From Woe to Wonder

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Arts & Culture

Gwendolyn Brooks, in a 1977 interview, describes an ongoing argument with her husband about the fate of a running Black child:

Once we were walking down a road and we saw a little Ghanaian boy. He was running and happy in the happy sunshine. My husband made a comment springing from an argument we had had the night before that lasted until four in the morning. He said, ‘Now look, see that little boy. That is a perfect picture of happy youth. So if you were writing a poem about him, why couldn’t you just let it go at that? Write a poem about running boy-happy, happy-running boy?’ […]

So I said if you wrote exhaustively about running boy and you noticed that the boy was black, you would have to go further than a celebration of blissful youth. You just might consider that when a black boy runs, maybe not in Ghana, but perhaps on the Chicago South Side, you’d have to remember a certain friend of my daughter’s in high school—beautiful boy, so smart, one of the honor students, and just an all-around fine fellow. He was running down an alley with a friend of his, just running and a policeman said ‘Halt!’ And before he could slow up his steps, he just shot him. Now that happens all the time in Chicago. There was all that promise in a little crumpled heap. Dead forever.

*

For every sorrow I write, also I press my forehead to the ground. Also I wash the feet of our beloveds, if only in my mind, in the waters of the petals of the flowers.

I cross my arms and bow to you.
I cross my arms in armor wishing you protection.

*

On August 23, 2014, I joined thousands to march for the life of Eric Garner and against the police who murdered him one month before. The blastocyst that would become my son was multiplying inside my darkest me unbeknownst to me.

Time moved through us. It is now 2020. Ramsey Orta, who filmed Garner’s death and bravely shared that record, is imprisoned on trumped-up charges and beaten by guards. Eric Garner’s eldest child, the activist Erica Garner, has passed at the age of twenty-seven from an enlarged heart after giving birth just three months before.

It is summer, then all the leaves are falling. My kids are two and four, then they are nearly three and nearly five. My son’s birthday, now I know, falls between the birthdays of young Ahmaud Arbery and the poet Kamau Brathwaite. I hear Gwendolyn Brooks: “You just might consider that when a black boy runs…” My partner and I teeter in that argument between Brooks and her husband, our own sight touched by both things: the happy in the happy sunshine and the policeman saying halt. We dance in the circle following both these men—Ahmaud Arbery, ever-becoming, and Kamau Brathwaite, the elder, who wrote in Elegguas:

How all this wd have been one kind of world. perhaps—no—certainly—
kindlier—you wd have been bourne happy into yr entitlement of silver hairs
and there wd have been no threat

My partner and I do not yet speak to our children about racism and such threats here looming. We speak of justice, diversity, fairness. The kids love the story of Malcolm Little: The Boy Who Grew Up to Become Malcolm X. They read a little at first, then a little more. We give them the large brushstrokes of the burning house, but we talk for long about Malcolm’s brilliant family, their commitments and work, the ladybugs in the garden. In Mae Among the Stars, when the teacher dismisses Mae’s dream to become an astronaut, our son is shocked. “Why would a teacher say that to a child?” He asks this very question, out of what seems to us the blue, over several weeks, then months. We do not mention that the teacher is White. We do not mention that the people who burn Malcolm Little’s house are White.

My partner and I talk to other Black parents, including our own. We get advice, ask questions, work and think about how to nourish and fortify our children. It does not occur to us to talk to our kids about Whiteness just yet, but increasingly I think we must. For example, I am startled, in February, by my son’s White schoolmate who runs into the hall to announce to his parent that Martin Luther King Jr. was killed because of the color of his skin. These months later I am again startled by the very young White children who speak openly and, it seems, without fear about George Floyd’s murder.

We are on a Zoom call with my child’s class. One of his White classmates has gone to a march with her family, in the middle of a pandemic, to march for Black Lives. The power of this is not lost on me. I am moved by their family’s investment and risk, a risk I do not take. I study the child’s face. The baby still in her voice, her cheeks, the way she holds her mouth. She says, “George Floyd was killed because…” And I click the sound off. My youngest says, “I can’t hear, Mommy.” Just a second, I tell them both, just a second.

The rest of that sentence might go a hundred different ways, might say something about the brutality, profit, and racialized terror on which the police state is founded, but this is not the sentence I expect. The sentence I expect is a variation on a theme: George Floyd was killed because of the color of his skin. People are mistreated because of the color of their skin. George Floyd was killed because his skin was brown.

Our skin is brown.

We stand in the light of the sentence but the perpetrator is under cover, cloaked. But by what, and in whose service?

It occurs to me in an instant that we have insufficiently prepared our child for the threat inside this fog.

