Old southern black women are poets. The way they turn a phrase might make you cringe, groan, or laugh—but you never forget. Phrases like “knee-high to a grasshopper” or “high as giraffe coochie” just stick with you forever and you laugh and can’t wait for when you are old enough to get away with saying anything. Old southern black women have that power to be unflinching in their observations and words.
I hope to be old some day, but I rarely imagine the end of my life being like my great-aunt’s: 96 years old, lying in bed, surrounded by family, love, and prayer. A peaceful transition. Instead, I have often imagined my life coming to an abrupt and violent end.
Maybe it’s at a traffic stop, which is why my body goes tense and rigid whenever I see a squad car traveling near me. Maybe it’s at an action, which is why I have about four different ways of keeping in touch with loved ones when I’m at a protest. Maybe I’m walking down the street minding my own business but stop to observe cops questioning young men and they turn their ire toward me.
Or maybe I live to be 100. Who knows? But the fact that in every encounter with police I start calculating the likelihood of my death points to a truth that I, and black people, have known forever: We are living under a terrorist regime.
I was 11 years old when Los Angeles police brutally beat Rodney King. I was 11 when I saw this man, terrified and cowering on the ground, be struck again and again. There were four of them, the boys in blue, and one of him, the man wrapped in black. Though he was powerless to resist, they kept on pounding him and it looked like a lot of fun for them.
My memory of it is horrifying, but I honestly don’t remember being horrified when I was 11. I was already desensitized to the terror, no longer shocked that something like this would happen, only that someone had filmed the whole thing. This time the bastards would get theirs.
We all thought so.
1992 was a huge year for my blackness. I’d been educated in the Ways of White Folks my whole young life. My blackness was never devoid of a power analysis, never empty of a politic. But 1992 was when I first grappled with the overwhelming scope of white supremacist terror in our institutions.
The Rodney King trial in 1992 was the first that I watched with the full consciousness of my race, with the understanding that what happened here would mean something for all of us. True to the Ways of White Folks, his character was assassinated. He shouldn’t have resisted. He shouldn’t have been driving drunk—he could have KILLED someone. He was high on PCP.
He wasn’t on PCP, but the speculation had already become more powerful than the fact.
At 12 years old, my education in the Ways of White Folks was deepening. I was now learning that you could be two kinds of nigger—a Good Nigger or a Bad Nigger—but you would always be a nigger. No one used those particular words around me, yet the message was clear. Rodney King had been A Bad Nigger, so was what happened to him really all that bad?
A jury of 12 people decided it was not. The four officers who accosted and brutalized him past any reasonable need were found not guilty and were free to return to their families and to their duty.
And Los Angeles mourned and Los Angeles went up in flames.
Later that year, the gubernatorial race in Louisiana was the first race I followed incessantly. It was the first election that I watched as part of a collective black body, such that when other black folks groaned, I felt their pain. David Duke, notorious white supremacist and former high-ranking officer in the Ku Klux Klan, advanced to the runoff election. That year two bright and brilliant black men were eliminated from the field in the primary. That year our choices for governor of Louisiana were either Edwin Edwards, well-known white embezzler, or David Duke. And we celebrated that the crook won. That was at least a small comfort.
I kept learning. White people never needed to be Good White People to win or to have power, let alone live free of state violence. They just needed not to be niggers at all.
My grandmama might have said Jordan Edwards wasn’t even a twitch in his daddy’s thigh when those cops were acquitted for beating Rodney King. And I would squirm with discomfort at the way she reminded us of the very particular biological impulses that created us. And I would feel incredible conflict in my gut when I found her words funny even as they were about a horrible tragedy. But I wouldn’t dare suggest she should use different language because where I’m from, old age grants you certain freedoms.
Freedoms that Jordan Edwards will never know. Freedoms I fear I will never know, because of this police terrorism.
Almost 25 years to the date after four cops were acquitted for brutalizing Rodney King’s body, despite the entire ordeal being captured on camera, I breathe and sigh and feel the tension rise once again in the collective black body.
So far media reports focus on Jordan Edwards’ Goodness. He was an honor student. He never caused any trouble. He was leaving a party with his friends because it looked like it was going to turn bad. They are laying the groundwork for you to care about Jordan Edwards because he was not A Thug. See, the Ways of White Folks have evolved and so has the coded language that indicts the dead of their own murders.
Jordan’s Goodness and the narrative surrounding it are of little comfort to the collective black body because he is still someone’s baby whose life was stolen by a terrorist agent of the state.
Jordan Edwards was somebody’s baby when a terrorist agent of the state indiscriminately fired an assault rifle into a car full of children. Jordan was somebody’s baby when that terrorist agent lied about Jordan’s friends aggressively reversing their vehicle toward him, as though they would mow him down. Jordan was somebody’s baby when his violent death was caught on camera.
His death will certainly add fuel to the movement fire, but his life deserved so much more than this. And not because he was brilliant, because by all accounts he was. Not because he was sweet and kind, though by all accounts he was. Not because of who he might have been, but because of who he is: somebody’s baby.
In moments like these Jordan and the other kids we lose to state terrorism feel like all of our babies, like we all suffered the birth pains that brought them here. Like we all feel the anguish because with his death, another part of the collective body falls away and dies senselessly. But he’s not just ours to grieve and mourn and build revolution with. He’s somebody’s baby.
This baby’s death was caught on camera, but when I was 12 I learned that doesn’t mean a damn thing for justice unless it emotionally stirs the Right White People. When Tamir Rice was 12, he learned being killed on camera doesn’t mean a damn thing unless it stirs the Right White People.
Today my fingers tremble with pent-up sadness of the collective body trying to move through the day(s). My chest constricts with the anger of the collective. My breath quickens and shortens with the anxiety of the collective. My jaw clenches with the resolve of the collective to survive for the babies who remain.
My grandmama would probably say, “Ain’t no use crying over white folks acting like white folks.” She was a poet, hardened by the things she’d seen and survived. And I wouldn’t fight her, as much as my tender heart would want to challenge her. But I’d go into another room and scream into a pillow, because my callouses aren’t that thick yet.
*This blog was originally posted at Daily Kos. You can see it here.