Seventeen, not even marked by a real mustache. If you look at the picture, he’s still slight. Maybe he was destined to grow tall with big bones, a man’s hearty flesh clinging to his frame, but in this picture he hasn’t gotten that far.
I remember a boy I once loved at that age. His kneecaps still knocked when he stood with his feet together.
He left his house in the middle of watching TV, walked around the corner to go buy himself some Skittles, and in between his leaving and returning, he was stopped by a grown man, someone who was bigger and older in years. Something happened and the man shot him dead.
The police came. The man was questioned. He wasn’t arrested and there seem no plans for him to be.
This sounds like a scene from a Science Fiction novel, doesn’t it? Maybe one written by Octavia Butler. But no, it’s non-fiction, a story repeated with a few alterations, going back in different ways to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Or Richard Wright’s Black Boy.
That’s right: Black boy. And: White man. Then: dead child in a riddled place.
Just a few hours ago, I was talking to a woman on the phone about the murder of this teenaged boy, Trayvon Martin, and she said someone told her that it’s a shame that we Black folks don’t teach our children about the brutal history of this country, how Black folks were treated in the past, and how that history keeps extending its reach into the present. It’s in a hundred history books, but how many of us will read that history?
I’m not a mother, but I know about a mother’s love. I have Trellie, a woman who tried to teach me about the world and how it would look at me as Black woman, despite her pride in me.
“You’re just as good as they are, baby. Always remember that. But still, be careful. Don’t curse anyone out because you need that job. Don’t shout, don’t whisper, but don’t you be scared, either.”
It’s strange and counterintuitive, isn’t it? The survival lessons a Black mother must teach her child.
These days, at my age, I realize it’s only her brilliant love that kept me from dying, either by my own hands, or at the hands of a society that just doesn’t want to see a Black woman without a mop and a bucket in her hand. Or, just thought that I was nothing better than that position one can find in the 1972 original version of The Joy of Sex.
“A la négresse [sexual position]—from behind. She kneels, hands clasped behind her neck, breasts and face on the bed.”
I don’t distinguish much between Black boys and Black girls. Little Black boys have their grave dangers they must face out in the streets and little Black girls have others that they must face in the rooms of buildings, like their own homes. But they are all someone’s children.
My mother knows this. She had three daughters and no sons, but now as a grandmother, she has tried to teach the same lessons to keep her grandson, my nephew, from getting caught up in the American penal system, for the supposed crimes of “loitering” and “violation of town curfew.” The lessons she must teach that young man about how American views him.
“Criminal. Blood spiller. Wasted bag of bones. Future deadbeat father of scattered seed.”
She knows that as soon as a young Black boy is snared by that penal system, that’s usually the end of freedom as he will know it, unless he is an extraordinarily unique man, like my friend and fellow poet and writer, Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was arrested at age sixteen and spend nine years in prison—in adult population.
And she knows the system is only the least of it. What if the White cop who stops her Black grandson in their small town doesn’t know he is the descendant of Dr. Trellie James Jeffers, or doesn’t know who that is, and decides to shoot my nephew dead?
She tells her grandson, “When they stop you, darling, stay still, be respectful, and don’t you talk back. “
She doesn’t tell him, “And you need to pray, too, because sometimes, all that doesn’t work.”
Two weeks ago, I sat on a panel with a group of writers. It was at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference and the panel was called, “Writing Race in the Age of Obama.” But my take on the panel subject was different, that it was time that White writers start writing about race, too, and not just when Black people (or other People of Color) entered their poems or stories. After all, colored folks had been doing the heavy lifting of “race writing” for at least two hundred years.
In the audience of the panel there was a Black-appearing woman, and like me, she publicly identified as having multi-racial heritage. She began criticizing me about my discussion of history, saying, “It’s a new day now. We need to be writing new stories. Why don’t you write new stories?”
When I told her that as a Afro-Indigenous woman, I write about that history, first about African Americans, and now, with a clear Indigenous presence in my work, I wasn’t someone trying to write a brand new story, but one that was uniquely my own and my people’s, she began talking about the fact that “there were multi-racial people” now, including her little boy, who she said had a Jewish father.
I began talking about the importance of listening to the ancestors and the woman smirked, as did several other people of color in the room. And then, that panel was over and it was time for me to the go to another one. But since that panel, I’ve been thinking about what was said, and why it keeps tapping me on my conscience. What else should I have said? What might have made the difference?
When I was a little girl, my mother told me stories about her past, and going back even further, stories that she had been told by her mother and father, her grandparents, and her great-grandmother, Mandy, her father’s grandmother. (Strangely enough, her mother’s great-grandmother was called Mandy or Amanda, too. This was the Cherokee woman.)
Mandy remembered slavery. She’d been a very small child when Freedom came, but she remembered even more: the day her father was sold down south to Mississippi. She never saw him again. Perhaps it’s something my mother said to me that has imprinted upon me the important of history.
“I was just a little girl when Ma Mandy told me those stories. If I had only sat still like she told me to. If I’d only listened, I would have so much to remember.”
I am a woman who has sat still, all these years. And with my own students of whatever their cultures and colors, I tell them to listen and to remember. To have intellectual curiosity. But most of my students are White. I don’t have many Black kids who will take my class and through my years of teaching, I’ve figured out why.
I’m hard on them. I make them write their stories and poems and papers over and over, to make them perfect. And they don’t want to think about the past. They want to focus on the “now.” They don’t want to know about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and what Richard Wright wrote about in Black Boy.
They want to talk about Kanye and Nikki Minag and Real Housewives of Atlanta. And they roll their eyes when I say, “Let’s talk about history first and connect the dots, because sooner or later, the ‘now’ will beat you up in a racial way and you need to understand why that is. You need to remember how to survive.”
I know it’s painful to listen to those stories of a traumatic Black past. I don’t know why I was that strange child who would listen to stories of lynchings and rapes and countless—countless—racial humiliations of Black men and women.
Maybe I listened so that I could tell somebody’s children one day, even those who are not my own. Maybe because I know that I have to tend the ancestral altar, no matter how many people laugh at me, even folks who look like me.
I saw that Sister in that audience. I believe that she chided me not because she wanted to shame me or make me feel belittled, but because I was scaring her. For if the world hasn’t changed for People of Color in certain ways, if it hasn’t become “post-racial”, then what might become of her brown son?
I said, “I wish things had changed. I thought they would have, twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. But they haven’t. And we need to be prepared as a people.”
I didn’t say, “I’m not a mother and these days, I know why I made the choice not to be.”
What an act of courage to carry a baby inside your body, share your bloodstream with him, and yes, your Spirit, to push him outside the narrow door of your body, to tend to him, to put your hopes for the future on his shoulders and then have someone shoot him dead.
How hard can a mother’s grief be? I confess that today, I really don’t want to know. As many tears as I have cried for this little boy named Trayvon, I can only imagine his mother’s screams.
But I did agree to something. To bear witness. To listen to the stories and to pass them down. To tend the altar so that the needed stories are remembered and brought forth, in a time such as this.
I’m not saying the “now” isn’t important in one way, but there is a need for Sankofa.
To move forward while looking to the past. Because if we keep ignoring the lessons of African American history and its implications for our Black sons and daughters, if we keep forgetting that history entirely, who’s going to teach a little Black boy the necessary things when he just wants to go around the corner for some candy?
Like, “Baby, come back, it’s dangerous out there”? Like, “Don’t you leave my sight”?