One Day

1 Its cold and traffic is terrible as the Uber inches ahead toward the light. I look out the left-hand side window and see row houses, thin, stacked up against each other, some remodeled, others older and decaying, their history in plain sight. Row houses in Georgetown were created to house the slaves and free blacks who came to Washington D.C. to build the nation’s capital. All day streams of tourists milled about the monuments, gazing up at the great men credited with creating our great nation but here too is a memorial, small broken down houses, now caught up in a storm of regentrification with tiny rooms going for $800 per square foot.

The light changes, we inch forward and then break free around a corner. Outside the cold air whips at my legs, and at the dashikis and Ankara skirts the crowd is wearing to go see Black Panther. Inside, movie-goers in yoga pants and flannels are heavily seasoned with a crowd dressed to go see the crowning of an African Prince. Their bright shirts and pants, carefully curated outfits that only hours earlier were laid out on beds, hanging in closets, waiting patiently for a moment—this moment—to be rocked in all their glory. Inside, the bright colors are invisible in the darkened theater, full to capacity for this one of five or more showing the theater had. The lights go down and we go home.

2 She is on the ramp from the first floor to the second, starring out from a wide cotton field half the length of a football field. Her face is tilted slightly, with the sun shining in the reflection of her dark skin. Her head is wrapped in white, and a bag for the cotton she picks is slung across one shoulder. The whisper of a smile or a smirk plays on her lips. Is she smiling? I have seen faces like this before—in the Ghanaian auntie sitting on the stoop of the house in Accra, in the face of a woman waiting for a train in Boston.  I feel like she is looking right at me. I look back. I know she can’t see me, but for some reason still, I feel like she can. I have seen her here before; well, of course, she is here every day, posted up in the National Museum of African American History and Culture in this huge photographic mural.  

I was here a year ago, on the day of the women’s march. Then too, in this place housing perhaps millions of black faces, her face alone stuck out to me. I stood on the ramp, arrested by her looking at me. Did she know, or even hope that one day her kinfolk would fly through the sky to come to this copper memorial to her suffering and the triumph of the enduring hope for freedom? Could she ever have imagined that we would stand here, face to face, two women across centuries living in different worlds who are no less than relations? I want to talk to her. I want to tell her we made it. I want to tell her we have so far to go. I want to ask her about the story written on her face. I want to know if I am doing all she hoped we would. Is she looking at me?

Now back at the museum, I thought maybe her impact would be different this time. Maybe the intensity of her gaze was a projection, my mind racing to find connection amidst the painful history inscribed on the lower levels of the museum. But she is here waiting for me. I feel her before I see her, waiting patiently for me to process up the ramp towards her. I stop and we connect. People pass behind me—after all, this big photograph has no label, is not carefully lit so as to encourage viewers to stop and look more closely, but still, she is what draws me. I stand for a while. I wish there was a bench right here. She is nameless, an unknown slave lost in a wash of history, but right now we are together. I want to tell her I couldn’t wait to see her, that she is my favorite. I want her to know that I love her. I want to know her wildest dream: I want her to know that I am trying to make her proud.

3 I need to buy a suit. I need to buy a suit so I can get a new job. I have been a professor for such a long time that I don’t own a suit anymore. I want a black suit because I love black. He tells me it should be blue. I think he is wrong but I don’t really have any evidence. He has been in financing and corporate America for decades while I have been in the ivory tower so I cannot be completely sure that he is wrong. What do I know? I try on the navy blue and look at myself in the mirror. Who is that? I don’t look like me. I tell him that and he shakes his head. “ It is what it is.” We have had this conversation before. I know he is trying to help me; I know I don’t like what he is saying. I call over the attendant and plead my case. She agree, tells him ladies like black. I am vindicated and try on a black blazer while they chat about my suit choices.

Her: Ladies do love to wear black and its different for women than it is for men.

Him: But she is going to have to pay the tax

There is a beat. She is remembering. Her face, now serious and a little regretful turns to me.

Her: He’s right honey; you can’t just wear what you want. You’re going to have to be better.

