I am born in the year of mayhem. A Google search for my roots reveals a spectacle of hyperbolic headlines christening 1990 the deadliest year in America. At the dawn of a new decade, a killing occurs in the United States roughly every twenty-five minutes1—a human life lost within a single seating of The Cosby Show. Sentimental sitcoms distract Americans from the bloodshed in the streets. For far too many, Heathcliff Huxtable is the only father that they will ever know.
The media’s rendering of events echoes familiar tropes of American carnage canonized in pop culture and political discourse. One journalist recounts a scene in the nation’s capital that feels plucked from a John Singleton film: Late in the afternoon, the body of eighteen-year-old Michael James Hall was delivered to the doorstep of his mother’s third-floor Washington apartment wrapped in a shower sheet with two bullet wounds in the back of his head. The article makes no mention of his mother’s screams.2 We cannot see the pool of blood that halos his high-top fade, nor can we know what parts of him spilled out onto the tiled floor. Hindsight allows me to ask questions that history forgets. How long does his body lay outside of her door? Does she try to put him back together? We rightfully honor those we lose, but do we consider what happens to those who survive?
She couldn’t speak. This is what I remember most from my mother’s version of the story. She and Joy White grow up in the same rust brick building on the corner of 129th Street in the so-called capital of murder, drugs, the homeless, AIDS victims, single-parent families and, illegitimate children. In the summer of 1987, Joy goes to Harlem Hospital with her newborn baby girl and returns to the block empty-handed. According to local news reports, during the infant’s extended stay in the hospital, a woman in a white dress and stockings tends to baby and mother faithfully. She takes special care to console Joy and gives her tissues to mop away her tears. Although the woman loiters in the maternity ward for weeks, she is not a hospital employee, and during a late-night change of shifts, she and Joy’s baby disappear.
When I saw her again, she couldn’t speak. This is where Joy’s story ends in my mother’s rendering of the tale. It is one of many myths and parables I have heard her recite again and again throughout my life, each with its own grip on my conscience. I am unaware of when her memories become my own, and yet, inevitably, they do. With each retelling, I invent details that bring me closer to a truth that brings some form of meaning to mayhem. In my version of Joy’s story, I imagine that her cheeks sting from smiling when she sees her baby for the first time. I imagine the milk bottles she warms and the shitty diapers she changes in the nineteen days before that baby’s abduction. I imagine the dark empty wells that swallow her eyes in the days, weeks, months, and years that followed. I imagine that the kidnapping haunts parents from 125th to 155th Street, so much so that I imagine when my mother finds out she is pregnant with her second child, she decides that this daughter of Harlem will not be born at Harlem Hospital.
I emerge a healthy baby girl, the only baby girl delivered that day in the maternity ward of St. Luke’s Women’s Hospital. Nurses ask to hold, feed, or simply stare at the miniature marvel in a pink blanket. Apparently, baby girls give women baby fever. While the other mothers are eager for a brief reprieve from the spit and shit of their newborn sons, my mother insists that her daughter stays put in a rolling bassinet nearby. She fights off sleep in her cot when a nurse she has never seen before suggests that I sleep in the nursery for the night. Lay down, the woman says. Your daughter is in good hands. As she tiptoes toward the bassinet and scoops me into her arms, my mother remembers Joy White. She remembers reports of a woman in a white dress and stockings who was not a hospital employee. She remembers that the woman had rocked Joy to sleep just long enough to steal her newborn baby. Most importantly, she remembers that when it was all said and done Joy could not speak. And so, determined to keep all of what is hers, my mother springs up from her gurney like a post-partum gangster and growls, Bitch, gimme my goddamn baby!
The city welcomes me with filthy arms. I am three or four years old. My mother holds my hand as we descend down the mucky steps of our apartment stairwell. It is dark and swampy and the rank stench of what I am convinced is human piss stings my nostrils. Don’t touch anything! my mother cautions, as she impatiently guides my small steps away from the piles of shit and shattered glass along our path. On the next landing, I see a crooked shadow light a flickering flame over a glass pipe. I like to call these shadows zombies. My mother calls them by their proper name: crackheads. I have recurring nightmares of zombies chasing me down the stairwell to my impending death. I awake in a panic and rush to my mother’s side where she points outside her bedroom window and reminds me, the real monsters are out there.
