I learned how to swim well before I was 14 by taking classes at the local YMCA in East Cleveland. At the Y, Black people swam -- only Black people. White folks nowadays seem to steer clear of floating Black people. Maybe it reminds them that we haven't sunk yet. Maybe it reminds them too much of the days when their boats came for our bodies and their religion came for our minds, and of those of us who didn’t make it across the ocean so were fed to it. Maybe it reminds them of their glory days and they hate it because those days are never coming back.
Community pools have always occupied a special place in the white community’s heart. So much so that not too long ago they banned us from them. Our Black skin was covered in sickness that was somehow benign enough for our mothers to spend time nursing, holding and wiping the asses of their children at our expense, but as soon as our skin made contact with the water, the whole pool turned to filth. Punishment for plaguing their pools was sometimes acid in the water. So Black people can’t swim because they never learned how.
I learned how to swim well before I was 14 but I still can’t swim. Not in McKinney. In McKinney, a pool party with Black attendees gets raided by police. In McKinney, a 14 year old gets brutalized by an officer for trying to swim. Punishment for plaguing their pools.
"Get your asses down on the ground!"
When I was 14, I didn’t know my place. I was learning quickly, but I didn’t know. I thought I was just as good as anyone else. Better, even. I excelled. I had to -- I had big shoes to fill.
My older brother was heading to Princeton. This wasn’t such a huge deal, because my sister had attended before him, and doing just as well or better as the next eldest was expected. White people expected things too, apparently. When I told him where my brother was going, a white classmate explained to me all about Affirmative Action and how it played a seismic role in admissions. You can’t do anything on your own if you’re Black. And if you forget, they’ll remind you to get your ass down on the ground. I didn’t know, but was learning quickly.
A white cop tightens handcuffs around the wrists of a sitting Black boy.
By 14 I had yet to be arrested. Like I assume is true of most children, I was terrified of jail. In my childish mind, an arrest meant you had done something really, really terrible and from which there was no coming back.
So I toed the line. I rarely even cursed. Wore my pants up and associated with the “right” crowds. My innocence was important to me. A child’s innocence should be important to everyone.
I thought an arrest meant you had done something terrible, but sometimes it simply means standing your ground. For Black and brown children, just being a child is arrest-worthy. Just talking back. Not knowing your place. The Black body is criminal. Even the Black baby’s body lacks guiltlessness. How can a Black child’s innocence be important if it doesn’t exist?
At 14, I walked around desperately clutching an innocence that did not exist. I held it up as proof when a white boy with a confederate flag pendant attacked me while yelling racial slurs at college a few years later. Look at my innocence! I was written up. Nothing happened to him.
A white cop grabs hold of a 14 year old girl’s hair and drags her to the ground.
By 14, the long hair I had grown through middle school was gone. Part of the reason for that being that my mother thought I would look more mature without it. I think by mature she meant “acceptable to white people”.
I remember once how someone grabbed and pulled my hair during a fight. It felt as if they were trying to pull the scalp from my head. So that they could get to my brain, maybe – to take access to my mind.
There’s something intensely personal about hair. There’s something fiercely powerful, too. Having it pulled was like having an integral part of me in someone else’s hands, being wrenched away. Maybe that’s why Black people become so angry when white people touch their hair. Maybe that’s why white people do it. Samson was a Black man for sure. Delilah was a white women, I’m just as certain. And that was the other part of the reason I cut it -- so no one else could pull it from me.
So I couldn’t tell if I was watching a grown man grabbing the hair of a child and throwing her to the ground by it, or watching an attempt at ripping the scalp off of a Black baby in order to get to her brain and force inside of it the belief that she is useless.
And with every time her face slammed against the ground – useless. Useless. Useless.
White observers create a human shield around a cop who has just attacked a child as the cop pulls a gun on children trying to stop his brutalization.
What do you do when you see a grown man dragging a child to the ground by her hair? Do you sit back and do nothing? Interfere? Do you defend him? What if he has a gun drawn? Do you still jump to his defense? Some white citizens answered these questions in McKinney.
Some white citizens guarded a man as he smashed a child’s head into the ground over and over.
I wanted to be there to fight for these children – to try and stop this madness -- but maybe it’s all for the best. I’m certain I’d be dead.
"On your face!"
At 14, I found myself staring at the face of another 14 year old who looked just like me. Or used to. His face was now a grotesque blend of kneaded dough and silly putty. His eye had been gouged out. He was dressed in a suit and tie. Not long before this picture was taken, he was beaten beyond recognition, had barbed wire fastened around his neck and had his eye torn out before being shot, tied to a cotton gin fan and dropped into the water by two white men who did not like that a white woman said he whistled at her. I was wrong before – they don’t steer clear of floating Black bodies. The water is perfectly suitable for Black bodies if they are dead. Like it was in the glory days.
I watch this cop grab a 14 year old Black child by the head and violently push her face into the dirt. I wonder how many times Emmett Till’s face was smashed into the ground before it came to look the way it did. Before it stopped being a face and became instead something of nightmares. She is beautiful too -- just like him. I’m starting to understand that they think our beauty must be removed. Stripped way. Smashed into the ground. Turned into silly putty.
How long do tears remain inside of your eyes before your body replaces them? I think seeing the face of Emmett Till was the first time I cried about a historical event. I think I cried all night. 9 years later, I know somehow that these are the same tears.
The officer places his knee on the 14 year old’s back, leaning his entire weight into her.
This country was built on the backs of Black men, women and children. Centuries of violently enforced involuntary servitude created the greatest nation in the world. As I watch this representative of the state put his full weight on the back of a Black child as she screams and cries, that brutal history is within the frames.
Futilely, she struggles to remove the weight from her back.
400 years of struggle leaves us at this very moment only to see her face down on the ground.
She goes still, quietly sobbing to herself after coming to the realization that she won’t get up.
She can’t get up. And she can’t get him off of her.
It feels like we won’t ever get up. Like we can’t get them off of us. It feels like this happens over and over and over again. Emmett Till was 60 years ago. Tamir Rice was 6 months. She was this week. And the countless who were erased or debased in between. What are we fighting for? What’s the point? Couldn’t swim then, can’t swim now. Couldn’t be kids then, can’t be kids now.
The same tears from 9 years ago, or from 400?
"Get out of here, or you’re going, too."
Black kids need to know what happens when a Black child stands up for herself. You go down, face first. Look at this girl crying on the ground and learn to stay in your place, or you’ll be here too.
And yet, here we are. We never do stay in our place, do we? It does happen over and over and over again. We never learn our lesson. We never stop fighting. We march. We riot. We organize. We never stop.
We love. We love each other. We love each other more than they could ever hate us.
They’ll never stop us. Maybe it’s time for them to learn that.
Maybe it’s their time to learn to get out of here -- get off of our backs, our childrens' backs -- or you’re going to have to fight us too, like you've always had.