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Do You Remember the Time? At the Lynching Memorial

On September 11, 2021 I visited the Lynching Memorial, which is near the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative Museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

At the heart of the “National Memorial for Peace and Justice” (Lynching memorial) is a vast collection of giant, rusty metal, rectangular pillars, hanging tightly together like a neatly planned and well-looked-after orchard.

Etched in each are the names of (known) lynching victims by date.

We can see that, at times, entire families were lynched.

The pillars are hung so cleverly that one has to experience this artistic installation in person.

Nonetheless, the subject of white terrorism in the deep south is heavy,

Which is perhaps why Guests are invited to visit the nearby museum before the Memorial.

One needs time to prepare.

Naturally, sandwiched between enslavement and mass incarceration exhibits,

The museum also has an array of material on lynching.

This included a giant mural of jars surrounded by videos, infographic murals, maps and

An interactive register of every known lynching by county, date, state, and name.

I’m still stuck on the mural of snapshots of actual lynching advertisements, and

Pictures of actual news reports of victims’ final words.

These were the actual final words of folks etched forever in these hanging, rusty pillars.

Ostensibly, written by war correspondents.

Standing in awe of the museum’s wall of jars, I chatted with a tall Black man about my age.

He’d traveled here from a neighboring state with his teen son to, as he said,

“See how this stuff we go through today ain’t new.”

I recounted to him what a young man at the EJI memorial had showed me a few years ago:

A man’s name who’d been lynched early last century for selling loose cigarettes –

Just like Eric Garner!

Yet, even since then,

We’ve gotten the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor,

Or even Michael Brown, Walter Scott and Philando Castile.

Amadou Diallo was shot 19 times in 1999, standing on his own stoop

And while Jayland Walker got 46 bullets this year while fleeing on foot.

Tamir Rice!

Tamir Rice was a little boy.

A little boy playing in the park. But his mere presence terrified a white man.

So he called 9-1-1 and the police showed up and shot Tamir within seconds!

We can watch the tape.

All of these martyrs are included in the museum’s growing timelines (sigh).

After their own legal work in representing the wrongfully imprisoned for damn near life,

EJI began collecting jars of dirt near every known lynching, and

If invited by local officials, EJI would offer a memorial plaque and ceremony commemorating that community’s recognition of historic injustice(s).

An open field sits next to the suspended pillars, filled with a duplicate of each pillar.

These duplicates sit, having yet to be collected and properly dedicated by each county.

These communities are denied healing, and we know wounds fester.

The field of lame duplicates effectively memorializes the festering denial in our body politic.

There are far too many unrecorded victims and versions of white mob violence, and intimidation, not just barbarous torture and heinous murder.

Outside of these few sorts of memorials,

We do have to wonder how else this rich history has stayed in our collective memories.

Too many Black families were too traumatized to talk and didn’t want to pass it to their kids.

We know many fled after any minor incursion,

Just as someone had advised Emmet Till to do,

And there’s no accounting for them and the victims’ families who fled and

Even hid or discarded any news clippings they’d seen of the events.

Yet, whites must have kept record.

Did whites collect the newspaper ads or reports of a lynching they’d attended or hoped to?

They made and sold lynching postcards, curios, and other odd lynching souvenirs.

Where are the avid collectors?

Plus, apparently, terrorists don’t just kidnap and hang someone to death,

So what did they do with all the ears, noses, fingers, and genitals they cut off?

Or eyes they plucked out?

Or scalps they shaved?

Many victims pass out from the immense pain of being tortured and burned alive, but still

I doubt all those pieces and parts got thrown in the fire, because, of course,

Plenty of pictures show entire white families there to celebrate the lynching like (a) V-day.

And in many ways, it was, and

The whites looked as if they would’ve wanted to remember.

Looks can be deceiving, but the ways whites were also bullied into compliance is real.

Still, my mother swears that some white families’ heirlooms must include

Prized, preserved pieces of Nat Turner.

Ooh, wouldn’t that be a treasure that would be.

Plus, given the spate and state of anti-Black policing and violence,

Our democracy, nay, our Constitution itself, is as rusty as these pillars.

The pillars resting in the field remind us not only the work left to do, but also, it’s urgency.

How many more pillars may we still need?

How many amendments did will freedom take?

It goes to show how great thou art now!

See: Slave Ads at the EJI Museum

Catalog of Negores, mules, carts and wagons to be sold

In September 2021, I visited the newly expanded Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, in my maternal grandparents’ hometown, Montgomery, Alabama. I was struck by the range of artifacts used to chronicle each era. Consider these1854 slave market advertisements from the Montgomery Advertiser and Gazette – still the local newspaper!

