Mom played Hooked on Classics, three albums of disco-beat-backed classical music, for me and my brother Frank when we were young. The albums were ancestors to the modern-day mash-up, one song morphing into the next. Hooked on Classics 3: Journey through the Classics’s track nine, “Journey through America,” was my favorite, especially when I’d spin it on my Fisher Price turntable at night. Jaunty. The track was composed of twelve songs conflated into one instrumental tune.
“When the Saints Go Marching In Jimmy Crack Corn.”
“When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again Deep in the Heart of Texas.”
The needle skipped despite the dust-free vinyl, and the whole record player, playing at max volume, wobbled on my nightstand. The nearby music box’s blonde ballerina spun herself, and everything, to reckless abandon.
My favorite part of “Journey through America” was “Shortnin’ Bread Star-Spangled Banner.” On cloud-stilled mornings when the distance between the bed and shag carpet seemed as wide as the Chesapeake Bay, Mom broke the silence by calling, “Three lil’ children lyin’ in bed.” And we’d get up.
Sometimes I still hum the song, alone and under my breath, while brushing my teeth or making coffee. I don’t have children. But I do think I carried my nephew, Frankie, before he was born, in my body. At least the idea of him. Anticipation in my stomach. A foot cramp where my toes spread out like they got to be free. Somedays he sat on the slope of my nose. His ultrasound profile looked a little like mine.
Mandy, my sister-in-law, gave birth on November 11, 2016. Frank Prescott Dawson V (yes, Prescott, and yes, the fifth), whom we call Baby Frankie to avoid confusing him with his father, Frank, and his grandfather Frank, and his deceased great- and great-great-grandfathers, Frank and Frank.
About ninety minutes after Baby Frankie’s early arrival, I bounded down the jet bridge onto the next flight to Baltimore. On the plane, to pass the time, I scrolled through photos of our new baby. We had an album’s worth of hours after the caesarean. Everyone wanted to capture it all. When I arrived and saw Baby Frankie in the crib for the first time, I took a pic of Mandy in her bed, druggy. Or maybe just that happy. I prefer that version.
My nephew’s newborn body looked comfy in its Blackness. His skin, still ruddy from birth but quickly browning, absorbed all the hospital room’s florescent light. He clenched both his fists, his eyes wide open, arms in the air like a celebration of his excellence. He looked like Usain Bolt. He looked like T-Pain just told him to put his hands up and stay there.
Everything seemed possible. He could be a doctor like his dad.
He could be anything.
He could be arrested for doing nothing on a West Baltimore street, like Freddie Gray before his death by police.
These are the realities of today’s Black boys. The extremes. Acknowledging the spectrum isn’t morbid, but elegiac—a lamentation not for the deceased but for those separated from the meaning of their bodies almost from birth. Feared as early as five, as if their small frames cage a rage no one can temper.
Black lives matter and so do the characterizations of those lives that lead to their demise.
Right before my brother and Mandy took Baby Frankie home for the first time, I took a picture of the newborn identification form, the representation of his entrance into the world.
11.11.2016. Eight pounds, five ounces. Twenty inches. Two footprints.
For the first year of his life, I had a recurring dream where I would visit him and find him in his nursery, his feet still covered in ink. He tracks it everywhere—the hardwood floors, the bathroom tile, the couch. And he never wears shoes, not even outside. I follow his footprints on the buckling sidewalks, the ink dark enough to show up on the brick’s deep red. Footprints in every direction. I can only follow for so long. I’ve lost him. I wake up and think about dactyloscopy, the way we use fingerprints and footprints to identify the individuality of someone’s skin. I’ll search for him. I’ll find him.
Columbus, Ohio, police officers didn’t have to look for thirteen-year-old Tyre King. He wasn’t missing. Officer Bryan Mason shot and killed him on sight because he was Black while carrying a BB gun. A toy. I recently watched a video of then-mayor Andrew Ginther giving a press conference. Ginther did all of the things a politician should do when attempting to offer solace to his constituents: “We ought to be shocked and angry as a community. In the safest big city in America, we have a thirteen-year-old dead in our city.”
