“Look at my life/And tell me I fight.”
–Kendrick Lamar, “Never Catch Me”
I have been thinking about how, just like “Until the Quiet Comes,” Flying Lotus’ “Never Catch Me,” places a visual hope front and center of the simplest kind of imagined Black American life—that is, a Black American child’s life properly placed, in its proper context. A Black boy and Black girl cascade out of their coffins, spiral onto asphalt–hands legs akimbo–, and dance through a group of double dutchers. Here, there is normative joy, a site where Black childhood is not an American oxymoron. “This may be the new battle rap standard!” I will say later, excitedly, in front of my children.
“Battle?” they ask. “You mean, fight?”
“You know, with words, to try and show someone you are better by your words.” I start to explain LL Cool J, but that does not quite cut it. So, I lean in with the most honest answer I know: “Well, really, to try and make yourself exist, when the rest of the world does not see you.”
“Oh, like when Harry Potter uses his cape?” they ask.
“No, not like that, baby,” I say. “Because the rest of the world does not believe you matter deeply.” I stop. I can’t go on really, because the next “whys” will be met with something about Black skin and hatred that will produce a horror I am neither ready to induce nor face, if I am honest. My oldest child is nearly 9, and he can wait a bit longer.
The theme of young Black life resurrected, restored to its rightful place, is a powerful imaginary in a time when Black children’s bodies are laid to rest on hot asphalt, treated unflinchingly, as if batting away a pest on an unbearable summer night. These images of Black children’s resurrection bear down as sanctuary given the current conversations that have exploded regarding switches, Black parenting, and the right to punish Black children’s bodies. The right conversations—about the eradication of innocence from Black children’s bodies historically, the politics of respectability in parenting as a diehard belief in combatting and surviving white supremacy, and the downright ugliness of parenting period (not to mention under the most desperate of conditions)—are not centering the conversation about Adrian Peterson’s abuse of his 4 year old.
I am also sorting through Thavolia Glymph’s majestic, Out of the House of Bondage, and am thinking about Black children’s bodies. Glymph is writing, in her early chapters, primarily about the violence Black women in plantation homes faced at the hands of white Southern ladies. She writes that Black children bore witness to the abuse of Black women—aunties, mothers—in those homes and received the same. One line has stayed with me for the last few weeks, where she writes that children in slavery were induced to violence against one another. Madison Jefferson explains that his mistress had children, at bath time, wash each other’s faces so hard that “they bled under the affliction.” I am interested in how Black mothers parented under such conditions and particularly, what Black childhood looked like. We have often flung forth the messy historical explanation that Black parents in slavery brutalized their children as providing a dose of “act right” in order to save them from another kind of death.
Yet, seldom have we had conversations about those beatings being inflicted with the deepest and most desperate kind of fear or with the hateful desire to invisibilize Black children and alongside, the natural robustness of their childhoods. We do not speak of how beating Black children created a tradition of shrinking them, just as it does today. This is what Brittney Cooper means when she makes the connection between white supremacy and the importance of “good behavior” in Black parenting. In a kind of culture that created a parenting necessarily focused on shrinking the childish behavior and intellectual abilities of Black children, it is maddening to think of Black children’s bodies bearing rudimentary nicks, tears, sores, and dismemberments attributable to a different kind of fear and hatefulness. As a mother, I think of my own rage in parenting and wonder where the children Glymph writes of, ever felt safe and loved.
I also think of current Black respectability politics that shun the worth and wisdom contained in Black children’s bodies that do not behave, look and conform in a way that denotes an etiquette and the non-violence of our Civil Rights. I am listening in to this conversation bleeding forth from Ferguson right now. Like the dress shirts and collars of old civil rights leaders, I have recently thought about the ways that NOI’s suits, crisp shirts, and straight-lined bow ties also pitched the appearance of a certain decorum and recognition. Regardless of the difference, I think, the NOI hoped that both its bodies and its words would be received more seriously with a sharp presentation of Black respectability. The irony is in the absence of love for either and the great cost of humanity—of a funky, Black self-definition—that comes with the erasure of Black fungibility.