We were living in Chicago. I was eight years old and it was summer time. My mother called us in from the street…Kenmore…where we’d been outside playing and running around. “I have something to tell you,” she said. Mom sat us down at the dining room table. It felt weird since it was the middle of the day and we’d just left the street downstairs, packed with boisterous kids, a game of fastpitch and front porch banter. Her mood did not match the sunny day we’d left behind and from her demeanor it made me think that something really bad had just happened.
“I don’t know how to tell you this. But I have to tell you.” She took a deep breath and I could see the tenderness and concern in her beautiful violet eyes as she started to tell us a story that would stay with me for the rest of my life.
“When I was a little girl, I was your age,” she nudged her chin at me, “Mama told me there was a carnival coming to town. I was so excited. She bought me a beautiful rainbow dress and I just couldn’t wait. I don’t think I even slept the night before. The morning of the carnival, I was ready, up before anybody, bathed, dressed. While mama was doin’ my hair she told me we had to make a stop on the way. Something bad had happened to one of the boys from the neighborhood and we had to go help his mama. I was sorry for him because maybe he was gonna miss the carnival, but I didn’t think much about it because I was so focused on that dress and the sunshine and what a perfect day it was gonna be. When Uncle Bud rang the doorbell and mama answered, I saw from the kitchen where I was eating breakfast, that he was dressed up in one of his good suits and I thought, Wow Uncle Bud is ready for the carnival too.
He was driving his good car that day, had it all shined up and polished and we got in and I was so excited all I could talk about were the rides, cotton candy…my beautiful dress. Mama reminded me of my manners and I remembered the sick boy and maybe I shouldn’t be so happy since he was sick. So we drove and we got to a point on the South Side of Chicago where we couldn’t go any further. The streets were jam packed. I’d never seen so many people gathered in one place and everybody was wearing black.
It was one of those thick, humid, drizzly Chicago days. All you saw was folks standing, waiting, black umbrellas and black dresses…the men in their sharp, dapper suits…hats, like everybody was goin’ to Church. I remember thinking how I must have stood out in that bright, rainbow dress with all those colors, red, orange, blue, yellow…green and my beautiful shoes… I snuck under mama’s arm and we got in line with everyone else and waited to see the boy and his mama. I was so anxious and excited and trying to keep myself quiet and occupied, I wanted to ask how long it was gonna take, but you know your grandmother, I just had to be patient. In those days children were to be seen and not heard.
Finally we walked into the church and when we did, it slowly dawned on me that there was something really bad happening. All my attention shifted. The mood inside the church was heavy…and everybody was so serious. People were filing past a box…it was a coffin.
The boy! I thought…The boy wasn’t sick…he was dead. Then what mama had said came back to me and I remembered her words…help his mama out…all of a sudden the carnival didn’t matter anymore.
The line kept moving. So I’m I watching folks ahead of us and I started getting a little nervous because a lot of times when a woman got next to the coffin, she would faint. What in the world were they seeing…that was all I could think…I didn’t know if I wanted to see what they were seeing…if it could make grown people faint…I mean you saw women faint all the time in church, but sometimes you knew it was just to faint better than the last sister who fainted…this was for real…their sobs…their screams were for real. I watched and watched, more women fainting, men crying too…quietly, but still you could hear them…their moans…finally mama was almost dragging me…”come on Betty Ann, you comin’, you have to.”
Finally it was our turn, we got to that box, I was just tall enough to see in and I realized I wasn’t looking at a little boy…it couldn’t be…it was…it was…it was horrible. Gruesome. His face…it wasn’t a face, his eyes weren’t eyes, it looked like, Emmett…that was his name, his name was Emmett…Emmett Till, and his face reminded me of the biscuits mama made for breakfast that morning after they were sopped in pot liquor…mushed in and swollen…not a face.”
Mom looked at us and stopped. “I have to tell you this and I’m sorry. I know today is a beautiful day and you’re out there having fun and I don’t want to spoil it…but I have to tell you. You have to know this. After I saw him…the little boy and mama went to say something to his mama…I can’t tell you what happened because the next thing I knew I was in Uncle Bud’s car…I blacked out and they had to carry me out of there. There was no carnival and I felt like a fool for being so happy about that dress and a boy was dead.
“What happened to him?” My brother Christopher asked.
“He had gone down South and said something…wolf whistled at a white woman on a dare from his friends.. and they killed him…a gang of white men pulled him from his bed in the dark of night, put a gun to his head and drove him out to the Tallahatchie River and shot him. They tied an industrial fan around his neck and drown him…because the shots didn’t kill ‘em…he didn’t go easy, he was a fighter, a strong little boy and he fought his life. He was 12. He looked how he looked when I saw him because of the alligators and snakes and being in the water all that time before they found him…bloated. The undertaker said he’d done the best he could…but it was horrible.
His mother wanted the world to see what they had done to her child. They caught the men that did it, but they went free, even after admitting how they’d done it…never went to jail.”
When we went back outside… I can’t speak for Christopher, but my day, my mind and my life were never the same. I thought about Emmett all the time after that. When I started teaching in Harlem years later and Amadou Diallo, a West African taxi driver was was shot 41 times by New York City Police officers, while reaching for his wallet to prove his identity, I knew that I had to share with my students, Black and Latino about the realities of being Black in the United States, the dangers…lurking.
