To Alton Sterling’s Son
On the heels of your father’s murder, you stood at a press conference with your mother, your arm draped around her shoulders. You stood there for a brave moment—you, in your school-boy striped polo shirt, left to be the man of the house in the wake of your daddy’s fresh death.
But the weight of it all—the flashing cameras and expectant microphones; your mother’s halting voice and ragged breathing as she read her statement; the memory of the moving images of the cop shooting your father at point-blank range—bullet after bullet after bullet penetrating the same chest you have hugged countless times—became too much to bear, and when you crumbled, I wished to God that his eternal chest, his divine arms, would have been there to catch you.
This is who was visible: a web of black men who curved around you and your mother like a crescent moon embracing the black sky. And there was something Godly in their actions. I am my brother’s keeper. I hope that, even in your grief, you were able to absorb their love as the men patted your back, rubbed your shoulders, buoyed you with their own arms.
This crescent of black men became a life boat. They pried your protective arm from your mother and carried you away as she, holding your pain in the pit of her own, fought for oxygen—one breath, two breaths, huff, huff— then soldiered on: “I, for one, will not rest. And we will not let y’all sweep him in the dirt.” In that moment, she had to be the fire to your water.
I saw the recording of your father’s murder before I saw you. It was your breakdown that broke down the doors of our desensitized selves. I posted the video of you on my Facebook page and wrote this message, evoking the Old Testament and Shakespeare: “Will the evil ones be shocked when plagues rain down upon their own houses? We are beyond sick of the uniformed murderers. This child is broken, and you will not get away with that.” I hit send and sobbed.
Marcus, my husband, was at work; my son Solomon, who is 9, was in the shower. I was grateful for the privacy. I did not know my cries were so loud until Sol ran in, dripping wet.
“Mommy, Mommy— what happened? Are you ok, Mommy?”
I turned to him sharply, annoyed at the interruption of grief, not wanting to explain the root of my cries. After a man walked into Orlando’s Pulse nightclub and shot up more than 100 people a few weeks ago, Solomon began asking us: “Why is there so much violence all the time?”
Watching violent movies and video games – the stuff of fiction – has the power to alter our brains; I cannot imagine what watching videos of real people – your father – murdered is doing to us. To you.
Sol begged us to turn off the television in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre, and we did. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that the off button doesn’t make the violence go away. He is still into superheroes and faraway galaxies.
Once, during a conversation Marcus and I were having about race, I stopped in mid-sentence to watch Sol sitting on the sofa, cross-legged and in his own world.
“What do you think about all this race stuff, Sol?” I asked, and he began to talk about rainbows and green aliens and about how we all have stardust in us, so many colors, so whether we believe in aliens or not, we should accept them, just as we should all accept each other. He flipped his hand from palm to brown-side: “It’s the same.”
Marcus and I laughed at his utopic vision of the world. “You make a great point, son,” Marcus said, and we were proud of him and relieved that he was still hopeful and largely untouched by racism, but tonight I could not shake the scorn in my tone as I beheld his vulnerable body.
“Get back in the shower. Now! You’re soaking wet!”
“But what happened, Mommy?” We have encouraged his questioning nature, and he especially likes to challenge us, but in certain circumstances—with police—it could one day get him killed.
“But you’re crying.”
“Nothing happened—it’s ok. Just, please, finish your shower.”
Nothing did happen to warrant your father’s murder. And I am almost certain of it: nothing will happen to repay it.
When Sol left the shower the second time, he half-toweled off and put on his pajama bottoms before returning to my room. I was lying stomach-down on the bed, staring at my cell phone, its rectangle body fever-hot in my hands. Sol eased down next to me and pressed his soft, moist fro against my cheek as I watched the video of you and your mother again and again. A psychologist would likely say I should not have watched the video over and over, with my son lying beside me. I tried to explain to Sol what happened to you, to your father, and why I was crying over these people I do not know.
“They killed this boy’s father. For nothing.”
Mucus was trapped in my nasal cavities. My voice sounded as if it were buried somewhere deep behind my forehead, and every word took great effort to get out. Solomon was quiet for a few minutes; I wasn’t sure he had heard me.
“But why would they do that, Mommy?” he finally asked. “Why?”
How not to insinuate that police are bad while showing righteous rage over the crimes that some of them commit? How not to instill fear in the midst of truth-telling?
“Just watch,” I said, and pressed the arrow again.
He watched you for a moment, then turned to me, watching my face watching you.