Street pharmacists tend to fiends lined up like hungry wolves on nearly every corner in Harlem. So many tiny reusable bags litter the streets and playgrounds that children mistake them for toys. A child collects them as purses for her dolls to the horror of her parents. They pray that a mere brush with the poison inside won’t spoil her for life, although they suspect that it already has. Criminologists allege that nearly half of the murders in New York City can be linked to the crack epidemic3. In the wee hours of the morning, well after the sun sets over Harlem’s Sugar Hill, drug wars culminate in random shooting sprees. I create a game where I try to lay awake long enough to catch the gunfire live. This way, I won’t end up like Lucin Rosario, the five-year-old next door who was struck in the head by a stray bullet while sleeping. She never heard the blast coming, but I would.
After Lucin’s murder, my mother puts an emergency plan in place. When the shots ring out, I follow her instructions exactly: Duck! Don’t run. Bullets climb. I slide down from the top bunk and crawl my way to the only place in the apartment where there are no windows. My mother, my sister, and I sit crisscross applesauce along a narrow hallway playing Numbers or Slide or Miss Mary Mack or Down Down Baby or Double This, Double That or Shame, Shame, Shame or whatever hand game allows us to steal a moment of joy. Our claps and giggles hush the bang of the semi-automatic pistol, and for a moment I believe that I am safe.
The NYPD arrives soon after the shots are fired. I peek out of my window at the uniformed officers gripping their guns as they survey the crime scene. They put up their tape, collect their shell casings, and search the wounded man for weapons before they check for a pulse. When they finally remove his body, a pond of crimson blood stains the spot for weeks before the rain eventually washes him away. I watch as the puddle shrinks to a few brown spots arranged like polka dots along the cobbled stone walkway.
In the morning, I skip across the street to PS154 where my principal preps us with frequent active shooter drills, but no amount of planning can prepare us for the real thing. When the shots ring out, little feet scurry past rows of colorful bulletin displays into the dark emptiness of the school’s auditorium. One by one we file into the rows of wooden pews, quietly take our seats, and bury our heads between our knees. A few of us gag on our tears, others grow dizzy as blood rushes from their stomachs and settles at the tops of their heads, a third grader in Ms. Broom’s class barfs up the Cheerios, bananas, and 2% milk that the cafeteria served for breakfast that morning. Perhaps by grace, or by luck, or some combination of the two, all of us survive the school day.
In an effort to make New York the safest city in the world, the mayor sacrifices Harlem. He implements a Stop and Frisk policy which allows officers to detain, question, and search pedestrians at random if there is reasonable suspicion that they are committing a crime. In the minds of the NYPD, a criminal and a black man are like syrup and molasses, a difference without a distinction. The ACLU of New York estimates that since 2002, New Yorkers have been subject to more than five million police stops and public interrogations and that ninety percent of those that are stopped-and-frisked are completely innocent. I walk home from school past black and brown boys lined up along the curb as police officers dump the contents of their backpacks onto the sidewalk. I imagine that they recover scores of rhyme books and Pokémon cards; I know that they very rarely find a gun.
Sometimes the boy doesn’t want to be frisked. Sometimes he wants to keep his dime bag and his dignity, so he runs to avoid being detained by the police. In occupied Harlem, running is considered an admission of guilt and gives the NYPD full license to blow your fucking head off. While strolling down 125th Street, my stepfather, a Vietnam veteran, is caught in the crossfire of officers attempting to apprehend a suspect on foot. He survives a war abroad, but, at home, on the Main Street of Harlem, his life lay in the balance at the hands of men who pledged to serve and protect it. Nobody is safe.
Armed officers on horseback trot along Lenox Avenue. They charge into neighborhood block parties and cookouts and threaten to trample crowds of teenagers chicken noodle soupin’ along the Harlem River Bridge. Party’s over! an officer shouts from a bullhorn. Go home. We don’t listen. Instead, we clap, we sing, we dance, we two-step, we don’t even need no music. We ignore the officer’s warning to get off the street until backup finally arrives. Then, we run.
Police vans full of New York’s finest pull up a few feet away from us. I put up my hands to show I am unarmed as I jog past an officer holding a black boy by the collar. Go home. he yells, waving his fist. Go home or I’ll break your fucking face! I am so busy watching their game of alley cat and church mouse that I don’t see the other officers put on their masks. Oh shit! a voice shrieks from the crowd. They’re gonna mace us. I tuck my face into my shirt with one hand and hail a gypsy cab with the other. As the driver pulls away, I watch those I leave behind hunch to their knees as the pepper spray stings their nostrils and burns their throats. Frankie Beverly & Maze belts out from the car stereo receiver. Their sweet song swallows my shame and I remember that sometimes, the calm comes after the storm.
