This weekend, a young black man who was one of our students was killed at a party. A 23 year old white man stabbed him and students are saying that the EMTs and police did not respond promptly. That they had their tasers out and were more concerned with crowd control than helping this young man. He was a CJS major but I didn’t know him. I say that to myself over and over again. I didn’t know him. Photos of him are haunting me despite this. There is so much hope and enthusiasm in them. He has the look of someone who feels strong in his body, like it can move with speed and carry him where he wants to go along with his mind. His smile makes me think he had a clear mind. I think about how young people’s brains can be so fresh, still capable of adapting and changing to analyze new things and take on new perspectives easily. How one can grow so much in even a semester. Who would he have grown into if he had four years of contemplation, new books and new friends? What ideas would he have had? What words would he have found inspiration in if he were in my classroom, at my dinner table, reading this post. What questions would he have asked me that would have pushed back on my thinking, forcing me to rearticulate and thus, rethink my Self?
There is a scramble at the university to support students and host meetings and get things done. I just want to stay at home under the covers. There is a small, artificial glimmer of safety and warm comfort in my home holding my baby. She doesn’t go out in the world yet, except for brief excursions, meticulously supervised and watched over by myself. I still have some measure of control, or seeming control over her safety. It seems that way I guess because I never leave her side, but this too is imagined. It helps me not lose my mind as I try to incorporate this vast and startling love that I’ve found in her. Josiah, the bright, smile-shining faced student who is murdered, had a mother. Her name is Charmaine and she is coming here. The unimaginable terror for her, the way the moments must tick by, while the clock is also stopped in a profound way for her. I keep trying to stop myself from thinking about her. I don’t want to make sense of the senselessness.
As a new mother, I cannot breathe when I think about this pain that can’t have any words. Language is central to who I am as a scholar and yet, this seems beyond language. Writing about it now seems like some solitary, selfish and desperate attempt to feel in control, keep my composure. I don’t want to cry in front of my colleagues. I project onto them accusations that I am silly or incompetent. The residues of too much time in predominately white institutions. Intrusive thoughts that police us.
Maybe this is pain and terror that can only be painted or performed. I see images of black paint smeared on a white canvas. The canvas that resists this difference, this trespassing in its pure space. For POC on the HSU campus, we are that paint, appearing to sully the comfort and vulnerability of white folks, trespassing, claiming a space where there is no space for us, where we are an impossibility. HSU is a place where people of color are continually assaulted with questions about our belonging. No one can ever believe we are legitimate. That we have thoughts in our heads. I am so often Professor Byrd’s TA or her student. Sometimes people have assumed I am entering someone else’s office. I like to imagine that I am having a wild affair with Dr. Byrd, the imaginary scholar who legitimately occupies this office space. Her and I steal away and finger the words of all the latest monographs, rolling them over in our mouths. They are sweet, our secret pleasure. How problematic that this is the only way I can imagine legitimately inhabiting this space, as someone’s illicit lover. Once at a grocery store a white man said that I must be some drug dealers girlfriend. Inhabiting my body, buying $100 worth of food at the co-op was upsetting for him I guess. I couldn’t be a professor, collecting her groceries at 1pm on a Tuesday. I must be having a wild affair with one of these drug dealers up here. Otherwise, I’d be at my 9-5 labor exploitation, or maybe even that would be having too much.
I wonder if Josiah felt that way at HSU. Like a trespasser, a thief, which is precisely what those white folks accused him of. The accusation that people say started this all, that he stole their cell phone. The claims that rendered him murderable. Did locals look at him, another “thug from southern california” trespassing in the purity of their back-to-the-land dream. I imagine they were so sure they knew his guilt. I like to imagine that he is here in this house with me. I am going to keep him here for a little while, safe with me and my baby. I invite him in and he sits with me at this table. He wants to read one of our books and feel the way the words move in his mouth, how the pages feel in one’s hands as a new idea occurs to us. He is safely here at my table, laughing, tears streaming down his beautiful brown face.
RIP Young Brother.
May our tears help you to cross over to the ancestors’ arms.