I grew up in a big stone house. My family and many of our neighbors traced ancestries back to the first Northern European invaders. At eight years old I wore a crimson sweat suit, dreamed of going to Harvard, becoming a lawyer, a senator like my father, and ultimately the first woman president of the United States. I was programmed to believe I’d succeed. When I was nineteen, four police officers carried me across the front lawn.
The night before I’d been out drinking with friends on break from college. I’d dropped out. At dawn my friend found me and a boy naked, wasted, on her dining room floor. The boy drove me home. I got out of his car, passed between the boxwood bushes framing the front lawn, down the stone path, in through my family’s always-unlocked door, up the stairs, into my bathroom, where I picked up a pink plastic razor, pressed it to my wrist, and drew a thin red line.
My twin brother was away. I lay on his bed because his was the only room in the house with air-conditioning, and Baltimore summers can be so hot. Except that can’t be the reason. Now I remember it was New Year’s Eve, and my brother was on a youth group ski trip. My sister found me passed out, bleeding in his bed.
The rest of the day is a carousel of slides in my mind.
Slide 1. I’m packing a duffle, planning to hitchhike, I don’t know where; my mother’s two adult children from her first marriage are there. Everyone wants me to go to the hospital.
Twice that year I’d been on a psych ward. In Connecticut, glassy-eyed patients circumambulated the nurses’ station in bathrobes and disposable slippers doing the paper shuffle, waiting for their meds. In Minnesota a woman shit on the floor.
Slide 2. I’m not sure who in my family called the tattooed burly white man. He lived in our tenant house and cleaned the kennel for the foxhunting club down the street. Standing in the garage beside the stacked firewood, smoking, I glare at the burly man, “What? You’re here to contain me?” He lets me know what he thinks of me.
My parents are a missing slide. I know they were there but I can’t see their faces.
Slide 4. I’m walking backwards around the kitchen island counter, a police officer shadowing me as I try to convince him I wasn’t trying to kill myself. Cutting was a way of exhibiting my sadness externally. The blood’s vibrant hue let me know I was alive despite feeling dead inside. But none of this insight is available to me as the policeman and I orbit the counter. He says, “You can come peacefully or you can make it hard.”
Slide 5. Now there are four officers. I dare them with my eyes. They encircle me. Limbs flail. I’m lifted off the ground. My half-sister’s husband moves the porch furniture to clear our path.
Slide 6. Suspended above the lawn, head up—the sky is blue—my hand grazes one of the officers’ guns. They cuff my wrists, wrap my ankles with a nylon cord.
Slide 7. Throw me in the back of their squad car, a protective glass barrier between me and them. Lying on my back on the torn black leather. The fingers on my left hand dig into the exposed yellow stuffing while my right arm braces against the back of the front seat, and with all my force I donkey-kick the door over and over and over again. An officer tells me to stop or he’ll pepper spray me. I keep kicking and he does.
When I was little, my friend and I would take the salt container with the picture of the girl holding an umbrella down from her mother’s pantry shelf and sprinkle its contents onto the slugs that appeared on her patio after the rain. Watch them shrivel and die, water drained from their bodies.
Slide 8. I’m immobilized, sobbing. Screaming for my father to come, “Save me!” My kicking bent the squad car door so it no longer shut properly. The cops radio in for a transport van.
Slide 9. I’m lying on a metal floor, humming this line from a Nine Inch Nails song, You make this all go away . . .
Slide 11. When I arrive at the hospital I still can’t see. Wailing, I’m wheeled up to the admissions desk, then into a curtained room, where a nurse gives me a shot in my thigh to dull the burning in my eyes.
Slide 12. On the psych ward the doctor gives me Librium to quell my shakes and more Wellbutrin for my depression. In art therapy I draw a pulsing heart organ in oil pastel.
Five, ten, fifteen years later when I wish to evoke empathy from a new lover or friend, I pull this slide carousel off the shelf in my mind, marked Trauma, and click through the images. My middle-class white spectators express their disbelief at the rough treatment I received from the police, asking, “Wasn’t there a better way for them to settle you down than pepper spray?” and “Why wasn’t a mental-health specialist called in?”
