Cyanotypes by Keris Salmon, from the series The Corona Greenhouse Blues. Courtesy the artist and Arnika Dawkins Gallery
By Karen Good Marable
e’re driving east on Boulevard—my daughter and I—windows down, music loud, masks off, feeling free. “Aye aye aye aye!” Post Malone sings on “Sunflower” from the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse soundtrack. Bobbing our heads, we croon right along with him: “Ooooo ooooo oooo oooooooo . . . ” Babygirl is in her booster seat clutching a fatsia leaf with both her hands. The frond is grand and green, the largest on the bush from our front yard. For days, she’d campaigned to cut the leaf as only a determined five-year-old can, promising to decorate it. Said leaf is now a flag she’s holding out the window, a banner whipping in the wind as we smooth through the A, past the MLK Center, past Oakland Cemetery, past Zoo Atlanta and slow-moving cars, on toward Baker Dude Bakery Café where we will pick up Snickerdoodle-Doo cupcakes for tomorrow’s drive-through Pre-K graduation. “Don’t you let that leaf go!” I warn, though my daughter’s joy is so buoyant, so palpable, it’s worth the risk. Yaaaayyyyy she squeals from the backseat, laughing and kicking her bare feet, her face to the sun. My heart grows two sizes and I turn the music up, driving slow enough for her to keep hold of the leaf, but fast enough that we feel like rebels.
Even if we gotta risk it all right now . . .
These joyrides have become a ritual, one of those beautiful things that bloom when one is in the midst of a global pandemic (where one must be still) and a global protest (where one must take to the streets). As of today’s journey, our family has been in quarantine for more than a hundred days. Summer camp plans have fallen by the wayside, much like those color-coded home-school schedules parents passed around at the top of the pandemic. In their place are daily, valiant, sometimes pitiful, efforts to educate our kid, get our work done, love each other, and stay alive. The shelter-in-place sameness was beginning to feel a little like Groundhog Day—that is until late winter, early spring when death came in threes.
The back-to-back-to-back murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd—unarmed Black people killed by police and white vigilantes, two of their executions caught on camera—were reminiscent of the bloody summer of 2016, except this time the world has to sit with it. This time, the world has to sit with the video of Ahmaud Arbery being shot in the road like a damn dog by two rabid white men for the crime of jogging while Black. The world has to sit with the news of EMT worker Breonna Taylor—whose killers, as of this writing, have not been arrested—being shot eight times in her own home by police with a no-knock warrant, looking for someone who was already in custody. The world has to sit with the grotesque video of George Floyd as he lay dying, handcuffed and on his stomach, while a dead-eyed cop knelt on his neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds and two other cops held down his body. A fourth kept the wailing crowd away. Floyd told them “I can’t breathe,” and called out for his dead mama, Miss Cissy, and still the demon did not move.
The PTSD I feel while watching such violence perpetrated on my people cannot be overstated or dismissed. After every video, after every death, my breath shallows, my heartbeat quickens, and I cannot stop shaking my right leg before I cry like I cried when Dylann Roof opened fire in Mother Emanuel. Cry like I cried when Trump put those babies in cages. Cry like I cried when those children were killed in Sandy Hook Elementary on my birthday. Cry like I cried in the second grade, the first time my best friend called me nigger. I cry like I’ve cried a hundred times before so that these first, hot waves of rage have somewhere to flow. I cry because even as the world tiptoes across the landmines of COVID-19, racism doesn’t rest.
In Atlanta, the death of Rayshard Brooks hits close to home while all over the world there is the ubiquitous, heavy footfall of protestors, amen. Helicopters circle like buzzards, ambulances blare in the distance. Even though the world is changing and the optics are shifting, I still ask my husband not to walk the dog too late; I bargain with ancestors known and unknown to protect my daughter and I get comfortable with the weight of a 9mm in my hand. And a couple of times a week, for the sake of all of our sanity, I tear myself away from social media, wrestle the iPad away from my kid, check my purse for wallet/keys/masks/sanitizer, jump in the car, and go.