I understood, fully, for the first time why my mother had to interrupt our play that hot summer afternoon all those years ago. I also knew that I didn’t have the courage to interrupt their childhoods, their precious, innocent worlds with the brutality of the truth. “You’ll find a way,” my mother told me, “just lead with your heart.” We’re so busy working to build children up, telling them to reach for the stars and they can do whatever they set their minds to. I didn’t know how to shift gears and say oh yeah, by the way there’s also a lot of people out there who think you’re nothing and will never amount to anything and they can kill you and get away with it.
Emmet’s murder and his mother Mamie’s decision to have an open coffin at his funeral created so much outrage and concern, locally and internationally that it launched the movement for civil rights in America.
When my colleague Nicole told me about the teenage girl assaulted in her classroom by an officer hired by the school to protect the peace, of course, I thought about Emmett…the little boy whose bright, hazel eyes and daring spirit have haunted and inspired me everyday of my life…to work for justice and peace, the boy who makes me say a little prayer every time I see Tylen, our Youth Educator at Planting Justice, walk away from us after helping to tend the garden that he helped build as a little boy. Now he is tall, handsome, smart as whip and sure of his humanity and like Emmett…sure of who he is. When our Wednesday gardening/smoothie sessions are done at the Keller garden and we part ways, I hug him and tell him “be safe!” because his freedom and understanding of his own rights as a human being are a threat to the American status quo, which demands that black boys and men know their place, only speak when spoken to, accept their space in the zone of safe periphery and never, ever defy white power.
When I watched the video and saw the girl being manhandled and tossed around like a rag doll by an adult who should be protecting her and flung upside down in a classroom surrounded by friends and classmates and teachers she probably trusted, I realized that now, today our Black and Brown children are facing the same malevolent forces in school that they face out on the streets at the hands of the police and race haters. I also accepted that, because African-Americans are the canary in the coalmine, that America is in the precarious position of tipping itself into a completely militarized zone, since what is happening to us today, will be happening to everyone tomorrow. I watched the kids around the young lady who was being wrestled to the ground by the police officer, as they sat and squirmed nervously, saying nothing, scared and afraid and probably thinking they might be next if they did anything. The one young, valiant female classmate who did protest and plead for peace and calm was later arrested.
I thought back to my mother sitting at that table…summertime in Chicago…calling us in from playing and the funeral of the little boy that launched a movement that changed America forever.
Today things are very, very different. Because we are saturated with media and technology, seeing a young girl get beat down by the police will not catalyze a movement like Emmet Till’s murder did. The idea that we are so distracted as well as desensitized is overwhelming and heartbreaking. However, I am thankful to be involved with an organization that is doing what my colleague, Nicole said on her twitter post the other day, “What if schools had gardens and mentors instead of cops?”
At Planting Justice we are working within systems, schools, prisons, juvenile detention centers to bring relief and resources to communities through building gardens, growing food and highlighting the resilience of communities in the face of myriad relentless oppressions. These ongoing programs, in place at McClymonds in the heart of West Oakland and at Fremont High School in the Fruitvale area, at Sweeney juvenile detention Center, just to name a few, address the need for proactive development of sustainable relationships with adults and peers from the community, that kids look up to, respect and are held by. The gardening and the smoothie making, culinary development and fun interactive workshops are building love and peace in a way that militarization in schools never will. These programs are healing and sound and build love where there would otherwise be a void.
Supporting and growing these programs and being a part of a resourceful answer, means that maybe one day, dude who grabbed that baby out of her seat and flung her upside down like a ragdoll, will instead approach the same situation with an open heart and treat the child like one he recognizes with love and respect.
Supporting and growing these programs means that Emmett did not die for nothing, neither did Oscar Grant or Amadou or the thousands of other victims, some known, mostly unknown, of racially motivated hate crimes and police brutality. Supporting and growing these programs means that our hearts may one day heal from what seem like the endless harms brought on us by being Black in America. Supporting and growing these programs at Planting Justice means that one day, maybe Black mamas won’t have to call their children in on sunny days and explain to them truths too horrific for children’s precious ears and hearts to process. Maybe one day, our childhoods can be childhoods. Supporting and growing these programs means that maybe one day there will be gardens and mentors at Spring Valley High instead of cops…and the only footage going viral will be of smoothie making , garden contests and laughter.
From Education Director Haleh Zandi:
We need to intervene and interrupt the school to prison pipeline (very helpful info on this problem from ACLU found here). That’s why Planting Justice focuses on providing educational opportunities at 3 under-resourced high schools in Oakland, 2 juvenile detention centers, a County jail, and a State prison. By linking our educational programs with living wage green job opportunities within our organization, we are connecting people who have survived the system of incarceration to provide mentorship to youth who are struggling with these same systems of oppression.
Also, it’s important to note that the increase in policing on school campuses and the criminal punishment of students is a direct outcome of congress’ reaction to the columbine school shooting, in which federal funds for school security were dramatically increased. I’m sure we all agree that those funds would be better allocated towards programs in the arts, garden, nutrition, mental health, community empowerment, job training, etc
Of course, gardens by themselves won’t magically reduce violence on campus. We need a more holistic approach, and that’s why the Planting Justice curriculum highlights trauma informed practices, restorative justice, and mindfulness practices to deal with our insane culture of violence. While student participants are learning how to grow food on campus and share nutritional recipes with their peers and community, they are learning about local and international social movements for civil rights and practicing strategies for community organizing that amplify their voices in opposition to the structural and systematic oppression they are daily facing.