My grandma Katie, while renting her one-room living space, would choreograph our ride on the buses from
Ferguson to one of those
glorious old downtown movie houses that showed Big Effervescent Movie Musicals.
I was only 8-years old when we went to see South
Pacific, splashed across the big screen in all its fabulousness; foreshadowing my
future: a film that depicted unrequited love, a drag number and a moral lesson.
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
I wonder how my sissy boy self responded to those lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. Could I have understood the ache of “Some Enchanted Evening”? Predictably, I screeched when the butch men created campy femaleness, transforming coconuts into titties.
Even though our household echoed with the delivery of pejoratives, taking flight and landing like lethal insects, I knew—even at “seven or eight”—that the “n” word was particularly virulent. Both of my parents used the noxious word—almost always fastened to a specific reference that described a person’s behavior. This is, please believe me, no defense.
However, my father’s work often placed him in an authoritative role with black men who were trained to be subservient, but I never had the impression, not once, that my father had any degree of malice in his heart toward these men (not “boys”) of color. In his case, actions spoke more genuinely than his “casual” use of the “n-word” (remember, this was the Fifties). Yet the sound of the word made me uncomfortable; the powerful venomousness coursed through my body, making me slightly nauseous but not knowing exactly why.
Even at six years old, I distinctly remember something stirring in my being when we gathered around the television set (a temporary gag order must have been placed on the incessant name-calling) to watch Elvis Presley’s ballyhooed performance on the Ed Sullivan
Show. Although the television cameras were determined to censor Presley’s pulsating lower body, my lower body was awakening to the clarion call of sexual desire.
Zo, my traveling bud (etc), and I decided to visit Memphis on our way to see my brother, incarcerated at a Missouri federal penitentiary in Charleston, Missouri; about 150 miles between the two locations. Visiting
Graceland is only one of
the multitudinous treats that my bro will undoubtedly never experience, even if
he does get paroled before he turns 75.
"It is a commercialized piece of real estate
that posits itself as monumental as
but isn’t even worthy of comparisons to Grant’s Tomb."
So Zo and I bring
into the confines of the prison visiting room, letting Joe know that he is missing
nothing on this overblown day-trip. It is a commercialized piece of real estate
that posits itself as monumental as Mount Rushmore
but isn’t even worthy of comparisons to Grant’s Tomb.
Knowing my brother’s quirkiness regarding race (in spite of his apparent shift of perception during the past decade), we avoid too much storytelling regarding the pinnacle of our visit to
the Lorraine Motel—brilliantly attached, emotionally and architecturally, to the
Luther King was assassinated. National Civil Rights
After parking the rental car, Zo and I nonchalantly turn a corner and our bodies involuntarily freeze. Approximately twenty yards in front of us is the balcony where King was shot.
I try to recreate the horrific moment. He has just stepped onto the balcony to deliver a speech to support the striking sanitation workers, when a single bullet enters the right side of his face, approximately an inch to the right, and a half inch below, his mouth. His jaw is fractured as the bullet exits the lower part of his face and reenters the body in the neck area, severing vital arteries and fracturing the spine in several places, causing severe damage to the spinal column.
He tumbles to the ground in a pool of blood. Andrew Young rushes to King’s imperiled body in order to check his pulse.
The bullet came from the direction of a rooming house across the street where a man is seen escaping on foot, leaving clues to his identity. A fugitive from the
Prison, James Earl Gray is not
apprehended for two months. Missouri State
The previous night, he delivered a sermon containing these immortal words: “We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop…and He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain,” King said. “And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”
I was finishing high school when King died, focusing on my potential career as an actor. In the typical white American unconsciousness of the
Kearns’ family, Reverend King did not get star billing. Do I
remember where I was when I heard of his death? I don’t. I don’t remember being
taught much about King, a pivotal player in our political/cultural arena, not
even a mention in the “Current Events” aspect of our Social Studies class.
"Even though she was far more interested in The Lion King
than Martin Luther King, I persisted..."
