Jan 15, 2015
Last year I received the Pearl S. Buck Writing for Social Change award for an essay titled “What the Wild Things Are” inspired by the murders of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. I wrote the essay not only because I was outraged that these murders were being justified by moral white folks on the grounds that African American teenagers are inherently scarier than white teenagers and therefore deserve to be preemptively shot, but also because I couldn’t stop thinking about these boys’ mothers.
I wept for the mothers of Trayvon and Jordan because I am the mother of a 19-year-old son, a son I like to think was well brought-up. A son who wears hoodies, and on occasion listens to rap music at a deafening volume while driving or sitting in his car. A son who has a deep anti-authoritarian streak he inherited from me. He doesn’t suffer fools, especially adults he feels are abusing their power for petty gain or simply because they can. A son who is well on his way to becoming, but is not yet fully, a man.
A son who, not because of the content of his character, but because of the color of his skin, is far more likely to live to manhood than any black boy his age.
The blatant unfairness, the screaming injustice of this fact wouldn’t and hasn’t let me go. And how could it, given the news of another and still another unarmed black boy or man shot by police?
Today the mothers of Trayvon and Jordan are joined in my mind by the mothers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and John Crawford and Dontre Hamilton. These mothers constitute a Greek chorus of depthless woe as they beg me to imagine the flesh of my flesh killed for no reason other than pigmentation. They beg me to imagine my boy shot dead walking down the street, shopping in Walmart, breaking up a fight, sleeping on a park bench, playing alone in a playground, listening to music or simply acting like a teenager while white. Shot dead not by a street thug, not by a recognized criminal, but by a “good” citizen or police officer. Shot dead not because his behavior was particularly threatening or even unusual, and not because he was armed—because he wasn’t—but simply and undeniably because of the color of my boy’s skin. Shot dead for being white. They beg me to imagine this.
And I have. I have imagined such an unimaginable end for my own son because I believe that until we dare to imagine how it would feel to be the mother of Trayvon, Jordan, Michael, Eric, Tamir, Dontre and John, we will allow these murders to continue. Until we dare to join the mothers in their pain, we will remain a people who choose blame, denial and death over truth, reconciliation and justice. And I, myself, am not willing to settle for that. Such failure of imagination would mean not just the end of Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream but its perversion into nightmare.
I can’t stand by and let that happen, knowing what I know. I know we are one. I know it as a biological fact, a philosophical truth, and a practical matter. I’ve known it since the moment someone told me it wasn’t true. And before that moment I knew it without knowing I knew.
My perspective is grounded in a particular place: I grew up in Memphis in the 1970s and 80s. In second grade, I walked to school with Julie, my best friend and neighbor, a black girl who wore her dark hair in braids similar to my blond ones. The principal of our school, a tall, austere black man, would smile and holler “Here come the twins!” when the two of us walked in the front door. Julie’s father was a highschool principal and her mother a teacher. They had a beautiful home, which, unlike mine, had central air conditioning and more than one bathroom. I loved eating delicious home-cooked meals at their house. I can’t say that the concept of race had much meaning for me. If I had any specific notion about black people-perse, it was that the black people I knew had a homelife I frankly envied. When Julie’s family invited me to go on vacation with them to a resort in Arkansas, I was thrilled.
While the student body at my elementary school was majority African American, I don’t recall this being notable to me at the time. I remember being just another kid participating in dance contests, and getting pretty good at “The Robot.” I remember crowded spaghetti suppers, parent-teacher nights and school programs in the auditorium. I remember being teased by an obnoxious little girl who made fun of me for being smart and one day grabbed my Eskimo diorama and threw it in the street as we walked home from school. It wasn’t significant that she was black; it was significant that she was a bully.
During these years 1974-1977 when I was ages 7 to 10, I was blissfully ignorant of racial conflict or of the festering wounds caused by Memphis’ racial history. I lived in a profoundly bi-racial world, where separation of people on the basis of skin color seemed not just silly, but impossible. My parents owned a small business that employed African Americans. We attended a multi-racial Catholic church in downtown Memphis that had been partially reclaimed after the race riots of the late 1960s. Of course, I didn’t know this at the time; I merely thought the building, with its busted-out windows and crumbling ceiling, was very creepy.