I don’t want them to be right. I want to be able to choose. I want to be myself. To be myself and to be in white spaces is to be black, to be at a disadvantage that I can only overcome if I do more, tow the line. I have to be better if I want any chance of being equal. The suit will cost me $500. It will cost me $500 just so I can walk in the door and not be mistaken for the maid, for a cleaning lady, or an uneducated negro who doesn’t know what color suit to wear to a corporate job interview. I do not buy the suit. I buy instead an emerald green dress.

I will buy the suit next week.

Hold Tight, Let Go

You probably never thought about what happens to teenagers after they get in trouble but before they go to jail:  some end up in residential treatment facilities, kind of like a jail with therapy.  I used to work at a residential for boys on a unit that treated boys with trauma histories and adhd. Boys would spend up to a year living there:  going to school, spending downtime in the dorm units and participating in group therapy.  Though the school was a place for them to heal get help with their issues, the truth was it was often a rough place to be, from bad facilities and roaches to violence between students and sometimes with staff.  The facility was called “staff secure”, which meant that if anything popped off, staff handled it: breaking up fights, restraining out of control students and chasing runaways.  We didn’t use drugs, pepper spray or handcuffs–just bodies.

Boys on my unit came in with a whole host of issues and behaviors.  It was not unusual on any given day to find yourself in a restraint, struggling with coworkers to subdue a student acting out–smashing things, fighting and the like.  Restraints were intense, sometimes indistinguishable from a wrestling match, other times more like a group hug for a kid out of control.

I remember one kid in particular, Jacks.  He was a little guy, barely four feet tall with pants that were too long and would drag on the floor behind him like octopus tentacles.  His parents were on drugs and would often physically and emotionally abuse poor Jacks.  He learned early to turn this violence around on others, getting into fights and lashing out at staff.  Despite his small stature, he was out of control most of the time, a little Tasmanian devil with a mean left hook.  Few days went by that didn’t involve a restraint with Jacks.

One day, predictably, lying on the floor holding onto Jacks’ ankles to keep him from kicking my coworker Cy in the back, we listened to a vile stream of cussing Jacks directed at us.  He was telling me about myself, my mamma and my whole life.  The closer we listened a story started to emerge–and one that didn’t include anything going on in that room. While we held him on that floor he kicked and spat,  screamed at his mother, at his father at a world that left his little body to beat on.  We let go and sat back only to see him continue to twist as if still in the fight. It dawned on me that he wasn’t fighting us, it was us that stood between him and his demons.  He loved the restraints because it was the closest he had to some protection, a hug. He was so haunted by his past that he fought those of us trying to offer him a future.

Are we not also like this?  Like Jacks, haunted by our past, unable to make peace with what has happened, lashing out violently against what is yet to come? Like me, trying to hold on, trying to love my brother back to reality even as he kicks and spits at me. Like a system, locking away hurt young boys rather than help then, warehousing them until they become a number jails can earn from?

That afternoon on the floor, Jacks writhed in pain for a while. Only slowly he realized that we didn’t hold him, he held himself.  He laid there, tear streaked face, taking deep breaths looking across the floor at me not touching him, not holding him, not the one hurting him.  I hadn’t caused this problem but I was still there, still bearing witness for him.

I’d like to tell you everything got better, but that’s never the case.  Jacks got better.  He began to fight the demons in his mind instead of fighting me and Cy.  Responsibility was the only way through, owning his issues and dealing with them instead of bubbling with hurt and hate.  The system got more broke, turning teen placements into cash cows, feeding the prison pipeline with a steady drip of little Jacks.

I don’t work in juvenile justice anymore–I couldn’t find enough justice to justify the treatment of teens tied to profit.  Afterward, I worked with youth in youth organizing, and now I teach young people who will go do work like that.  But still, I feel too often like I I did on that floor, holding onto to my brothers’ ankles trying to love him back to life.  It is a feeling of both helplessness and hope.  This work is hard and sweaty and I’m sick of the hatred and I want to let go of the haters and I can’t heal anyone but myself anyways but I’m stuck, still believing that we can get better, that we can do and be better. But I’m still here. I’m still here. I’m learning to hold on tighter. I’m learning to let go better.