Honoring Martin Luther King Day, I began reading King’s historic speech to Katherine, my black adopted daughter, when she was nine or ten years old. Even though she was far more interested in The Lion King than Martin Luther King, I persisted—even insisting we go to the Martin Luther King Day parade. Surveying the crowd where her daddy was one of the few whites in a sea of many-hued black folk, she said—with so much emotion it was emotionless—“Now you know what it feels like.”
She was not the only one who could deliver a good punchline. Maintaining the mantle of
Kearns’ storytelling, we have “colored” (so to speak)
this folklore for audience reaction (so laugh if you want to):
“Is that your baby?” some dingbat woman asked me, standing in line at the grocery store. “No, I’m babysitting for Diana Ross,” I deadpanned. “Where’s Mommy?” was a common query, marked by extreme thoughtlessness in spite of the questioner’s theatrically furrowed brow. “I’m her Mommy,” I deadpanned with a bit of an edge. Finally, one busybody who had seen too many television pilots, asked, “Are you her nanny?” I was finally at a loss for words.
“I’m black,” she proclaimed with a tone of discovery—half kidding, the other half plaintively serious—over long distance lines from Bournemouth, England, where she was in her first year of college in 2013; her first year in a truly diverse setting during a critical time for most twenty year olds when identity and ideology begin to take shape.
Ironically, her personal discovery has accompanied an
increasingly out of control with a tone of racial unrest that feels
terror-based. After Trayvon was shot, it seems like the sound of gunfire—much
of it aimed at black people, inexorably shot by white cops—has not ceased,
resulting in a relentless numbness for me: the ineluctable 24/7 numbness of
being the parent of a black child. America
It is imperative for me is to be vigilant to the emotional cues that come with the numbness that pervades my black child. Because even though Katherine is about to turn twenty-two, she is my black child. Even though she can orchestrate (and pay) for a trip—by herself—that traversed a section of the
she is my black child.
When she insisted on being dropped off curbside at the airport, Zo and I complied. And as Katherine slung a backpack over her shoulder, with a sense of her father’s bravado, she gave us those de rigueur airport hugs and kisses, then disappeared into the crowd.
My black child disappeared into the crowd. My anxiety was no different than when I dropped her off for her first day of kindergarten. Rules at the progressive school she attended were not to be disregarded; we had been instructed to deposit our kids, providing a simple hug but be careful not to fuel the potential of our children’s dependence.
My black little girl went to kindergarten (with predominantly white “peers”). I drove away crying, knowing that the “goodbyes” would begin mounting and I would be, like it or not, letting go (a phrase I’d like to bury). I don’t know how many goodbyes separated the first day of kindergarten and the wrenching experience of leaving her in
to pursue her studies after
high school. England
Katherine had returned to America in time for Mike Brown’s death, significantly occurring in a part of the country she had actually visited; a place untarnished became a scene of horror that she, along with the rest of the world, saw immortalized over and over on every news outlet that existed: Ferguson became iconic during the amount of time that Brown’s body was frying on the street in the blistering August sun.
Brown’s death is what began the discourse, and continues to energize our father-daughter relationship, virtually on a daily basis; his murder, the country’s mood and my daughter’s stimulating response has resulted in my conscious commitment to travel this vibrant black cultural road, encompassing its bumpy past and its precarious future, alongside her. Katherine is my guide, my teacher, and what she endures, and what all black people endure, informs my morality.
If I cannot find my way into the interior life that she battles? If I cannot empathize with her unique place in the world she inhabits, I will have failed her—as a father, as a human being.
Race has begun to dominate my palette as I—with worn-down energy playing opposite accelerated passion—dedicate my artistic construct and my public position, to the black lives that matter. And my daughter holds my hand and whispers truths in my ear.
"Ferguson became iconic during the amount of time that
Brown’s body was frying on the street in the blistering August sun."
During decades spent in service to the GLBT lives that matter and the AIDS deaths that matter, racial consciousness was largely treated like a distant cousin when it likely should have been looked at as a sibling. I have begun to adjust my allegiances, as I complete my sixth decade on this exhilarating social justice train, in art and in life.
And while I may not be able to move mountains, I will determinedly look over towering purple mountaintops as my daughter points—with reticence but also with hope—toward the Promised Land.
We, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.