Catalog of Negroes, mules, carts, wagons and Co., to be sold in Montgomery. Headlines included: Wenches and bucks, quality Negroes for sale.

Nancy – about 26, fieldhand, cannot recommend her particularly, complains of indisposition, but probably a proper master might cure her.

Ben – A strong and hearty man, about 30 years old, an excellent field hand, and a remarkably handy boy, in any use, being usually quick and intelligent; a No. 1 Negro.

Suckey, A remarkably intelligent Negro girl about 15 years of age, understands General house work well for her age; can sew tolerably, and is a most excellent nurse and attendant for children; has remarkable strength of constitution, and never known to have been complaining even for a moment; a pretty good field hand, and would make an excellent one.

Allison – about 15, fine body and house servant, carriage driver and Ostler, honest, steady, handy, healthy, smart, intelligent, and in all respects a choice and desirable boy.

Mary Jane – about 11.

Martha – about 10.

Louisa – about 7.

Old George – as faithful and honest an old African as ever lived.

His wife Judy, the same sort of character.

Henrietta – about 24… First-rate cotton picker.

One of the humans being trafficked recounted:

“To test the soundness of a male or female slave… They are handled in the grossest manner, and inspected with… disgusting minuteness… in the auction room where the dealer is left alone with the ‘chattels’ offered… God has recorded the wickedness that is done there, and punishment will assuredly fall upon the guilty.” -J. Brown.

The ebb and flow of freedom.

Each exhibit in the ‘Enslavement to Mass Incarceration’ museum takes visitors seamlessly through the Atlantic slave trade, past Jim and Jane Crow segregation, to a recorded face-to-face visit with a real-life, modern-day inmate. As you enter what seems like the final hall, you are confronted with an array of individual seats at a glass window/screen projecting an inmate calmly sitting, waiting. Like a real prison visit, there’s a telephone, which once lifted, the prisoner does the same, introduces themselves, and recounts their story. History confronts you in the present: The confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865. By 1898, 73% of state revenue came from convict leasing. Now?

One explicit goal of the EJI project, reflected and reinscribed in the exhibits’ descriptions, is a shift in language from slavery and slaves to human trafficking and enslavement. Surely, one can feel the sublingual, subliminal shift from victimology to responsibility, and that implies accountability. To be clear, the entire economy centered around usurping land, driving-out or exterminating the indigenous people, human trafficking and slave labor, shredding the natural environment into farmland to produce cotton, cane and tobacco, manufacturing a range of commodities from these raw materials, trading around the world. Who got rich? Whose labor was exploited?

Who is accountable for giving birth to Jim Crow, if slavery died with ole Abe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation? Who is accountable for cultivating chronic poverty and voter intimidation, if we’d exterminated white lynch mobs through the Civil Rights codes of the sixties? Who indeed is responsible for mass incarceration? The exhibits challenge language that focuses on the victim and remains hush about the status quo, masking the ensuing abuse of power needed for its maintenance, especially hidden from abusers who may themselves be exploited by the myth of meritocracy.

As a side note, perhaps people will not actually be able to reckon with this cognitive dissonance of heroic CONfederate generals and their cause to uphold each state’s right to let white men traffic and enslave Blacks. I’d truly like to see public statues of say, the valiant General Lee, standing next to two or three statues of enslaved people, and a few statues of the white people charged with the quotidian physical labor of enslavement, e.g., driving labor (whip crackers), capturing and punishing escapees (slave catchers, the original law-enforcement force), breaking in new arrivals (torture), breeding ((gang)rape), and general humiliation throughout these duties (sadomasochism). Perhaps the museum just needs to add another exhibit with busts of them.

With stark population stats posted big and bold as visitors transition from room to room, the exhibits chronologically shift through significant eras. Today in the prison industrial complex there are 8 million incarcerated. 10 million were segregated under Jim and Jane Crow until the Civil Rights movement. 9 million terrorized by lynching, accelerating the erosion of Reconstruction. The nation was born and raised with 12 million kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Dear reader, right now I ask, what precisely has our nation done to upend caste?

No ways tired: Miss Lillie, arrested with Mrs. Parks.

12 September 2021

Visit to the Equal Justice Initiative Museum, From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration.

Near the end of the EJI’s newly expanded museum, there is a wall of slightly larger than life-size mugshots of folks arrested alongside Mrs. Rosa Parks in just another local act of civil disobedience. I’ve rarely seen a more earnest collection of everyday people, not unlike the folks around me as I get to know Montgomery today.

