An Open Letter to Mr. Richard Cohen, Washington Post Columnist

Dear Mr. Cohen:

I’m writing you to discuss your latest column, “Racism vs. Reality” dated July 15, 2013 and to parse a point of logic with you—your considerably flawed logic concerning racial profiling. The gist of your column is that it’s unfair not to expect white people to be afraid of black men because they commit a lot of crime.

In your column, you wrote:

….There’s no doubt in my mind that [George] Zimmerman profiled [Trayvon] Martin and, braced by a gun, set off in quest of heroism. The result was a quintessentially American tragedy — the death of a young man understandably suspected because he was black and tragically dead for the same reason. [Emphasis mine.]

Mr. Cohen, I don’t even know you, and I’m sure you mean well, but I’d like to address the issue that you raise of “understandably suspected” black men. And I’d like use your own logic to explore what might be the aftermath of racial profiling of white people by black people.  Let’s call it the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” logic of racial profiling.

As someone who is the survivor of violence, I understand post-traumatic stress. It’s a horrible thing to look at someone who resembles the person who committed violence against you or someone you love; you tremble, overcome with fear. 

My mother, an African American woman, was born in the segregated South—in Georgia—in the 1930s and remembers when a group of white men lynched four black people in a town not far away from her. There is a book written about this lynching called Fire in the Canebrake: the Last Mass Lynching in America.  Those white men never went to jail for their crime.

My mother’s great-grandmother Mandy was an enslaved woman whose first memory is of her father’s being sold down south. She never saw him again. It was a source of great pain for her. Later, however, she entered into a relationship with a white man and had a child by him; the man financially supported her biracial child and gave the child his last name, an unusual occurrence in the last 1800s.

My mother grew up in a racially terrorized South—and yet, she belongs to a predominantly white church and has several good, white friends, but according to your logic, because of Mama’s background, she is supposed to be terrified of every white person she sees, to seethe with anger or fear or some sort of traumatic emotion, remembering these painful moments from her childhood, to cook up some sort of retaliation in her Big, Black, Racial Trauma Pot. Certainly, my great-great-grandmother never would have made the romantic choice that she did.

Let’s explore the other side of my heritage: not only am I black, I’m of Native American heritage; my direct ancestors weren’t removed on the Trail of Tears, but surely relatives of mine were.  In case you aren’t familiar with the Trail of Tears, it’s the journey where thousands of Native Americans were forced to relocate in the nineteenth century, after their land was stolen by the United States government.

Much of the Southeastern land that belonged to Natives was used for the cultivation of short-staple cotton; Eli Whitney made possible the separation of the seed from the boll with the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, and thus, Native folks were pushed off their own property, and more black folks were enslaved to pick that cotton.

As a person of Native descent, should I suspect that every white man appearing on my porch—say, to check my gas meter, spray my house for ants, or even just inform me about the teachings of Jesus Christ (even if it is too early in the morning for me to be awake and ready to receive piety)—is there to yank me through my front door, take me clear across the country to land that’s even flatter and more unattractive than where I live now and make me stay there, and on the journey, knowingly hand me a smallpox infested blanket to wrap myself in?

According to your logic, I should.

There are all kinds of ways I could isolate myself even further:  I’m a woman who is a rape survivor and men commit over 90% of the rapes in this country.  What if every woman who was raped decided she never wanted to be touched or approached by a man again, let alone, want him for her lover or husband or the father of her children?

When I met the man with whom I fell in love and married, should I have screamed at him in his face that he was a potential rapist, or pulled out a dull nail file and tried to stab him—just in case he might have been a rapist?

According to your logic, I should.

Mr. Cohen, if someone like me—the descendant of and relative to people who were lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, called names, terrified again and again for over three hundred years—can learn to take every white person (or every man of any race) I meet on a case-by-case basis, to think the best of someone until he or she shows me differently then Mr. Cohen, how dare you—a person who looks a lot like the people who lynched, raped, sold, branded, spat on, physically displaced, verbally abused, and terrified my people for over three hundred years—tell me that it’s common sense to feel that a black man is “understandably” a criminal because of crime statistics that don’t even reach back forty years?

In the words of my mother, what kind of sense did you make in your column? Nonsense, that’s what kind. 

According to your flawed sense of logic, what would your whiteness mean to me– if I couldn’t believe in a better time, if I didn’t have faith in humanity’s ability to positively grow, if I didn’t possess a need to love my fellow man and woman, regardless of what he or she looks like, in the brightest day or the darkest of night?

