I grew up in a small Missouri town about 2 hours south of Ferguson, and when I was little — I mean really little, as in Kindergarten little — my grandfather put the fear in me about black boys. He would kind of smile and poke me with his elbow and half-whisper, “You know what little black boys do to little white girls, don’t you?” And though I had no idea what he was talking about, I got the message. And the message was, be afraid.
I’ve tried to write about race so often. And I’ve failed. I’ll find that I have something to say but have such a hard time finding my voice, of finding the small details and wrestling so much with how to tell the story and where to start and what words to use or not use, that I usually set down my pen and give up. Because there are just things you don’t talk about; because no one wants to hear it. Because I’ve gotten the message too many times to “keep your white guilt to yourself.” I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially since Ferguson, and I see it’s not my voice or guilt or the details or the story.
It’s just me. Me and my fear.
I was raised in Southeast Missouri. My town was, and is, 89% white and 8% black and in my earliest memories, I’m sitting on the front porch in Summer with my grandparents and praying that no black kids walk by. My grandfather, I later learned, was known in the neighborhood as Slingshot Man because he would sit out on the porch every afternoon and shoot BBs from his slingshot at the little black kids who dared to step on his perfectly manicured lawn. I remember being both afraid for the kids and relieved I wasn’t one of them. Sometimes the kids ran away and sometimes they stood their ground and taunted my grandfather. I was so afraid for those taunting kids that I would run and hide behind the house, praying for them to go away, just go away go away go away, before somebody got hurt.
Within days of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, I noticed that some of my family members were already posting their support of Officer Wilson on their Facebook pages. One person even posted a mocked-up police badge that read: I stand with Officer Wilson. I saw this badge and thought my head would explode, just fucking explode, with how can you?, it’s only been 3 days, none of us have a clue what happened. I saw this, this badge, and I don’t think I’ve ever, ever in my life, felt more ashamed.
I’m trying to write. Trying not to be afraid.
Not long ago, my little niece started Kindgergarten. I heard she came home that first week so excited about starting school, about riding the bus and about all of the kids at her table, including one little black boy, and she told everyone all about her teacher and her art project and her new friends. Her daddy kind of smiled and poked her with his elbow and said, “You know what little black boys do to little white girls, don’t you?”
She got the message. And she was afraid to go back to school.
I’ve been following @WesleyLowery and @mattdpearce on Twitter because I’ve found their reporting from Ferguson to be the most accurate and timely. I’ve also been following young journalism student @BradleyRayford because he’s a local and because, during the first riots, he produced this heartbreaking video with the best view from the inside.