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Learning about death and dying is part of growing up. If we are lucky, we come to understand that death is natural through the passing of a grandparent or some other elder. If we are lucky, we will be taught something about a life well lived.
But for too many of us, we are made aware of our own mortality seeing our peers — the boys we want to go to the movies with, the boys who used to pull our hair — we learned that they could be killed for the crime being themselves. Young. Black. And Male.
Read the full essay, and listen to audio on npr.org
I was recently attending the meeting of a book club that had chosen Silver Sparrow as their monthly selection. One of the questions raised in the meeting was whether or not the daughters (Dana and Chaurisse) had broken the cycle of problematic relationships modeled by their mothers. Earlier this year, when I was interviewed by The Root, I was asked how a character such as James Witherspoon managed to nab not one, but TWO wives. The answer to both these questions has to do with contraception.
Silver Sparrow is the story the two families of James Witherspoon. One is his “public” family and the other family lives in the shadows. Both the women become bound to James when they become pregnant in the years before the invention of the pill. When Laverne finds herself expecting, she is a 15 year old kid in 1960 who is kicked out of school because of her condition. When Gwen becomes pregnant with Dana she’s 19 working in a department store, but she will lose both her job and her apartment when her pregnancy starts to show. What choice does she have but to hold onto James with all her might?
But in the next generation in Silver Sparrow, Dana and Chaurisse make some of the same bad decisions as their mothers. They hook up with the wrong guys and engage in exploitative romantic relationships. The key difference is that Dana and Chaurisse are on the pill. Yes, their feelings get hurt by these bad boyfriends, but they are able to walk away for the simple reason that they did not get pregnant. I am not suggesting that there are not other factors involved, but this is what keeps the girls from repeating their mother’s lives.
Women are not the only ones trapped by a lack of access to safe, effective birth control. Look at James Witherspoon. At one point in Silver Sparrow, he complains, “I just want, one time, to marry a woman who isn’t already pregnant.” Even though he is castigated as a bigamist and is blamed for causing both women and daughters so much pain, he thinks: Every time a woman has told me she is having my baby, I have married her. I have left no woman to have a child alone. (In this, he is not lying, though I imagine his wife, Laverne, does not find this logic compelling.) Of course, he has the option of walking away, but his mother, Miss Bunny, taught him to take responsibility for his actions, so he doesn’t consider cutting these binding ties.
Although Gwen and Laverne would disagree about many things, they both know that an intended pregnancy could derail their daughters’ lives. Both women insist that their teen daughters start taking birth control. “Do you know how lucky you are that these pills exist?” Laverne says to her daughter, who has no idea of what life was life in the bad old days. “Better safe than sorry,” she urges her daughter Of course, Chaurisse understands that without a nurturing relationship with a partner, you can be “safe and sorry at the same time.” Still, the pill provides her with a much-needed lie of defense against the life-long consequences of teenage folly.
I am writing this post today because I am alarmed at the way birth control is being attacked in recent political discourse. Up until now, I never questioned that most Americans consider birth control to be a one of the major advantages of living in a modern society. But despite what I hear in the political debates, I still believe that most people understand people must be able to control their fertility if we are ever going to be to take charge of our own lives. This is an issue that isn’t just about teen girls. Think about married women who don’t want to have ten children like our grandmothers. Any sexually active person should have the right to protect herself against unplanned pregnancy. I stand with Barack Obama in his decision to include prescription birth control as part of women’s healthcare plans. American women deserve this access.
Recently,Vanity Fair published a photograph of the literary women of Atlanta. The women are posed in front of the Swan House which is not a plantation house, it just vibes like one. This is one of Atlanta’s hallmarks, these not-plantations. Since Atlanta was burned in the Civil War, there are no ante-bellum structures to romanticize, so the good citizens of my hometown make do with lavish Victorians. My favorite example is the Margaret Mitchell House. It was built in the 1900s, long after Rhett Butler said he didn’t give a damn, but it feels like Tara and that’s all that matters. When we agree to accept an illusion, it takes on a kind of truth and this is why the photo spread is so disturbing.
