One of my easiest to recall moments in my life was when we first moved to Tulsa. Then, Tulsa was just one single block, 3rd street from Kenosha to Hartford Street. That’s where Daddy lived and we did too. This memory takes place at night. My dad was going to take our chocolate lab, appropriately named Chocolate, out for a walk. I was determined to go with them, and when he agreed I could come, my little brother decided he had to go as well.
We only made it about two blocks out of our Tulsa when a police car hopped a curb in front of us, lights and siren blaring in our faces.
“What are you doing down here?” A face hidden behind a flashlight glare directed at my father’s face, then my brother’s, then mine demanded to know.
“Walking my dog.”
“What are you doing here?” It asked again. What else could we be doing, chocolate lab in tow?
“I live here, and I’m walking my dog. Is that a crime now?”
“Nobody lives over here.” The voice answered. Which was kind of true, except that we did, just on the other border of our Tulsa.
“I just told you that I do. How you gonna tell me where I live?”
“Sir, I need to see your id.” My dad begin to walk away.
“Sir, you need to give me your id.” the voice was louder.
My dad stopped and turned, “why?”
“Because I asked for it.”
“I’m not giving you anything.”
“Do you want to be arrested?” The voice asked.
“Just tell him your name, Daddy.” I pleaded, “I’ll just tell him.”
“Don’t tell him anything. He doesn’t have a right to it.”
“Sir, you match the description of a man who hopped a train in Edmond, so you need to identify yourself.”
“I haven’t been in Edmond. I live here, and I’m with my kids walking their dog.”
This was enough of an exchange for the voice to call back up. So another car rolled up behind us, lights flashing. We were surrounded. This one got out, and came over, flashlight in hand.
From then on, it was threat after threat from the two.
“You will spend the night in jail. And your kids will be alone, ” and “What kind of example are you showing to your kids?” My father did not waver.
Finally, they decided they were done threatening him, and told him outright he was under arrest. He handed me Chocolate’s leash.
“Go home and tell your grandma I’m being arrested.” He told me. My brother was holding my hand.
“Can I come Daddy? ” My little brother pleaded, “I wanna turn the lights on.”
“No, just go get your grandma.” My dad said. So me, 5 and my brother, 3, headed back to our Tulsa to tell our visiting Grandma James that our dad was being arrested. As we left, an officer told my father how horrible he was, sending his two kids off by themselves at night.
“We live right there, “he told them again, “You think they don’t know how to get home? Why wouldn’t they say so if they didn’t?” Words that fell on deaf ears, since nobody lived downtown. Except us.
My grandma was visiting to from St. Croix and she scared me sometimes, so I was scared to tell her, but I did. She got her shoes on with authority, ready to go to the courthouse and kick up a fuss.
But as she began to head outside, a police car pulled in front of the building we lived in and they slowly let my father out. There were no apologies, despite that there was a reason they never took him to be processed. They had no right to ask for his id in the first place, let alone lock him up for refusing to show it.
In first grade, I transferred to a new elementary school in the neighborhood of our new house and left behind my old friends. My teacher was an older woman with a short haircut and those old woman curls that they all seem to like. Probably their hair doesn’t even grow anymore when they get that old and close to death.
That year, my father launched a campaign for her dismissal.
“That teacher has to go!” he would yell in the principal’s office every day, whether she was there to listen or not.
Meanwhile, I didn’t understand why I didn’t like school anymore. I didn’t know why I would suddenly start crying in class and have to be sent to the counselor almost every day. I definitely wasn’t aware of why I spent all of recess hiding in plain sight, crying, waiting for someone to ask me why.
At my old kindergarten, 2/3 of the class didn’t speak English as their first language, and a couple not at all. Still, we understood each other. Our teachers were calm and never spoke to me in that condescending tone. My best friend Marilyn had the same birthday as me and we spent recess running around wildly, daring the wind to outrun us.
This new class was all about reading. One by one we sat in a circle and read sentences in sequence. When my turn came, I would start to read the words, letters I had made my friends over a year before then, and I would start to feel it. Dread.
My father had come to the school and watched her teach my class. He had sat in the back and wordlessly observed until he felt he might lose it. Then the three of us sat down to speak. She felt sure she had won this battle, you could see in her eyes.
“So how would you say my daughter is doing in your class?” My dad asked.
“She’s doing good, ” my teacher answered, “still working on reading.”
“You mean in class?”
“Yes, we’re working in class to get her reading.”
“No, ma’am. My daughter can read.”
“No she can’t. We’re working on it, but she can’t.”
“My daughter can read.” I could see my father starting to get angry.
“Sometimes, kids memorize stories at home and parents think they’re reading when really they aren’t.”
“Put any book in my daughter’s hand.”
So she went searching, worried now that she might have missed this minor detail. She set the teacher’s guide in my hands. Confused, I looked at my Dad and my teacher alternately.
“Just read it, Malika.” My dad urged, his temper having faded. So I did, carefully at first, waiting for my teacher to stop me and read the sentence instead of me. But she didn’t, with my dad there she could not take my sentences from me and I read and read, smiling until my dad said I could stop. I didn’t stumble over a single word.
