Since Trayvon’s murder — literal and figurative– many of us have been examining our relationship to, and our perception and treatment of, black men & boys.As a black woman who has spent her life in relationship with black men & boys– as daughter, girlfriend, niece, granddaughter, great-granddaughter, cousin, sister, friend, wife, teacher, advisor, neighbor, coworker, fellow worshiper, stepmother, and, finally, mother– I have failed them. And they have failed me.I could start in any number of places.I could start with my father. I am his firstborn– a stranger he now stalks on Facebook.
I could start with my Uncle Cricket– my favorite uncle, now deceased, who loved me like his own, filled me with stories, and reminded me, always, of my Heavenly Father.
I could start with my first crush– Kenny St. Romaine– a boy who never acknowledged my existence, despite the fact that I walked past his house on my way to the corner store several times every day, my skinny legs slowing, my heart quickening whenever he was outside, lounging carelessly against his mother’s car, laughing it up with friends or cousins.
I could start with my first boyfriend– my first kiss, my first date, my first everything physical.
I could start with my college boyfriend– the first and only guy who ever struck me. (But as I write this, I remember that, although he was the first romantic interest who hit me–heavy hand on bottom– my body carries memories of my father doing the same, and, an uncle, whose weight pulled from his feet to his hand as he struck me, repeatedly, on my backside). And there have been times when I lashed out physically at them (not the aforementioned, but another, or two), in a moment of fury. And other times when I imagined doing it so viscerally that I could feel their skin under mine, feel the heat still burning my palm.
I could start with my first husband– a man who loved me as best he could, who taught me the power of forgiveness.
I could start with my student who scored near perfect on the SAT, left to study biological sciences at Columbia University, then found the courage to pursue his passion for literature and writing, landing a gig at a major book publishing company in Manhattan while still an undergraduate. Or, with the student whose big personality charmed my heart and also helped me pierce through his fast talking to discover he was, afterall, the culprit who stole $50 out of my purse, after which his mother made him stand in a well-known Los Angeles park, wearing a sign: “Please help me raise the money to pay my teacher back. I stole her money to buy these shoes. I know it was wrong, and I am sorry.” In his right hand, he held the brightly colored tennis shoes high in the air, his muscles aching and weary. Peering through his thick, black-rimmed glasses, he endured the lectures grown folks gave him with a courtesy that charmed them. In spite of themselves, they reached in their pockets and purses to hand him the few bucks they had.
I could start with my four-year-old son– who still amazes me by his presence, unaware that his mother swore for most of her life that she would not have children.
I could start with my youngest stepson– a 16 year old whose soul is in torment, perhaps over the nasty divorce his parents underwent when he was still in elementary school; perhaps because he has not seen his mother in four years, but cannot allow himself to be angry with her, choosing, like many children in his situation, to idolize her; perhaps because the family that his father and I have tried to create just does not fit his picture world (“Why should we have all this,” he asked once, “when Mom is poor and living in a one-room apartment?”). Over the last year, his quiet anger and depression imploded and then erupted, leaving alcoholism, drugs, failing grades, school expulsions, altercations with cops, bloody accidents and uncontrollable outbursts in their wake. As my husband and I hungrily soaked up every bit of news about Trayvon Martin, sheriff’s deputies were knocking on our door with our 16-year-old handcuffed in the backseat.
I could also start with my great grandfather, Burt Bridges– a Mississippi man determined to go for his dreams and stand up for his rights, a man who was, instead, hunted down like a dog and strung on a tree while my great grandmother, Mary, carried his son (my mother’s father) in her womb.
No matter where I start, there is sure to be pain. But I know how to excavate the joy, the hope. There are issues of loyalty here, and responsibility and forgiveness. What does each possible starting place have to do with the other?