I’m wrestling with the events of these last two weeks, trying to make them bend towards comprehension and basic sense. And now one man’s last words, said 11 times — I can’t breathe — haunts me. The words, so apt for how unhinged I feel at this very moment.
(Photo by Russ Rowland, Radio City Music Hall in NYC, Dec. 3, 2014)
How is it that an un-graining, clear, daytime video of Eric Garner having the life literally choked out of him by a white police officer was not deemed adequate proof that a serious crime was committed? How can a jury see this video, this proof, and still decide that the homicide — as it was ruled by the NYC medical examiner — was not worthy of formal charges? What did we see that they couldn’t? As the New York Times said in its scathing Op-Ed about the no-indictment decision:
“What is clear is this was vicious policing and an innocent man is dead. ”
I’m wrestling with outrage and exasperation at the unending disrespect and disregard for Black Lives, trying to force the bitter taste that continues to rise up in my throat back down. Oscar Grant. Trayvon Martin. Jordan Davis. Michael Brown. Each one, shoved into an early grave. Put down like animals.
How is it that we — Black citizens of this world — are still treated as something less than human? Three-fifths a person, and never anything more. Our young boys are instantly thugs. They are threats. They are dangerous demons and beefy Hulks charging at you. But white teenagers are allowed, almost expected, to act out, mess up, flout authority. The crucial difference is, the white kids are also let off easy and allowed to live to talk about it years or decades later.
I’m wrestling the overwhelming urge to give up, give in, consider this society a lost cause, forever stalled or — worse — rapidly moving in reverse.
How is it that a rookie police officer shots and kills — in mere seconds — a 12-year-old black boy wielding what turns out to be a BB gun, but this child’s innocence is shockingly still up for debate? “Why was he playing with a real looking gun,” someone had the audacity to write as a comment on my Facebook page.
This same Cleveland officer’s file from his firearm certification training two years ago was released after the fatal shooting of Tamir Rice. How is that there’s a memo in it saying the officer “seemed not mentally prepared” for the task? And, according to a story on Slate, the officer’s previous boss recommended that he be fired:
“He could not follow simple directions, could not communicate clear thoughts nor recollections, and his handgun performance was dismal.”
I’m wrestling with a potent mix of despair and distress trying to rob me of my fight, pressing down on the cracks in my spirit.
But I know I have to keep wrestling. And I need to win. I need to find my words, my strength, my resolve, because the stakes are too high. Because I’m raising a brown boy in this country. Because, as I’ve said before, this erasure story — the one about the unarmed black boy dusted away like pesky lint — playing out over and again through decades like some hopeless movie trope, only with slightly different details, different faces, families, cities, and courtrooms, it cannot continue.
Because Black Lives are not conditional. We are real. We are whole. We are valuable.
Because Black Lives Matter.
Because I Matter.
Because WE MATTER.
Reposting this essay that ran on BlogHer in the summer after the heartbreaking, infuriating news out of Ferguson, Mo., this week: No indictment for the police officer who killed Mike Brown. I don’t know what to do next, friends. I just know that this cannot be our story repeated over and again. -NB
I learned a hard truth about mothering black boys long before I had one of my own.
It was November 11, 1987. I was a teenager living with my family in a quiet suburb in Montreal. We woke up that morning to news that a young man, just 19 years old, had been shot and killed by a constable in a police station parking lot. The teen, Anthony Griffin, was black and unarmed. The officer, white and middle aged, had a standard issue .38 revolver.
My father, a man always ready with an easy, squint-eyed smile, was grim as he told my older sister, brother and me about the killing. The familiar-sounding name of the dead man sent my father to the phones next: to make some calls, check in with friends, see if Anthony Griffin was one of ours, while holding his breath like my mother, praying that “no” would be the only reply. But my “cousin” (i.e., family without blood relation) Leo called and cut into their hopes: He knows Anthony Griffin. Knew him. They ran in the same, loose circle. Of course they did. Leo and Anthony were young black boys, hardly men, growing up in Montreal, still living at home with their long-ago naturalized Caribbean immigrant parents. They played basketball and hockey and went to clubs with their boys and called up girls on the basement telephone late, late at night. Leo was Anthony. They were the same guy.