And, then, this: “We as a community need come to grips with the fact, with such easy access to guns, whether they’re firearms or replicas, there’s something wrong in this country and it’s bringing its epidemic to our city streets.”
According to the mayor, Mason’s murder of King was not the problem. America’s preoccupation with guns was the problem. With his toy gun, King exemplified said problem. He was asking for it, really. But King was only a child with a toy, perhaps asking other children to play with him but not asking for trouble. What Mason saw was that King was Black, and that was trouble enough. He interpreted King as a possibility of violence even though the chance of that harm was so thin, akin to kids on a playground hoping to swing high enough to fly.
The white manipulation of images of Blackness is alive and well, as instinctive as taking a breath. We’re way past the idea of racism as learned behavior. Behavior has no hindsight. It’s not a thought; it’s an action. And the action propels our country forward toward a future that’s no better than the past. Sure, Black Americans no longer are confined to the plantation. For now. But we are confined to the systemic racism that sent ships to West Africa in the first place.
Given this, white reactions to Black males, even children, are not surprising. I think back to “Journey through the Classics,” the short moment of “Jimmy cracked corn and I don’t care, ole massa’s gone away.” The slave’s haughty mouth. His I-don’t-give-a-damn-about-anyone-but-me presence.
Not only is racism a state of mind, it’s a performance of that state of mind.
Consider blackface: the staged performance of racism under a proscenium arch. Or just at a party.
In 2019, someone uncovers videos of Covington Catholic students—the school attended by the boys who harassed a Native American man in DC in January—at a 2011 basketball game, cheering in blackface.
Someone uncovers videos of Poly Prep High School students in Brooklyn. Blackface.
A University of Oklahoma student posted a video of herself uttering racial slurs in blackface.
Ralph Northam, the governor of Virginia, admitted that he once, at a party, wore blackface.
Mark Herring, attorney general of Virginia, admitted to attending a shindig where he, too, lived it up in blackface.
I once came across a video of prominent twenties and thirties white entertainer, Al Jolson, singing “My Mammy” in The Jazz Singer. He places his hands over his heart, holding the short A each time he moved mammy from his diaphragm up to his throat and out his mouth, growing more and more emotive with each “Oh oh oh, mammy, my little mammy. I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles.” He tries to be funny as he struts across the stage, swinging his arms, clasping his white-gloved hands, his head wobbling from left to right. He moves like an awkward cartoon while singing lyrics that tell the story of a Black man coming home to his mother. In his melodramatic vibrato, the words of the song become clownish as well. The Black man’s need for comfort from his mother is silly. The performance erases Black masculinity to nothing but a joke.
Blackface moved the white audience to giggles while moving Black people closer to buffoon.
Blackface is so embedded in our culture, we forget, or ignore, the fact that something as seemingly wholesome as Mickey Mouse is steeped in racist imagery. In a 1929 film The Haunted House, Mickey stands in the dark and all you can see is his eyes, his gaping mouth, and his white-gloved hands. He shouts out “mammy!” three times, referencing Jolson’s performance. In another early cartoon, “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer,” Mickey, in blackface, stands on a stool and stares into a dressing room mirror. He stands in profile. It looks as if he has one huge eye. With a big grin, he looks like he can’t get enough of looking at himself.
I found a photograph of Jolson, again in blackface, his eyes open wide. Bulbous eyes. Exaggerated lips. At first I focused on the dark areas of his face, as I usually do when looking at the makeup. But, looking at Jolson’s mug feigning wonderment, the lighter parts proved more interesting. The sclera’s whiteness, the pale lips. White took the foreground. Black slipped to backdrop. I imagined the actor preparing for his role in a small room offstage, repeating “I’m a Black man” some twenty times in the mirror, trying to conjure his subject.
Blackface is an attempt at ownership. If you own something, you control it. You can manipulate it. Teach it your language, your behaviors.