I was still in elementary school when I first encountered Black History Month. They told us about peanuts and nonviolent protest and Crispus Attucks the first black man to die for America’s independence. But nobody mentioned Malcolm X and Nat Turner when we talked about black history.
The first time a teacher mentioned Nat Turner to me, I was in 6th grade. He was a leader of a failed rebellion against slavery. He murdered every white person he came across, even babies, and he even had the nerve to say that God sent him on that mission. A Christian God!
Malcolm X? The black supremacist? The man who wanted revenge instead of peace? Who told black men and women to arm themselves?
“Malika, write your paper on George Washington Carver.” I was told over and over for Black History Month by teachers who were not black.
I wanted to write about my heroes. I wanted to write about what I loved.
My father tells me stories of where he’s from. St Croix, a place so different from Oklahoma. He told me about the Three Queens. The women who ended slavery in St. Croix by setting the cane fields on fire. He told me how the masters ran scared, as quick as could be to their ships. That was our revolution, that’s how we became free.
When I was 15, I learned that there was something poetic about being one of 3 black people on a Civil Rights Journey, even one put on by the Unitarians. So, there I was, sandwiched between two black girls both of whom were 18 and 3 white girls only a year younger than me, 14. But outside of us, everyone was old and white and female.
We watched a movie series about the Civil Rights Era which followed the antics of the nonviolent movement. Somehow this has become the norm, the sweeping away of the reality to make room for the chosen heroes and erase the perspectives we now find disagreeable. Finally, one video speaks briefly about Malcolm X and I am enthralled until the big eyed curly haired white girl sitting next to me volunteers that she thinks, “Malcolm X was just as bad as the white people.” It is thirty minutes into arguing with her that I realize she is now the person I hate most in this world. Then I am silent. Years later, she will annoyingly ask me why I don’t talk to her anymore and I will roll my eyes.
We watched video of Bull Connor setting fire hoses on the people marching in Birmingham, and the group who held onto each other and sang before stepping out into the square that memorialized that day. People screamed for their lives in that space.
“You guys here to check out the memorial?” A clearly drunk and homeless man asked the group. We told him we were.
“I was there,” he told us, “when they turned on the hoses.” Then he proceeded to guide us through the park, well manicured lawns between statues of dogs biting men screaming. He told us what it had been like, and he cried. He stood before a statue and he bawled like a child. I fought tears myself.
The older white women hung behind, unwilling to stand too close to this man whom their fathers had made. But when we started to go our separate ways, they tried to give him money for the tour. Wiping away his tears, he refused it. He sat down at a bench and picked up his bottle and drank.
I didn’t have my first drink until I went away to college. My first drink landed me in the bed of the man who would be my first love. The second drink landed me passed out near my own vomit in the street on campus. Campus police arrived and sat around with me waiting until an ambulance, I didn’t need, came to retrieve me. The next day, my white floormate would tell me I threw donuts at the policewoman who came and called her a bitch.
“I don’t like cops,” I told her laughing.
“She was a black cop though.” the roomate had reminded me.
I told my dad that story and even though he is still mad about the bill that night incurred ($2500) he thought it was exactly like his daughter to call a policewoman a bitch.
When I was still little, I watched my city acknowledge that it had birthed the deadliest race riot our country had ever seen. It had happened in 1921, and it had seen the burning down of the rich black neighborhood of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street. I lived only a short walk from where it had begun and where it had ended. My parents took me along as they recorded survivor testimony of the riot.
I remember that they had all been very old but they told me they had been my age when it happened. The most jarring story I remember was of a baby. There was a baby in a shoebox and the teller of this story had never been sure if the baby was alive or not but it hadn’t mattered because firebombs fell from the sky and they never saw that baby or that shoe box again.
There was a building right near the prosperous Greenwood area affectionately referred to as the “Be No” building, as in “Be no Jew, Be no Nigger..” and so on. It was owned by the Klan. And despite the efforts of the family of Tate Brady to claim he was unaffiliated with the Klan, his wife and he owned the land that building was built on.
Just this evening, our city council decided that Brady Street, a street that runs through an area that used to be part of Greenwood and is named for Tate Brady, former city councilman and verified destroyer of Greenwood, would stay “Brady Street.” Their vote was to change who the street was named for. Now we are to pretend that Brady Street, Brady District and Brady Heights are all named after Matthew Brady, a civil war photographer who had nothing to do with our city.
Trayvon Martin died and I have never found words to write about it. So I listened to everyone else’ s words. To the people who could think about his death without turning him into someone else. Trayvon has never been Emmitt Till. I was invited to help plan a vigil after the verdict in the case, and I attended. The vigil’s entire goal was promoting racial healing, and people of different races showed up and were present.
Thursday, there was a march on city council, a march to call for action to protect black children from laws like Stand Your Ground. My mother texted me asking if I wanted to go with her.
“I’m too tired.” I told her.