“I’m here and your eyes lucky. I’m here and your future lucky.”*
-poet Angel Nafis, “Gravity”
Part I: Motherhood Changes Everything
Our son, Maze, is a miracle, born to us on May 27 of last year. In 2012, I lost two pregnancies, back to back, one in early January and the other in early April. The first was an ectopic pregnancy. I almost bled to death when the pregnancy ruptured one of my tubes, and if not for an emergency laparoscopy to save my life, I would have. The surgical team removed one liter of blood from my body. The second pregnancy was not ectopic; I just bled and bled until there was no longer any sign of a life in my uterus. Months later, I wrote poems about my experience at the annual Cave Canem poetry retreat where I had just gotten a fellowship. I wrote to heal what felt like an endless wound in my core that was as large as the universe and just as open. I hoped and believed I would have a healthy pregnancy and baby, but the faith was a great risk. To believe was to face the possibility that it could happen again.
Maze was pulled from me almost a year ago after 32 hours of mostly natural labor that ended in a Cesarean section. He weighed eight pounds and twelve ounces and was 22 inches long. His spindly, toned legs resembled a tiny marathon runner’s more than a newborn infant’s. My husband, David, is 6’2” and my father, of whom our son bears a striking resemblance, is 6’3”. Maze will be taller than both of them. Our pediatrician recently asked what we were feeding him after he informed us Maze is in the 100th percentile for length among children his age. If you could see him now, you might guess he was at least two years old, not 11 months. He is bigger than most babies I have ever seen, with firm muscle beneath his chubby limbs. He is so strong that recently, while visiting a friend’s house, he picked up a barstool as I picked him up. He is powerful in a way that surprises his father and me. His nose is magnificently flared, and I have plans to write an ode to it. His complexion is the creamy magnificence of the cup of coffee I just drank, and people stop, smile, stare and say how beautiful he is. I have heard, “He is the cutest baby I have ever seen,” since he was born, and I know people are not lying. Yet he is also inquisitive and so smart that he misses nothing. He sees what we see and what we do not, to the extent that confirms to me the existence of angels. His father and I see greatness in him, as do our friends and family. Though our son cannot yet say this to us and may not even understand it completely, I believe he sees greatness in himself. Even now. Each day, he is affirmed by our love for him, by the community that welcomed him with an overflow of love and expectation.
If it is true that I had to endure the horrible, ripping-out trauma of two miscarriages within three months of each other as part of my journey to have Maze, I would do it again. I love him like breath, but more than that. I love him enough that I would die if it meant saving his life.
I believe these mothers would, too, along with each mother not listed here who has lost their children due to police brutality and unmerited violence:
I have met none of these women. But I do not have to meet them to know they want their sons Trayvon, Tamir, Mike, Freddie, and Tony alive. They want them thriving, successful and to be able to do something sweet for them, to watch them grow at every stage. They want to marvel and remember them as babies, then toddlers. Yet they are mothers without their sons. Senselessly. In the words of Tonya from August Wilson’s King Hedley II, “Who turned the world around like that? What sense that make?” In the monologue, Tonya attempts to make her husband, King, see why she does not want the baby she is carrying. “I’m through with babies…I ain’t raising no kid to have somebody shoot him. To have his friends shoot him. To have police shot him…I don’t want to raise no more babies when you got to fight to keep them alive.”
I am the mother of a Black baby who will grow into a tall, large Black man—the kind of man the police fear and profile. And sometimes—too often—murder. This is painful to write, acknowledge, consider. It haunts me so much that I have thought more than once about leaving America, the only home I know, the home that does not seem to understand itself unless the blood of young Black men stain the streets and pavement, unless a Black male body breaks in the back of a van, unless a gang of cops strangle a Black man to death. But this is not new. It is a crisis as old as slavery, rooted in its institution. The American flag is stained with Black male blood, over centuries and centuries. If we could see the flag as it is, there would be no white. Only red. Blood red. And soiled, unholy blue.
Part II: Freddie Gray Died on One of the Greatest Days of My Artistic Life
On Saturday, April 18, David, Maze, and I drove four hours to Washington, DC. The next day, Sunday, April 19, “Rise,” my collaboration with brilliant composer and friend Judah Adashi, premiered at the resplendent, historical Metropolitan AME Church in Washington, DC, just a short walk from the White House. “Rise” examines fifty years of the Civil Rights movement, from Selma to Ferguson, and includes the great triumphs and pains of freedom fighters, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Congressman John Lewis and their hope for socio-political freedom and equality for every person breathing in America. Yet the work also tells the story of Black men who have fallen to soon, like seeds that will never sprout, killed by a cop’s bullet. I wrote the poems that Judah composed from the time Maze was sixteen days old until he was six months old. They are my love-song for him, as well as my hope for the nation. After the performance I told Judah that if I were a composer, I would have done exactly what he did with the music, which was beautifully sang by the Cantate Chamber Singers and the exquisite jazz ensemble Afro Blue of Howard University.