On our way from the bakery, we find ourselves turning left into the dark of the Krog Street Tunnel. “Look baby,” I say to my daughter, who fancies herself an artist, as the graffiti kaleidoscopes by. “Ooooo Mommy!” she gasps. “It’s like an outside museum!” We creep through the gallery and approach the red light. At the lip of the tunnel, to our right, a group of about ten young Black children and adults stand in front of a tripod camera, wearing black shirts. The kids look to be only a year or two older than my daughter, who, still holding her leaf, offers a soft wave and a shy, “Hi.”
I am not so demure. “Beautiful!!!” I shout to them, clapping. “Looking good y’all!!” The adults smile; the children stare back at me curiously. “Thank you,” they say. I peep my enthusiasm and I am not ashamed. How can I not speak beauty into these children—especially now? With each sonic clap of my hands, I mean to loose any less-than lie that could be hardening in their spines, or in their minds. As for myself, I am a lost cause. I have been Black and in my right mind a long time. I am the rage Nina Simone sang about in “Pirate Jenny.” And my patience with the unreasonable attention whiteness demands is thin as gossamer silk.
The light turns green and I glance into the rearview mirror at my brown baby, who is singing along to “Invincible,” another Spider-Verse banger—the chorus of which goes:
I gotta stop feeling invisible
And start feeling invincible
Hate feeling impossible
The hardest thing is believing in your dreams . . .
She gazes out the window with a seriousness beyond her years, her leaf in her lap. Her father and I have not yet told her about the murders, or the fact that she can catch hell here in America just for being Black. I mean, she’s still pissed she can’t see her friends and announces “I hate the corona!” with a hard stomp at least once a week. This isn’t to say we don’t talk to her about the dangers of the world—we do—but I am in no rush to lay such a burden at my vibrant, hopeful, sweet girl’s feet. Time is running out, I know. She will be entering kindergarten soon. Call it a mother’s intuition, but I feel a “nigger” coming. And for the first time, she will have teachers who are not Black women. I worry about their unchecked biases and how they may affect my kid.
For now, my husband and I are protecting what my nephew Justin calls “Black innocence.” That precious, fairy-dusted time when her voice is still teeny, and Daddy is magic, and she snuggles in bed with me and asks, “Hold hands?” just before falling asleep. For now—forever—we are focusing on Black girl magic. We’re ordering Izzy & Liv Brown Sugar boxes, telling her how gorgeous her skin and hair is, framing her art and putting it on our wall, and reminding her how brave she is, how brilliant, how fierce, capable and kind.
As we near midtown, traffic slows; a march is making its way down a residential street, sizeable enough for helicopters to hover above. Protestors are on foot, skating on skateboards, and driving in cars, one with the windows down blasting N.W.A’s “Fuck Tha Police.” It’s one of those songs that always makes you stop and pay attention. When it came out in 1988, I was a sophomore in high school and I will never forget the moment I heard Ice Cube’s opening rhyme:
Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad ’cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority.
The song still goes hard.
Turning right on Ponce, I still haven’t gotten used to empty streets during rush hour. There’s nothing left to do but go home, maybe have dinner on the porch. But before we do, I pick up my phone, push a side button and command: “Siri: play ‘Whip My Hair.’”
“YES,” my daughter says from the backseat, like she won a bet.
We need an anthem right about now and this song is all urgency and light. I roll all the windows down and crank the volume so the bass might seep into our skin like reiki. When it begins, my girl tosses her beloved leaf dramatically to the other side of the car and dances in her seat like she’s on an eighties episode of Fame. Honey, she is throwing her head back and shimmying her shoulders and doing the running man. “YAAAASSSSS!!” I holler, her noble hypeman from the driver’s seat. “I SEE YOU DAUGHTER!!”
At this acknowledgement, her focus deepens and she dances even harder. Right now, nothing else matters. I grip the steering wheel and rock right along with her, whipping my inch-long hair like my name is Beyoncé.
“Turn it up Mommy!!”
Hop up out the bed, turn my swag on
Pay no attention to them haters
Because we whip ’em off
And we ain’t doin’ nothin’ wrong . . .
I turn to Babygirl and act out the song: So what’s up?
Yeaaaaaaahhh she throws it right back at me.
And now they don’t know what to do
We turn our back and whip our hair and just
Shake ’em off.
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