thandiwe D. Watts-Jones

Belonging

 

Even now, as the mother of a 35-year-old African-American son, I never shake the uneasy feeling that he is at risk.  Holding my breath as the late night local news rolls out its not infrequent version of “Two men were shot tonight in Brooklyn, one fatally wounded,” I am not alone.  Generations of mahogany to oak-shaded arms are linked in mine, a community of mothers who know too well the stories of Black men and boys out in the world.  Who know too well the anxiety and grief, from dusky southern back roads and firecracker-loaded gas stations to urban neon intersections of wrong move, wrong place, wrong color.  On rooftops, playgrounds, doorways, stairwells, and corners, our sons breathe, then don’t.

We do not want to belong to this community, but the ink does not dry.

Ten years have gone by, since this came home with a vengeance.  The memory of that Friday night is as clear as a fresh tattoo. It was one week to the night that 24 year-old Imette St. Guillen, a Philippine graduate student, had been tortured and killed, after a night out drinking in two lower Manhattan bars.  She’d been with friends at first but apparently without them at the second bar, which harbored the bouncer who was later convicted of the crime.  All that week, stories of her murder flooded the local newspapers and TV networks. I kept imagining her mother eviscerated, wondering how she could walk.

But on this Friday night, Imette and her mother were far from my mind as I stood on a long line of ticketless folks at the New York Historical Society, hoping to see Toni Morrison.  An overhead announcement dimmed my prospects. But soon after, a seemingly random act, a White male out of the blue, offering his ticket, got me in.  The auditorium was packed, yet Toni Morrison, artist-warrior, clamped the din, simply by rising from her seat. Into that pristine silence, she poured gold-spun words from Paradise and her textured alto voice, its cadence measured and lush.  Even later, back home, as I eased out of the day’s crumpled attire, the spell she conjured still enveloped me.  In the sublime grace of the evening’s great fortune, I drifted easily to sleep.

Two hours later, Alicia Keyes’ “Fallin” pierced my dreams.  I jumped up, unnerved, ran to get my cell phone. Middle of the night calls are never good. My son’s name flashed in the window.  My heart raced.  It was just past one a.m.  I called him back.

“Hola,” the strange voice answered, not a Black voice.

“Can I speak to Andwele?” I asked, thinking some friendly prank was in play.

“He’s gonna git his throat slit tonight, bitch.” Click.

Stunned, I dialed again, panic rising.

“Can I speak to my son Andwele please?” I asked, straining to push calm into every word.

The voice that answered this time had Caribbean in it, a certain lilt and rhythm.  Yet something was off, contrived.  The tone, on the other hand, left no doubt – all business.

“Your son’s gonna be murdered, read the o-beet-chua-ree, Bitch.” Click.

Beside myself, I dialed my son’s father, Jay, my fingers tight and trembling. His voice mail kicked in.

“It’s an emergency, something’s happened to Andwele,” I raced, my voice teetering on the edge of words unraveling, as the reality grew with each enunciation.  “Call me.”

I fell to the floor, sobbing, “Pleeease God, please don’t let my son die.”  Seconds later I took to my feet, ran to my altar, and grabbed my rattle.  I shook it ferociously to summon my ancestors, my voice barreling out as I called on them collectively, and by name, beseeching them to intervene and protect Andwele.

Who had my son?  Who were these ruthless men? I wondered:  how had he become entangled with such people?  As Andwele had grown into manhood, his boyish expressiveness had become gated.  What didn’t I know about his life, or had he simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time that night?  He’d graduated from college the year before, and was working in a video store, unhappily, until he could find a job of interest.  An athlete of medium build and size 13 feet, he was a mellow guy, outside of athletic competition. His wry smile matched his humor.  He had a diverse group of friends, some dating back to high school.  Growing up in the suburbs and working summer jobs in Harlem didn’t make him street savvy.  He was skillful at avoiding conflict, but I didn’t know how he would manage if confronted with violence.

I dialed his roommate Brett, a friend from high school.

“He went out with some friends from college,” Brett said, his voice weaker, after I’d repeated the sinister words I’d heard.

Brett rushed off the phone to make calls. I dialed the police in Chelsea, where my son lived, pleaded for help.  I had no idea of where he was, what could they do? The officer said as much, but offered a kind voice. The phone rang.  Jay remained quiet as I relayed the developments, my words saturated with adrenaline.

“I’m in the city but am on my way back,” his voice calm and laid back as usual.  I expected a leak of distress, but didn’t hear or feel it.  This perturbed and comforted me.  Two police officers from my local town, just outside the City, responded to my call.  I went downstairs to the lobby to let them in and out.  They too could do nothing.  Back upstairs, the phone rang, Brett.  He’d heard from Andwele.

“He’s alright.  He got jumped and lost his phone,” Brett said. A moment later, my cell rang.  My son’s voice came through the receiver like a mirage at first, against the nightmare’s alarm flooding every vein, every neuron of my body signaling my son might be gone.

“I’m okay Mom, I’m okay,” he said repeatedly as I cried.  I wasn’t sure. “I was dealing with some racist people,” he said, “but I’m with a friend and she’s a cop.  She gave me good advice.”

“Please go home,” I entreated, more than once.  Not until I saw his home number on the caller ID and heard his voice did I exhale.

As his dad drove us to the City, the stillness inside the car matched the 3 a.m. roads.  We had to see him. Exhausted, I stared out the passenger car window at nothing in particular.  Andwele tried to discourage us from coming but quickly grasped the futility of that. I was happy to see him physically intact with no obvious bruises.