After a lifetime in the city, my concept of reality is intimately tied up with the prospect of danger. Fear is real. Pain is real. Loss is real. Suffering is real. The streets of New York taught me this and the rest of the world confirmed it. I drown in a sea of apocalyptic tweets and hashtags predicting the collapse of American democracy. Today, I wake up to the usual orchestra of alarms, alerts, and notifications from my iPhone under my pillow. My timeline is bombarded with a litany of predictable hooks: X Obscure Habits of Happy People, Kanye West Lashes Out in Latest Rant, and Unarmed Black Man Shot and Killed by Police. Today, the latter title flashes again and again on my palm-sized screen. The anchor’s tone is dull and distant as if he is covering a ritual sports game. I think back to the empathy in the same anchor’s voice while reporting the death of an endangered gorilla; I marvel at his inability to have the same compassion for another human being.
I have lost count of the number of black lives I’ve seen reduced to hashtags and find that I am no longer surprised or outraged by it. The claim that a black man is killed by the police every twenty-eight hours has been all but confirmed by viral videos capturing the shootings live. I expect to see breaking news recounting the murder of a black man. I expect that black man to have been murdered by the police. I expect that black man’s name to be inserted into an endless stream of hashtags and think pieces—for about a week. And then, I expect that same name to drift into obscurity. After all, I had seen it happen before. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. We evoke these names in moments of mourning to somehow commemorate their stolen lives. Yet, no matter how nimble our Twitter fingers, they can’t seem to stop the steady accumulation of names on that list.
The first time I watch video footage of a fatal police shooting, I cry. I choke on a bottle of bitter tears for a man I don’t know but grieve just the same. The second time, I sip the tears like tea, savoring the sorrow of his broken-hearted son howling in agony on the nighttime news. The third, fourth, and fifth times, I know better than to weep. I move beyond sadness into a seething rage that devours me. It haunts my dreams with views of broken black bodies bleeding out onto the streets of America. James Baldwin infamously noted that to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. Americans like to pathologize rage, especially black rage, as some sort of psychological defect, some post-traumatic stress disorder contingent upon the levels of melanin in your skin. These same Americans accept white supremacy as a benign, albeit unfortunate, reality—a mere footnote in the diagnosis of the angry black (wo)man. In a country where to be white is right, to be black is not merely inconvenient; it is lethal. The blacker the berry, the quicker they shoot. To be enraged by this fact is no symptom of mental illness. It is a perfectly normal reaction to incredibly abnormal circumstances.
I get high to forget that the world is cruel and irrational and that I am a native daughter in a country that won’t claim her. I arrive at my friend’s apartment door for our afternoon cipher—a sacred ritual between potheads comprised of sharing a blunt. He opens the door with a video game controller in hand and a freshly rolled joint poking out of his mouth.
“Just in time,” he says, letting me in and leading me to an altar of ashtrays filled with the remains of ciphers past. I like to call these phantom joints roaches.
“One of these days, I’m gonna roll a fat ass J,” he gestures toward the ashtrays while passing me the fresh joint from his lips.
“Word,” I reply, underwhelmed by his pet project. “You got a light?”
“You good?” he asks, handing over a neon lighter. “What’s the matter?”
“You haven’t seen it?!” I snap back. “They did it again.”
“You’re talking about those cop shootings,” he responds before rolling his eyes and sucking his teeth. “Man, fuck the police!”
“Facts! They’re plucking us off one at a time. Somebody has to put an end to this shit.”
“Maybe we gotta stop waiting on somebody to save us and start doing the saving ourselves.”
“Realistically though, what can we do? The system is rigged.”
“We can protest—”
“Been there. Done that.”
I recall my disappointment at a demonstration I attend that literally goes nowhere. After hours of occupying midtown Manhattan, the NYPD finally corner us between the Hudson River and the West Side Highway. They give us two choices: disperse or get beat up. As I watch officers slam demonstrators onto the sidewalk, I decide a broken heart is preferable to a broken back and that I will have to fight the power another day.
“You went to one Black Lives Matter protest and suddenly you’re Assata Shakur,” he howls, laughing hysterically. “Get the fuck out of here!”
His snickers are contagious and suddenly we are both cracking up. I laugh so hard my stomach hurts but regain composure just in time for my turn in the rotation.
“If they came to the hood,” I resign. “I might consider protesting.”
“Whatever,” he responds halfheartedly. “Pass the J.”
“You know what I don’t want to do, though?”
“I don’t wanna die too yoouuuuuuuunnngg,” I belt out loudly and off-key, miming the Post Malone track that has become the soundtrack of our lives.
The room, again, bursts into laughter. We continue in this loop, moving back and forth between talking, laughing, and rotating the joint until it is too small to put to our lips without burning them. I place its remains in the ashtray with the other roaches as a persistent breeze stokes the embers of its flame. I gather my things to leave and set out on my walk home unsure if either of us will live to see another J.
