This blog and its follow up next week appear in conjunction with a CONVERSATION (not a lecture, not a performance) that I'm conducting at the Silver Lake Library on August 13 @ 3:00 PM. Open to the public. Mk
The city of Ferguson meant Grandma Katie, the sole presence in my stricken childhood who made me feel okay about my gawky self; not only “okay” but of value, worthy. Grandma Katie made me feel loved.
= Grandma Katie = love.
My daughter, Katherine, was about to turn twenty (her day of birth, separated only by one, from her great grandmother’s) when
Ferguson became as famous as
without the allure of romance and sophistication.
Katherine wraps herself in photographs of the
Kearns’ family, dating back before her
daddy was born; and, oh, how my girl loves to hear stories—whether hilariously
off-kilter and often off-color or the stuff of real tragedy.
Grandma Katie (my daughter’s namesake, if you didn’t already guess) lived in
Ferguson in the early Sixties. And I’d visit
her as often as I could. She rented a room in the house of a middle-class
family; this disturbed my daughter; she couldn’t reconcile that a woman who
raised five boys, singlehandedly, would be relegated to one-room in a virtual
Daddy,” she pleaded, on one of our earlier excursions to
and environs, “tell me about the time she caught your uncle tying his teddy
bear to the railroad tracks.” We began visiting my brother, behind bars in the nearby
where he is doing time on a
murder charge, shortly after 911. county of Charleston
“Doing the dishes, Grandma Katie was looking out the kitchen window,” I tell my daughter for the umpteenth time, “knowing it was time for the train to come coursing through town when she had to ascertain her boys’ whereabouts. There was little John, busily tying his teddy bear to the railroad tracks, glancing in the direction of the oncoming choo-choo. Panicking, she ran from their small house, yelling at the top of her lungs as she approached her calmly focused son, almost finished with his dramatic task.
“’Boy, what are you doing?’ she asked, grabbing him and the imperiled little stuffed animal. ‘Mommy,’ he said, in a reasonable voice of compassion: ‘I’m just checking to see if my teddy bear will bleed.’”
I swear I see blood on the
street. I can smell it, almost taste it. There is an odd marking on the asphalt, rectangular in shape, that measures approximately eight feet by four feet, proclaiming the exact spot where Michael Brown’s body remains in a pool of blood—“beet red,” according to one witness—for four hours plus in the sweltering heat on August 9, 2014. The boy’s body receives at least six bullets, the first four strike him in the right arm and shoulder and the last two in the head. Darren Wilson performs the coup de grace by aiming the final bullet into the top of Brown’s head; to make sure he is indubitably dead. Ferguson
Nearly two years have elapsed but I am compelled to revisit those events, envision them, maybe even feel them, standing in the unforgiving sunshine with Brian Clarke, my friend from our shared days at Normandy High School (Mike Brown’s Alma Mater as well). Brian and I buy a teddy bear at Target, blessed by a very young black saleswoman when we tell her where we’re taking the little creature). We expect to find a heap of items that conjured Mike, but I would later learn that his father, unable to deal with the constant public reminder of his son’s death, removed the memorial on what would have been Mike’s nineteenth birthday.
Looking at the spot where Mike lost his life, I try to imagine the visceral churning of his mother when she arrives at the scene. “I stormed up and down the sidewalk,” she says. In her book (Tell The Truth & Shame The Devil), Leslie McSpadden] writes: “‘Where is he? Where's the one who did this to my child?’ I got closer to one of them whose face had a permanent scowl carved into it. He stood over me. ‘Ya'll muthafuckas gonna have to answer to this,’ I challenged, looking up at him, square in the eye like I was every bit of the giant he was.
"’Well, we some good motherfuckers,’" he growled, then threw up his middle finger.”
Katherine was ten when I—amidst puzzled responses from various factions in my life—allowed her to decide whether or not she wanted to visit her uncle in prison. Understandably, she was indecisive. I had explained the harsh realities: the scary sounds of buzzers and the threatening sounds of metallic doors slamming shut; I told her about the visiting room itself, detailing some of the fervent complexities she would likely observe. She decided to remain in the car with a dear friend who had driven us from
"...Wilson performs the coup de grace by aiming the final bullet into the top of Brown’s head; to make sure he is indubitably dead."
“It’s totally okay, sweetie,” I said, hugging her tightly before I marched up to join the line that was forming outside.
Within a few moments, I glanced at the parking lot to see my little girl, bravely running toward me with her considerable ferocity. “I changed my mind, Daddy,” she whispered.
Katherine has since accompanied me on yearly visits, building a bond with my brother—in the confines of a prison visiting room—that is perhaps the most potent evolution of a black-white relationship I have ever witnessed. My brother has had redneck-racist leanings since I can remember, unabashedly expressed; the volume on that aspect of his personality—an aspect of all our personalities, I believe—has reduced mightily.
The young woman he proudly calls his niece—although they are related not by blood but by love and understanding and empathy—has affected her uncle’s deeply entrenched prejudices. In momentary exchanges, also transpiring in the emotionally-charged visiting room, I have also perceived his increasingly fraternal comfort with Black co-prisoners.
When Michael Brown life’s was take by a cop, I asked Katherine if she remembered going to the Ferguson Farmer’s Market (a decade prior)—to see Brian, my high school buddy, do his popular one-man band performance.
“I think I pointed out the bus stop where I got off when I came to visit Grandma Katie,” I reminded her. Of course she remembered that
Ferguson, prior to it becoming a
city that is permanently part of America’s blighted history; a city
that birthed Black Lives Matter, a city that she will now remember to tell her
"...perhaps the most potent evolution of a black-white relationship that I have ever witnessed."
Katherine had recently trekked from the West Coast to the Midwest, for two days, both of them spent visiting her uncle—on her own, logistically and financially.
A few weeks later—on the day that the remaining accused cops were officially crowned blameless in the murder of Freddie Gray—my brother expressed his “fear” during one of our periodic phone calls; fear for Katherine’s safety. “I worry about her,” he said.
My brother and I avoid the words “black” or “cop” or “Trump” or “liberal” or “Democrat” or “Republican” but those, and dozens of other words, are the unspoken underpinnings of our private thoughts, and the thoughts of many conflicted family members, that are electrifying the phone lines of America.
“This thing that has happened over the years, this family we’ve created, the three of us,” he says, “It’s…it’s…”
Like a miner searching for gold, his mind grasps/rejects/grasps, determined to deliver the right word. And he does: “…beautiful.”