“It’s late, and I’m tired,” he said, as we followed him back to his room.  He flopped down on his bed.  We stood, undeterred, needing to know more.

“Brett said you got jumped.  What happened?“

“I got hit.”

“Where?” I asked.

He reluctantly showed us the tender place on his head where he’d been punched, a bit swollen, but no cut.  Moments after, the emotional gash appeared, what I’m sure he had wished to avoid.

“I try to be idealistic,” he said, his voice cracking, “but it’s hard.”  “I don’t know what would have happened if she wasn’t there.  She took care of me.”

We didn’t want to push too hard for details given what he’d been through. As we were leaving, he gave me a business card with the name of the woman who’d helped him that night, a stranger, the cop he had called his friend, Ms. Simpson.  She had a catering business on the side.

I waited until Sunday to call her. I needed a day before hearing more and thanking her. A warm, unvarnished voice came through the phone and I imagined down home sweet potato pies coming out of her oven.  We connected right off, and she helped me fit the pieces of the story together.  Andwele and some college friends had met for an alumni event at a sports bar in the upper 80’s on the East Side, not his usual social scene.   The Upper East Side is known as a predominantly preppy, elitist White enclave — unlike the Upper West Side. After the event, he and his friends decided to go to another bar a couple doors down.  Andwele was the only person of color among them.  At one point, he went to the vestibule, away from the boisterous crowd, to take a call.  When the bouncer, a thick-necked White man with a shaven head, told him he couldn’t do that, Andwele asked if he was serious.  The guy responded by pushing my 190-pound son out the door.  His phone fell.   Stunned and angry, Andwele cursed at him.  The White bouncer then egged on the Black bouncer, a beefier version, who punched my son in the head.

Ms. Simpson and two girlfriends were walking home when they came upon the scene.  They’d just had dinner with friends and Ms. Simpson’s brother, a police officer, a few blocks away.

“He had on khakis, and he was so upset and crying,” she explained.  “He was saying he wanted his cell phone back.  The guy hit him, and they were about to gang up on him.”

She and the other woman who spoke up had children in their 20’s.  Ms. Simpson had identified herself as a police officer, and demanded to know what was going on.  She told the bouncers they could not do this.

“Keep it moving,” the bouncers responded.

But Andwele, intent on retrieving his phone, kept insisting on getting back inside.  The friend of Ms. Simpson’s who did not have children started to cry.  A couple of months earlier, her fiancé had been killed, and the scene before her triggered memories of this.

Fortunately, Ms. Simpson succeeded in talking my son out of his stance, telling him his life was more important than “a piece of metal.”  She convinced him to leave with her and her friends, and took him to a racially diverse bar she said was safe.  Turns out she wasn’t a cop, but had attempted to pass as one to gain leverage with the hulking men.

A week later, Andwele, his dad and I met Ms. Simpson at a restaurant of her choice, a few blocks up from the bar scene, and not far from where she lived. We wanted to thank her in person and have dinner together.  I looked forward to taking in the sculpted physicality of being that gave rise to that red clay voice.  Lean, and of average height, Ms. Simpson appeared unintimidating, her smile easy across her walnut hued face.  And yet there was something in the way she held her body, the way her back rested against the booth, and the bedrock tone she sometimes hit that communicated she could mount fierce. A single parent with a daughter in college, a son at home, she’d moved to the Upper East Side when her children were young.  We talked about what that was like and I told her again how much we appreciated her getting involved.

“I didn’t want him to get hurt.  I won’t even go in that bar.  I’ve seen them slam people against the sidewalk before.  I had to help him.  It could have been my son.”

My eyes watered. “You have to know what bars you can go to in some neighborhoods,” she instructed, her eyes set on Andwele.  “Some are not safe, and some are not frequented by people of color.” She sounded like a mother, like what she had been to my son that night.

Memories of my southern childhood floated up, the sense of belonging to a village, each of us under the watchful eye of every grown up.  It could be a drag. But mostly it felt good, like everyone cared about us.  It seems like a fossil now, this way of being in community, especially for those of us who left our small enclaves in droves for northern skies, cosmopolitan opportunities.   And yet, on a night that terror clawed at my breath, three Black women, two of them mothers, acted in nameless community with me, had my son’s back.  They determined which side of the line our family would stand at night’s end, utter relief or inexorable grief.

Ten years, my gratitude still runs to these women.  Ms. Simpson’s words, “It could have been my son,” still land with loving connection.  The procession too goes on.  The one for those left on the other side of the line, for what?  I crumble, blaze, fall numb; at times, refuse to see, to hear.  Windpipes clamped, vessels ripped bled out, frozen sons and daughters sealed, hoisted on the shoulders, the hands of men.  Mothers, mourners trailing on leaden feet, sometimes sagging on arms at each side, sometimes by will alone, towers of grief, for what?

I hear the humming, Rising.

Swelling like hellacious sea walls in a tsunami of belonging.

 

Comments
  1. Gloria Lopez-Henriquez on

    Thank you Thaudiwe. What a timely piece of truth you wrote! It comes at a perfect moment when thousands of young children are being ripped from their migrant parents’ arms and send thousands of miles away, to places they never saw, with unfamiliar people whose words they cannot comprehend. For the safety of Black and Brown children, we all have to care about their wellbeing as if they were our own; just like Ms. Simpson did with your child. God bless her!!

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