Why I lost My Voice (A King Day Story)
Try this experiment. Gather a group of the cutest, sweetest, silliest, most rambunctious toddlers and little kids you know, even add a couple of bad-asses, into a room, maybe a living room. Make them feel safe. Give them rules but let them play. Give them snacks. Give them dinner. Television to watch. Books to read. Now try to predict how many of your young subjects will ever forget the day someone from the lab drops a can of teargas into the room then busts off a few rounds of ammo above their heads. If you click on a 2008 story from USA Today about the April 1968 riots in America following Dr. King's assassination, you find a photo of journalist Opal Blankenship, much more than an old lady in a red jacket if you look her story up, in front of Holy Name Church at 23rd and Benton in Kansas City Missouri. Her outstretched arm points up Benton toward 24th. If you followed the trajectory of her finger you'd cross an intersection, pass a gas station, then a stuccoed brick duplex, top over bottom, where we rented from the Barnes family. At the other end of the block was a pink and blue house set up high on the corner where my grandparents lived. The day Opal's recalling, April 9, 1968, there'd been something else at the 24th street end of the block too: mad dogs, riot police and the National Guard armed to the teeth. High school kids had flooded out of Lincoln, Manual and Central high schools, the designated Negro schools under Kansas City's segregated system, because the board had refused to close schools to honor Dr. King's funeral. According to a video report by the Kansas City Star and testimony by Episcopal Priest Rev. David K. Fly riot police had harassed and finally attacked them in front of city hall where they had gathered to hear speeches and meet with the Mayor. A radio personality had offered to host a dance party at the church to help the kids cool down, get attention and recover in a safe atmosphere. That's what I've learned from researching the web. Here's what I remember as a kid. A lot of big kids and teenagers were gathering over at the church, kind of milling around and talking. I didn't know if they were negroes or black people (I'll explain in a minute). Suddenly a white man in an unmarked white car came barreling down Benton Boulevard from the direction in which my Grandma and Grandaddy lived, roaring right past in front of our house. Maybe that's what Opal's describing to reporters in the picture. I don't know. Anyway, the car swirls around the intersection scattering kids everywhere and screeches to a halt. The white man jumps out and starts yelling "Nigger! Nigger! Nigger! Go Home!" He pulls a gun and starts firing shots in the air! Then a bunch of teenagers in the crowd started rocking the mans car and flipped it. The ferocious crunch of metal and glass must have been like a starter gun to the National Guard, because right then, all hell broke loose from down on 24th. Guns and rifles started shooting and teargas started flying at every house, window, car, front porch, seemed like whatever they could see, all the way down the block. I was only nearing four but I will never forget my mother Jackie pushing me and my two big brothers, Kofi,7, and Nana,8, hard down on the floor just as a couple cans of tear gas came clamoring up on our porch followed by several rounds of bullets that broke our front window. Looking back, they shot at us like we were snipers. They didn't see a terrified mother without a gun, a man, or a man with a gun to protect her children. They simply saw niggers. The power went out and the fire came up. Now, I don't remember this, but I've since learned that police surrounded Holy Name where the DJ was hosting the dance party, blocked all the exists and started chucking teargas cans through the basement windows. The title of this post is Why I Lost My Voice. You see, the Holy Week Riots that happened in America following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., took place just a few months after my brothers and I arrived in America with my mom after she left my dad back in Ghana. My mom was an adventurous spirit and always wanted to be out there in the world, but in her twenties and with three small boys to raise, she made the decision to move back to Kansas City where she'd grown up. Segregated and hostile as it was, she knew KC also provided the support of her parents and a strong, stable, connected black community. In fact, while she was getting up on her feet, if she weren't sending me to my Grandma's house to get watched, she'd drop me off at the Black Panther free breakfast program. She knew the Panthers because they were young people she and my aunt Jerry had gone to high school with. She knew she could trust them with her baby - me! When I got to the Panther place, I loved it, but I never talked to anybody. I just did a lot of listening. Back then, fresh off the Pan-Am flight, I didn't talk to anybody except my mother, my brothers Kofi and Nana and sometimes my Grandaddy. Of course I knew to answer my Grandma fast. But outside of that, I didn't talk to anybody, not the kids upstairs, not my Auntie Jerry, not my playmates and certainly not the Panthers. Everything seemed so new and terrifying, it rendered me mute, at least to outsiders. I did listen however. My brothers and I were completely disoriented coming to Kansas City from our home in Ghana. Back there my father did some kind of important work outside the home and wore suits (a professor), and my mom taught preschool. We had friends up and down the road, most with dark beautiful skin and big smiles. Some had white skin and light curly bouncy hair. The air outside always felt good. But when we moved to the United States, that blanket of continuity in which we were wrapped, was yanked the-hell away. Everything was new. The cold. The snow. The way the kids were loud. The way the grown ups were loud. I don't know if we had a TV back in Ghana but I know we didn't watch it like we watched it here. Here we watched it like food. And the news was all helicopters and funny-sounding names and loud adults. The news was new words too, one of which was this new word 'negro.' Negro is not a word we'd ever heard back in Ghana, and based on what we ate up from the loud news announcers, Kofi, Nana and I came to the conclusion that negro meant 'criminal.' Interestingly enough, I noted that inThe Black Power Mix Tape Stokely Carmichael's mother implies she'd never heard the word negro either until she moved to New York from Trinidad. Kofi went to the local segregated grammar school. Nana went to Delano the school for crippled children as I remember people calling it. I went to my Grandma's who had said she was colored. The only other place I went was to the Panther breakfast place and they, my mother's friends, said they were black. In fact, they said that my friends and I were black, and proud to go with that. So logically we concluded that these negroes had to be somebody else. And as a proud black man ('I am not a boy. I am a man.' saying that got you an extra milk from the Panthers), heck, as a good American, I sensed that you had to keep one good eye out for those negroes. Who knew what they might do. So the day of the riot, while stuff was still brewing over by the church and despite my mother's warning, Kofi, Nana and I crawled on the floor over to the front window to see what we could learn about this crazy place. Who was Dr. King? Maybe this happened in America all the time. Maybe there were negroes out there. In the few minutes we had to observe, I saw a bunch of people, including some black kids I recognized from the neighborhood, including this boy we used to call banana shoes, because he seemed to only have one pair of big raggitty dress shoes to wear sunshine or snow, church time or playtime, no matter how much we teased him. I saw a few grown ups we recognized too, colored people like my grandparents, talking quietly in little groups. But I couldn't spot definitively, for sure, for certain, a single solitary negro. But we did see this crazy white man come roaring down the street to start some unholy mess. Post Script: Watching Kerry Washington in Tanya Hamilton's Night Catches Uson Netflix the other night brought this memory roaring back out of the silence just in time for Black History Month 2013 and Dr.King's Birthday.
I blog at soutsidecotton.blogspot.com