Mugshots.

Men in suits, ladies sporting pretty hats in their Sunday best.

Farmers in overalls and working women in neat dresses.

Learned-looking men with glasses, and fancy tiepins.

Young men in sleek fedoras and two or three older men in derbies.

Another man wears a skullcap.

Meaningful women and men of age, of reconstruction age, whom we imagine had by then seen every intimate and public side of Jim and Jane Crows’ wickedness.

They were representin’.

The only thing they seem to have in common is their determination.

(Sigh).

I found myself face-to-face and fixated with

Miss Lillie Bell Robinson.

She sat,

Framed,

With her arms,

Crossed.

Double-crossed.

With her head,

Tilted,

With her expression, tired, but

Also, a particular squint in her eye – or perhaps a gleam – that betrays her obvious fatigue,

As if saying: “No ways tired.”

I moan in tune, and

This somehow keeps my knees from buckling under the weight of it all, since

The preceding exhibits have already taken us along a long timeline where

Every glimpse of justice gets trampled upon –

Again, and again.

I sigh and see why they are tired.

On that day, did Miss Lillie know that much more violence, much more real intensified violence was yet to come?

This was the mid-50’s, and

Could Miss Lillie have imagined that:

Just 5-6 years later,

Freedom Riders from the north would arrive around the corner,

Riding federally desegregated, public coaches, and

The same local sheriffs would stand by, and

Let them get beaten, assaulted, brutally, and

Battered by white-hot mobs –

Only to arrest the so-called outside agitators?

Probably all of you, Miss Lillie, were battered by many of the same hands, and

Abandoned by many of the same actors of local justice.

I estimate Miss Lillie to be my grandparents’ age, and

By that day, they’d already fled and made their way to Kentucky.

I am wondering where Miss Lillie is now – right now?

(I take a deep sigh and realize that I’ve not yet reached the mass incarceration part of the museum, and ultimately just skimmed on by.

Graciously, the final exhibit is a “Recovery room,” a hall of walls of portraits,

which we might also call “mugshots,”

As each face had all, actively, over centuries,

Activated against oppression.

I recognized writers, musicians, poets, painters, politicians, preachers, teachers, activists of all flavors, and

After the weight of the truth shown in each timeframe, this left me feeling full of joy.

And, I moaned along with the tunes, there, too.

That day,

She’d had had enough, and

Though reluctant before,

Somehow now,

Miss Lillie could no longer stand by, and

Just wait for justice, and

Just go on about her own merry way, and

Pretend like this is ok, and

Adjust to the insanity of segregation, and

The very look on her face said this is “why we can’t wait.”

Her face calm, but

Twisted.

The mug shot ID, hanging around her neck like a shackle: #7010.

Business as usual, and for sure somebody’s gettin’ paid.

So, she not knowing.

She, not knowing if this all will work.

If getting arrested today mattered.

If any of this is worth it.

If this time change is coming,

having nothing left but Faith…

in herself, in others, and

Somehow faith in her nation… to do the right thing,

Despite this day, and

In spite of the many apparent setbacks, and

A million everyday,

Tiny little cuts.

We rise.

That day, Miss Lillie rose to the occasion.

She and all these others stepped up so we could step out, and

Step in here now,

Free to learn about each step along our legacy of peace.

I’m now in awe of Miss Lillie, and

Take a step back and

Smile at her, and

Take in the glory of this sensation.

Hats off to you, Miss Lillie.

Sculpture at EJI’s Lynching Memorial

Lines of soldiers snaked around the airport departure area…

In the middle of the so-called Iraq war, I remember encountering a group of soldiers headed to the battlefield from the Atlanta airport. I was heading back to my cushy, comfy apartment in New Delhi, to continue my doctoral fieldwork. I had visited my family in Alabama and Georgia for as long as I wanted, and so was comfortably heading back to my normal life. Lines of soldiers in uniform snaked all around the airport.

They were everywhere. From check-in, through security, to the lounges, especially where they pacify our waiting times with crowds of sofas. No matter where we went, no matter what we did – waiting, wandering, shaving or brushing our teeth in the bathroom, loitering, or just tax-free window shopping – we were surrounded by America’s finest, cleanest, most highly trained youth. What’s more, one easily noticed that they were far more black and brown people amongst the soldiers than the civilians hovering around. More still, it was clear from the news that these soldiers were only there – armed and ready – because ‘we’ were sending them directly to the battlefield. The same shield on their uniforms was the very same shield on the passport I was using to effortlessly cross all these borders; supposedly they were defending me, too.