Your father’s name was one of the first images I saw this morning—and it is an image, isn’t it? Black letters against the screen, a digital imprint of a man gone forever. I had told myself, in the first second of alertness, that I wasn’t going online this morning. I should go out back to my studio instead.
Pray. Write. Wail.
My mother likes to talk about the wailing women of the bible. It is women’s combined wails that have the power to shake the earth and all the things in it, she explains.
“Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Consider and call for the mourning women, that they may come; And send for the wailing women, that they may come! Let them make haste and take up a wailing for us till our eyes overflow with tears and water streams from our eyelids.’” – Jeremiah 9: 17-18
The scripture calls for a collective wailing. What power would I exert in wailing solo?
These thoughts bounced around in my head, vying for attention while my body remained prostrate. Always, I wake up in my head and not my body, and I do hate this. I want to be more—what do The Enlightened Ones call it?—more body-aware, more embodied, more in the body. Instead, like an addict reaching for his bottle, my fingers groped for my phone despite my goals. I clicked on the Facebook icon and saw a friend’s post with your father’s name as a hashtag: #AltonSterling. Beneath it was another name: #PhilandoCastile.
Dread walked its bony fingers up and down my chest cavity. What could have happened in the few hours since we closed our eyes to your father’s murder?
When I searched Philando Castile’s name, I found him, or what was left of him. For this one, I could not post a comment; I could only join the millions of people around the globe who hit the share button to post the onscreen dying of another innocent black man. We watched his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, narrate the shooting as her four-year-old daughter spoke softly from the backseat. Her boyfriend took his final breaths. The police officer spewed obscenities and fear while pointing his gun at the dead man.
“Teach your daughters how to wail, teach one another a lament. Death has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses; It has cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the public squares.”– Jeremiah 9: 20-21
“Daddy! I want my daddy!” you cried.
You were brave to wail, dear one.
Today, I brought my son to work with me. I work in community relations for one of the most heralded baseball teams in history, and we are in the middle of ten back-to-back home games. It was hard enough to get up and go to this new job, where my coworkers and I don’t speak of what is happening. We have deadlines to meet, no time to debate or mourn. But there was one thing I could control: I could keep the black life I brought into this world close, not out of fear, but out of protest, and so I did on this day.
Will the evil ones be shocked when plagues rain down upon their own houses?
It wasn’t until after Marcus turned on the TV this evening and we watched the Dallas tragedy unfolding that I began to worry about what I had posted earlier: “…you will not get away with this.”
What had I, someone who calls herself a Christian, meant by that? Justice? Vengeance? If the man who killed those cops in Dallas had been mentally ill, could reading one more post like mine have tipped him over the edge? Could I be arrested for potentially adding to the embers of what could turn into a national riot, even though those embers have been smoking for centuries?
I stood in the middle of the living room floor, my hand over my mouth. “I didn’t mean it like that.”
“That’s why I always tell you, babe,” Marcus said. “We have to be careful about what we say on social media.”
The Lord said vengeance was his and his alone. How can we “be angry and sin not”? When injustices happen over and over and over, how do we not allow the “sun to go down on our anger”?
These things are not supposed to be happening, we all say—not in 2016. Yet where and when was that promised? Is the passage of time and some laws, the advent of technology and the breaking of some glass ceilings what causes us to believe, to hope?
On July 4th, I was on the baseball field with 70 military personnel as they held and waved the oversized, USA-shaped flag. The men and women of the color guard held their flags high, impeccably, as they marched in their dress attire. Two bald eagles from the local zoo flew over the stadium, and we oohed and ahhed. The national anthem singer, a chief warrant officer I had selected to perform the beloved number, belted out the lyrics to the anthem and, later, when we were winning, to “God Bless America.”
I cannot lie: my breath caught in my throat, a chill ran down the hairs of my arms, too, over these symbols of freedom and patriotic pride.
I am also one of Louisiana’s daughters, where other symbols – Confederate flags and statues—remind us of our place. I grew up in a little town a few hours west of your home in Baton Rouge. When I left Louisiana, I carried its beauty and trauma with me to California, where, for 15 years, I have been trying to write about the psychological and spiritual impact that the 1904 lynching of my great-grandfather, Burt Bridges, had on our family.
“The deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile evoke the past spectacle of lynching…,” wrote Peniel E. Joseph, a professor at the University of Texas.
On my way to work, I stopped by a nearby health food store in one of L.A.’s lauded hipster neighborhoods. As I was leaving the store, a man and woman standing out front tried to stop me. They were holding clip boards.
“Not today,” I said.
“Come on,” they yelled. “We’re trying to save the elephants here.”
I stopped, turned to face them, snorted at the air. “Elephants?”