I imagine a seesaw. My children are on one side and this White child, my son’s same age, same height and weight, is on the other side. She is one child, my children are two. And yet they are the ones hovering in the air, ungrounded. He was killed because his skin was brown. So goes the sentence that holds my children, dangling and subject, and that grants the White child her ground, her safety, her natural habitat, and close-to-the-earthness. The consequences of White supremacy are named only in terms of my child’s suffering or potential suffering, named only in terms of the suffering of our beloveds, but not in terms of the causes, the perpetrators, the inheritors, not in terms of the consequences on the minds of the White children who have already been failed, have already been taught wrongly to stand outside of the equation with their families.

Our son already knows the basic principles of physics on which a seesaw is designed. He knows that one and one is two. He knows: from the chicken, the egg; from the apple tree, the apple; and so on. So why should we teach him such a distorted logic that goes out of its way not to name the other subject in the sentence? If we do, the sentence itself becomes a kind of captivity. If we do, he will have no chance of knowing what it is he’s trying to get free from, and White children, too, will think the problem is out there, someone else’s, even his, and not the water they drink, the cleanish air they breathe.

Gwendolyn Brooks writes, in this excerpt from the persona poem “The Near-Johannesburg Boy,” written during apartheid:

My way is from woe to wonder.
A black boy near Johannesburg, hot
in the Hot Time.

Those people
do not like Black among the colors.
They do not like our
calling our country ours.
They say our country is not ours.

Those people.
Visiting the world as I visit the world.
Those people.
Their bleach is puckered and cruel.

She begins to pull Whiteness into the frame. And there is something here for us I think.

When a White person with a White child points to my child, even lovingly, as an example of a Black life who matters, I would also like that person to teach their White child about White life and history, and about how they are going to have to work really hard to make sure that they are not taking up more air, more space, more sidewalk because they have been taught wrongly that the world is more theirs. I would like to give my five-year-old words so that when he is told “George Floyd was killed because his skin was brown,” he is able to say something like, “Well, actually, there is an idea called Whiteness. Some people think that they are better and deserve more of everything because they are White and their ancestors are from Europe. Their ancestors hurt people and hurt the land to get the power that they gave to their children and that their children keep keeping, and keep using to hurt, even today. Isn’t that terrible?”

I want him to be able to say something like, “Those people. Visiting the world as I visit the world.”

*

This spring, we are, in our apartment, two kids and two parents, always together. By the time the last minutes of Ahmaud Arbery’s life are all over the internet, and we have begun to mourn the news of police officers killing Breonna Taylor inside her bedroom, and the news of the police murdering George Floyd, and the people, including children small as my children, have begun marching in the streets, my son and his sister are in their parent’s skin again, consuming only what we want them to consume. For a few months nobody, not even the puppets on Sesame Street, say in front of our children, “He was killed or she was killed or they were treated unfairly because of how they look or act or who they are.” There is a little more time to work on our children’s armor before they go again out into the further world, which, yes, we also love and want them to be in. We want them in the world with our family. We want them running in the sunlight with their laughing friends.

Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. I move fast through the house, then slow, trying to listen for my mothers. The kids and I spend an afternoon boiling peony petals in water, then they take turns mashing them in the pilón. We wash the paper in the pigment and the color goes from a nearly invisible violet to a purple so strong it is like medicine. It gets darker and darker through the night, even in our sleep. They know this now. And they know how to pull the smoke over their heads in blessing. But more protection, more. And not just protection, also truth, also dreaming. Violet inside the petal. Purple inside the violet. Truth inside the purple. Dreaming inside the truth. Freedom inside the dreaming.

*

Time repeats through us. Time moves. My son was born, then he was two, and then my daughter was born. This spring they are almost three and five. In April I begin to say, as I do each year, “Right about now we were getting ready for you to be born. My stomach was enormous. My heart was pumping so much blood. The buds were bursting from the trees. The grass was high and green.” I do not mention Eric Garner. I do not mention Mike Brown or Tamir Rice. “Five years ago now we were getting ready.” I do not mention Walter Scott. “Papa put the stroller together, we went on walks, we were followed by a squirrel. We waited for you to be born.” He likes to hear this story and asks questions about the squirrel, the dark, the ice cream, the blood. He asks for all kinds of details from his gestation.

This year we go to the marsh. It is cold and so windy that almost no one else is out there, so we take off our masks and turn our backs to the wind. What was here before us? Who was here? What is here still though we maybe cannot see it? We are teaching the children to ask. This is Lenni Lenape land. There was a wilderness once. When the Dutch arrived in the seventeenth century, they began their colonial project by waging war with the land and its people. The tide is high, and we do not see the crabs or clams or snails, but we know that they are there.

Days later, it is warm again. The kids move up and down the marsh quietly seeing what they can see. The scurrying of the crabs. Their father says, “Gentle, gentle, you don’t want to frighten them.”

*

When I was eleven, I watched a crab scurry upright and frantic across the cobblestones in a small plaza in Colima where my aunt lived. I remember still its panic, how I felt seized by it somehow. With it I shared a skin. I swear, I thought something like, “You are my ancestor. I am you. Until I learned to also become the one who hunted, no longer feeling for your loss of life. At first I said, no, no, and was so sad, crying and snotting into my hands. My parent told me, Shh, eat, because we were hungry, and so then eventually I did. I began to eat your meat not just out of hunger but out of greed, without thanks, without prayer, without guilt, as something to do.”

