Do Not Follow
Because I am in South Florida and it is 2015, I think about George Zimmerman because I cannot get the face of Trayvon Martin out of my head. I will never be able to get the face of Trayvon out of my head. I am white, though my son James had told me once when he was very young that this is wrong, that I am, indeed, closer to beige. My children are white, too. And while it was always important for me to teach them decency, to see through their own desires, and particularly to reverse the teachings of racial understanding that we are all, when we use the language of everyday binaries like black and white a part of, these teachings did not come without complication and conflict:
Once while I was reading James an alphabet book, From Ashanti to Zulu, he accused me of not loving his skin. I won’t belabor the long stories that predicate this moment, but I will say that it was the early 90s when this occurred, when he was six and his brother, Jackson was just born and his older sister, Vanessa was still alive on earth, only seventeen and equally skeptical of my teachings. He told me that he was not white (meaning he was not guilty), but beige, and that I should love him, too. So many times, Vanessa accused me of not understanding the everydayness of race, of black and white and the fixed nature of danger. Like when we walked the city streets and I talked with street musicians only if they had brown skin, or when I insisted that Louis Farrakhan was not incorrect about whiteness, challenging her perceptions of who should be given the right to speak in public venues. Jackson came home from school one day, too, when he was just six (the age I think where my teachings perhaps came most into relief against what they saw in the world, the white suburban world in which they were raised). He told me, gently, his cherubic face alight, “You know, Mom, not all black people are good.”
To my children’s challenges I had only this: I listened. I acknowledged what they experienced, but I also told them what I believed they were responding to because I know what the world told me, in that club-like, conspiratorial voice, uttered when no persons of color are within earshot: I’m not racist but…The neighborhood is changing…He’s cute for a dark boy…I trained my dog to bark…Don’t go to the city late at night. The expectation of the utterer at these moments: Shut up and comply.
As my Grandpa Hy once told me when I was a child, I told my children none of that talk in our house. Do not comply. For my grandfather this was deep and personal. He had a friend, Carl, who made my grandfather into his father. And my grandfather loved Carl. Once as I was leaving his apartment, a few years after my grandmother died, a neighbor stepped out, a woman with porcelain skin and black hair who wore, at all hours of the day, a neat, unbibbed apron, the kind that protects only metaphorically, that says I am clean. This neighbor asked, “Who is that black man who visits your grandfather?”
I was an adolescent at the time. (Does that explain my response?)
They cared for each other. I always knew this. From the early years when Carl would come to watch Yankee games on my grandfather’s black and white television. They would talk in the codes of love, share concern for the same players, the broadcasters, too. Always they would talk about work, about whom to watch out for, or who was watching Carl. My grandfather weighed over three hundred pounds, heavy before heavy was common. Carl did what a son would do—he drove my grandfather home. And he made him feel loved. And I always knew: if you can fall in love with a person, you can fall in love with a people. And I did. So there was a name for people like me.
On 9/11/2001 my daughter was at work in the second tower of the World Trade Center. She never came home. One of the only comforts I have is that once she said to me, “You taught us how not to be racist.”
I did not. I wish I knew how.
But she heard me. She had olive skin and wild, untamed hair. Often people would ask, with that look, that side-glance, both accusation and smug assumption, what is her father’s ethnicity? In the same way they pronounce both the name and the judgment Barack Hussein Obama, ethnicity and race are assumed to be justly shameful.
So in Fort Lauderdale I worry that I will see Zimmerman. I hear he was spotted on the beach here. I imagine it was near the sign that explains the Wade-Ins of the 60s, or near the ultra white bridge connecting the ocean to the Bahia Mar—the oldest hotel on the Lauderdale strip.
The most important detail I remember about Zimmerman, other than the roundness of his face, other than his seemingly gentle brown eyes, or the gun wielded, his gun, on his ground, is this:
“911 Operator: Do not follow. Do NOT follow.” The utterer, if only in the right context, heard sense of those words: do not follow.
Trayvon Martin was murdered after buying Skittles and iced tea, but before they were consumed.
Jordan Davis was murdered sitting in a car at a gas station listening to loud music.
Eric Garner was murdered begging for his breath as he was held down by a police officer who grabbed him for selling unlicensed and untaxed cigarettes.
Akai Gurley was murdered taking the stairs and not the elevator by a cop who called his union rep before 911 to seek help.
Mike Brown was murdered backing away from a police car in Ferguson, Missouri.
Tamir Rice was murdered playing with a toy gun before his thirteenth birthday.
Freddie Gray was murdered in a police van that rocked until his neck was broken.
Yvette Smith was murdered after opening the door of her home for police.