Anthony Griffin’s last night on earth started as an argument with a cab driver in the city just before dawn. The cabbie claimed the kid was trying to jump the fare and called the police. Anthony was nervous, reported the newspapers, because of an outstanding warrant, and once the police cruiser he was in had reached the station, he bolted. The arresting officer, Constable Allan Gosset, said he yelled at Anthony’s back, twice ordering him to halt. And he did. Anthony stopped and turned around, with his hands up in surrender.
That’s when he was shot. One bullet to the forehead.
Officer Gosset, who had been on the force for 16 years, said he had only intended to scare the fleeing youth into surrendering and that the gun went off accidentally. Charged with criminal negligence, he was acquitted twice—for the initial charge and later homicide—by all-white juries. However, seven months after the shooting, a police commission found Gosset negligent and recommended his dismissal.
By then it didn’t matter. The outrage was already loose; years of patent discrimination and racial profiling by the police had mangled any trust and left Montreal’s black community breathing fire. This murder of an unarmed teen was the last sliver of disregard, the last dribble of spit to the face of a people consistently benched despite playing by the rules. They took their fury to the streets in organized, nonviolent protests holding placards that screamed out for justice. I should say we, because I was there, along with my family, chanting and marching and drawing hard, permanent lines in the cracked mosaic that spelled out: NO MORE.
I yelled and roared with the crowd as we coursed the downtown streets. I was partly caught up in the drink of adult anger and exasperation, but after the heat in my own pumping fists had simmered, I felt scared again, edging up to panic. The reality of it rushed around me and gripped my throat: I was wrong about my parents. They weren’t exaggerating about the Way Things Are in This World.
It took my Barbados-born father 20 years of living in Canada to see that even though the prejudice wasn’t in-your-face, it was still there, rubbing on your thick skin, wearing it down, slow and sure. He started to see the racism was institutionalized; it said yes, you may have a job and a house with a basement and yard, and a comfortable life, but there were limits for you as a black person. He started to see blatant bigotry as a beast running toward you in daylight, attacking you from the front—a far less lethal option than encountering the snake in the grass at night. Then Anthony Griffin was killed, and the alarm sounded even louder for my father. In his mind, this young boy’s execution was the clearest example of how assumptions and racism—even disguised—broil into something truly horrible: his own son could one day be killed simply for being black.
Anthony Griffin stayed with me.
He stayed with me until he didn’t. Until I grew older and a little colder and simply tired of seeing this erasure story—the one about the unarmed black boy dusted away like pesky lint—play out over and again through decades like some hopeless movie trope, only with slightly different details, different faces, families, cities, and courtrooms. It’s the same verdict, though, the same tragedy with no real change in sight. Black boys were less than; that was their worth. Instead of growing angrier, I accepted this, begrudgingly, as fact.
But then Oscar Grant.
Then Trayvon Martin.
In between Oscar Grant’s killing by a BART police officer in Oakland, California, and Trayvon Martin’s fatal shooting by a neighborhood watch captain in Sandford, Florida, something changed. I became a mother—a mother to a baby boy.
Heartsick and angry, I watched the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story roll out. This was Anthony Griffin all over again, 26 years later. I felt raw, breathless, sad, and ultimately helpless. And seeing Trayvon’s mother—numb and broken, a grayness seeping out through her eyes—it buckled my knees. This story cannot be our thing, on loop. Our brown-faced children cannot continue to be shoved into early graves. This hunt must be called off. Mothers, fathers, and like-figures must infuse a newer message and reaffirm it so these endangered children believe it deep in their bones: You are worthy. You belong here. You matter.
