A few months ago, my stepson sat at the dinner table with Kris and me just before he left for a country music festival with his other dad and uncle in Alabama. “You’ll be the brownest one in the crowd,” I said. Ben was in his freshman year at Carnahan High School of the Future in South St. Louis, a mostly black high school, after spending his entire school career in an all white Catholic school. He is accustomed to being the only brown person in the room.
We talked a bit about the likelihood of anything happening that would result in more than harsh looks or his own rolled eyes at some random confederate flag. “Just let them say something,” he said.
Kris’ eyes got that darting fight or flight look and she launched into a quintessential Kris Kleindienst fear induced rant, scolding then begging then scolding again, admonishing Ben to keep his head down and stay safe. The conversation escalated of course. Ben asserting his teenage indestructibility, Kris asserting her protective mother bear instincts, me finishing my asparagus fast so I could remove myself to the kitchen.
During the inevitable argument later that night, Kris wondered why I didn’t back her up. Truthfully, I hate arguments. I loathe confrontation., but I’m no coward. When pressed, I will give my opinion – and I did. “Sometimes, when you are the most powerless one in the room, the only weapon you have is swagger. It’s the only thing that leaves your ego in tact, and you have to let him have that, even if it puts him in danger.”
I thought about my son Cody, who wore a Superman cape with foam muscles almost every single day for a year when he was four. He was obsessed with being a super hero. Fifteen years later, as I watched him play one of his first shows with his first band in a college cafeteria set up for open mic night I worried for him. He was standing on a folding chair, one leg on the seat, one leg on the back, playing his guitar as the chair teetered and tilted from four legs to two and back again. His eyes were closed, his hands were wrapped around his guitar and his fingers flew up and down the fret board. I could almost see the red cape around his neck even then.
The past several months I’ve been studiously avoiding most of the news about Trayvon Martin’s death and the trial of George Zimmerman, but I’ve kept the image of what probably happened in my mind – the brown kid walking down the street, probably talking loudly into his cell phone, probably strutting while eating those Skittles, probably wrapping himself under that hood the way Cody wrapped himself in those foam muscles. Probably thinking, ” Just let them say something.”
George Zimmerman probably armed himself with a pistol the way Cody arms himself with his guitar, and played cop like Ben plays major league baseball player during Sunday double headers at Fultz Field by the River Des Peres as he sweeps up an infield hit and flings it to first for the easy out.
Having been born female, swagger was socialized out of me, but I used it instinctively. When I was Ben’s age I went to Shawneetown, Illinois with my best friend Debbie to visit her family. I was in love with her, of course, so when she found boys to hang out with while we were there I found ways to make her worry about me and wonder where I was.
At a biker bar just on the border of Illinois and Kentucky, I met a man I’ll call Crow. He and I smoked a lot of pot and headed into the Shawnee forest on his Harley, speeding to the tops of hills, then cutting the engine and flying down the down slope listening to the wind in the trees the whole way down. I knew he had just gotten out of prison, but I loved his bike and I wanted to fly.
Crow and I crossed the bridge into Kentucky on the wrong side of the road, swerving out of the way of oncoming traffic in the nick of time, whooping and yelling, cheating death. When we finally wrecked and I flew off the back of the bike and rolled down a hill, we pushed it the rest of the way to his friend’s house. I waited on the couch, cleaning the road rash off my arms and legs as he talked into a phone to someone about “what to do with me.” We had crossed a state line, I was 15 and weighed 125 pounds. He was in his thirties and on parole. He questioned me about who would miss me. Did I have a boyfriend? How big was he?
I remember thinking that I just rolled down a hill and pushed his bike after giving the finger to my own mortality on a bridge. If he thought I was going down without a fight he was mistaken. I lied and said my boyfriend was huge and mean. I named off family members who were just on the other side of the river wondering where I was – and knew who he was. His hands were huge, dirty and calloused. I watched them on the steering wheel of his friend’s car as they drove me back into Illinois and dropped me on the side of the road near the bar. I didn’t exhale until I was in the backseat of Debbie’s mom’s car listening to them scold me about disappearing.
When I retold that story I edited out the tense moments on that couch and the long ride back. I didn’t tell about the promise I made to him and his friend not to come back to that town unless I was prepared to “pay them back for their kindness.” I only recalled the fresh air and wind, the feeling of invincibility on that bridge, the freedom of that bike.
And all of it’s true. The super hero, the brown bad ass at the country festival, the dream of being a cop, the thug under the hoodie, the well protected biker bitch. All of the costumes we wear to define and protect ourselves are true. And that’s why today, the day after the George Zimmerman verdict, I’m sad for us all.
And I’m proud of my stepson, who as I started this post, pulled on his hoodie over his baseball uniform in 90 degree heat and walked onto the baseball field to play on his all white baseball team and walked, brown man, almost the age of Trayvon, head held high, all the way to the dugout.