City of Children: Why Ferguson Will Have Little to No Impact on America’s Conscience
by Rayfield A. Waller
The Panopticon Review
"Negroes have always held the lowest jobs, the most menial jobs, which are now being destroyed by automation. No remote provision has yet been made to absorb this labor surplus. Furthermore, the Negro's education, North and South, remains, almost totally, a segregated education. And, the police treat the Negro like a dog."
Just a week ago I spent my last hour with Mother on the last completely lucid day she lived. It was difficult to hold a conversation with her by then; she was only speaking in whispers, with bouts of irrationality and memory loss.
“Are you feeding my cat at the house?” she kept asking me, and I kept gently reminding her that her cat, Mitzi, is no longer ‘at the house’ that mother left empty as her illness progressed, but that Mitzi lives with me now, and is eating regularly.
I mentioned to her that I was trying but was unable to write something about the young man who’d been killed in Ferguson. “Which one is that?” she asked. She had a television on in the room nearly 24 hours but she had not noticed the news reports. “A Ferguson, Missouri cop named Darren Wilson isn’t going to face any charges for killing an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown,” I told her, and she then whispered to me secret—something I had long suspected or maybe just felt in my bones.
“They can do us any way they want to, the police, and they always made me feel like trash. They were always looking at me, talking to me, touching me.”
“Touching you? Who!? The police?” I asked her, shocked. “Yeah,” she whispered, matter-of-factly, focusing on me with a look almost of accusation, as if to draw my attention to what a fool I must be. “I had good hair in high school, you know,” she said. Indeed, she had been a very beautiful young woman in her teen years—looking like a cinema idol, like Lena Horne. “I was light skinned, and pretty. That was why I loved your father. He was dark skinned, strong, and he could protect me.”
A dozen lights went off in my head at hearing this. It didn’t seem she was talking about having been raped by the police, but rather something in some way more insidious: that she had spent her youth, under segregation, feeling eternally at risk of rape; that she had perhaps even been physically mistreated, pushed around, maybe even fondled by them. I could get her to say nothing more about it. She merely shook her head disdainfully, whispering, “I’d kill ‘em all if I could. They can do us any way.” She then went back to her whispered talk about how I should arrange the little windowsill Christmas decorations I had brought for her.
It had always been in the back of my mind: why my mother in the years of my childhood had been so strangely detached, lacking in many of the typical characteristics of ‘motherhood’. She never learned to cook very well, she was never very affectionate toward us; her love had an edge of spite to it, a coldness that both toughened me and left me wanting affection and attention—two classic drivers that have motivated so many artists, writers, pimps and stand-up comedians to seek an audience or a customer base for whom to perform their art. The benefits of neurosis.
My mother had for years been a shut-in, even when healthy; after my father’s death she had retreated into a world of her own—spoiled by me and my sisters, conceited, self-absorbed, allowing herself to physically degenerate by refusing to push herself, refusing to socialize with other senior citizens. She had the air of a deposed queen. My father had been her king, her entire kingdom made of his lifelong catering to her every serious need and passing whim. It had been hard for me to fill those shoes once he had died. Many times over the decade since his death I have joked that I wish I could dig him up and slap his face for the monster he created of my mother. If not for her flight from reality and from daily struggle after he’d died, her fight with cancer might have been an easier one: she refused to do the necessary physical therapy after cancer surgery that might have strengthened her enough to do chemo therapy, and had she done chemo, it might have saved her life.
But now I was considering for the first time what must lie beneath my mother’s (and my father’s) strange behaviors. My mother’s family, light skinned, fine haired, half Choctaw from Alabama, had not taken kindly to Mother marrying into a dark skinned, broad nosed, though solidly middle-class Waller family full of distinctly Mandinka descended men, the mirror opposite of the somewhat yellow and ‘Dapper Dan’ haired men on my mother’s side. All my life my parents had been almost sickly sweet on one-another, at times even besotted with their devotion. Even during periods of conflict, several separations (but never a divorce), and even when paired off with other partners and lovers, the gravitational attraction between them would always draw them back together.
During my father’s slow degeneration and death in a nursing home my mother dutifully visited him regularly, washed his clothing, fed him by hand, and sat talking to him hour after hour, just as he had brought her offerings of food almost nightly after work, even though they no longer lived under the same roof. I recall an old photo of them just after marrying, before children. The contract between his muscular blackness and her lithe, vivid yellow beauty is arresting.
Despite all my degrees, my being a professor of history, and despite all I certainly know of America’s crimes against us, still I was brought up short by this casual, whispered voice of reality from my terminally ill mother; this reminder of just how rank and ugly America’s treatment of us has been, and that all of us have been touched by it, if not personally, than through the inheritance of pain and humiliation our own parents and grandparents have suffered.