“Baby come back! Any kind of fool can see…” -Player, 1977.

I love landing in the Atlanta airport when coming home from abroad. Atlanta is a chocolate city, and one sees that right from the opening of the airplane doors. There are all sorts of regular Black people doing every sort of job, and so I get the Black-head-nod at least twenty times before I reach my luggage. I’m always feeling myself in the ATL.

Of course, like any day at any airport around the world, there are tons of screens floating from the ceilings, muted with subtitles, positioned conveniently around the masses of sofas meant to pacify the masses of passengers’ long waits. The screens show every news channel, and every news channel steadily feeds us a minute-by-minute update of the war. So of course, as a passenger headed east from America to India, I would inevitably have a layover either in Europe or the Middle East, again comfortably cruising past the battlefield.

Only a few years earlier, I had visited my cousins in Germany who were military medics receiving soldiers from the battlefield, making their way home. I knew that everywhere I was going, every nation over which we flew, was entangled in the battle these young people standing before me were about to face.

“Kein Blut für Öl” (no blood for oil!)

In true Southern charm, I had to say something. You just don’t spend that much time physically near other people and not acknowledge their presence.  It’s rude to ignore people, which I only point out because I realize this is not the case everywhere, even in our own country. Acknowledging strangers may therefore seem strange to you, dear reader. Besides, how rude would it be to avert one’s eyes from this reality. Bon voyage!

There were soldiers in long lines snaking around the whole airport. So, by the time you’ve reached your gate, you’ve had a long time to ponder the youths’ circumstances, one by one. Waiting there, they see you. You see them, too, and you want them to know that they are seen, not averted or ignored simply because this was all very uncomfortable.

What could I say to any of them, that would not reveal my heartbreak, which is certainly something these people did not need to see. Nor did I need to share my complete dissent from the dominant WMD narrative being spun by the very government sending them into battle. As many marches and protests as I had taken part of in the buildup to this war, I may have even had an anti-war sticker plastered across my backpack. It’s a shame, and THAT war is filled with war crimes.

So: “Y’all take care,” and, “Y’all come back,” were all I could mutter behind my grin-n-tears, what Fela called suff’rin’ and smilin’. War is not the answer.

If we could empathize with all life, we…         [fill in the blank]

In Honour of my two teachers’ passing (seen together here). Rest In Power, bell hooks (d. 15/12/21) and Thich Nhat Hanh (d. 22/01/22).

Image: https://www.lionsroar.com/a-beacon-of-light-bell-hooks-on-thich-nhat-hanh/

If we could empathize with all life, we…        

… wouldn’t treat all animals as either food or fodder.

… wouldn’t develop nuclear technology into bombs.

…would never show an interest in making so many guns and ways of destroying life.

…would more genuinely aim to achieve mutual understanding between individuals.

…wouldn’t have so much intergenerational trauma within families, communities, nations.

…would be more neighborly in all our affairs.

…wouldn’t treat trade like a sport, a winner-takes-all competition over natural resources.

…would harness the power of the sun for it shines on all life collectively.

…would cultivate care, and be kinder as a general rule.

… would teach kindness in school, a required class on every campus.

…would not build entire ideologies, systems of government, religions, arts, and culture around patriarchy.

… would not be reduced to binaries, not just in gender, but ‘black or white’ in our overall thinking, because that’s where it came from: A false yet powerful and enduring dichotomy.

Binary thinking produced gender binaries, not the other way around. Knowing this is key to its undoing. Please know that capitalism produced racism, and greed crafted classism. A2 + B2 = C2, still. Racism is exponentially untamed greed; and patriarchy an inferiority complex run rampant and amok. Such cultures of greed can’t be conquered by competition; greed can’t be beat! We need a new dimension.

If we could empathize with all life, we would aspire to be far more fair.

If we could empathize with all life, we would love more.

Your turn.

Fill in the blank.

The Suffering of Pride, Excerpt from The Art of Communicating

Calling All Dads: Girls Girls Girls wanted. #SpokenWord

Calling all dads.

Reward for the first hundred daughters!

Calling all dads, Magic City Club is recruiting!  

Magic city is the most elite strip joint in the world,

Any dad should be proud to have his daughter work for us!

We value our customers and want to give YOU the chance to shape Magic City Club’s future.

So we’re recruiting.

PLEASE send your daughters in right away.

We need your girls, girls, girls.

The most beautiful daughters in the world, we ask all dads to send them now.

You’re our valued-customers so you know MCC is about quality!