Two years ago, standing in my kitchen listening to WNYC report on the police killing of a twenty-five-year-old black man in Baltimore, this forgotten slide became illuminated:
Slide 10: The officers lift my body off the van’s metal floor, sit me upright on the bench, buckle me securely in, and drive carefully to the hospital.
As painful as that morning was for me and my family, we knew the officers were there to protect me. Even though I fought, I wasn’t punched, choked, slammed against the hood of the squad car or pavement, an officer’s knee pressed into my spine. That would never happen in my neighborhood. Growing up, my twin brother and I watched a VHS tape of Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live over and over. In one skit Murphy, disguised in white pancake, spectacles, a toupee, and mustache, gets on a city bus. When the last black person gets off, music plays, cocktail waitresses appear, confetti falls. The white passengers ride for free. My twin and I laughed and laughed at this skit and another in which the comedian reimagines the magical world of the cardigan-wearing kids’ TV show host Mister Rogers. Gone are the trolley and castle with puppet kings and queens. Drug dealers and slumlords inhabit “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood.”
D. Watkins writes in The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America —the streets teach kids to be obsessed with “who has the best dope, who’s driving what, who murdered who”; the public schools—with their barred windows, metal detectors, and security guards—train kids for prison; and the police demonstrate that if you’re black, then running, moving your hands, or turning your back are all reasons enough to shoot you.
I met Watkins in 2015 at one of his book signings in Baltimore. A year later he spoke at the New York City hospital where I run an arts/education program. Walking with Watkins to the subway station, I brought up the controversy surrounding Alice Goffman’s book On the Run. Goffman, a white sociologist, had moved into a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia and documented the lives of the people who lived there. Her critics slammed Goffman for benefiting from stories that didn’t belong to her. Watkins hadn’t read the book, but seemed to think as long as the author was respectful, transparent, and included the community in the book’s financial success there wasn’t a problem. Next, I asked him what he thought about me writing an essay in which I compared my ride in a police van to Freddie Gray’s. I think I wanted Watkins’s permission to publish the piece. Or for him to tell me—“No, you don’t get to write about a murdered black man.”
What he said was, “Stick to what happened.”
Gray looked Baltimore police officers in the eyes and ran. The cops chased him down. There was a struggle. They found a small knife that’s legal to carry. The officers dragged Gray and loaded him into their transport van. He was not buckled in. Along the route to the station, he asked for help, saying, “I can’t breathe.” None was given. Gray died a week later. His spine was almost entirely severed. The medical examiner concluded his death couldn’t have been an accident. It was a homicide.
Summer 2015. Not long after Gray’s death, I went home to Baltimore County to visit my family. Ten years ago my parents sold the big stone house. A couple of weeks later my father died. My mother now lives on a golf course. My sister, her husband, and their two small boys live across the street. They travel between their houses in golf carts. I’m on a walk with my mom when her neighbor whizzes by, clubs strapped to her cart. Stops. Reverses, and asks my mother if she can borrow her slow cooker.
“Of course,” Mom says, and the fiftysomething white woman follows us into the house.
I lift the appliance down from the top of the fridge, while the neighbor tells us about a park near the city line, that’s great for walks—wooded trails, a reservoir, boardwalks over marshy land, and a fenced-in area where dogs can swim and run off-leash. My mother asks, “What’s the name of this wonderful place?”
“It was Robert E. Lee Park. But they’re thinking of renaming it as part of this take-down-the-Confederate-flag—”
My mother interjects, “What are they going to call it?”
“Well, they’re considering Freddie Gray Park.”
I chime in, “That makes sense.”
“What?” Mom exclaims. “You think they should memorialize a drug addict criminal?”
“Mom, I’m a drug addict.” I don’t know if Freddie Gray was.
“Well, you’re in recovery. It’s like they want to make a martyr out of him.”
“He is a martyr.”