The bitterness and the hurt that I heard in my Mother’s whisper for that moment could have lit the dark side of the moon. Of course she was in love with my father. My father’s own seething resentment of white supremacy during my childhood made him an apt protector of us all. He once tossed an offensive White insurance salesman off the front porch like so much potatoes in a sack, partly because he had leered at my mother—a sharp and clear memory of my childhood, but the meaning I now realize, may have been lost on me: I came to know my mother and father in the 1970s—my earliest coherent memories of them—during a time of uproar and of protest; a time when Black power was giving efficacy and a voice to my family and to all the adults around me.
But my parents did not come into existence in the 1970s. They were both born in the 1930s just after the grip of the depression had released my grandparents but while lynching, violence, and the most horrifying brutality was still legal or at least permissible in the United States. Even after the two sides of my family migrated North, the more urbane forms of brutality and threat to Black life and limb lived on in the occupational forces that terrorized Black men and women in the cities: the police.
Of course my mother, beautiful, intelligent, gifted (she might have been a great visual artist had she not been born Black in Detroit, and the consensus among her family and friends were that she would certainly have been a famous model or an actress), made a choice early in her life to be SAFE rather than to risk disapproval or worse yet, too much attention from Whites. Of course my mother retreated into the strong Black arms of my father, retreated from risk, from the world of Whites, retreated even from her own beauty and genius, and though she forever regretted not becoming an artist, contented herself with being safe.
We live in a country that prides itself on memory loss, on repression of real feeling and thought.
On the morning before she died, I was inundated by many of the medical workers, surrounding patients who’d made friends with Mother, nurses, and other people around me with the kind of psychic dissonance that is common in the presence of imminent death. Losing my mother was bad enough without having to also endure the hardship of maudlin American folkways and platitudes. In the United States the bourgeois language of death is a presumptuous syntax whose vocabulary of clichés is often thrown like so many bric-a-bracs at our heads. I am only at the start of the ritual, for I still have the indignity of selecting a final overpriced catafalque and an ignominious hole in the ground, with a funeral as the necessary linking verb. Having begun in the death room itself yesterday the spectacle will now move to a wake and a funeral, ending with a gathering of strangers posed as family at some agreed-upon grave site somewhere under the dubious, soothing anointing of a priest or minister or a rabbi. All of them, earnest as they will be, able to say nothing that can fill a void in us as easily as the void of the grave will straightaway be filled by a narrow box.
This ritual response to death may comfort some, but on the day of Mother’s departure from me it all seems insultingly mollifying to anyone who must endure death or witness it happening to loved ones. It is meant to garble our emotional responses to a primal experience of pain when the beloved is torn from us. Death after all is humanity’s most dreaded consummation, father of a hundred thousand poems, threnodies, and Kaddishes of lament. Like war and childbirth, death is one of the universal terrors implicit in the rite of adulthood. If one is inclined to this, it must be comforting, I suppose, but if not so inclined it seems an insult to have one’s proper adult grief sullied by clumsy rituals or superstitious folkways meant to blunt the reality of the finality of separation. “My mother,” I snapped at a rehab worker, is not ‘going home,’ she is going off into oblivion.” It is I’m sure, just that; the same oblivion we are all bound for and that rounds our lives into a perfect circle from somebody’s womb (the mother I’ve lost) to everyone’s tomb (Mother Earth), and I’m fine with that—if people would just stop prattling and leave me alone with my grief. It was a cruel thing to say to the innocent but it was the only way to make the nurse leave me alone. She later wheeled into the death room a cart laden with ‘Chips Ahoy” cookies, graham crackers, and a carafe of coffee for me, my sisters, and my two brothers in law.
I later apologized to her. Suffer the children, right?
As I said, this is a country that renounces deep reflection or critical analysis of any sort, and in which not even many Black people will face the actual scars we all carry of a real history of brutality and exploitation meted out even against our families’ older generations. Far less likely are White liberal TV news analysts or White policy makers or elected official to look honestly at the balk the Negro carries and see their own Anglo identity and their own possible future, or see their own European Ethnic grandparents’ perhaps too-shameful past as refugees rousted from their shtetls, ghettos, forest encampments, villages, and peasant shanties across Europe, to be cast afloat on a desperate journey to New York Harbor and packed like cattle onto Ellis Island to have their ethnic names scoured and sanitized via Anglicizing them, next to be processed like so much chum, before flooding into the tenement kingdoms of early twentieth century industrial America that surely then and does now have a plan for them and for making a profit off of them.
Not even those who are proclaiming their identification with the murderers of Michael Brown and of Trayvon Martin (Trayvon’s killer himself a son of a Cuban immigrant and a white American) can or do honestly confront the actual inner lives of their own grandparents. Not every TV yawping head is a Dave Zirin; too many are cut rate Sean Hannitys who’ve conveniently forgotten their Irish immigrant roots. We are living out the myth of Sisyphus. No progress ever can nor ever will be made in terms of race, because we are constitutionally unable to face the original crime of race in America: the Transatlantic Corporate Slave Trade and the human chattel industry it nurtured; the settling of North America by the clearing project of genocide against Native peoples followed by the multi-BILLION Pounds Sterling and American Greenbacks in primitive accumulation through slave labor (a model for later industrial and current service industry WAGE SLAVE LABOR) that literally built an entire continent, cleared the woodlands, harrowed and excavated the mineral wealth of the wounded Earth, established an agricultural base, then founded a new industrial power, with its attendant continental infrastructure of roads, bridges, waterways, ports, railways, and highways. All of these things were either constructed literally by captured African labor or by the wealth produced by captured African labor.
