By the late summer of 1967, when I turned seven, we’d been living in the house for six years. By “we,” I mean my mother, two of my four older sisters, and my little brother. And although we shared the place with a rotating cast of other relatives, including my mother’s mother and an aunt and her two children, I always considered it my mother’s home. The house was in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Like all the moves my mother engineered or helped to engineer for our family, this one was aspirational. Despite the fact that Brownsville had begun its slow decline into drugs, poverty, and ghettoization years before, my mother’s house—the only one in her life that, after years of work and planning, she would even partly own—symbolized a break with everything we had known before, including an apartment in Crown Heights, with a shared bathroom near the stairwell, where, on Sunday nights, my mother would line her daughters up with freshly laundered towels so that they could take their weekly bath.
Privacy was something my sisters had to get used to. Our new house had doors and a proper sitting room, which sometimes served as a makeshift bedroom for visiting Bajan relatives. (My mother’s family was from Barbados.) The sister I was closest to, a poetry-writing star who wore pencil skirts to play handball with the guys, composed her verse amid drifts and piles of clothes and kept her door closed. My brother and I shared a smaller room and a bed. My mother had her own room, where the door was always ajar; she didn’t so much sleep there as rest between walks up and down the hall to watch and listen for the safety of her children.
体育投注平台The Brownsville summer of 1967 was like every other Brooklyn summer I’d experienced: stultifying. Relief was sought at the nearby Betsy Head Pool, and at the fire hydrants that reckless boys opened with giant wrenches. The cold water made the black asphalt blacker in the black nights. Gossip floated down the street from our neighbors’ small front porches and from stoops flanked by big concrete planters full of dusty plastic flowers. Nursing a beer or a Pepsi, the grownups discussed far-off places like Vietnam. So-and-So’s son had come back from there all messed up, and now he was on the methadone. Then the conversation would shift to the kids. Every kid in our neighborhood was everyone else’s kid. Prying, caring eyes were everywhere. Sometimes the conversation stopped—just for a moment—as girls in summer dresses passed. Men and women alike looked longingly at those girls, for different reasons, as they ambled down the street, pretending to pay no mind to the fine-built boys who called to them from a distance.
In short, what one saw in that place on those nights was what my mother had been searching for: community. She was a proud member of Mary McLeod Bethune’s National Council of Negro Women, and had attended Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s 1963 March on Washington. When she reminisced about that march, it was with a vividness that made her children feel shy: sometime in the long ago, Ma had been part of history. Nonviolent organization, picket lines, and marches: all these strengthened our mother’s conviction that inclusion worked, that civil rights worked, that the black family could work, especially if welfare officers and other professionally concerned people—journalists and sociologists, say—paid attention to what a black mother built, rather than to how she failed. (“I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family,” Toni Morrison体育投注平台 said in a 1989 interview. “It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. . . . You need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child.”)
If Ma failed, then we failed, and she never wanted us to feel that. Something else Ma wanted: for black people in Brooklyn, in America, not to forever be effectively refugees—stateless, homeless,without rights, confined by borders that they did not create and by a penal system that killed them before they died, all while trying to rear children who went to schools that taught them not about themselves but about what they didn’t have.
And yet there was no way to save Ma’s idea of community and hope when, in September, 1967, our neighborhood changed forever. Someone, or a bunch of someones, heard that a young boy, a fourteen-year-old black kid, Richard Ross, had been killed by a cop—a detective named John Rattley—in Brownsville. Apparently, Rattley believed that Ross had mugged or was mugging an old Jewish man; as Ross tried to get away, Rattley shot him in the back of the head. In those years, black boys were locked up or killed all the time; you didn’t think about it much, because to think about it was to remember what a killing field New York was, and how easily you, too, could become a body in that field. The detail we hung on to in the flurry of hearsay and speculation was that Rattley was black. The activist Sonny Carson was big then; it was said that he was leading a demonstration, and it was coming our way.
Marches, protests, and the like were, we knew, a prelude to the racially motivated violence that had already cropped up in nearby Newark and other places, such as Detroit. For sure, Brownsville would get more messed up if the cops were involved; that was how demonstrations became riots. I remember that night—or was it late afternoon?—our mother walking us swiftly into the house and shutting all the doors and windows. Inside, it was lights-out. The air was close. We could hear our hearts beating. Peeking from behind one of the living-room curtains, I watched as the protesters started flinging bottles and stones at the cops, and our real world turned into a movie, a horror film in which everything we’d built together—home, hope, the illusion of citizenship—was torn to the ground. Black people, mostly men, were roaming the streets, periodically smashing car windows or overturning ashcans and torching rubbish. They were claiming what they felt to be a kind of freedom. As refugees, we knew that none of it belonged to us—not that shop, not that newly built pigeon coop—even as we knew that it did belong to us, emotionally speaking: it was all part of our community. Still, why not trash a universe that has trashed you?
Standing by my mother’s living-room window, I tried, tentatively, to ask her why our world was burning, burning. She gave me a forbidding look: Boy, be quiet so you can survive, her eyes seemed to say. Did I want to be another Richard Ross, one of the hundred or thousand Richard Rosses out there? So many questions I could not ask—among them, had our desire for community also been reduced to rubble and ash? The chaos that night—it would last for two days before life went back to “normal”—was more vivid to my burgeoning writer’s mind than what I could not see: our mother’s vivid memories of King’s promise of a promised land. Where was that? And was it different from—or superior to—the world my poetry-writing sister was gradually entering, through her admiration for a number of the musicians and poets associated with the Black Arts Movement? A world that promised a cataclysmic end to whiteness, if only we could carry arms and follow the teachings of early Malcolm X体育投注平台? Was my mother a “better” forecaster of what was to come than my sister? Martin and Malcolm, like protest marches and riots, belonged to different generations. Because I loved my sister and wanted to think as she did, I was, presumably, part of the “riot generation”; I knew about violence from the teasing, taunting black boys in my neighborhood, and Sly and the Family Stone’s dark and furious album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” released four years after the Brownsville uprising, stayed in my bones more than those of any weepy folksinger. But what about Ma and her dreams? I belonged to and was part of them as well.