Eleanor Bumpurs was murdered by police in 1984 during an attempt to evict her from her New York City apartment.
Aiyana Stanley-Jones was murdered at seven years old when police raided her home.
Tarika Wilson was murdered when police entered her home and opened fire on her and injured her 14-month old child.
Rekia Boyd was murdered by an off-duty cop who fired into a Chicago crowd. She was twenty-two years old.
Each one of them, unarmed. Each murder followed by more. A list of names so long, I cannot speak them all. I want to say their names. I want to say them out in the same way the names are read on the morning of 9/11 each year, to bear witness to the senseless, but not random, never random acts of murder, perpetrated every day. Because as a mother, I know the incantation marks their lives, still here in world. Their names, the remaining matter of existence.
I wrote the following piece in the late 90s. It is more relevant now.
Police Brutality in 1990s America
1994 Los Angeles, California: African American male Rodney King is pulled over by police and beaten after a traffic stop turns into a high speed chase.
1995 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: African American Jonny Gammage is pulled over by police in a predominantly white suburb and suffocated to death. One of the four officers was Keith Henderson. Gammage’s last words, “Keith, I’m only 31.”
1997 New York City, New York: Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, is arrested after interceding in a fight between two women is brutally beaten by police after arrest. He is, in addition to being hit with nightsticks all over his body, sexually violated.
In 1997 it is common practice to assail the media for the creation of hype out of seemingly random events or random acts of violence. There is circularity to the way we argue as Americans: We argue in the media about the media as we argue and name the issues that are essential to our understandings about ourselves. Each of the three events listed above were covered extensively on the front pages of newspapers, as the lead stories on national evening news shows and in secondary news sources—television and radio talk shows, television magazine shows, magazines, etc. And each represented a point in American public discourse where the coverage of the event became a part of the event. The media is making too much of these incidents — or so we’re told and tell each other. The media is making too much.
There is a bumper sticker that is widely displayed in this nation. It reads simply: Practice Random Acts of Kindness and Senseless Acts of Beauty. For all intents and purposes, this is the way in which the ordinary American is schooled to fight racism. Randomly. Impersonally. (Un) Related to the practice of beauteous acts.
But racism is systemic, and so, fighting it cannot be random. As we are schooled, conscious of it or not, to produce senseless acts of beauty, we are schooled to practice random acts that lead to, if not become, violent.
On the first meeting day of my college writing class, I asked my students to pair, to face one another, and to begin to read, to describe the other in the pair. I asked them to describe deeply to the point to which one reader, one watcher, begins to make assumptions about the other. I asked them to write down, to record what they observe. I did not ask them to share. Though I did attend to their questions and concerns: How much should I say? How can I say anything? Describe what? Do you really think I can make assumptions based on what I see?
After they completed the task we discussed the problems with this activity.
“It asks students to judge a book by its cover,” one student told me.
“No,” I answered, “not a book. A person.”
“I usually don’t do this, “ another said.
“Not even when you walk into a new situation? Not even when, as an incoming college freshman, you walk into a classroom for the first time?” I asked.
“Okay,” my student conceded. “I do that. But I don’t write it down.”
My student was correct about this. And thus she made conscious or plain that which we prefer to cover up. Don’t write it down. Don’t leave evidence.
Action comes from thought. Thought from action. My students saw at the time, no relation between their tacit assumptions and their desires for beauty. They saw no relation between their desires for beauty and the ways they associated their desires with their safeties. But it is only by scrutinizing our assumptions and the ways assumptions lead to acts, those seemingly natural acts that follow private thought having to do with comfort and safety and sometimes beauty. Their desires determine the acts of the state.
Like walking into a college classroom on the first day, looking around and seeing with comfort only white. Or being Jonny Gammage, driving into a nice, pristine suburb on a dark night, alone in an elegant red Jaguar on a starry night, a beautiful night, a beautiful night in Pittsburgh.
Do Not Follow
For beauty I often come to South Florida, for the undulating waves of heat and water and teal and orange and purple sunsets and black and white people and orange and beige and brown. My cell phone camera captures and preserves this beauty and also changes forever what we now see of the patterns of our every day. And that in our every days (plural) that which differs from person to person (because, when it comes to beauty, color often matters) the ubiquitous camera leaves marks.
A 911 operator said once, “Do not follow.” And this is what I take away:
I will always follow beauty: in varied and higher forms. And listen to the sound of names, repetitive as the lashing of waves against baking sands. Dajerria Becton. Renisha McBride. Jonathan Ferrell. And Sandra Bland. To hear their stories and not just the blur repeated like the auditory backdrop of powerful seas.
And mothers like me crying for their babies, wary, ever wary, of the ocean’s tales and the gray shark.