Little Black Boys, Candy and History (for Trayvon Martin)


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”?

.

23 thoughts on “Little Black Boys, Candy and History (for Trayvon Martin)

  1. The power of this post is beautiful. Unfortunately, this post is necessary. I worked long and hard for more than 20 years to eradicate what I thought were vestiges of racism, only to find that there is absolutely nothing “vestige-like” about the racism I encounter daily. The turning point came for me when I viewed what I was watching through the eyes of my sons. I then looked from the perspective of “other” children and again had it confirmed that racism is as alive today as it was when the concept was initially instituted.

    The key to this, for me, is the fact that it IS an institution. It was planned as such, and successfully continues to this very day with no end in sight! The dismantling of any institution is all but impossible. Ending racism will be even harder.

    Thank you very much for reminding me that acknowledging racism and all of its very ugly parts does NOT make me an angry Black woman, or any of the other negative epithets others try to pin on me. Thank you for cogently helping me to find words to “back others up” when they attempt to label me as crazy or worse.

    Please know that your suppositions are correct, and your sacrifices are appreciated. My sons are better (and still alive) in large part because of “Aunties” like you. Thank you.

  2. Honoree, I appreciate you telling the truth. I am so saddened to hear about this boy. And as much as things change, they stay the same. A Black life still has no value…..I have a son and a daughter both in college. One thing i love is that they are studying at Morehouse and Spelman where they do get some exposure about their history. It’s a delicate balancing act raising black children in America to be strong, intellectual, independent, but also teach them when to keep their mouthes shut….I hope I have taught them well. I pray for them everyday….

  3. Dear Miss Honoree, I am amazed at what that woman said to you since the father of her child is Jewish. I always remember that I am Jewish first, after being a woman. I always remember to be careful of what I say in a mixed crowd, and I told my sons the same things. No my facial color does not say anything, but it is important that I remember who I am and that I continue to get the stories from my elders who are still alive and hand them down to my children, so that they can hand them down to their children. YOU should never forget your history, it is your history that makes you whom (who?) you are, it is probably one of the most important parts of you.

    We discuss our family history all the time, it is so important that we don’t loose it. I am writing down more things and in my case I have to change part of my history that I did not know until I was older. While your at it, please feel free to share your history and pictures with us, I enjoy learning, I know it makes me a better person. Never ever apologize (which I know you won’t) for your love of your African heritage, your history and being the strong woman that your are. It is still o.k. to need a hug once in awhile. Love, Barbara

  4. Wonder piece, it’s sad but so needed now in 2012. The world is blind and I was too just a year ago, but now I see the truth. We are living in the land of 1812.

  5. I am white, but had two sets of parents. Hattie May Hill and her husband Otis Hill taught me things that my other Mom and Dad could not have and vice versa. Often when I read your blog, I feel like saying Amen. Never more so than today. Amen

  6. This was a difficult piece to read. I read the first 2 paragraphs and saw the picture of that young man and said to myself “I can not take this right now”. I had to put it away for a while. Thank you for reminding us to keep repeating those stories. My son gets tired of hearing about how things were and what happened when I was growing up in Georgia. He does not know that I am talking about now, the present. I have to tell him, again.
    -Daniel
    (I don’t know what “post-black” is, I am still Black! ;)

  7. Ok, I’m going to have to read your poetry. Your writing here on your blog is so poignant, so beautiful, so touching, so something else beyond words. Thank you for your voice and sharing it with the rest of us.

  8. Your post is amazing. I also agree that we need to know, learn from and connect our history to the present and future. I have been a lover of history since the 8th grade, especially a lover of learning about African American history. Something within me just always yearn to know more about what we have been through and how we have triumphed. Even when reading about the many atrocities, violence, rape, torture, etc. that have happened to us, I don’t want to stop because I know that although reading about these things is making me angry, I need to know. I need to know what happened and how it happened so I can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

  9. Thanks for this post. I was at the panel too, and heard what that woman said. I thought at the time, and still do, that some people are in denial, denial, denial about the persistent realities of the day. And yes, that reality is so complex that you could have a black identified man as president and a young black man murdered in cold blood by a non-black vigilante who does not even get arrested and it be the same era. Refusal to acknowledge that complexity, as much as you might hate it, is to to live in a fantasy world. When we tell these stories and acknowledge those realities, we are not embracing victimhood, we are empowering ourselves with the strength and truth of our forebears. In other words, people don’t sleep.