Atlanta is one of America’s “Chocolate Cities.” Along with Washington, DC and Detroit the city was famous for its critical mass of black folks doing anything you can imagine— I grew up believing that any range of human experience could be enjoyed by a black person. My parents never had to wring their hands over whether I saw teachers who “looked like me.” Growing up in Southwest Atlanta, I had no idea that black Americans were a numeric minority. And even when I was old enough to know this, I never believed it in my soul. It’s like when you are told that your body is 75% water. You believe it, but you don’t believe it, since you know yourself to be solid flesh.
Of course, I was glad to see Natasha Trethewey included in the photo—as a Pulitzer Prize winner, if she is not a literary celebrity of Atlanta, then who is? But everything else about the spread stuck in my craw. In the photo, you see half a dozen white ladies—and I use this term deliberately. The way they are posed does not evoke “women”. I see “ladies”. And there is Natasha tucked in there, the one woman of color. (Is “ladies of color” even a term?)
The title of the piece is “Belles, Books, and Candor”. I never call myself a southern belle, though many people here in New Jersey try and put that label on me. It’s not that I deny my southerness, but “belle”, for me evokes images of slavery and hierarchy. I know black women who have reappropriated the term, but I would rather not be wrapped in that filthy blanket. I do sometimes call myself a Georgia Peach, which is what girls at my high school called ourselves. Once, a man called me “Georgia” when he was feeling affectionate and it’s one of the reasons I fell for him, because knowing where I am from is key to knowing who I am. I am not from the world of this photo.
I would love to ask Kathryn Stockett, author of the blockbuster THE HELP how she feels about the problematic optics of this photo. Fans of her work say that she is an advocate for the black women who worked as maids in Mississippi. I’ve been told that she is a fierce critic of white privilege. How does she feel to be touted as leader of “Atlanta’s literary sorority” which does not include any black fiction writers. Did she say to the photographer, “Wait! Where’s Pearl Cleage?”
Today marks Confederate Memorial day in the state of Georgia. This “holiday” is characterized by a nostalgia for a fictional past in which the (white) men are all gentlemen, the (white) women belles, and the fallen Conferderates heroes, all. I shudder to think about how the rest of us fit into this fantasy. So, on this day, I look at this photo and see an opportunity lost. What a powerful rhetorical statement would be made if standing before the Swan House were a group of writers representing the real Atlanta. Imagine even that the net were widened to include women writers from other southern cities. I would love to see Shay Youngblood, Olympia Vernon, Lorraine Lopez, Dolen Perkins Valdez and Alice Randall featured in the pages of Vanity Fair. The south has never been mono-racial, and as the demographics of the country have shifted, the face of southern writing is becoming increasingly diverse– and increasingly rich.
I am aware that many white southern writers feel pigeonholed by the term “southern.” They complain that their publishers will send them to Square Books in Mississippi, but will never send them to City Lights in California. They feel that the “southern” label keeps them from being seen as American writers. Black southerners can feel their pain, because we, too, know what it’s like to be excluded from the American canon. But we know another pain, which may cut deeper: we know how it feels to have our roots dug up, to be told we don’t exist.
This is a piece I wrote a few years ago about visiting the Lorraine Motel where Dr. King was murdered in 1968.
I was born in Atlanta, Georgia, right downtown, just off Peachtree Street. You can’t get more Atlanta than that. As you can imagine, the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King is everywhere in my home town. After all, he grew up there. He’s buried there.
There’s another city in this country that cannot forget Dr. King: Memphis. Although we claim him as a native son of Atlanta, Memphis is where he died on April 4, 1968.
I had never thought much about the burden of Memphis until I was on my first book tour in 2002. I was headquartered in the legendary Peabody Hotel for an entire week. The Peabody is known for its lavish appointments and the ducks that swim in its opulent fountain. My ten days in the Peabody were uncomfortable. For one thing I was homesick and longed for the stripped-down accommodations of my little apartment and also, I was the only black person in the hotel that wasn’t working there. I felt under intense scrutiny each day– I imagine I was something of a oddity to the white people staying there the black people were counting on me to represent.