Send them in to Magic City Club, by express, in a rush, by plane or by bus!

Hurry, hurry, hurry we need girls – quick – these polls aren’t going to oil them selves. 

We don’t care how you get these girls here we need strippers now!

Now we know this is a difficult task,

So we are offering a reward for the first hundred daughters!

The first hundred days to send in their daughters will get a lifetime ticket! 

A lifetime supply of girls swinging on poles, every dad’s dream. 

So send in your daughters, and the first hundred new donors receive a lifetime supply of free entry to any of our prestigious establishments around the world for you and a party of 10 men. 

Imagine how your career will explore when you bring your colleagues on an annual, all-expense-paid trip to Magic city, and enjoy some other men’s daughters swinging from the polls. Swish. Slide. Spin, Twirl. And flap, flat on the ground, she’s in a split!

Dads, you will not be missed on any neighbor’s Christmas list when you invite the dads from your hood right on down to Magic City. 

Don’t miss Father’s Day. Each year, Luxury Life Liquors sponsors our special Father’s Day event and fills pool on stage with whiskey. Watch these girls swim like mermaids. After the show, you know MC doesn’t waste good liquor.

Magic City.

It’s magic.

And somebody’s daughter has got to do it, has got to swing from these polls!

 Act now, send in yours! Send in your daughters right away. 

As our valued customer, you know Magic City Club has a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy for the backrooms, so: Employer shall be not liable for sexual harassment, STD’s, or in any way held responsible for unwanted pregnancies.

We provide the costumes; daughters must provide their own contraception.

Yours truly,

The management

*P.S. Magic City Club is not affiliated with that MC strip joint all the rappers rap about.

At The Mouth of ‘Bloody Sunday’ #Travel #Prose #History

At the Mouth of Bloody Sunday

I know the one thing we did right, was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize…hold on. Hold on.

Bloody Sunday in Selma only highlighted the bloody Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays that Black people in America have faced from the first time we laid eyes on these shores. It took people to gather and protest to change. In December ’64, the good Rev. Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for this movement. That spring in Selma, people marched across a bridge in order to highlight the normal voter suppression practices still happening throughout the south – and still in 2021. 

“If you can’t vote, you ain’t free. If you ain’t free, well then you a slave.” –Intro interview to Eyes on the Prize part 6/8.

According to the National Park Service, who oversees the important civic monument now:

“On “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, some 600 civil rights marchers headed east out of Selma on U.S. Route 80. They got only as far as the Edmund Pettus Bridge six blocks away, where state and local lawmen attacked them with billy clubs and tear gas and drove them back into Selma.” 

From my 7th grade social studies class circa ‘87, I would also add: The good white citizens of Selma gathered at the mouth of the bridge for the spectacle, to witness or probably participate in the oppression. We see them in the footage, films, pictures and media coverage of the events, and we know many are likely still alive. Black-n-white news footage of the days leading to Bloody Sunday show the sheriff and his angry henchmen prodding people with their clubs, plenty of ‘regular’ people watching in joy.

The people prodded? Well-dressed and behaved Black citizens of Selma and activists who’d come to support them. According to the footage, white citizens came out in droves for what they knew would be a bloody suppression of simple voting rights. As spectators, their presence made the massacre spectacular.

Selfie @ the Mouth of the Bridge, Sept ’21

I’ve visited the National Voter Rights Museum and Institute at the mouth of the bridge, and there they have an actual jar of jellybeans used to test Black people coming to sign up to vote at the local government office. Yes, sitting behind that booth was a white man who demanded that a black person – any citizen of the darker complexion – accurately guess the number of jellybeans in a jar in order to be allowed – in order for him to allow them – to register to vote. I feel like I have to repeat that, or say it in different ways because it is so unbelievable.

This September, I visited a museum at the edge of the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, on the way to Montgomery, the state capital. This historical museum marks local efforts to contest voter restriction practices. These practices were heinous in tone and texture, yet creative and cringe-worthy in nurture and nature. For example, consider the ingenious of these jellybean-counting white men in DC who created the separate-n-unequal space to inspire a variety of voter suppression taxes, tests and clauses throughout the south. It is these sorts of mad men who make decisions that impact the entire world as we have come to know and understand it now. 

Yes, it is these sorts of men who send politicians to the state houses, and sent/send senators to Washington DC, to cajole politicians of every hue to compromise on their values. Now, we also know they send mobs to storm the capitol on the very day all the legislators gather to confirm the election results.

I know the one thing we did right, was the day we started to fight. Keep your eyes on the prize…hold on. Hold on.