At some point, you, I, and all the people who make up a “we” must take the risk of not blaming people because of past unpleasant, traumatic, or even violent experiences suffered at the hands of someone else.   It may sound naïve, but if we Americans don’t decide to accumulate courage to say “enough” we will continue to live in disharmony, distrust, and yes, hatred surrounding race in this country.

Is that how you want to live the rest of your life? I know I don’t.

We all have a bone to pick, in the ancient or recent past.  Every single one of us, regardless of race or gender, can locate a grievance of some kind against someone else. My pain is no greater than anyone else’s, and yours is no greater than mine.

We can honor the past transgressions against us personally or against our blood ancestors, but it is not fair to blame or hurt a person who has done us no immediate wrong in the here and now, just for inhabiting the skin color or gender or religion (or so on) of person who did the original crime.  

Mr. Cohen, I’m not here to argue the Zimmerman trial verdict; that trial is over, and however I may feel, I have to continue to live by my principles. What I am here to do is to remind you of what it means to be a more loving and hopeful human being, in the long run. I hope this letter has helped you on that journey.


Honorée Fanonne Jeffers



I Hate Hoodies. And No, My Name Ain’t Geraldo Rivera.

A few weeks ago, I posted about the killing of Trayvon Martin, the case with which most of us in America are familiar by now. This killing was and continues to be a terrible scenario, and I spoke about my pain over this situation, and the need for Black people to know our history in this country.

But if you go back and read my post, I didn’t say anything substantial about the hoodie that Trayvon was wearing that night. I didn’t defend that item of clothing. And you know why? Because I think the championing of the hoodie as a symbol of racial profiling is misguided.

For the past few weeks, I’ve  looked a pictures of folks in their hoodies, which is how they shared their solidarity with Trayvon Martin. And I’ve felt as if folks have looked askance at me, because not only haven’t I shared a picture of me in a hoodie, I’ve openly talked about the fact that I won’t be wearing a hoodie in the first place.

Just last night, I had a young girl—no older than twenty-five—call me out in the most disrespectful, harsh ways–ways that one should never talk to an elder– for my supposed “pettiness” and my being “bourgeois” when I posted on Facebook and argued that we needed to be honest with young Black men about the fact that the hoodie was not a great item of clothing for professional advancement. That young Black men wearing this clothing weren’t going to walk into a job interview and come away with employment and as a result, economic power.

Over the past few weeks, people on Twitter also have implied that I just don’t care about Trayvon Martin’s death, or implied that I have accused Black people of being stupid simply because I’ve told them that, instead of being caught up in the moment of the hoodie, they need to read and educate themselves (by going to the library) on the long history of racially profiling African American men in this country.

Can I ask you something? When did it become a crime for a Black English teacher to, like, tell somebody else Black that they needed to read a book? Because that’s what I am. I teach in the English department of a university, okay? I read, write, and teach books for a living, y’all. My twitter handle is “@blklibrarygirl”. Get it?

And then, of course, in the middle of all that, there has been the hullabaloo over the comments of Gerald Rivera, who argued that the wearing of hoodies of Black and Latino youngsters—males—is a justification for racial profiling. If this were eighteenth-century Boston, Massachusetts someone would have tarred and feathered that man and paraded Rivera in the streets. People have been so nasty and frankly, frightening, that Rivera retracted his statements.

But let me say what I have been wanting to say for the past couple of weeks, but have been too afraid to do so, lest my (admittedly much, much smaller) group of followers online do the same thing to me as Rivera had to withstand. He might have had wrong motivations for saying what he said about the hoodie and how he said it, too, but at the end of the day, the hoodie does a mixed message, sometimes a wrong message. And that’s why we need to be careful about conflating that particular item of clothing with racial profiling of young, Black men.

Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

Let me be very clear. Trayvon Martin did not have any responsibility to rethink his clothing that fateful night that he walked to the store to buy his candy and his iced tea.  Trayvon was an American citizen and he was child of American citizens and they are the children of American citizens and so on and so forth. American citizens do not have the responsibility to show their identification papers to someone who is not a police officer while walking in their own neighborhoods.  This is not 1850 and we are not living under the Fugitive Slave Act, okay?

Trayvon had every right in this world and the next one, too, to wear his hoodie. He was doing nothing wrong in the least. But  it’s not that hoodie that caused Trayvon to be stalked and killed by George Zimmerman.

Trayvon was stalked and killed because of racial profiling. That’s it, plain and simple. And, quite possibly, he might have been stalked and killed because George Zimmerman might not be all there mentally, though that remains to be seen. The hoodie had nothing to do with it.