I was raised in a “movement” household, so you know I wouldn’t have been in the Peabody with my nose in the air, treating the black employees like servants. Instead, I called everyone “ma’am” and “sir” and tried to need as little help as possible. I eventually got to know everyone on staff and soon people wanted to know where I was from. When I said, “Atlanta,” everyone wanted to talk about Dr. King.
Up on the roof, where the famous Peabody ducks live in their “penthouse”, I was sitting at a little table. The view wasn’t spectacular or anything, I just wanted to be in a space where I could be myself, where I didn’t have to sit up straight, cross my legs and the ankle, and be a good talented-tenther and make everyone proud. I was tired, lonely, and depressed over a crappy review in People Magazine. (The caption under my photo read: “Jones: a partial success.”)
While I was sitting there wondering why I signed up for this life in the first place, the “duckmaster” lead the pampered birds up to their cages. After they were all squared away, he sat himself down at my table. He was wearing a red jacket with gold braid, but close up I could see that underneath was a regular janitor’s uniform.
“Quackers,” he said. “I’ve had about enough.”
“I hear you,” I said.
“You the one from Atlanta?”
“Yes sir,” I said.
“I sure hate that Dr. King was killed in Memphis. I hate that it happened on our watch. He never should have come here. They set him up.”
“Who?” I asked.
“THEM,” he said and gestured at all we could see from the rooftop. “I sure hate it.”
“Oh,” I said, with that weird feeling you get when you understand what someone is saying, but not quite.
“You been to the Lorraine motel yet? I pass it on my way to work everyday. It’s just up the street. It’s a museum now. You should go on over there.”
I was pretty tired and didn’t feel like going anywhere. Sensing my hesitation, he added, “It’s free.”
Being an Atlanta girl, I have visited all the King memorial sites in my hometown. I visited the boyhood home with this small signs telling you that these were not “ML’s” actual toys but toys like the ones he would have played with. When relatives came to town, they always wanted to visit the white marble crypt on Auburn Ave. I’ve seen all those things a million times, but I can’t say that I FELT anything.
The museum at the Lorraine hotel wasn’t free, but I paid the entry fee. At first it was like any only civil rights museum. If it had a brand name it would be “struggle-lite”. There were no really disturbing images, just the segregated water fountain signs, etc. I was bored. Why had the duckmaster sent me here?
At the very end of the exhibit was rooms 306-307, where Dr. King had stayed in on the last day of his life. The curators took care to recreate the atmosphere. There was a coffee cup half-full, an unmade bed and other personal touches that made it seem like Dr. King, Andy Young, Jessee Jackson, et al had just been in here making plans. When I crossed the threshold of the room, I tripped a switch that caused Mahalia Jackson to sing “Amazing Grace.” I felt it all over my body. I closed my eyes for a moment and took a careful breath before looking out onto the balcony.
We have all seen the famous photo of Dr. King’s compatriots pointing in the direction from which the fatal shots rang out. At the Lorraine motel, saw the view as they must have seen it. I saw with my eyes what Dr. King must have seen in the last moment of his life. There was nothing so memorable in that view.
The parking lot has been recreated: three fin tail cars are parked at an angle, just like in the picture. I stared out until my vision blurred with tears maybe and fatigue. Behind me, I the voice of Mahalia Jackson poured out of invisible speakers. This was hallowed ground. I took a cautious step out onto the balcony.
I cannot remember leaving the museum or the walk back to the Peabody. Back at the hotel, I ran into the duckmaster; this time he was wearing the janitor’s uniform.
“Did you go?” he said.
“It got to you?”
“Course it did,” he said. “You from Atlanta. Just think how it feels for those of us who live here.”
Well, that little link I posted yesterday wasn’t enough for on the subject of removing the word “nigger” from Huck Finn and replacing it with “slave.” I went ahead and wrote a full blown op-ed for AOL News. Here’s a snippet:
The editors of NewSouth say it’s an effort to help Huckleberry Finn, which often has been banned, find its way back into classrooms. They argue that they are not censoring the novel, but updating it for 21st century sensibilities.