The jar of jellybeans at the National Voter Rights Museum and Institute, Selma, Al. Sept ’21

Imagine yourself standing there in a museum, looking at a shelf, and there is a jar of jellybeans. There’s nothing spectacular about the jar, nor its contents. For any of us have seen something like this in virtually any kitchen, or supermarket. My granny grew, harvested and canned vegetables, so growing up I got to handle many mason jars first hand. 

In fact, I love jellybeans. I used to visit the gourmet jellybeans shop in the mall after school when I was a kid. You could pick out any flavour that you liked, and I always went for blueberry, and cherry. I loved the contrast between the royal blue and Corvette red. It is a childhood fascination that my dentists still adore me for to this day. Naturally, these gourmet jellybeans were a little more expensive than the ones you get in the supermarkets, but I liked to save my money and treat myself sometimes. Plus, it felt very special being able to pick out the ones you like, and not have to discard the disgusting ones – who ever thought licorice or cola belonged on a jelly bean!?! 

As a candy, jellybeans are so visually enticing. As you enter the shop, the walls are covered from floor to ceiling with all sorts of bright neon colors. Every shade of the rainbow grabs your eyes, calls to you. Between stacks of plastic bags and scoops, you are awed by the massive jars of each individual jellybean color ready for you to pick-and-mix. There are also tables with stacks of both empty and pre-filled jars. There are jars of all sizes filled with colorful patterns of jellybeans with matching ribbons tied in bows around the lids. Of course, the entire shop smells like fruit, all kinds of fruits, sweet, succulent fruits that you cannot even imagine. You are the customer, you are king. By virtue of entering the fancy shop, this is your kingdom.

Now take all of that and put it in a jar. To get to this jar, you have to enter an official government building in the town center. Next to the entrance stands an armed, uniformed white man who gives you a disgruntled look as you enter, signaling that he’s not there for your safety but aggravation. Now, as you approach, you see the jar, sitting on a counter, and behind it sits another white man. Try to imagine this white man, probably with a gun next to him or somewhere nearby, with nothing better to do than to threaten your life. Because the town is so small, he knows your last name, and may know of your family. 

Since this is a small town, he knows your employer, he knows where you live as you’ve just written this down. He may even know your family, as the local history is so insidious, his family may have even owned or overseen yours at one time. Or, at that very moment, you or a family member may work for him or his kin. Your kids might play together. You may have played with him as a kid when, for example, your mother was his nanny (read-and-said-in-the-south: Mammy). Yet now, here in a free democracy, it is his job to register citizens to vote. 

It is his prerogative, the birthright of this individual, plain (white) man on the other side of the glass to demand that you count the number of jellybeans in the goddamn jar. It is a privilege that no one anywhere near here has ever questioned. So, with a smile, he plops a big red “DENIED” stamp on your registration form. Of course yo’cain’t! A “killing rage” surges. Be glad you don’t have a gun with you.

My First Foreign Friend #ShortStory #BlackAsiaWithLove

I love school.

In the third grade, we had a foreign student named Graham. His parents had come over to our hometown from England with a job, and his family was to stay in our town for a year or two.

Other than Graham’s accent, at first he didn’t in anyway appear, or feel different.

The only time that Graham’s difference mattered , or that I knew Graham’s difference mattered, was on the spelling test. We had moved far away from three letter words, to larger words and sentences, and by fourth grade we were writing our own books.

But in the third grade, there was Graham on our first spelling test, and our teacher drilling words like color.

The teacher made it fun by using word association to aid in memory. Then, he paused to explain that Graham would be excused if he misspelled certain words because where he’s from, they spelt (spelled) things differently. Spell “color” differently, we all wondered? 

Our teacher explained that there are many words where they add the letter U, that are pronounced in the same way. Anyway we have different accents in our own country. Heck, we had different ways of saying the word “colour” in our own city. Where does the extra-U go? Then of course, the teacher spelled out the word. He could not write it on the chalkboard because we were sitting in a circle on the area rug, on the library side of the classroom. It is then that I also realized that I had a visual memory, even visualizing words audible words, both the letters and images representing the meaning. I wanted to know why people in England spelled things differently than in America. Despite Graham’s interesting accent, and easy nature which got him along fine with everyone, he was going to have to answer some questions.

Though our teacher did not write the letters, in hearing them I could see them in my mind moving around. I started imagining how moving the different letters shifted – or did not shift – differences in sound, across distances, borders, and cultures. I started imagining how the sounds moved with the people. Irish? Scottish? People in our city claimed these origins, and they talk funny on TV. Britain has many accents, our teacher explained. “I’m English,” blurted Graham. 