I wonder if the Black entertainers of the early twentieth century hoped to reclaim ownership of Blackness. Popular Black trouper, Bill Robinson, danced side-by-side with his shadow on a New York City stage. He propped a cane confidently over his shoulder. Toothy white grin. Permanent smile. Eyes so wide, the openness must have hurt.
He’s not wearing blackface but he’s playing the same role as Jolson. In one image, he stands in a shiny colonial military uniform with huge epaulets reminiscent of revolution rendered, here, to a joke. A most nonsoldier soldier. Too celebratory. Even his expression looks like Jolson’s. Robinson maneuvers through dance moves, perfectly in step with the minstrel performance of Blackness.
Fans called him Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I know the song, “Mr. Bojangles,” well. I’ve heard the 1968 tune written and recorded by country music singer Jerry Jeff Walker. I’ve heard the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s version, too. And a remake by Whitney Houston.
Verse one: “I knew a man, Bojangles, and he’d dance for you, in worn out shoes, a ragged shirt and baggy pants.”
Chorus: “Mr. Bojangles. Mr. Bojangles. Mr. Bojangles. Dance.”
Even as he dances, he’s the action of the song, not the protagonist of his own story. The story belongs to the white speaker, the white man whom Mr. Bojangles consoles in the New Orleans jail.
“Mr. Bojangles. Dance.”
No “please.” No “thank you.” Just the imperative: dance.
There are two possibilities for the white prescription of Black masculinity. In the stage lights, it’s Black man as clown, “dance for me, boy” mockery. I’d like to think that white people realize that, right now, in this particular cultural moment, there’s nothing funny about being a Black man. But they’re not that thoughtful. I’ve seen the videos and pictures on social media of white kids doing what, apparently, is called the George Floyd challenge: one person on the ground, another kneeling on the pinned pretend victim’s neck. There’s no blackface. The humor now lies not in the minstrel’s construction of a clown, but in the Black man’s downfall and destruction.
The other white prescription of Black masculinity, with the streetlights on or off, is Black man as menace. That was the Minneapolis police’s assessment of Floyd, based on his skin color—no good and up to no good.
There is no such thing as safe. Nowhere.
I knew this and still I was surprised back when George Zimmerman, a “neighborhood watchman” wannabe cop, shot Trayvon Martin in 2012. And the surprise didn’t make any sense to me. I’d lived in Florida for two years and felt racism more than I ever had in the past. I was accustomed to confederate flags covering the rear windows of trucks, or the blue confederate X boasting its stars from a brim of a baseball cap. I got used to white men saying things like, “Let me in those brown legs.” I learned to ignore the saleswomen following me through the Macy’s at the Westshore Mall, all across the second floor, as if I might somehow stuff a pair of Nine West sandals into my wristlet and stomp down the escalator, haul ass through the children’s department, straight out the door without getting caught. But I felt Zimmerman’s murder of Martin under my skin.
In his statement to the police, Zimmerman said he saw the “suspect” emerge from the darkness, and then flee to a darkened area of the sidewalk. The media’s characterization of Martin was no different from Zimmerman’s statement to the police. Outlets chose to show only certain images of Martin, images lifted from his Twitter account—photos of him with a gold tooth or with his chin cocked high as he looked down at the camera. When the Daily Caller chronicled the case, they ran the photo of Martin with the gold teeth and defended the choice to the Tampa Bay Times, claiming they simply provided photos of Martin that he, himself, chose to share to the public. They said Martin’s young face, framed by the now-famous hoodie, was not an accurate image of how he looked near the time of his death. The media’s characterization of Martin was a crime in and of itself. They selected only images that fit into their stereotype of what a Black “thug” looked like. They tried to make Martin, not Zimmerman, look guilty.
Like Zimmerman, Officer Darren Wilson slaughtered Michael Brown Jr. because he was a menace, or so Wilson claimed. According to him, Brown tried to flee rather than deal with the consequences of his alleged crime (read: Blackness). Wilson waxed poetic during his grand jury testimony when speaking about Michael Brown’s eyes: “And the face he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
Oh, okay. So it was Wilson whose life didn’t matter.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone dehumanize another person by saying that person dehumanized him first.