And further, the hoodie is not always a great item of clothing.  You can call me names for saying that, you can leave mean comments below, you can say whatever you need to say to me. But you know what you can’t do?

You can’t show up to the bank and get money from a teller wearing a hoodie over your head. Why? Because your face is obscured.

You can’t go through airport security wearing a hoodie over your hear. Why? Again, because they don’t know who you are. Sometimes, I’ve even been asked to take off my glasses at the airport because I wanted to be cute in my driver’s license photo and I didn’t put them on for my picture. And in that case, you know I can’t be wearing a hoodie.

And further, you can’t take your driver’s license picture wearing a hoodie over your head in the first place.  And you know why? Because sometimes, criminals of every race, creed, religion, gender, and color actually do wear hoodies to commit crimes.

They wear hoodies to rob people. They wear hoodies to come up behind folks and shoot them dead without being recognized.

As someone pointed out to me last night online, the mock-up picture of the Unibomber pictures him wearing a hoodie. The Unibomber, y’all? The Unibomber? Do we really want to connect that handsome, sweet, beloved boy Trayvon Martin with the same item of clothing worn by the Unibomber? Think about that for a second.

Did Trayvon Martin commit any crime? Of course not.

Did Trayvon Martin have a right to wear anything he wanted to that was in his closet? Of course he did.

Trayvon Martin didn’t do anything but walk in the rain with his candy and iced tea cloaked in his Black skin, skin that is not offensive to anyone except someone filled with racial hatred or mental illness. So why on earth are we trying to champion a piece of clothing as the reason behind his getting killed? And explain to me, please, how we are any different from White supremacists when we talk about how a piece of clothing identifies a young Black man?

Take your time. I got a few hours for you to figure out the logistics of that one.

I’ve actually read Facebook status posts where people compare the hoodie to the hijab. Are you kidding me? Since when is the hoodie a religious statement going back thousands of years?

I’ve had people debate me online that the hoodie is the same as someone Black wearing his or her hair in dreadlocks or natural.  Really now? The sacred way that God made you, how S/He decided that a part of your actual body springs out of your head is equal to an item of clothing you can buy down to the Abercrombie and Fitch alongside White kids who have trust funds? Alrighty then.

I understand the long history of racial profiling of Black men in this country. Believe me, I’m aware. My mother told me that, before I was born, my father punched a man in Mississippi years ago for calling him the n-word and to this day, I wonder why he didn’t swing at the end of a rope.

I have two nephews and I worry about them, a lot. I may not ever have been stopped by the police and harassed because I was living and breathing in a Black male body, but as Tayari Jones talked about so movingly and eloquently on NPR a few days ago, I’ve spent my whole life worrying about the safety of young Black men I have loved in different ways.

And it’s because of that love and because of that worry that I’m concerned now that African American communities are championing—and encourage White people to champion—a symbol that just can’t hold the weight of three hundred and ninety three years of ancestral and cultural trauma, ever since the first kidnapped African disembarked in 1619 in Jamestown, Virginia and was renamed “slave.”

Those kidnapped Africans weren’t wearing hoodies. Quite possibly, those Africans were naked, and their only crime was being in the wrong village on the wrong day, and they ended up following the tragic, mythic red path onto a slave ship.

We need to focus on the real issue of racial profiling of young Black men and understand that, though someone who was loved by his parents and was doing absolutely no wrong was killed while wearing a hoodie, he wasn’t killed for wearing a hoodie.

Trayvon could have been wearing biker shorts. In fact, he could have been wearing a corporate suit and tie. And you know what? George Zimmerman would have stalked him and killed him anyway. And that’s on him. And that’s on the tragic and brutal history of “race” this country. That’s not on a hoodie.

We need to find a more lasting –and appropriate–symbol to memorialize Trayvon, one that is not associated with actual wrongdoing, because he didn’t do anything wrong. We need to find a better way to honor other blameless young, Black men who were killed as a result of racism, who never did a thing to deserve their sad fate.

The hoodie is not that symbol. But I remain hopeful that we’ll find something else, something better, in the days to come.


Teachable Racial Moment: Why Do Black Folks Stick Together?

Years ago, in graduate school, I was one of only three African Americans in my Master of Fine Arts creative writing program. That was in the fall; in the spring, one of us dropped out. And then there were two.