The neighbor says, “Most people agree with your mother.”
“Who? Most rich white people?” I shout back.
The neighbor calmly responds, “They could choose someone better.”
I grow silent and the conversation shifts to the slow cooker in her arms. She’d won a slaughtered pig in a raffle and wants to make pulled pork sandwiches for the tailgate party before her daughter’s field hockey game at Johns Hopkins University. Her daughter plays for the visiting team, Washington and Lee.
My mother, originally from West Virginia, says in her resilient Southern accent, “Cook the pig in vinegar until it falls off the bone.”
Spring 2017. In Manhattan’s old meatpacking district hangs a painting depicting Emmett Till’s mutilated corpse. The piece is in the Whitney Biennial. Opening night, Parker Bright stood in front of the canvas, blocking others from viewing it. His T-shirt read: Black Death Spectacle. An online campaign to burn the painting ensued. When I discussed the inflammatory artwork with a twenty-two-year-old black friend of mine, she said, “I’m so tired of white people showing pictures of broken black bodies.” My friend hadn’t seen the painting. Still, its existence had wounded her. And she fumed about the white woman behind it, “She didn’t have to make that painting.”
Summer 2015. After my heated exchange with my mom and her neighbor, I meet my sister and her family at their country club for the Summer Awards Dinner. My eight-year-old nephew wins gold statutes for Most Improved Tennis Player and runner-up in the Parent-Child Golf Tournament. All of the kids receive Olympic-style medals for participation—even my sister’s six-year-old whose favorite camp activity is hanging out in the snack bar lounge, watching cartoons and charging chips and candy to his membership number.
At the buffet I pile tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, Caesar salad, and macaroni and cheese onto my plate, then rejoin my sister and her husband on the brick terrace. Between bites I recount my earlier conversation with our mother and her neighbor.
My sister interrupts, “It’s a big deal. A lot of people are really upset. He’s a criminal.”
Her husband, a Dead Head turned real-estate developer and one of my favorite people, adds, “He had like twenty-seven felonies.” I wonder where my brother-in-law got that number. My sister says, “The city is divided. It doesn’t make sense to name the park after somebody so many people are against naming it for.”
No one in my family knew Freddie Gray or anyone who did. We don’t go to West Baltimore. Yet each of us has drawn our own composite sketch of the dead man. Following the police-killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in July 2016, Michael Brown’s mother Lesley McSpadden writes in the New York Times : “These men will be called ‘thugs’ and much worse. It’s already happening.”
The picture of Gray I hold in my mind has the vague contours of a chalk outline: He grew up in a poor neighborhood. As a child he suffered from lead poisoning. He dropped out of high school. His criminal record reflects the place where he comes from. At fourteen my affluent white friends and I were into pot, LSD, and Ecstasy. By eighteen we were all hooked on something and some of us were dealing. One girl slept with a metal bat under her bed. Nobody went to prison. Our parents paid for topnotch lawyers and thousand-dollar-a-day rehabs in bucolic settings.
In On the Run Goffman observes, almost daily, somebody’s uncle, brother, father, son chased, beaten, handcuffed, Tasered, shot at by men in uniform. Many of these boys and men are wanted for minor infractions such as missing a halfway-house curfew or giving a dirty urine sample. A man on the run cannot go to school, get a legit job, or apply for a driver’s license. In my family, if you got a speeding ticket, my father went to court with you. Usually, the judge greeted him warmly—“Hello, Senator”—and the violation disappeared.
My brother-in-law and I hit the sundae bar. Back at the table beneath the pergola, my sister eyes our scoops of strawberry and vanilla topped with hot fudge, whipped cream, and Heath Bar crunch. An older black man in a green apron brings her another glass of chilled Chardonnay. In the distance the sun sets on a pack of tanned white kids frolicking on the 18th green. Now and then an adult yells, “Stay out of the sand!”
My littlest towheaded nephew leads the swaying mass of khaki and pastel. He’s lifted the pin from the cup and looks like a ship captain speculating where to plant his flag. I eat my ice cream.