Everything changed in Fifth Grade when my parents decided to send me to a private girl’s school in the wealthier, much whiter suburbs. My parents placed me in this school they could scarcely afford, and which was a 20 minute drive from home and even further from their business, because they were scared of busing. Busing is shorthand for a federally-mandated plan to desegregate the Memphis City Schools by busing students from their home neighborhoods which tended to be segregated by race, to schools in neighborhoods where their race was not in the majority. This process, torn asunder by viral fears that my child-mind could not grasp, created the unintended consequence of what became known as “white flight” to the suburbs. My parents were not immune. While they couldn’t afford to buy a house in the suburbs, they could, if barely, afford to send me to school there.
And it was there in the suburbs, ensconced in the vaunted “safety” of a school that had no African American faculty and a single black student in my grade, that I met racism face to face.
It was there that I learned the N-word because it was directed at me. It was there, at a Catholic school run by nuns, that I was told I lived in “Nigg**town.” Called a “Nigg**lover.” One of the girls who tormented me most insisted that she would rather eat shit and die than eat in a “Nigg**’s” house. I was taunted when, on occasion, I had to catch the city bus home, something I was told only “Nigg**s” did. It soon became clear that the custodial staff at the school and the maids who worked in these girls’ homes and rode the bus were the only black people with whom my classmates ever came in contact. (With the exception of the one black student, who was beautiful in a classically Caucasian manner and wealthy and somehow, by virtue of the white girls knowing her all their lives, an honorary white girl herself). It was also clear that my classmates had only disdain for the men and women who did their dirty work.
Of course, I didn’t understand all of this in Fifth Grade. I was baffled, wounded and enraged. I was also, and this is the less-flattering part, ashamed. I was ashamed to discover that I lived in a place called “Nigg**town.” I didn’t want to live in such a place! I wanted to fit in! But by virtue of something I couldn’t control, something very much akin to skin color, I wasn’t allowed a place in my classmates’ world.
Over the next three years, I spent plenty of time being angry with my parents. Little did they know how hard it was to have girls tell me their parents were afraid to let them come to my house. Little did they know what it was like to be the last one picked up from school or the only one standing at the city bus stop. Little did they know what it was like to be called these horrible names and then have to go home to the place that caused them. Tell me again: Why can’t we move to the suburbs?
It wasn’t normal: the people we knew, the places we went, the things we did. And what I wanted, most of all, was to be normal. Until I didn’t. Until the kind of normal my suburban school offered just wasn’t enough for me any more.
To my mother’s everlasting credit, she took me out of that school in the middle of Eighth Grade and enrolled me in the middle school I would have attended in Fifth Grade, had my parents not changed their plans. In 1984, I graduated from the most diverse public highschool in the city, a school where our diversity truly made us stronger in every way. It also made going to school a lot more fun than it would have been had we all been safely the same. During those years, while out and about in Memphis with my friends, I was called a “Nigg**lover” on more than one occasion. But never, ever at school.
I’ve known we are one since the moment in Fifth Grade when a classmate told me it wasn’t true. Before that moment, I knew it without knowing I knew. The oneness was integral to the fabric of life as I’d lived it. You don’t know you have air to breathe, you simply breathe the air that surrounds you.
The moral hazard of the present moment lies in the temptation to console ourselves with our knowledge and thus reassure ourselves we are not like them (the racist, the ignorant, the destroyer). But here’s the rub: If we don’t accept our oneness with them, then we are not and cannot be one. We can’t pick and choose who is in and who is out. If we are one, then we are one. We’re all in. This is Martin Luther King Jr’s most profound message.
To know we are one as a biological, philosophical or even practical fact is not the same as manifesting this knowledge as behavior. To weep for the dead sons of other mothers is a start. It is a very good start. But it is not enough.