I remember sitting in my graduate poetry workshops surrounded by folks who didn’t look like me.  Whenever the issue of “race”—meaning Black people—came up, my White peers would turn to me and ask my opinion. Sometimes, I knew. Sometimes, I didn’t know. But what always sort of blew my mind is that my peers assumed that I could speak for all Black folks. When I, like, couldn’t.  But I would try anyway because I felt it was my responsibility to do so.

This is a common story among most Black folks who have integrated–let’s face it– mostly White spaces in educational, professional, and now with legalized interracial marriage, familial institutions.  But honestly, it doesn’t get any easier for any of us  to speak for the African American “race.”

Most folks in America who are of African descent came to this country as a result of the Middle Passage, the horrific, transatlantic journey withstood by Africans who were kidnapped into slavery. There are, of course, some Black folks on this country who are not descended from slaves, what might be called African-African Americans, folks who emigrated from the continent of Africa after slavery was outlawed in the USA, but those folks are in a very small minority in Black America.

And so, the common heritage that most Black folks in this country share leads to what is called “linked fate” among African Americans, a term explored in Michael C. Dawson’s book, Behind the Mule: Race and Class in African American Politics. Linked fate means that, for many African Americans, what happens to a Black individual is felt by many in the “racial” group, whether that event is joyous or tragic.

This does not mean that others individuals who aren’t Black can’t feel joy or sorrow at these events, but it does mean that Black folks feel particular emotions, as if the event impacted our own families. Linked fate means that I consider forty million people to be literal brothers and sisters.

Gwendolyn Brooks becoming the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize was joyous. Thurgood Marshall’s appointment as the first Black Supreme Court Justice was joyous Barack Obama’s winning the Presidency (and hopefully you don’t need a link for that)? The heavens opened up and angels sang an aria, it was just that wonderful, okay?

And by the same token, the lynching of Emmett Till in Mississippi was especially horrible for Black people, as was Martin Luther King, Junior’s assassination. And most recently, last month’s killing of Trayvon Martin, a young Black boy in Florida, has rubbed against Black linked fate, and reopened many traumatic wounds that really never healed.

Again, that does not mean that other people cannot be upset about tragedies that just happen—or don’t just happen—to involve Black people.  There were many  White Americans who wore hoodies this past week to protest the killing of Trayvon Martin, but just as many who admitted that pictures of their wearing hoodies does not rub against the same unfortunate racial stereotypes as pictures of Black males in similar garb.

Many White readers of my blog notice I use the terms “we” and “us” and “my community” when referring to African Americans. Those terms are also used by White supremacists, too, and I think that, frankly, it confuses White folks that I’m supposed to be about love and humanity and White supremacists are, like, not. Well, strangely enough, some of the same American history that was caused by White supremacy—a hate-filled, racist impulse–led to Black linked fate—a survival instinct. When you oppress people together, they try to withstand that oppression together.

But a funny thing happened on the (metaphysical) road to the City of Linked Fate. Some Black folks actually don’t feel linked up with other Black people. They are completely unconnected or at least partially. I am one of those partially unlinked folks who still loves the Black community. For example, while I voted for President Obama—and will do so again in November, believe that—I don’t always agree with him. And I don’t feel as if I must surrender my Black Passport just because Obama gets on my nerves sometimes and I decide to say so publicly.

Also, unlike many Black folks, I do not like commercial Hip Hop and I don’t think it’s a profound African American cultural production. (Independent Hip Hop is different, in my opinion.) I think it’s crappy, repetitive, and uninspired, I’m extremely bored by it, and I don’t like the messages of woman-hatred and LBGTQ-hatred that it propagates. And frankly, I think it attempts to take the healthiness out of Black sexual expression (of whatever kind) as well.

Those are just a couple of the ways I’m not linked to a supposedly monolithic Black community, and if you go back and read some of my other posts from the last two and a half years, you’ll find other breaks in the chain, too. I’m a complicated Sister, liberal sometimes and conservative other times.

Sidebar: And there are many Black folks who are complicated in their own ways, too. But despite that, we are Stone-Cold American Citizens and we have shown our loyalty to this country repeatedly, beginning with Crispus Attucks’ documented sacrifice. He was the first person to die in the Boston Massacre in 1770, which just had its two hundred and thirty-ninth anniversary this March.

But what I am not is “a good Black friend,” one of those anonymous, unnamed  sources that some politically conservative White folks are fond of trotting out these days when they want to say something mean or heartless or rude about Black folks and they want to get some back-up for it. Any time that I read or hear a comment that starts with “my Black friend says” or “I have a Black friend who disagrees with you,” I know my feelings are about to be hurt or that I am about to be angered.