A faint and steady hum swallows the streets of Harlem. The distant roar leads me to the intersection of 125th Street and Lenox Avenue where I am alarmed to find that the voices I am chasing are white. I can’t say that I am totally surprised. The notoriously black neighborhood looks more like white chocolate with a hint of sprinkles these days. Rapid gentrification coupled with rising property taxes make the rent too damn high in Harlem, and, as a result, many long-time residents are forced to flee the homes their ancestors built.
“No justice, no peace! Fuck these racist police!” the mob of white agitators chants in unison as a handful of traffic cops calm anxious motorists facing a jam with no end in sight.
“Whose streets?” a single burly voice howls from the spirited crowd.
“Our streets!” a chorus responds, as the group spreads out across the historic strip blocking all four intersections.
A few of the more hostile drivers mock them with dirty looks and flips of their middle fingers. I survey the scene from a comfortable distance, and I find myself among a growing crowd of black and brown onlookers cautiously cheering from the sidelines. We wonder what will happen to black bodies that challenge the powers that be. Within thirty-six hours, we have watched two black men murdered while in police custody, and, despite our parallel disgust with the criminal justice system, we all seem to be thinking the same thing: Will I be safe, or will I be next?
“Mic check!” a young man with long ginger locks tied into a neat bun yells to capture the crowd’s attention. Despite his reference to this proverbial mic, there is no sound amplifier in sight. Instead, Mr. Man Bun boosts the volume of his voice by cupping his hands around his mouth as he climbs the makeshift podium on a divider island in the center of traffic. “Mic check!” the crowd strikes back like a roll of thunder.
“Comrades!” Mr. Man Bun begins his speech. “From here we go west on 125th Street toward Broadway. Then, we take the West Side Highway!”
“Take the highway!” a voice echoes as a sizable portion of the crowd disperses.
I immediately decide that I am out. As a native daughter, I know that as you head west, 125th Street transforms from a shopping oasis to a construction wasteland. Due to a controversial eminent domain case, Columbia University’s expansion into West Harlem is severely stalled. Tower cranes hover like metal clouds over straphangers waiting for the 1 train at the Broadway station. I’m uninterested in following these rebels into nowhere and begin to make my way home when my path is intercepted by a heavy-set black woman in cornrows.
“Hold up, y’all,” she yells, trailing the group. “There’s nothing over there.”
“Exactly!” I second her point from the sidelines. “Y’all should go uptown.”
A debate ensues. Heads swing back and forth like see-saws as Mr. Man Bun and the woman in cornrows commence a tug of war of words. He is intent on blocking a bridge whereas she is looking to build one.
“We have to block the bridge,” he roars. “We have to shut shit down!”
“If we go to the bridge, we’ll have nobody behind us” she roars back. “But, if we go uptown, we’ll have the whole hood behind us!”
I am sold. So is everyone else. We reconvene into a single mass of black, brown, and white with this gutsy black girl at the helm.
“I’ve never been north of 125th Street,” a woman’s voice says behind me, as we march up Lenox Avenue.
We float at a steady pace blocking both the uptown and downtown sides of traffic past rows of tenement buildings and low-rise storefronts. We walk in the direction of oncoming traffic where we are surprisingly well-received by uptown motorists. A cab driver sticks his palm out the window for an endless procession of high fives, and a bus operator honks his horn, emphatically shouting, “Black Lives Matter!” I hope for a similar reception from a group of teenage girls gathered at 140th and Lenox. I am happy to see their faces light up with infectious smiles as we approach.
“Join us!” an ensemble of voices echo, as the girls huddle together for an impromptu meeting of teenage minds. After a moment of whispered dialogue, one of the ladies breaks away from the clique to join us. She stops a few feet in front of me and abruptly bends over face down, ass up. Sporting low rise jeans and a cropped tee, she inadvertently reveals her thong underwear as she places her hands on her knees and begins to twerk as her friends shriek with laughter from the sidewalk. Youth throughout Harlem play similar pranks on us as we march through the neighborhood. At the corner of 145th Street, a trio of middle school boys shout, “Suck my dick!” while pointing to their pubescent genitals. On our way back downtown, a group of slightly older, but no less immature, boys catcall at me from a parked car. “I don’t know about all of that,” one of them says. “But, black power to you, sis!”
Our numbers dwindle as demonstrators grow disheartened by the lack of community support. The remaining mass has segregated itself according to chant: Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter. As the sun sets, we pause for a quick break in front of the Apollo Theater to reassess our route. After our earlier occupation of 125th Street, the usually busy sidewalk is virtually empty and there are no cars in sight. Folks spread out to take selfies in front of the infamous venue and peruse the stars on its copycat walk of fame.