“Huckleberry Finn,” almost always regarded as an American classic, is a story of an unlikely friendship between Huck, a white adolescent, and Jim, an enslaved black man. I find it peculiar that the concept of human chattel is not too harsh for young readers, but a six-letter word renders this work obscene.
photo: Miriam Berkeley
This is my much belated report from the National Book Awards. As you may know, I try to make the dinner every year. I think of it as the Nerd Prom. As you remember from high school, prom can be everything you ever wished for, or it can be a nightmare ala Carrie by Stephen King. For me, the NBA have visited each end of the spectrum. Last year was a total nightmare and this year was a little bit magic.
I can’t even say for sure which was the highlight. Of course, Terrance Haye’s win in poetry was a super-duper thrill. Terrance is a friend and a genius. I just KNEW he had won when Cornelius Eady, chair of the poetry committee practically ran to the stage to announce the results. Now, usually the poetry chair gives this sober statement about how all the writers are brilliant and how hard it was to choose just one. Cornelius said all that, but I noticed that he was bouncing a little bit on the balls of his feet like it was all he could do to keep from breaking out in a little jig. It was a beautiful moment indeed.
But who couldn’t help buy cheer Jaimy Gordon whose book was published by a press so small that they weren’t sure they could afford to print enough copies to accomodate demand. And Patti Smith? Swooon. And why was “Because the Night” swimming in my head all night?
On a personal level, it was lovely to be seated with my colleagues Jayne Anne Phillips, Rigoberto Gonzalez and Alice Elliot Dark. Also at the table was my favorite virtuoso, Tiphanie Yanique– eight months pregnant and being honored as one of “5 Under 35.” I also connected with some old friends, squashed an ancient beef, and drank a whole bunch of bellinis.
It was a beautiful night all the way around.
Tomorrow, CNN is running a special report about The Atlanta Child Murders, the formative event of my childhood and the subject of my first novel, Leaving Atlanta. Over a two year period, at least thirty black children were murdered in Atlanta. Two were students at my elementary school. I expect that CNN is focusing on the whodunnit aspect of the case, and I understand that this is what makes for good TV. I try to avoid that angle when I do Q&A because it feels like we’re turning my childhood into an episode of Law and Order. One thing I really respect about the vision of filmmakers Althea Spann and Karon Vereen, who are behind the Leaving Atlanta movie, is that they understand that this is a community story, not a story about law enforcement.
But still, I sometimes who was responsible for so many deaths. About five years ago, the cases were temporarily reopened. Below is an essay I wrote supporting further investigation.
The toxic silence
Child murders opened a wound that never healed; it’s time to talk about it
By TAYARI JONES
Published on: 05/22/05
In 1988, I was a student at Spelman College earning extra money by tutoring Jemmie, a jug-eared fourth-grader. On Thursdays, I’d meet him at the bus stop and we would go and sort out the complexities of multiplication. One Thursday, I was a little late to the bus stop and Jemmie wasn’t there.
My body registered that this was an emergency before my mind was able to process the information. I called his name, asking passersby whether they had seen a little black boy carrying a blue book bag with a green stripe. Then I doubled over, clutching my stomach, and vomited on the corner of Ashby and Fair.
With my heart splashing in my chest, I ran back to Spelman, calling for someone to help me find Jemmie. Most of my dorm-mates, busy with homework or nail polish, were not concerned that the little boy was just a few minutes late. “He’s probably at Mrs. Winner’s getting something to eat.” But other friends put down their textbooks and unplugged their curling irons. “Call the police,” they said.
It wasn’t until we found Jemmie, safe and sound at Mrs. Winner’s, that I realized that all of us who panicked shared a common terror: We had all grown up in Atlanta. We all knew that a little boy unaccounted for constituted an emergency. It was then that I knew that if I ever became a writer, I would write a novel about those of us who were children in Atlanta. I would put on paper this memory that we never spoke aloud but carried with us in our bones.
Fear, resentment, anger, guilt
The Atlanta child murders began just before I started fifth grade, when someone killed two African-American boys, Edward Hope Smith and Alfred Evans, and left their bodies in a vacant lot. The brutal end of their childhoods became the formative event of mine.