Whether or not I’m partially unlinked, I’ve got my own back-up, because I know there are going to be at least ten folks who agree with me in someone’s Black community. But I’m guessing that there are at least ten conservative White folks agreeing with another conservative White commenter, too, whatever side he or she takes.  So why the need for the anonymous “Black friend”?

Why not simply say, “This is how I feel, and plenty White people feel the same way”? It can’t be any worse than claiming the same one Black “friend” all the time. Seriously, Sugar, please bribe some more colored people to talk to you so you can actually fill a room once in a while, okay? I know it gets lonely sometimes.

And while you’re at it, why not go back and read some American history  going all the way back to 1619? (And that’s just on my African side; you really don’t want me to go all the way back with my Cherokee folk.) Why not understand that there’s a reason I have back-up in the first place?

When someone pushes other somebodies around—steals their bodies, rapes them, dumps them in the bottom of the ocean, sells them, sells their children, and oh, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—that’s a series of traumatic events that creates back-up. These kinds of events connected Black people. They joined them together and their descendants together.

That’s why my family reunion is so big. We call it Juneteenth, don’t you know.

But now, if I ever get my forty acres that General Sherman promised, I might actually give up my very last remnants of linked fate and become somebody’s named “good Black friend” instead of just an anonymous one. But give me my land first. Then we’ll work the rest on out.


Little Black Boys, Candy and History (for Trayvon Martin)

Seventeen, not even marked by a real mustache. If you look at the picture, he’s still slight. Maybe he was destined to grow tall with big bones, a man’s hearty flesh clinging to his frame, but in this picture he hasn’t gotten that far.

I remember a boy I once loved at that age. His kneecaps still knocked when he stood with his feet together.

He left his house in the middle of watching TV, walked around the corner to go buy himself some Skittles, and in between his leaving and returning, he was stopped by a grown man, someone who was bigger and older in years.  Something happened and the man shot him dead.

The police came. The man was questioned. He wasn’t arrested and there seem no plans for him to be.

This sounds like a scene from a Science Fiction novel, doesn’t it? Maybe one written by Octavia Butler. But no, it’s non-fiction, a story repeated with a few alterations, going back in different ways to James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. Or Richard Wright’s Black Boy.

That’s right: Black boy. And: White man. Then:  dead child in a riddled place.


Just a few hours ago, I was talking to a woman on the phone about the murder of this teenaged boy, Trayvon Martin, and she said someone told her that it’s a shame that we Black folks don’t teach our children about the brutal history of this country, how Black folks were treated in the past, and how that history keeps extending its reach into the present.  It’s in a hundred history books, but how many of us will read that history?

I’m not a mother, but I know about a mother’s love. I have Trellie, a woman who tried to teach me about the world and how it would look at me as Black woman, despite her pride in me.

“You’re just as good as they are, baby. Always remember that. But still, be careful. Don’t curse anyone out because you need that job.  Don’t shout, don’t whisper, but don’t you be scared, either.”

It’s strange and counterintuitive, isn’t it? The survival lessons a Black mother must teach her child.

These days, at my age, I realize it’s only her brilliant love that kept me from dying, either by my own hands, or at the hands of a society that just doesn’t want to see a Black woman without a mop and a bucket in her hand.  Or, just thought that I was nothing better than that position one can find in the 1972 original version of The Joy of Sex.

“A la négresse [sexual position]—from behind. She kneels, hands clasped behind her neck, breasts and face on the bed.”

I don’t distinguish much between Black boys and Black girls. Little Black boys have their grave dangers they must face out in the streets and little Black girls have others that they must face in the rooms of buildings, like their own homes. But they are all someone’s children.

My mother knows this.  She had three daughters and no sons, but now as a grandmother, she has tried to teach the same lessons to keep her grandson, my nephew, from getting caught up in the American penal system, for the supposed crimes of “loitering” and “violation of town curfew.”  The lessons she must teach that young man about how American views him.

“Criminal. Blood spiller. Wasted bag of bones. Future deadbeat father of scattered seed.”

She knows that as soon as a young Black boy is snared by that penal system, that’s usually the end of freedom as he will know it, unless he is an extraordinarily unique man, like my friend and fellow poet and writer, Reginald Dwayne Betts, who was arrested at age sixteen and spend nine years in prison—in adult population.

And she knows the system is only the least of it. What if the White cop who stops her Black grandson in their small town doesn’t know he is the descendant of Dr. Trellie James Jeffers, or doesn’t know who that is,  and decides to shoot my nephew dead?