We didn’t know much, but we knew that except for our Jewish classmates, everyone in that room had a last name from the British Isles, which we took a few moments to discuss. Most our last names were English, like my maternal side. A few kids had heard family tales of Scottish or Irish backgrounds, German, too. One girl had relatives in Ireland. And wherever the McConnell’s are from, please come get Mitch. Hurry up! 

How did we Blacks get our Anglicized names? Ask Kunta Kinte! And how did this shape Black thought/conscience, or the way we talk? I wanted to know MORE. I thought Jewish people were lucky: At least they knew who they were, and they were spoken of with respect. Since my dad is Nigerian, (and my name identifiably African) I had a slight glimpse of this. I knew I had a history, tied to people and places beyond the plantation, and outside of any textbook I’ve ever had (until now where I get to pick the texts and select the books).

My family is full of migrants, both geographically and socially, so homelife was riddled with a variety of accents. Despite migrating north, my grandparents’ generation carried their melodic Alabama accents with them their whole lives. Their kids exceeded them in education, further distancing our kin from cotton farming, both in tone and texture. This meant that my generation was the first raised by city-folk, and all the more distant from our roots since we came of age in the early days of Hip-Hop. At home, there were so many different kinds of sounds, music, talk and accents. Fascinating we can understand done another.

Our teacher also told us that Americans also used some of the same words differently. Now, I’ve lived here in the UK for a decade and I can’t be bothered to call my own car’s trunk a boot. Toilet or loo? Everybody here gets it. Unfortunately, Graham explained that he knew the British term for what we call ‘eraser’, which the teacher couldn’t gloss over because we each had one stashed in our desks, and he knew we’d have the giggles each time the word was mentioned.

I was still struck by the fact that in spite of all these differences and changes, meanings of words could shift or be retained, both in written and spoken forms. I wanted to know more about these words – which words had an extra U – and where had the British got their languages and accents. For me, Graham represented the right to know and experience different people, that this was what was meant by different cultures coming together.

“Here I am just drownin’ in the rain/With a ticket for a runaway train…” – Soul Asylum, 1992, senior year.

In retrospect it’s weird that Graham’s my first foreign friend. Both my father and godmother immigrated to America – initially to attend my hometown university. They’d come from Nigeria and China, respectively, and I’d always assumed that I’d eventually visit both places, which I have. Perhaps this particular friendship sticks with me because Graham’s the first foreign kid I got to know. 

Through knowing Graham, I could for the first time imagine myself, in my own shoes, living in another part of the world, not as a young adult like my folks, but in my 8-year-old body. What interested me more was that I could also see Graham was not invested in the macho culture into which we were slowly being indoctrinated (bludgeoned). For example, Graham had no interest in basketball, which is big as sh*t in Kentucky. Nor did I. “Soccer is more popular over there,” our teacher explained, deflecting from Graham’s oddness. “But they call it football.” Who cares! I’d also seen Graham sit with his legs crossed, which was fully emasculating as far as I knew back then. The teacher defended him, saying that this also was different where Graham came from. I definitely knew I wanted to go there, and sit anyway I wanted to sit.

Kisses from Granny Don’t Count! #BlackenAsiaWithLove #ShortStory

In America, and most certainly in the land of Dixie and cotillions, at the end of junior high school year we have a tradition of getting our senior class rings. By “getting,” I mean individually buying a ring from the same one or two companies in our city who cash in on this ritual annually. We knew that many of us had to foot the bill with our own after-school jobs, while others’ parents could virtually write a blank check! (Hopefully, at least, or perhaps most assuredly, somebody in the school system gets a kickback from all this cash flow.) 

While class rings appeared personalized, the rings – and the ritual – were effectively mass manufactured, complete with standardized shapes and design features: school’s name and mascot – in our case a bear – class year (1993!), and maybe our initials inscribed inside. Oh, and a heteronormative adolescent sexualized ritual to which I shall return shortly. 

Rings are generally presented at a school ceremony. Until graduation, class rings are worn facing the wearer as motivation towards the ultimate achievement, after which it is worn outward as a badge of pride and honor. A graduating class could all agree to the same design – usually the school colors – which I believe the majority of my class did. While I prefer the look of silver against my dark skin, our school colors were royal blue and gold, so classes at our school often got blue sapphire set in the lowest Karat gold available that didn’t look cheap. For such a notoriously liberal school (i.e., gender and racially/geographically* integrated by design), this was one of the few explicit acts of conformity.

