Recently the First Lady was in Chicago for the funeral of a girl shot not long after she’d performed for the First Family at President Obama’s Inauguration. And on Monday, another girl in Chicago was murdered, this time shortly after her sister attended a speech the President gave on gun violence.
The murdered girls, the First Family are all African-American.
After the shootings in Sandy Hook, Connecticut a lot of black people asked why there hasn’t been the same kind of outrage over the murders of black children that happen every day. I was also asked about this during an appearance on NPR’s “Tell Me More” with Michel Martin a few weeks ago.
I essentially said that people, sadly, don’t get outraged because black children dying from gun violence is not considered rare. In fact, it’s almost accepted by a jaded public who would rather just not deal with the issue at all.
People don’t get upset about what is “expected” to happen.
But I’m not originator of this particular line of logic about how some tragedies are tragedies and others are considered ordinary:
“You know what I’ve noticed? Nobody panics when things go “according to plan.” Even if the plan is horrifying. If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all “part of the plan.” But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!”
Black people dying due to the extremely unsafe position we have historically held in American society was originally part of the “plan.” It was especially so when we were brought over as chattel. But somehow, it still continues to be the “plan” long after the chains came off.
Blame institutional racism. Blame the poverty, poor education, poor health care, poor protections under the law for us. Blame broken families and communities, churches and the government. There’s plenty of fault to go around. But since you can’t fix a 300 year old problem with one black presidency and 60 years of post-Jim Crow living, we have to find work-arounds.
As black people we are forced to “adapt” to our possible demise being something “ordinary.” We try to cope the best way we can, repeating that we will not allow ourselves or those we love to become that most dreaded thing no black person wants to ever be.
Not a person with a name. But a point on a graph symbolizing the stagnation of racial progress in this country.
With no solution coming anytime soon, we often have to take our lives in our own hands and try to avoid the statistician to our best abilities. Even if to others those measures taken might seem a little strange.
If Black Americans have a reputation of being a particularly “scary” sort of folk who are superstitious and, as a nation, “ain’t got time for that,” it is not without reason. Our whole history is of some black person minding their own business when something terrible happened.
You can’t go hang out in a car with your friends. One time a boy hung out in a car with his friends and some white man shot him because he claimed the music was up too loud!
You can’t call the police! This black girl I once knew saw a murder, called the cops, but instead of getting the guy who did it, they arrested her and she spent 18 years in prison!
You can’t go to town by yourself when you visit Grandma! Once a woman from up North let her son go to town alone and he ended up lynched in the river!
You can’t get on a boat! The last time a black person got on a boat they ended up on a sugar cane plantation in Brazil!
While there is no promise of safety to anyone, black people tend to be very well of the “it could happen to me” aspect of things, as it could and thanks to statistics likely will happen to you or someone you know if you are black. Black people cannot afford to have illusions of “It’s a free country and if I feel like going for a jog in my own neighborhood, I will!”
And sure you can. Unless you were a black person who lived in the same neighborhood where Trayvon Martin was shot while walking home by a vigilante. One of the neighbors said once he realized the self-appointed neighborhood watch seemed especially fixated on black youth that he should probably NOT jog in his own neighborhood.
No promise. No illusion of a promise. No pretense. Safety is not guaranteed. Not even in safe places.
Two anecdotes, one long and one short.
The short one first:
My father once told me when I was young that if I saw some black people running, I should run too (just in case), then ask why we were running later, once we seem far enough away from whatever we were running from.
And now the longer one:
As a child I was not allowed to do many things by my mother. Here is a short list:
Walk on streets without sidewalks; cross the street; play in other people’s houses; play in other people’s yards; play in our front yard (Mommy could not see me from there); go to sleep overs; date; have a boyfriend (I was told repeatedly that boys were “trouble”); answer the front door; let anyone in the house if my parents weren’t at home even if it was my Uncle Bill who was just checking on us because our mother was in the hospital (I still remember my sisters and I all trapped in some paradox of “But it’s Uncle Bill!” “But Daddy said don’t open the door for ANYBODY!” In the Belton household the right answer is always “Whatever Mommy and Daddy said.”)
Until age eight I could not eat a Jolly Rancher unless I was standing in front of my mother so she could watch me so I would not choke.
At 18, she once would not let me wash a sink full of dishes because “There’s a sharp knife in it.”
When I would tell my friends who happen to be white these stories they would say, “Your mom sounds really controlling.”
When I tell my friends who were raised by black people these stories I get one of two answers:
- A “smile” and a “My mom wouldn’t let me date until I was 21 and I’m a dude.”
- It sounds like you had a really good mother.
To some black people the definition of a good mother is one who tries to rule out as much chance as possible. One who gets it’s hard to keep your kid from becoming a statistic. They don’t fault her for channeling Malcolm X and pulling a “By any means necessary” on my independence as a child. Even if it came at my own expense.
I’m a functioning neurotic. But barely functioning.
I don’t say this to say my mother’s example is “the” example for model black parenting (it’s not, nothing is, some terrible parents have managed to produce wonderful adults almost in spite of the horrid parenting). I say it because I am someone who believes no one, not even white people, are guaranteed safety. Safety is an illusion society creates so we can function. Without this illusion – that your babysitter won’t molest your kids or that your child won’t get shot at school or shot hours after President Obama speaks – we cannot function.
Bad things happen. We do our best to prevent these bad things. We even stop the bad things sometimes and make life better for ourselves. But you can still do all the right things and something terrible will happen. So to keep from falling into despair, we mitigate risk.
What’s more important – safety or independence?
My sister gave birth to her son last year and she already worries about how she will prepare him for a world that doesn’t afford an illusion of safety to little black boys or their black mothers. But she also worries about being like our mother and holding on so tightly that his neuroses will threaten any personal happiness and independence he could hope to develop.
It’s the paradox of our struggle – how to live as free people when you’re still not quite free.