All the putrid, red herring debates going on now in the media over whether or not Michael Brown struck Darren Wilson about the face until he was blushed, rushed at Wilson, attacked him, whether or not Mike reared up ‘like hulk Hogan’, like ‘a demon’ or mighty beast and roared, sending shards of fear through the poor defenseless (except for his .40 caliber automatic service weapon) cop who in his raw, gut wrenching terror at Giant Negro Mike’s superhuman monstrosity had no choice but to shoot him repeatedly until dead, are absurd and typical avoidance of the point. What if Mike did rush headlong into certain death (after all, even Hulk Hogan himself would have been put down by several shots from a 40 caliber automatic)? What if Mike, like me with my mother’s nurse, like you stopped on your own doorstep by the cop who doesn’t believe you really live in your house, or like hundreds of thousands of other Black men in America, felt on that day that he was tired of being tall, hefty, strong, but restrained by the social conditions he lived under? Or, what if he was just like so many other young Black men—like the hundreds of young Black men I have seen in my university course, who are full of testosterone and energy and frustrated force and who lacked good judgment since after all, he was just a mannish CHILD despite his physiogamy? Likely if he had lived he’d have been a child tried as an adult for assaulting a police officer. Since he’s dead, it is his murderer, an adult, who seems right now to be going through public trial as a child. Again, Americans would rather preoccupy their public discourses with potboilers, spectacle, lurid gossip, thrillers, and titillation rather than the history of repression and containment by occupational forces posing as police, who, in the case of Darren Wilson LITERALLY ‘demonize’ our children as beasts.
How does history square with Darren Wilson’s apparently unconscious, overt appeal to Black male ‘brute’ mythologies? His rankly racist testimony to the grand jury he sat before, the transcripts of which are now available but whose shockingly primitive, backward leaning, old 1800’s anthropological racism few news outlets other than MSNBC and few commentators other than Dave Zirin have the willingness or the intelligence to directly comment on, was sprinkled heavily with classic, absurd claims of feeling ‘like a child under attack’ by the supposedly hulking, brutish, superhumanly mighty beast-like assault of an unarmed young Black male whose very Blackness was and is a deadly weapon requiring the use of deadly force to mitigate or to subdue.
The childlike non-response of media, of average folks on the street, of commentators, and slack-jawed, slack-minded politicians betrays just how underdeveloped Americans are intellectually, at this point in American devolution.America is more like an enormous city than a country. Burgeoning, low-brow, and petty, this glorified city. Every state has the same stores, the same eateries, the same non-news stories, the same fondling of shop-worn myths and lies, the same retreat into nostalgic, self-protective racism deployed by Anglos who wish to guard against looking at their own oppression under late capitalism, via the tactic of demonizing Blacks and Latinos. There is in city to city the same meandering, illiterate retreat into ferocious consumerism by young American Blacks who desperately want to guard against the daunting task at hand, which ought to be their historical imperative to continue their grandparent’s legacy of freedom struggle. Each state, like a glorified neighborhood in a city, is populated by the same people—the smug but fragile middle classes, the beat down though still struggling working classes--some of whom manage gamely to keep the union movements and anti-foreclosure movement afloat, the sold-out, cynical elder Black opportunists whose avatar, we now see, must have always been alleged rapist, Bill Cosby—the 60 and 70-something Blacks who once waged a civil rights struggle but who now recline on the residual economic benefits bled for by the masses but now accrued by a Colored elite. The same things coast-to-coast, the same people, many of them thinking and doing the same things, believing the same lies. One might think there is no originality or creativity left to the place—it’s like a great big mean spirited mall.
But last week Mother had these words for me also: she told me as I was about to leave that she loved the Christmas decorations I’d tediously arranged for her under her whispered direction. “That’s so beautiful. I like beautiful things. I wish I could give you something.”
I kissed her forehead and smiled down at her. “You gave me a childhood, Mother,” I said, “And from that I made myself an adult.”
This is the challenge of this glorified city, city of children that is America. We won’t learn anything at all from this latest destruction of a young Black life, but mark these words, you’ve heard them before: when we finally embrace who and what we all really are and where we came from, when it becomes just as routine for young Anglo lives to be destroyed with impunity by a barbaric, militarized police force, the lesson will suddenly become quite clear. That and only that will mark childhood’s end in this petty little city we call America.
Where ever you are now, Bessie Lee Dukes-Waller, I love and thank you for the life you gave to me.