‘You Wear it Well’ – DeBarge, 1985

Class Ring: Louisville Central High School, ’66

The next part of the tradition is having 100 different people turn the ring, as sort of an acknowledgement of becoming a senior. The first 99 turn it in one direction, while the final person reverses the order. This clockwise/counter-clockwise turn seals the deal. Yet get this, you’re supposed to kiss the hundredth person who turns the ring. You say the word “kiss” in front of most any group of adolescents and they’ll giggle. We knew what kind of kiss was meant. FRENCH like fries! Somehow becoming a senior in high school had been coopted by this hetero-ritual, a hetero-rite of passage (het-or-no-rites!).

I am troubled that this academic milestone is linked to gender. Worse, the ritual is predictably a performance act that fixes gender to normative sexual roles; yes, heteropatriarchy. Worse still, this binary gender performance is discrete, couched in achieving a basic education.

The ring dealer comes to school and makes a sales pitch to the class, and sets up a booth in the lobby after school. In his pitch, he promises a ‘free’ glossy little form to collect all the signatures. It was a bait and switch. These dealers sold us the rings but gave us the forms, the evidence we needed to prove we’d passed another stage towards adulthood. And what were we supposed to do with the blank glossy forms? Come back to school and boast? 

The first 50 or so signatures were just us. Our own schoolmates turning each other’s rings, filling in each other’s forms on the very day the rings arrived. Family filled in a lot, too. I distinctly remember a teacher or two requesting to be excluded from the tradition, or take part in the ring ritual of becoming a senior, else we whittle their fingers away. 

We all know everybody only wanted to see who signed the final line – a prompt to incite heteronormalizing speech-acts. Well, a few folks weren’t single and already had that 100th spot reserved and filled by sundown. Needless to say, kisses from granny don’t count!  I’m pretty sure this wasn’t written on the dealer’s well-crafted sheet. Our market dominated, heteronormative introduction to adulthood for all to see.

I’d attended the same school since second grade so I’d seen people celebrate this class ring ritual for years, and even attended several graduations. I’d watched the “Senior run” year after year – a day at the end of school, when the graduating class runs through all the halls, cheering, banging on lockers as all the kids in all the classes rush out to line the hallways and egg them on. I loved school, adored our school, adored my classmates, and even looked forward to our turn, though parting so bittersweet. 

At 16, I was only starting to be able to fully disidentify with the barrage of heterosexualized norms that engulfed me. I had to disentangle heterosexuality from virtually every facet of life – even finishing high school, a normal step we’re all expected to take. It’s as if to gain access to what bell hooks calls ‘the good life’ one had to signify alignment with compulsory heterosexuality.

I knew that I could not even turn my ring 100 times without kissing a girl. No way I’d risk putting a guy’s name at the end of that glossy list – someone I’d actually dreamt of French-kissing. Not like I knew any guy who’d be game. Damn. This was a lot of pressure. This junior prom was forcing me to make all kinds of adult decisions.

“The more I get of you, the stranger it feels…”

I was 16, and wasn’t out yet. Unlike at twelve when these feelings first bubbled over, by 16 I was on the cusp of self-acceptance, and preparing to face this possibility that I was gay. Perhaps it was pure timing. By the 11thgrade I knew for sure I’d be leaving home months after graduation, which was suddenly within reach. I could chart my own homo path. But still, at that age, I had doubts. I tried seriously dating a young woman as my last-ditch effort to see if I was straight or (at least) bisexual. 

Kaye wasn’t a classmate, which wouldn’t have worked anyway because in retrospect all my classmates already knew, and had decided to accept me without question. Kaye attended an all-girls’ school, so we’d met through an extracurricular, Black youth empowerment program. Kaye was clearly college bound. She had her own dreams and ambitions, and pursued them – an ideal mate for me. She was the most attractive woman I knew, both inside and out, both to me and others. Yes, THAT sister who is not invulnerable, but has it all together. If she didn’t do, then dammit I was gay!

Fortunately, my girl was smart. And by smart, I mean that she was intelligent, real smart as in NOT clueless at all. We agreed to a kiss on the cheek, and she’d sign the last line on my glossy form. And by ‘agreed to’, I mean that this is what Kaye put on the table as her firm and final offer. She also had the good sense to let me turn her ring, too, but she reserved the 100th signature for someone special. I respected that. This clarified our plutonic status – no Facebook updates needed: I’m gay.

“Gotta find out what I meant to you…You were sweet as cheery pie/ Wild as Friday night”

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