, we’ve seen one of these mothers on local news. Maybe she’s teary, maybe in shock, but she’s there. Present. Showing up day after day. Answering press conference questions, walking the street bearing a candle, holding up photos of her child.

We’ve almost come to expect that level of composure. And it can feel, at times, that viewers outside our own communities, whose ability to check out far exceeds our own, believe that we were somehow prepared for this possibility.

By virtue of poverty or city-dwelling or the number of blocks from our children’s school the nearest gang territory is or the thuggishness of our daughters’ ex-boyfriends or the prevalence of racial profiling or simply because we were two black people giving birth to a black child anywhere in America, there are people somewhere who expect us to remain calm and patient and to have faith in the justice system. There are those who actually believe that whatever confidence in our justice system we’ve managed to hold onto will comfort us after someone’s murdered yet another one of our children.

Dominika Stanley and Charles Jones hold a photograph of their slain daughter, Aiyana

They can check out. And they can do it because they aren’t Aiyana Jones’ parents. They’ve never had to hear a judge declare a mistrial in a case that should’ve held accountable the SWAT officer who murdered their sleeping seven-year-old.

In a growing number of black communities, a living child is beginning to feel like a luxury. No. “Beginning to” is wrong. Historically, being able to parent a living black child has long felt like a luxury. And it shouldn’t. Of course it shouldn’t. Being able to see your children survive gun violence should not feel like a conferral of mercy or good luck.

But it absolutely does. When we talk about holding our children closer, whenever we hear about yet another mother who can’t, we are feeling blessed and fortunate in ways that say so much more about our nation that they do about us.

The fact is: there is no checking out. We have very little control over the ways our children are living and dying and very little choice in how we’re publicly handling our losses. Watching so many other black mothers lose their children carries a kind of psychic damage for us all. No amount of changing the channel or pushing the newspaper away or locking our doors insulates us.

We can’t all handle what’s happening to minority mothers and their children with the grace of the Fultons’ or the patience of Aiyana Jones’ parents. We can be grateful, but we cannot prepare. All we can do is pay attention, remain engaged, lobby for change, look out for our neighbors’, and — yes — hug all the children who remain. In so many daily ways, we are checking in. And we must keep doing so, if we’re to have any hope left at all.

Nonfiction, Parenting

Do Something (for Trayvon Martin).

I stand with ForHarriet.com today, and blog-in for Trayvon Martin.

Like a baseball from a neighbor’s yard, the ballad of Trayvon Martin has rolled, unbidden,  into my consciousness. Like that unwanted ball, I claim it, turn it over, hear the cries for its return–with commentary attached: Don’t you want justice? Aren’t you outraged? Volley this narrative. Lend it support.

I consider keeping the ball for my collection.

I am that elusive town elder, that crotchety, aloof, possibly mad woman down the block. I’ve heard too much. I’ve darkened my windows, shuttered out light. I’ve locked my doors.

Yes. This is an outrage. I can almost feel his downy chin in the palm of my hand. I can clearly see his smile, read his mind. I remember the corner-store runs of my youth, the one-dollar bills in pockets that may as well have been fortunes. I can taste the Skittles, sandpapery sweet, and feel the swell of pride, divvying up these spoils among summer friends, among younger siblings.

I know what it is to be a giver, a gatherer.

I know the misplaced confidence we give to gates and how easy it is to forget we are caged, until we find ourselves becoming prey.

I know suspicion: the cop car that flips its lights and sirens just to f–k with us, that follows so closely behind our cars in the night that we can no longer see its headlights, that pulls us over to trump up a violation or issue a pointless citation or to do absolutely nothing at all but stare and pull off with a peal of chilling laughter. I know the unshakeable gaze of the sales clerk, the involuntary cringe as I pass through a department store’s security sensors, even though I know I’ve paid for my purchases, even though I know that I’m no thief.

But here, Trayvon Martin and I part ways, for I do not know what it is to be gunned down at 17. I do not know what it is to be a doe-eyed boy whose soft, unscowling features become wolfish in the eyes of the wrong white man.

I do not know what it is to be hunted.

And what worries me most, what keeps me from wrapping this metaphoric baseball in a venomous screed against all the George Zimmermans of the world and lobbing it through the glass halls of justice and commerce, is this:

I also do not know what it is to send my child to visit her father—to entrust her to his sunny, soundless suburb—only to have her returned to me in a body bag.

It’s enough to leave me curled against all discourse.

It’s enough to render me catatonic.

It’s enough to make breathing difficult, labored, nigh unto impossible, when I really think about it.

We have seen more than our share of Trayvon Martins. So have our ancestors. I still speak the names of Amadou and Sean and Oscar, still conjure them from their desolate places, willing them unforgotten. I pull their memory around me like a shroud. Like our parents did for Bobby Hutton and our grandparents did for Emmett Till.

We never have time to stop mourning.

We are never safe.

We are surveilled. We are followed. We are stopped. We are dead.

It seems as senseless to demand fair retribution as it is that these men and boys were murdered in the first place.

Trayvon Martin’s face, floating up to me as I cower over sudsy dishwater, as I hold my 19-month-old too tightly, as I try to coax sleep from its hiding place, cuts me down to the marrow. I am numb.

But in this silent place, I know that no one who remains here ever ends up on the right side of history. No one who has pulled her curtains to shut out the world has ever escaped its ravenous grasp.

Injustice assails us all. Whether it merely grazes or impales us, we will never wholly forgo it.

Who are we if we allow resignation to unseat our outrage? What kind of mother am I if I, upon hearing of tale after suspicious tale of black boys lost, can only sigh relief that I’m raising a girl?

We cannot believe the odds are unbeatable, cannot keep our heads low, our mouths closed, our God thanked that, yet again, our own child was passed over, that yet again, it isn’t our blouse stained with blood.

If we do, we were spared without purpose. We’re as impeachable as every trigger-puller.

Do something:

Sign the petition at Change.org to prosecute the killer of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin

Contact Bill Lee, Chief of Police, and ask why George Zimmerman hasn’t been charged in Trayvon’s shooting death. Ask what evidence their department’s withholding. Ask if Trayvon’s parents will ever hear Zimmerman’s taped 911 call  (edited to add: the 911 tapes were released last night, to heartbreaking, but revelatory results):

Sanford Police Department
815 W. 13th Street
Sanford , Florida 32771
Phone: 407.688.5070
Fax: 407.688.5071
Dispatch: 407.688.5199

Contact Norman Wolfinger, Florida’s 18th District State’s Attorney

State Attorney’s Office
Criminal Justice Center
101 Bush Boulevard
PO Box 8006
Sanford, Florida  32772-8006
(407) 665-6000