*

My way is from woe to wonder.
A black boy near Johannesburg, hot
in the Hot Time.

Those people
do not like Black among the colors.
They do not like our
calling our country ours.
They say our country is not ours.
Those people.
Visiting the world as I visit the world.
Those people.
Their bleach is puckered and cruel.

I try to follow the boy from woe to wonder, but these years move often from wonder to woe. It is the thing that animates my quiet. It blazes like lightning through all of my branches. Wonder to woe. LaQuan McDonald, age seventeen. Kwame Jones, age seventeen. Trayvon Martin, age seventeen. Ramarley Graham, age seventeen. Tamir Rice, age twelve. Aiyana Mo’Nay Stanley Jones, age seven. Given names by their families. Names to be called from another room. Names to be taught to write and read. Names to, maybe, be shouted in a circle while their beloveds clap and clap for them to dance.

*

Woe to wonder. Needing to survive and to survive—my country—for my children: Get up. Put the water in the pot and boil the egg. Wash the faces. Empty the trash. “Where are your shoes?” I say. “Let’s count your fingers. Mommy loves you,” I say, and across our lines I hear the other mothers coming through.

My mother, for example, used to tell us, “Death and life is in the power of the tongue.”

Death and life, our mother said, about any number of things and in any number of ways. Part of what I understood was that language could help us to live and could help us to die. That rebuking Satan and anointing our heads and house with oil actually meant something. Whether Satan lasted was not the point, though, yes, we wanted Satan gone. The point was she was teaching us to fight.

*

This spring our son begins to read. He works on words, their smallest sounds, sometimes guessing, sometimes repeating what he hears us say about English: You know laugh is a funny word. It looks like it would sound one way but it really sounds another way. “Without” has two words inside it. He is tickled by what surprises. How the silence of some e’s is not so silent because they change the sound of the vowel before. Hose is one letter away from nose. I begin to imagine that to learn to read English is to begin to know something also about this country. Something hidden, something shown. Something sinister, something joyful. Some things are not what they seem. Other things are what they seem. In the letters I find the shapes my brother’s body makes uprocking inside the circle. I trace the shapes my sister’s body makes as she plants trees. And a million configurations of this letter in front of that one, marching in the streets this spring, this day. My son teaches his sister. W looks like water. This letter looks like that one. Maybe they are a family, maybe not.

With the pigment my son makes a birthday card to mail to his beloved friend. He writes treehouse very neatly in nine brown letters on the bottom of the paper, I don’t know why. Maybe because it is the most wonderful idea he can think of to offer. He asks me, “Have you ever seen a treehouse!?” I am tickled beside his joy that such a thing exists. I take note with my own paper and pencil. A house inside a tree. Oops, it looks like I wrote free.

*

I am late in my thirties when I hear for the first time, from my friend Ross, that one of the strategies of petit marronage for enslaved people was to go into the tops and trunks of trees, finding and keeping a refuge there.

Whenever it is that my partner and I begin to teach our children about the brutality, by design, of this moment and this country, the continuum of catastrophe we are alive and loving and breathing in, I know now that a vital part of what we teach them must have to do with the beauty and power of the imaginative strategies of Black people everywhere. Maroons planting cassava and sweet potato, easily hidden, growing secret in the ground. My best friend’s godsister, Brandy, who, when we were small, knew how to disappear into thin air by opening a book. Tegadelti freedom fighters on the front lines in Eritrea, making pigment out of flower petals, to paint. Palestinians who, when Israeli forces criminalized the carrying of the Palestinian flag in 1967, raised the watermelons up as their flags. Red, black, white, green. The mind that attempts, and attempts again, to find a way out of no way.

It occurs to me that what I right now want for my children is to equip them with fight and armor and space for dreaming in the long, constant work of our trying to get free. I am trying to think like a poet, like a maroon—to tell our children that there were people who, even while under the most unimaginable duress, had the mind to find and keep refuge in the trees. That they are all around us still. Some of them are named Gwendolyn. Some of them are named Kamau.

I am trying to learn with and for the sake of my children. To help them move, even in their woe, toward wonder. To resist the seal of a sentence so complete, and to find, in the syntax, openings through—so onto a ground of their own dreamings, again and again, they alight.

Among the communities doing the vital, brilliant work of tending the dreaming and strength of young people is Little Maroons. For the past fifteen years, they have focused on child-led, African-centered cooperative learning for very young children. If you’d like to support their transition to curriculum development please find them here: http://www.littlemaroonscommunity.com/donate/

Aracelis Girmay is the author of three books of poems, most recently the black maria (BOA Editions, 2016), for which she was a finalist for the Neustadt Prize. She is the editor of How to Carry Water: Selected Poems of Lucille Clifton (2020).

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