For almost two years, the “city too busy to hate” was held hostage by a toxic combination of fear, resentment, anger and guilt. This was true for all the city’s residents, even those of us who were not quite 10 years old.
Three years ago, the summer of my 30th year, I published a novel, “Leaving Atlanta,” a novel based on my experiences growing up in Atlanta during this terrible moment in the city’s history. At book signings, I was often asked to speculate about the cause of the silence surrounding these murders. We are, after all, obsessed with serial killings. People are still talking about Jack The Ripper more than 100 years later.
But at the book signings, I knew what answer people were looking for: The world has forgotten these murders because the victims were black and mostly poor. And I believe that on many levels this simple explanation is sadly accurate. But it cannot explain away the silence in my own community, the hush in southwest Atlanta, the home of many of the murdered children, the area of the city where many of those whose lives were directly touched still reside. The question still eats at me.
Years marked by fear
During the two years that Atlanta was under siege, I was at a peculiar stage in my personal development, caught between childhood and adolescence. These years are significant for all kids, no matter where they grow up and under what circumstances. But in my life, they were marked indelibly by the fear of sudden disappearance and random murder, and the lessons I learned then haunt me still.
It’s difficult to choose a starting point for describing the ways in which I was changed. I apologize before I start because I know whatever I write here will be incomplete, a mere outline.
Fifth grade was the year that boys and girls became aware of each other in a new way. Brave girls experimented with strawberry lip gloss and the boys brushed their hair until it waved. Picture us, a class of fifth-graders at Oglethorpe Elementary, a school southwest of downtown, in a sector of city that would become ground zero for the child murders. Try to imagine, if you can, how the lines between “boy” and “girl” changed for us that year, once it became clear that almost all of the children who would be killed would be male.
I have an older brother, three years my senior, who is named for Patrice Lumumba, my father’s idol. My brother’s picture hung in our basement den between portraits of Malcolm X and W.E.B. DuBois. As a young girl, I envied my brother his hero’s name and his place on the wall. But when the murders began, being a boy meant something different. It meant that someone might want to kill you.
There was another layer of meaning for me, a little black girl, the sister of a black boy. On the one hand, I felt a rush of relief not to be a marked child — relief mixed with stinging guilt. On the other, there was an irrational sense of resentment. According to street wisdom, the boys were targeted because they posed some sort of threat to the white power structure. There were theories that their bodies were magical, containing a mysterious chemical, interferon, which could be harvested only upon their death and sold on the black market. The kids in my class were transfixed by these hypotheses and believed them all. I listened, too — female, invisible, safe.
I couldn’t discuss these feelings with my parents. I didn’t have the nerve, nor the language, despite the fact that my lexicon was constantly growing with the frightening terms Monica Kaufman pronounced each night on the evening news: asphyxia, decomposition, ligature. And there were other words learned at home, like lynching. During this time, my father spent a lot of time in the basement studying a tattered paperback called ”100 Years of Lynchings,” a collection of newspaper accounts of mob murders of African-American men and women. He read that book so frequently that the binding disintegrated and he was forced to turn the pages in the same way that a person would flip through a deck of cards.
My capable, sensible mother was preoccupied with the safety of her own children, and of the other kids in our school. Another word, supervised, was often heard in our household. Hard-won party invitations had to be declined if my mother deemed there was not adequate supervision. She organized a Halloween carnival at Oglethorpe Elementary in 1980, raising money and urging her former Clark College students to donate prizes, so we kids, who were no longer allowed to trick or treat, could still have a good time.
I wonder whether this period was harder on my parents than on my brother and me. Lumumba and I were kids, finding comfort in talismans. We believed our old dog, Missy, could rise to the occasion, if necessary, becoming a ferocious attack-mutt. Once my father pointed out that the ornamental bars on our windows would prevent my abduction in my sleep, I was able to rest easily. But I doubt that he ever did.
Just before Wayne Williams was arrested, my father returned home from a simple errand about an hour late. He was shaken, clearly upset. My parents weren’t the sort who would discuss important matters before the children, so we were sent away. But I hung back, where I could listen.