On MLK Day in 2019, Mark Allen Bartlett, another white man policing Black people, approached a group of Black kids participating in “Bikes Up, Guns Down,” an annual event where youth take to the streets on their bikes to promote peace. Videos show Bartlett yelling, “Get in front of my car, you fucking piece of shit. Niggers suck,” just as he exits his car, gun in hand.
Bartlett’s quick moves never jostle the blue-mirrored sunglasses tucked in his T-shirt’s collar. It looks as if he’s just taking a little sunset jog, like he always takes a little jog with a gun, like nigger sits on the tip of his tongue like thirst.
I try to pause the video at that moment where the word is there before he says it.
In June 2018, when Baby Frankie was nineteen-months-old, I took another last-minute flight to Baltimore. Instead of getting a cab straight to Harbor Hospital, I headed west to Johns Hopkins, where Maryland’s patients go when things are far past dire. The baby had been ill for a couple of days. Frank texted Mom, Dad, and I that he wouldn’t stop crying. His temperature hiked higher and higher. I was sitting on a friend’s stoop in Florida, drinking a Bud Light, when Mom called me. Frank was driving his car while Mandy rode with the baby, in medical transport, from Harbor Hospital to Hopkins.
When I arrived, I pushed my way past the nurse’s station in the pediatric ICU, not waiting for anybody’s permission. I found Baby Frankie, again in a hospital crib. Tubes entering and exiting. A machine amplified his pulse. It sounded like a warning. Bio-stickers peeked out of the white onesie darkened by his drool. He was so tethered, Mandy couldn’t hold him.
His tiny liver had attacked his tiny fat, his body abusing it for energy as his pancreas failed him. His other organs could follow suit. He was killing himself. Ketones. Type 1 diabetes.
I swear I heard his bones groaning. His radius buckling under the pressure. At the end of his listless arm, nurses had taped his palm to a padded board holding his hand and IV still. The steady catheter. But under his brown skin, everything was broken.
Three days later, he and I sat in a different hospital room, on the floor. He pushed his favorite toy, a police car, across the carpet. I made the siren’s weeooh weeooh, a go-to to make him giggle. He appeared fragile but he would be fine. His illness, if managed, wouldn’t take him down. He takes his finger sticks like a champ. Never flinches. His upper arm bears his insulin pump—his badge of courage.
Loving someone means you live in fear of what may take them. Every day, I worry about him dying. Sugar shock. Two shots to the head. When there’s already so much loss, intrusive thoughts pervade.
And loss, written into us, looks something like the afterimages of assault—your body tenses, recoiling into itself for survival. You live with the horror of what happened and the fear that it will happen again. You bear the burden of all the external force.
Frank and Mandy took a selfie with Baby Frankie when he came home from Johns Hopkins. I rarely look at the image. He’s almost smiling, his little teeth holding tight to his pacifier. I think of his tongue and the roof of his mouth, the plastic taste of the nipple in between. His eyes look tired. Heavy, dark bags settled in his skin’s light brown. Mandy and Frank stand on either side of him, also trying to smile. Three balloons extend from the wrought-iron handrail leading up to their row house’s door. Sunshine. The reflection of an oak in the window.
Frank sent another picture yesterday: Baby Frankie playing in the dirt, lying in and above ground, raking his fingers through the soil, looking surprised that it doesn’t stick.
When I look at the picture, I think back to Mom singing, on a cloudy morning, “Three lil’ children lyin’ in bed.” Frank and I, with the conviction of a choir, called out, “Two were sick and the other ‘most dead.”
Just days ago, I realized those two sick kids were surviving.
Erica Dawson is the author of three books of poetry, When Rap Spoke Straight to God, The Small Blades Hurt, and Big-Eyed Afraid. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry, Harvard Review, The Believer, Virginia Quarterly Review, and other journals and anthologies. Her prose has appeared in The Rumpus. She lives in Tampa, Florida.