  10. I have black friends who agree with me that many (too many) blacks continue to live in and dredge up the past. Wallowing in bad things does not help to raise one above them. It is similar to a white Irish who can’t get past the poverty and injustices of the English overlords and the potato famine or an American Indian who refuses to leave the reservation. We as people ALL have ties to the past but I believe they should be stepping stones to the future not anchors that weigh us down and form our prejudices. Being wise about history is not the same as clinging to it!! This tragic story, and it is tragic, is NOT a about racism. It is a story about a little boy who was at the wrong place at the wrong time and ran into a man who abused his actual or imagined authority. Mr. Zimmerman was a tragedy waiting to happen. He did not leave his home that night and say to himself I’m gonna get me a black kid It remains to be seen whether charges will be charged eventually or whether they are justified. I say that because you and I were not there and only two people really know what happened and one of them is dead. But none of that changes the fact that so many folks, black and white are worn out with feeling divided from our American brothers and sisters of all races by perpetuated stereotypes and reinforced bias. Empowering ourselves as a people and as individuals means waking up in the morning willing to let go of the strings that tie us to the past and handicap us at every encounter during the day. We should be looking for ways we are alike, not stressing ways we are different. Think free of the past, act free of the past and BE free of the past. Our future as a Americans depends on it. I can accept you for who you are today all I ask in return is that you do not judge me as a white person or assume my values based on those of my ancestors and do not teach your children to judge me that way either.

    • Hi Linda:

      Thanks for your comments. I’m not sure how Trayvon walking in the gated community where his father lived–which meant that he was walking in his own neighborhood– and his being chased by a non-police officer who had called 911 and who had been told to remain in his car and not to follow Trayvon–it’s on the 911 call that was just released, by the way–was a case of Trayvon’s “being in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

      And I’m not sure that, had the situation been reversed, a Black man following a White teenager who was armed only with iced tea and a packet of Skittles candy and then shooting that White teenager to death would have been instantly released on his own recognizance, especially a Black man who had previously been arrested for a violent altercation with police.

      But again, I really appreciate your comments, I know you come in peace, and I hope that you return to visit the blog. This is an open, welcoming space for all who come in peace, I hope.

      Take care and be blessed.

      Pax,
      Honorée

      • Racism is tragic.

        Trayvon had a right to walk in his neighborhood.

        I don’t think that being white disqualifies me from awareness of the above, and I am troubled by Linda’s analogies of Irish or American Indian perspectives….

        What “being wise about history” means is not clear to me.

        I have found tremendous wisdom in Ms. Honoreé’s writing& in many of the comments & guest posts and in her blogroll.

      • It is wrong to label this crime as racism or a hate crime. It is simply a crime. As for my comments it sickens me to live in a society that continues to enable the “slavery mentality”, hold people of color to a lower standard and thus enable them to fail rather than succeed and blame “history”. As long as race is the main feature of every news story that involved a black person, or where I live, an Indian or Hispanic, rather than their “personhood” we contribute to the perpetuation of stereotypes. Sitting around crying poor us solves nothing for anybody. The blacks I know are educated, ambitious, typically conservative and most important have risen above thinking of themselves as burdened by history.

  11. Perhaps some of you may be interested in these two recent news stories about Trayvon.

    The first, from the Friday New York Tiimes, is by Charles M. Blow, a regular op-ed contributor: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/17/opinion/blow-the-curious-case-of-trayvon-martin.html?_r=1&scp=1&sq=Blow&st=Search

    The second was aired today on NPR’s “Morning Edition” and is also on their website: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/03/19/148905661/killing-of-fla-teen-trayvon-martin-becomes-national-story-about-race?ft=3&f=1001&sc=nl&cc=nh-20120319

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