The premiere was one of the most powerful events of my career as an artist-writer. There was a positive review of the collaboration and praise for the poems I’d written in The Washington Post, and I’d read the poems with Gwen Ifill, brilliant journalist, newscaster, and author who, as a member of Metropolitan AME, had secured the venue. I was honored to meet her, but any moment to be star struck was struck down when she greeted me with a warm, sincere smile and a comment that we were both wearing blue. Later, we would read the poems together. I felt like the hard work I had put in over the years as a writer was paying off. The “national platform” I had been striving to hit with every step was being realized, and my words seemed to have meant something to each person who occupied the church that night.
I felt like someone hit me with a car when Judah informed me days later that Freddie Gray died on the same day “Rise” premiered. I could see my heart inside my chest, and it was overwhelmed. It was red and swelling with pain and burden. While we were remembering Trayvon, Mike Brown, Amadou and so many others, yet another young Black man lost his heart, lungs, muscles, everything, everything, everything that made him human and therefore worthy of life because cops decided his breath did not mean anything and his beating heart did not mean anything and did not care that he was loved and as such, was someone’s baby. I’d written poems but another Black man was dead.
Instantly, I felt a two-ness. On one hand, why write poems and words about justice, fairness, equality? What difference does it make? On the other: This is exactly why you write and must continue to write poems about the value of Black men, women, children, and families. In her article, “No Room for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” Noble Prize-winning author Toni Morrison asserts, “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” I use my pen and my work to remember, to call forth hope, to call out for change and social transformation. If words are a sword, I want mine to cut deep into that part of America that believes the loss of Black male life is okay; just fine; happens all the time; or is to be expected because that’s what they do. “They die, don’t they?” And as a writer and mother, my job is to say, NO. NO. NO. They don’t die because we are fighting for them. They are beautiful, brilliant and deserve their breath to stay in their bodies for a long, long time, until they are old men ready to turn to dust or go to heaven or live again as a child, flower, breeze, morning tide, or tree.
Part III. The White House Tulips are Redder than Blood
When we arrived in Washington, I did not realize how close we were to the White House until my husband told me. We decided to walk there—to be tourists and take it all in. I wondered if the President and First Lady were inside.
Soon after our feet hit the South Lawn, I caught sight of the gorgeous tulips, put on my red Ray Bans, and took selfies with Maze. I had never seen more beautiful tulips in my life. I was sure these were special tulips. White House tulips. Presidential tulips. Who planted them and made sure they stayed that red? How’d they get that red? Redder than blood? Their stems were straight and long. They were elegant in their precision. Their backs were straight. Their blooms reached high as heaven, like a noble head on the shoulders of a teenaged boy who has all his life before him.
In America, we think our greatness is built on our wealth, industry, and military. But I say we are what we are in this country because Black people have not crumbled under the burden of oppression, police brutality, and socio-political disempowerment. I say America is what it is, in part, because we remain. We did not perish. We remain.
1. My Baby Has a Future
Sometimes, my husband and I have nightmares of something terrible happening to Maze. It’s every parents‘ worst nightmare, isn’t it? Something happening. That’s why we tell them: “Look twice before you cross the street. Hold my hand. Be home before dark. I don’t know them, so you can’t go over to their house.” If you are Black and male, your parents will probably tell you or have already told you, “If you are stopped by the police, do this, don’t do that.” We want our children safe and alive. We don’t want to bury our children.
Faith tells me our son will become an old man and live a deeply satisfied life. Faith keeps me on my feet. Faith is what makes me trust change is coming. (And it helps that Marilyn Mosby—the Maryland state’s attorney for Baltimore City who is razor-sharp, smart, and fearless—charged the six police officers who killed Freddie Gray with murder two days ago and said to the young people rising up in protest, “Our time is now.”) As a Black woman and mother, I need hope to breathe. And I need to write words that perhaps my son will read one day and know how much he has always mattered to me, how very precious his life is.
*I love this poem by my friend Angel Nafis, who I met at the Cave Canem poetry retreat in 2012. I share her lines here in dedication to Black men and boys and their futures. Please read her fabulous poem, “Gravity,” here.
Tameka Cage Conley, PhD is a literary artist who writes poetry, fiction, plays, and essays. She has received writing fellowships from Cave Canem, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Vermont Studio Center, the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She is published in a number of journals and literary magazines, including Callaloo, African American Review, Fledgling Rag, and Huizache, and is completing her first novel and poetry collection. She is an MFA Candidate in Fiction at the Iowa Writer's Workshop.