They turned away from me.
Today was not the day.
At work, I plugged away at pre-game deadlines and attended meetings. Before the game started, I hosted a family as part of one of the community outreach programs I manage.
To kick start the family’s evening of fun and relaxation, I took them down to see batting practice and meet one of our players. The main guest of honor, Josh, is a teenager who was born with parts of his skin and internal organs missing: Recessive Epidermolysis Bullosa. The EB support community, Josh’s mother told me, has been the family’s saving grace. Again, I think of the men who held you up. May they always be at your side at a moment’s notice.
On my way home, I saw a white pickup truck with these words painted on the back: Zombie Response Vehicle. You know that feeling when your head feels separated from your body? When there is numbness and acute awareness at the same time? And yet, against the city backdrop, highway signs and traffic, skyscrapers and cranes, this truck with its ominous signage looked oddly normal. Turns out it’s a real company that provides disaster training.
In the ‘70s, we were obsessed with vampires; in the ‘80s and ‘90s with ghosts; for the last decade, we haven’t been able to shake our fixation with zombies.
We are unsettled about our dead.
This morning, I watched a video of my company’s broadcaster giving a talk to fans at last night’s game. The headline said he would speak on the Dallas tragedy, but when I clicked on the video, I was relieved and proud that his remarks were inclusive of all of the past week’s tragedies:
“At this time, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on the tragic events that have occurred across our country over the past few days. As a community and a nation, we mourn the tragic loss of lives and injuries, and our deepest sympathies go out to all who have been directly impacted by those events and to their families and friends. As United States attorney general Loretta Lynch said today, ‘This has been a week of profound grief and heartbreaking loss,’ but as she also reminded us, ‘Today and every day we are one nation, we are one people and we stand together.'”
The video showed the flags standing at half-staff, footage of a giant #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson and the bald eagles flying over the stadium.
We “will continue to stand against all forms of hatred, racism and violence,” he said.
I learned your name today, and it brought a smile to my face. I used to teach a student named Cameron. Cameron Stokes. He was in my sophomore English lit class at a school in south L.A., where my mostly African-American students who lived in the surrounding neighborhoods knew first-hand the reality of racial profiling.
Cameron was about your age when I taught him. He was at times moody and whiny; he was also funny and sweet and smart. Today, he is 25, and I see him now and again on Facebook, his baby face now thickly bearded.
In my sophomore class, Cameron and his classmates read and studied Fences, A Raisin in the Sun, Master Harold and a host of other texts to try and make sense of history through literature and examine the present within these contexts. I made them write, and I wrote alongside them, to wrestle with themes of self-esteem, racism, fatherhood and economic disempowerment. I wanted them to consider, through language, through imagination, a powerful future.
We argued over Langston Hughes’ question. Can raisins dried up in the sun be revived?
If dry bones can live again, I declare it to be so.
I can picture you, Dear Cameron, sitting at your desk in your classroom now that school has resumed. It will be understandable if all of it feels meaningless to you as you sit there, while your teachers, other students, the world, expects you to carry on, as though this summer wasn’t one of fire and brimstone.
But there is another kind of fire inside of you, Cameron, that need not be destructive nor snuffed out.
You have been broken open for all the world to see, but in that vulnerability exists a private power that is all your own, to be nurtured and stoked and unveiled in due season.
Author’s Note: In the months since Alton Sterling’s murder in July, we continue to witness unarmed black citizens fall to their deaths at the hands of police officers—the people we pay to protect and serve us. My soul aches for Cameron and for our country. It was soothing, however, to find this video in which Cameron speaks to us about his love for his father and the need for peaceful protest.
Editor’s note: According to Killed By Police, Alton Sterling was the 603rd person to lose his life in the hands of law enforcement in the United States this year, of which 353 represent Native, Hispanic, Asian and Black deaths. Since the author wrote this piece and as of this morning, 250 other people have died due to law enforcement. Not all of these are similar cases and I was overwhelmed to even see that 250 people have been killed since July. I wanted to make this note to also honor the children now left father or motherless due to similar circumstance.
Cassandra Lane is a former newspaper journalist and teacher who has published essays, columns and articles in The Times-Picayune, The Source, TheScreamOnline, BET Magazine, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bellingham Review and Gambit, and in the anthologies Everything but the Burden, Ms. Aligned and Daddy, Can I Tell You Something. She is an alum of Voices of Our Nation Arts (VONA) and A Room of Her Own Writing Retreat (AROHO). She received an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. A Louisiana native, she now lives with her family in Los Angeles.