I’ve told myself that I have time. My son is only five years old now. Soon—not tomorrow, but soon—I will have to have The Talk about what others assume about him, about his life, about his intentions as he browses through a store or strides down the night’s sidewalk. It won’t matter if he’s wearing a three-piece suit or hoodie and jeans as he walks fresh into the lives of certain strangers, he’ll still get the double-take: that long side look soaked in suspicion and dread, because he’s laughing too loud (and black), walking too slow (and black), driving too fast (and black). His being here (and black) will be a problem for some, and they will see it as their right to bring forth a solution, set a course correction to protect the lives that really matter. And, no, that does not include yours, black boy.
Still, I don’t want to fill him with dread and fatalism. Even though he’ll be inundated with countervailing messages about his lack of worth, I want this child to find his way to becoming a fully realized man—the husks of resentment and bitterness tumbling in the trail behind him, sloughed off like useless, old skin. Like my folks did for me, I want to show my son that while there are people who will likely see him as a threat, there are also others who will be ready to embrace him, revere him, and come prepared to wholly love him.
But I’m not ready for all of that. I’m not ready to blow stinging dust into this kid’s bright, kind eyes. Not yet.
I want our brown boys to have the space and time to be hopeful and undaunted, counting forward not down to the days to come when they can play basketball and hockey and go to the club with their boys and call up girls late, late in their parents’ basements.
I want them to have the passport to be black, and just be.
I’m not racist, but …
The minute you hear a person start off with that phrase, you pretty much know that the rest of their sentence indeed will be offensive — at best. You practically can set your watch to it.
But then there are those times when a person says that offensive/racist thing, and you want to gently shove a sock in their mouth while you school them on why they should never repeat what they just said. For me, those moments usually involve a well-meaning (albeit ignorant) parent, and they are talking about something that pertains to their child. Because, like Wu-Tang, MMM is for the children.
Example: White woman pregnant with her first baby approaches a welcoming, kindhearted group of new moms with a question. She starts with the red-flag phrase: I’m not racist, but … her boyfriend and baby’s father is black, but “he’s not, like, super black” and she wants to know what color her baby — due in two months — will be. Oh, and she’s also rather preoccupied with the baby’s hair.
Now, there’s a lot to unpack here. And I have questions.
What does she mean by super black? Are we talking literal skin color, the hue of the man, or is this a cultural assessment that she’s making about his internal blackness? And why are there a preemptive worries about the baby’s hair texture and skin color? Are those really top-priority concerns for your newborn?
Lady, you’re about to have a mixed race child in a nation that is slowly choking on the fiction that is “Post-racial America.” Our black boys seem to be born with a bull’s-eye on their backs. Our girls have their hair scrutinized, pet like an animal, discounted, and even deemed against regulation. These same girls — our girls — often grow up not seeing a physical manifestation of themselves on TV, in films and magazines, and too often told that they are not classically beautiful or simply “angry, black women.” Our young women and men of color are erased, devalued and, as a collective, continually robbed of the “privilege of being treated like human beings.”
This doesn’t even scratch at the other part of the iceberg, the part that delves into the all-important notion of identity, self-awareness and self-acceptance in the face of racial microaggressions that peck away at us like ducks. All of it daily work for all of us, us with our brown skin — from barely bronze to super black.
So to hear about this white mom forming her lips to ask her silly, “not racist but …” question about the skin tone and hair texture of her child — actually hoping for very light and curly, respectively — I want to tell her to stop talking about that. I want to strongly advise her to get educated, get prepared, and get more comfortable talking about race, because she is about to have a mixed race baby, and she will be that child’s trusted guide through this matted web of racism and all its twisted assumption, warped perception, scrambled theories, and truth-lite. She will be that child’s beacon through the bumpy roads ahead. And there is no room in any of this for the weak or the wack.
In short: Be that child’s mother, and don’t start anything with, “I’m not racist, but …” ever.
Earlier this year someone reached out to MMM to see if I would be interested in checking out a new book by Ylleya Fields called Princess Cupcake Jones and the Missing Tutu. It sounded it cute (it is) and I really liked that the lead character of the story just so happened to be a little brown girl.