“Don’t say I never did anything for the movement,” a brown girl with an afro records herself shouting as she spins in slow motion to give her followers a panoramic view of the action. I cringe as the camera pans in my direction when I am saved from an unwitting cameo by a tall, dark, handsome man who blocks her shot.
“When this is all over, we should have lunch,” he says softly.
“We should,” I reply, entranced by the glow of his tawny complexion.
We exchange phone numbers before quickly going our separate ways. Once removed from the distraction of Protest Bae, I feel a tinge of guilt for using this moment to land a date. I begin to wonder how much this demonstration is about the deaths of two men and how much of it is about appearances. Sure, we may have all joined this protest with the best intentions, but shameless selfies and corny pick-up lines are useless against white supremacy. We are so wrapped up in our egos that we have no idea where we are going.
“I say we stay here until we figure it out,” a white girl with dreadlocks suggests. She is part of the All Lives Matter crew and I immediately do not trust her. Granted, I do not know this woman, but I don’t trust anyone who cannot comprehend that Black Lives Matter does not imply that white lives don’t. At a time where black people are shot, tasered, beaten, and choked to death on national television, the slogan is simply a reminder that black lives matter, too.
“No!” Protest Bae interjects. “The purpose of protest is to disturb the peace. We march!” A stale applause erupts as the crowd reassembles itself. With Protest Bae as our leader, we march west on 125th Street, turn south at Amsterdam Avenue, cut through Grant Projects, and merge with a sister protest on Broadway where the subway tracks and concrete converge. Impressed with his innate sense of direction, I decide I might just give him a call, after all.
As we celebrate doubling our numbers, there is a sudden hike in police presence. Squad cars approach from the south while officers on bicycles close in on us from the east and west. We have no choice but to run north. With the biker cops at our heels, we continue on chanting what has become the night’s underlying motto: “FTP. Fuck the Police.”
Our real-life game of cops and robbers ends when we find our path blocked by a few dozen officers lined up along the patio of the Adam Clayton Powell State Office Building. I notice helicopters swarming overhead and SWAT vehicles supervised by cops in riot gear parked casually beneath them. I am afraid, but my fear of death pales in comparison to the realization that, even if I choose to stand back, they will probably kill me anyway. If I am going to go out as a hashtag, I might as well go out with a bang. I slowly approach the motorcade of stone-faced officers, holding my hands above my head to show them that I am unarmed. I am joined by a handful of other brave souls, among them a trans Latinx protester with a Rihanna-inspired pixie.
“What are you going to do?” she taunts the officers. “Shoot us?”
I lie down for bed, iPhone in hand, and commence my nightly scroll through my newsfeed. I discover that the NYPD’s excessive show of force follows a mass shooting at a sister protest in Dallas that took the lives of five officers and wounded several others. Until they find the cop killer, every black person in America is a suspect. The photo of a falsely accused man circulates the media before the true sniper is blown to bits by a bomb-toting robot. Murder is no longer a national tragedy; it is a national norm. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world insane.
I don’t sleep at night. I rest my eyes and see myself staring down the barrel of an officer’s gun. In my imagination, I am fearless. I put on my big-girl panties, take my cue from Brother Malcolm, and stand up for what’s right by any means necessary. In reality, I am scared shitless. I am in constant fear for my life. I am in fear for the lives of my mother, my niece, my aunties, uncles, brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends, and in the same thought, I mourn for the families and loved ones of the officers slain in Dallas. I admit that casualties are heartbreaking no matter which side they fall, and I am forced to grapple with whether or not I want to live in a moral country or a safe one. I come to realize that mayhem is a living breathing thing, an inconvenient reality with corporeal consequences. We can normalize catastrophe. We can revere or forget whoever, whatever, and whenever we wish. We can pretend we do not see the blood because it’s not our husbands, or our fathers, or our brothers, lying dead in the street. Until, inevitably, one day we find that it is.
Rumpus original art by Isis Davis-Marks.
1. Source: The New York Times. (January 3, 1990 Wednesday). YEAR OF MURDER, MAYHEM. Sydney Morning Herald (Australia).↩
2. (SPECIAL). (January 2, 1991, Wednesday, FINAL EDITION). 2,200 murdered in New York City as killings hit records around US. The Toronto Star. ↩
3. Carlos Sadovi, Special to The Christian Science Monitor. (April 9, 1990, Monday). New York, Nation Faces Rise in Crime. Christian Science Monitor (Boston, MA).↩