My father explained that he had become lost while finding his way home. He’d driven around on the back roads, looking for a familiar street sign. “What would have happened if the police had pulled me over? I’d been gone for almost an hour. I couldn’t say where I had been. There was no one to vouch for me.” I backed away from my secret eavesdropping space, having already heard more than was good for me.
A few days later, Wayne Williams was arrested after being found at the wrong place at the wrong time, unable to account for his whereabouts. Over the dinner table, I looked at my father’s ashen face. In that moment, my father and I had exchanged places.
For so many months, my brother and I had sat mute in front of the television, understanding our vulnerability as black children as another victim’s face was shown, another name announced. Now, I looked at my own father as he processed his vulnerability as a black man, and I learned what it was to experience vicarious agony.
As I write these words, I can understand those who would argue that reopening this case is “opening old wounds.” But for many Atlantans, the memory of the child murders cannot be likened to an old wound, carefully sutured and healed.
For us, it is more like a bone poorly set — painful, crooked and gimpy. The events of 1979-81 so ravaged our community that we have been unable to speak of them in the years since. The arrest and conviction of Williams for the murders of two adults, and the subsequent closing of the children’s cases, was neither balm nor tincture. Rather, it was just a plaster cast, ensuring that the fractured bones of our community would never properly mend.
Re-examining this case will cause great pain to Atlanta, the city of my birth, the place where my family still lives. I don’t anticipate that this will be easy. Tempers will flare, as will old rivalries and grudges. But as we know, the only way to repair a bone badly set is to break it again, and then set it right.
I try and keep things literary on this blog, but I must post about Aiyana Jones. In Detroit, a 7-year little girl was killed, set on fire and shot, by the police who raided her home. The show was being filmed by “48-hours.” I can’t help but wonder if being on reality TV made the police more flamboyant, throwing a flash grenade into a home early on a Sunday morning.
The AP story is here, and here’s a blog from a community member.
I was struck by this quote by the Assistant Chief of police: “This is any parent’s worst nightmare. It also is any police officer’s worst nightmare,” Godbee said.
I understand the sentiment of the police’s remark, but I hate the way he implied family’s pain and the officer’s pain are equal. The officer’s worst nightmare is that his own family would be shot or burned.
I was also really struck by this photo of Aiyana Jones. (And let me add that I have a younger cousin with the name.) Look at her, surrounded by Disney Princesses, such a symbol of everything problematic about this culture– the way we think of girls and the way black girls are made to think of themselves.
I don’t have anything else to say. I want to help, but I don’t know how. I don’t know what this family needs that I can provide. None of the articles mentioned a fund to help the family. When I find word of a fund, I will contribute. But at the same time, I understand that my check ain’t nothing but a piece of paper, and paper cannot ease the pain of the loss of a child.
The great Ms. Lena Horne has passed away at the age of 92. The NYT has done right by her, ending her obituary with this wonderful quote.
“My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I’m free. I no longer have to be a ‘credit.’ I don’t have to be a symbol to anybody; I don’t have to be a first to anybody. I don’t have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I’d become. I’m me, and I’m like nobody else.”
First off, I would like to thank everyone who was so supportive of my decision to cancel my Arizona appearances. There were one or two people who reacted with outright hostility, but I opted to leave their comments on the blog. We must know what we are up against as we struggle for a free America.
The story got picked up all over the place including national venues like the LA Times and abroad in the UK Guardian. But even more importantly were those of you who wrote about Arizona on your own blogs, facebook, and twitter. I believe we are making a difference, by not allowing this issue to just disappear.
My colleague and friend, Rigoberto Gonzalez, has written about his experiences with Arizona on the Poetry Foundation blog. His post, includes this photo of him as a little boy marching with the grape pickers.
From his essay:
But in the end, it’s not even those things that anger me the most: it’s that out of fear, undocumented people will no longer seek out the police to report crimes, making them more vulnerable than they already are. It’s that it’s that much easier to victimize a population that has been labeled criminal, unwanted, and worthless.
Some might say that this is not about me, but about “illegal aliens.” I say to those people, I am the child of an “illegal alien,” and a place that would detain, demean and oppress my own mother is not a place for me.