The Youngster totally enjoyed it, and often requested it as one of his three bedtime books. And so I’m pleased to have had a chance to chat with Fields about her work, her family, and where the two intersect.
Q: How did you become a children’s book author? Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?
Ylleya Fields: I actually became a writer due to what I saw as a lack of children’s picture books that featured an ethnic main character that my own children could relate to. I won’t say it happened overnight, but it wasn’t something I thought about until then.
Q: I know that Princess Cupcake is based on your children, but how did you come up with this story — that rhymes! — about the missing tutu?
YF: The stories are based on things that my daughter’s have either done or loved! My oldest probably wore a tutu everyday of her early life. While my middle daughter absolutely hates to clean up! So that was a nice combination of both personalities (which I do a lot in this series). As for the rhyming, that was just the type of picture book that my children and I gravitate towards. So I decided that was the type that I wanted to write as well.
Q: Of course, one of the things that I thrilled me most about your book is seeing not just brown faces, but also that this family of color is royalty. How important is it for you to have that diversity and representation in children’s stories?
YF: Extremely important, as it’s the whole reason I set out to create this series in the first place. I read somewhere that children of color seeing themselves in books is as important as children seeing a black president or a black doctor … it really drives home the point that you can be anything that you want to be.
Q: On the topic of this clear need for more children’s books starring kids of color, representing real life — not just talking bears and cars and pigeons — was it a challenge for you to try to tell Princess Cupcake Jones’ story? Did you experience a lot of pushback from publishers?
YF: I didn’t I send [the book] to many publishers for a few reasons: 1) I don’t deal with rejection well. 2) I wanted complete control of this project, which you can’t really have when you just sell a story. But yes, from the few people I have sent it to, you basically hear the same things, which is that it’s a great concept, but there really isn’t a market for it, which absolutely isn’t the case.
Q: What can we mothers of color and mothers of mixed heritage families do to have our voices heard on this important subject of inclusion?
YF: Wow, that’s a deep question. But I think the best answer would be to let our children know that they truly matter. No matter what they look like, or where they come from, or what social economic status they’re in.
Q: What’s been the best part about seeing your story in hardcover, there for others to experience?
YF: The best part is exactly what you said: seeing it! Also, having my children show it to their peers and really be proud of it. There is no greater feeling that accomplishing a dream or goal and having others share in it.
Q: Do you have a lot of input on the illustrations, as in how the characters are depicted?
YF: Oh, absolutely! My illustrator is a genius because he brings what I want to life. But every page of every illustration is usually first ran by my fiancée (or, as I like to call him, my creative consultant) and me, and then we in turn tell Mike (the illustrator) what we want to see happen.
Q: What’s the process like for you, from the idea to the finished product in bookstores? How long does it take? And what’s the most challenging part of that process?
YF: Oh, boy! That depends on a lot of factors. The writing of the story itself has so many variables (for ex., if I’m in a writing mood, if I have the topic). But usually I pick a topic, write the story, have the story edited, rewrite, edit again, rewrite, send to the illustrator, come up with a concept for the cover, wait for the illustrator to send that back, fit the story into a 32-page format, go over what I want to see illustration-wise, wait for the pencils of the illustrations, tweak them, wait on the color illustrations to come back, edit one more time for punctuation, and viola! The book is done … But that is it in the most simplest of forms. That process can take a year or two to get done.
Q: If there’s a message you’d like parents and kids reading your books to have when the walk away from it, what would it be?
YF: Each book has its own message. The [first one] obviously is about cleaning up but others will have their own theme. As long as parents and children take something meaningful from each book, I’m happy.
Q: What’s the next book about? And when can we expect more adventures with Princess Cupcake Jones?
YF: The next book is Princess Cupcake Jones Won’t Go To School. It actually was just released, and it’s about dealing with the fear of the first day of school.
Guess what time it is? Oh, yes. It’s Giveaway Time! One lucky MMM reader (US only — sorry) will win a copy of Princess Cupcake Jones Won’t Go To School. All you have to do is leave a comment about one of your favorite children’s books. Good luck! Winner will be announced next week.