She tells her grandson, “When they stop you, darling, stay still, be respectful, and don’t you talk back. “

She doesn’t tell him, “And you need to pray, too, because sometimes, all that doesn’t work.”


Two weeks ago, I sat on a panel with a group of writers. It was at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs Conference and the panel was called, “Writing Race in the Age of Obama.” But my take on the panel subject was different, that it was time that White writers start writing about race, too, and not just when Black people (or other People of Color) entered their poems or stories. After all, colored folks had been doing the heavy lifting of “race writing” for at least two hundred years.

In the audience of the panel there was a Black-appearing woman, and like me, she publicly identified as having multi-racial heritage. She began criticizing me about my discussion of history, saying, “It’s a new day now. We need to be writing new stories. Why don’t you write new stories?”

When I told her that as a Afro-Indigenous woman, I write about that history, first about African Americans, and now, with a clear Indigenous presence in my work, I wasn’t someone trying to write a brand new story, but one that was uniquely my own and my people’s, she began talking about the fact that “there were multi-racial people” now, including her little boy, who she said had a Jewish father.

I began talking about the importance of listening to the ancestors and the woman smirked, as did several other people of color in the room. And then, that panel was over and it was time for me to the go to another one.  But since that panel, I’ve been thinking about what was said, and why it keeps tapping me on my conscience.  What else should I have said? What might have made the difference?


When I was a little girl, my mother told me stories about her past, and going back even further, stories that she had been told by her mother and father, her grandparents, and her great-grandmother, Mandy, her father’s grandmother. (Strangely enough, her mother’s great-grandmother was called Mandy or Amanda, too. This was the Cherokee woman.)

Mandy remembered slavery. She’d been a very small child when Freedom came, but she remembered even more: the day her father was sold down south to Mississippi.  She never saw him again. Perhaps it’s something my mother said to me that has imprinted upon me the important of history.

“I was just a little girl when Ma Mandy told me those stories. If I had only sat still like she told me to. If I’d only listened, I would have so much to remember.”

I am a woman who has sat still, all these years. And with my own students of whatever their cultures and colors, I tell them to listen and to remember.  To have intellectual curiosity.  But most of my students are White. I don’t have many Black kids who will take my class and through my years of teaching, I’ve figured out why.

I’m hard on them. I make them write their stories and poems and papers over and over, to make them perfect. And they don’t want to think about the past. They want to focus on the “now.”  They don’t want to know about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs and what Richard Wright wrote about in Black Boy.

They want to talk about Kanye and Nikki Minag and Real Housewives of Atlanta. And they roll their eyes when I say, “Let’s talk about history first and connect the dots, because sooner or later, the ‘now’ will beat you up in a racial way and you need to understand why that is. You need to remember how to survive.”

I know it’s painful to listen to those stories of a traumatic Black past. I don’t know why I was that strange child who would listen to stories of lynchings and rapes and countless—countless—racial humiliations of Black men and women.

Maybe I listened so that I could tell somebody’s children one day, even those who are not my own. Maybe because I know that I have to tend the ancestral altar, no matter how many people laugh at me, even folks who look like me.

I saw that Sister in that audience. I believe that she chided me not because she wanted to shame me or make me feel belittled, but because I was scaring her. For if the world hasn’t changed for People of Color in certain ways, if it hasn’t become “post-racial”, then what might become of her brown son?

I said, “I wish things had changed. I thought they would have, twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. But they haven’t. And we need to be prepared as a people.”

I didn’t say, “I’m not a mother and these days, I know why I made the choice not to be.”

What an act of courage to carry a baby inside your body, share your bloodstream with him, and yes, your Spirit, to push him outside the narrow door of your body, to tend to him, to put your hopes for the future on his shoulders and then have someone shoot him dead.

How hard can a mother’s grief be? I confess that today, I really don’t want to know. As many tears as I have cried for this little boy named Trayvon, I can only imagine his mother’s screams.

But I did agree to something. To bear witness. To listen to the stories and to pass them down. To tend the altar so that the needed stories are remembered and brought forth, in a time such as this.

I’m not saying the “now” isn’t important in one way, but there is a need for Sankofa.

To move forward while looking to the past. Because if we keep ignoring the lessons of African American history and its implications for our Black sons and daughters, if we keep forgetting that history entirely, who’s going to teach a little Black boy the necessary things when he just wants to go around the corner for some candy?

Like, “Baby, come back, it’s dangerous out there”? Like, “Don’t you leave my sight”?