Where the mind goes when the heart aches
I’ve remained pretty silent about Ferguson where Michael Brown, a young black man, was gunned down by a police officer in the middle of the street like an animal and the media frenzy that followed; the racist, privileged speak that makes me fume—he was a gansta, he shouldn’t have resisted arrest, he was a criminal, up to no good, etc. The connotation being: he deserved it, “se lo buscó,” it was his fault. On the same day that the murdering officer’s name was finally released, the media released footage of Michael allegedly lifting a couple of cigars just a little while before he was killed. Why? Simple answer: Character assassination.
Brown was one of five unarmed men who have been killed by police in the past four weeks. The other victims are Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY, John Crawford in Beavercreek, Ohio, Ezell Ford in Los Angeles, California, and Dante Parker in Victorville, California. (Source: Mother Jones)
It seems every few years we hear of a spate of violence against black men by the police. Timothy Stansbury. Sean Bell. Oscar Grant. Aaron Campbell. Alonzo Ashley. Wendell Allen. Jonathan Ferrell.
“From 2006 to 2012 a white police officer killed a black person at least twice a week in this country,” said Melissa Harris-Perry in powerful segment where she connected the recent police killing of Michael Brown to the deaths of other black men at the hands of police — and to America’s history of injustice towards black people.
I’ve been mostly silent because I feel desperate and helpless. Then, by the water yesterday, I heard: “If words are all you have, that is enough.”
What I find most fascinating about essay writing is that you figure out what it is you want to say as you go. Often it’s not what you thought & you have to work through the frustration to get to the profound.
I remember a quote I read some time ago: “I write to know myself.” I’ve come back to these words again and again.
Several times over the past few days, I’ve thought Thank God I have a girl. I’m immediately ashamed. I think of my friends who have boys. I think of my black and brown male students and the stories they share; how at thirteen and fourteen years old, they know firsthand what it is to be stopped and frisked, they’ve seen their brothers and cousins and fathers beat up by the cops. These boys don’t feel safe around or protected by those who are supposed to protect them. It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to understand why.
My little girl is going to be ten in a few days. The other day, she asked, “Why are there so many cops around the neighborhood, mom?” We were in the park when two patrol cars zoomed by. There was a squad car on the corner of our block and we saw several on our two block walk to the park. Screaming sirens could be heard coming from Dyckman and Broadway. I couldn’t answer my girl’s question though I too had noticed the increased police presence. “My friends say the cops are racist,” Vasia said, staring at yet another passing patrol car. “What does racist mean, mama?” I asked. “When people treat you different because you’re black or Latino, like us. When you’re not white.” “Do you think that’s true?” “I don’t know,” she shrugged and my heart broke for her and her friends who already know that they will be (if they haven’t already been) treated unfairly because of who they are and where they come from.
My girl already knows at nine that street harassment will be a part of her existence as a female. (No, it isn’t the same as police brutality, but I’m referring generally to the feeling of being unsafe. If you think street harassment isn’t a matter of safety, walk in a woman’s shoes for 24 hours.) She knows she will be ogled and hissed at, her space will be invaded and disrespected. She will be told to smile, to say hello, to do this and that for men who see her as sub-human, as created for their entertainment and pleasure. It was a horrifying moment when my daughter informed me, nonchalantly, that she’d already caught men staring at her lustfully. She is nine! I wanted to find those men and hurt them.
All these realities are the reasons why my girl’s looming tenth birthday is hitting me so hard. She doesn’t always reach for my hand when we cross the street, like she used to. This past winter I started letting her take the bus alone to school, and this summer I let her walk alone the few blocks to summer camp. She’ll start fifth grade in September and dresses herself without consulting me like she used to, “Mom, how does this look?” she’d ask while twirling around and giggling. I see the looks on the boys’ faces when she walks past—they stare and smile, then look down at their sneakers when she notices them. Her fierceness is bright. None of us can stare at the sun directly for long without it burning our eyes.
It’s time to start letting my girl out into the world without me and that means I won’t be able to protect her or hover over her like I once did. It’s a matter of safety since safety has been so elusive in my life. I want to forever offer that to my girl, but my job as her mom isn’t just to protect her, it’s also to teach her to be independent & self-assured, so I have to let her stumble & fall, scrape her knees & get her heart broken without me always being there to pick her up & añoñarla, hold her & hum into her ear. What I can do is remind her that I will always be her safe landing.
Soon, she’ll be asking me to go to the movies with her friends. She won’t want to hang out with me in the park, to have our picnics on the grass by the water like we’ve been doing together since she was just a toddler.
I almost don’t remember life without her. I often wonder how I existed before she chose me to be her mom. And now I have to get used to life with a tween who doesn’t think I’m that cool but still creeps up behind me sometimes while I’m cooking to sneak a hug just because.
I hope she never stops doing that. I hope even when I’m completely uncool, when my voice is drowned out by her friends’ misdirected advice or that boy who will capture her heart for the first time and tear it apart, making her question her worth and the million times I’ve told her “You are enough. Remember how extraordinary you are,” because it will inevitably happen because it always does; I hope she will know to come to me to be her reminder.
I’m thinking of an excerpt from the essay “The Smooth Surfaces of Idyll” from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.
Almost every story I write is a happy story, a fairy tale of some kind. Yes, you’ll find death and loss and betrayal and darkness and violence in my stories, but there’s often a happy ending. Sometimes, people are unable to recognize happiness because all they see is the darkness. I look at many of stories and I see a woman who has some kind of salvation after enduring seemingly unsalvageable circumstances, a hero who helps her to that place of peace, however incomplete that peace might be. The details change, but that underlying structure, that fairytale, is often there. I’m as intrigued by happy endings as I am by the deeply flawed ways people treat one another, even if I don’t know quite know what to do with that behavior.
When I read this quote, I had to stop and grab my journal. I was on the A train heading uptown after having breakfast with a poet friend.
Journal entry: I thought about my memoir. About the heaviness of the story. My brother’s death, mom’s trauma, her abuse, the silence that devastated my family and how I internalized that silence. It’s heavy, yes. Sin duda. But there’s a happy ending though. My moreno is gone and mom isn’t in my life, but I’m here. I’m writing. (My hands shake with the power of it when I write it so my penmanship is so messy only I can make sense of it.) I’m healing. I’m writing that shit, like my brother told me so “maybe somebody’ll fuckin talk.” And maybe they won’t and that’s okay (or at least it is for today), because I did. I’m breaking the cycle for me and my little girl. If that’s not a happy ending or at least the beginning of one, I don’t know what is.
Why do we write about unhappiness? To document, to exorcise, to forget, to remember. It’s part of our search for joy, I think; our digging into memory to find the silver lining or create it. Or to remind ourselves that we are still very much alive.
And maybe that’s why I had to start this piece with commentary on Ferguson and Michael Brown and the far too many black men who have lost their lives at the hands of the police. Maybe I needed to remind myself that despite the headlines, I have hope. I have to hope because when that is gone, what do I have? What do we have? Just the thought frightens me.