July 18, 2016  |  Viewpoints
Babies: A Personal Response to Thomas Lax’s Commentary

Years ago an acquaintance of mine in Minneapolis, where I lived for 16 years, told me she feared for her teenage son every day. A young black man, she said, had to watch every step he took.

I am a mother whose son turned 28 last week. He never has to worry about taking a walk or driving his car. And I can’t imagine living with my friend’s familial distress, or being awakened in a sweat by the thought that my baby had witnessed a killing and knowing that was no dream.

Thomas Lax’s blog post “How Do Black Lives Matter in MoMA’s Collection?” stirred me. It grounded my sadness and anger in urgent words and pictures—things I have spent a good part of my life caring about and for. It compelled me to join him, to join him in publicly trying to articulate the immediate residual effects the horrors of the past days have had on me, and the comfort I found in art. Literature—words—was a more efficacious remedy than pictures; perhaps, after watching the devastating videos of real events, nothing illusionistic could prompt solace.

I have cobbled together these thoughts before I fully understand even what I think will finally be worth saying. There are no answers here. But I am certain of one thing: those of privilege should not be silent. We must explicitly and individually reject the history and politics of hate that leads to the killing of civilians and policemen. But the only way I feel comfortable raising my voice is to first accept my responsibility for some of this mess by facing up to my own acts, some of which have been judgments of exclusion. I fear that in speaking from the privileged position of a white woman in a senior position at MoMA, others may view me as sanctimonious and hypocritical. I accept that. My own fears about how I will be perceived are small compared to those of other mothers.

Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are the sons of two mothers: Sandra Sterling and Valerie Castile. Sterling has five children, including a son, Cameron, who began to cry during a press conference organized the day after Sterling’s death; he wanted his daddy. The daughter of Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, is named Dae’Anna, and she was in the car with her mother when Castile was shot through an open window, multiple times, at close range, by a policeman. These babies see more than others, rising up to comfort the adults when the bullets lodge.

Reynolds’s daughter, beside her handcuffed mother in a police car—both having witnessed minutes before the killing of the man they loved—was heard on her mother’s Facebook live stream of the events offering words of consolation. When Reynolds, after describing the events in a collected and likely shocked manner, finally gave in to grief, wailing, this little voice pipes up with, “It’s okay, Mommy, it’s okay. I am right here with you.” Philando Castile, who apparently did nothing more than be a black man driving a car with a broken light, doubtless would have been proud of her, had he lived to hear the story. His colleagues at the Montessori school—where he was promoted to the position of a nutrition services supervisor—remarked what a warm and loving man he was.

After watching Reynolds’ video, I realized I was unable to truly imagine a black man’s persistent disquietude in our society. A colleague with a hugely responsible administrative position here told me he always thinks something terrible could happen when he is pulled over by an officer for no apparent reason—no apparent reason except the color of his skin. I went looking in my library for some understanding and found the following excerpt from John Edgar Wideman’s story “Everybody Knew Bubba Riff,” a 10-page, stream-of-consciousness narrative with musical syncopation and multiple points of view.

“….I rub his gums help his teeth come in rub a ice cube on his gums when he frets please don’t lose your little smile now ain’t no time to take back my titty let him nibble if he needs to nibble he needs me now I rock him and rub his tummy he grin up at me I lifts him and wiggle him he shakes like a bowl of jelly my little old man him diaper droopy and creases in him thighs him knees wobble shake him bake him paddy cake him sing him froggy went a courtin and he did ride this room uh huh these walls uh huh she lifts the dumpling baby uh huh uh huh tastes its rubbery flesh she is dressed in black beside the coffin her face veiled her gloved hands somewhere out of sight the music winds on she must not stand too long the others behind her prop her ease her along the line fed from rows of benches into the center aisle Amazing Grace you would think they’d get their fill of young black men’s bodies but no no end to it she must not hover too long over the crib because the others are lined up for their turn….”
(John Edgar Wideman, All Stories Are True, 1993)

Like all great art, Wideman’s words helped me confront something, something I don’t ever want to know deep down: the struggle to hold on—to sanity, memory, dignity, the smell—that a mother must experience when her grown baby is laid in a coffin. His words elicited an ardent empathy, a sympathy that made it impossible to retreat into the protectiveness of silence. It made me first look and then imagine; in doing so, it connected me with Valerie Castile’s unfathomable grief. An artist friend described this kind of empathy as “analogical.” Indeed, it’s silly to suggest that Valerie Castile and I share a lot. There is nothing disembodied or abstract about either what happened to her child, or the fear her son shared with other black men when facing authorities who are supposed to keep them safe. I am observing what she is living. But real emotional bonds were forged: mothers share a fierce sense of wanting to protect their kin, and in this way both she and Thomas gave me this confidence born of necessity to speak out as an individual within an institution without constraint.