I have one photograph of my great grandfather, Roscoe Foster. He is sitting in a rocking chair, on the porch of his home in Columbia, Mississippi, with a black dog. Family says that when the Ku Klux Klan was riding near, he would sit on that porch with a shotgun.
His 11th child, Mattie left Columbia for Gary Indiana, following her husband who had found work in the steel mills. Like waves of black people at the time, they went north, where there was more economic opportunity and a little less chance of being lynched.
I had started decorating a copy of that photograph, as I sometimes do with photos of my ancestors. I stole the technique from the great Mara Ahmed. I call the process adorning. It’s a black and white photo and I pasted little cut up pieces of green paper on the house. I had done this with other photographs and was happy with how they’d come out. With the picture of Great Grandpa Roscoe, I couldn’t get it right. I set the project aside for a long time. Then COVID hit, tearing a swath of misery through the black community. My uncle fell deathly ill. My best friend’s mother died, while my friend was pregnant with a baby that her mother would never hold. My own mother, who has lupus and was in the high-risk category, locked herself in the house. On the very rare occasions that she would go out, she put on goggles, a face shield and an N95 mask, looking like she was fitted for trench warfare in World War. She looked like an illustration for that Lucile Clifton Poem, ‘won’t you celebrate with me.’ It goes:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in Babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
The image of George Floyd losing his life under the knee of that white police officer blew my heart out. He cried out for his mother, and I cried for my son…
From time to time, I would take out the picture and try to work on it. But I could never get it right, until George Floyd died. The image of George Floyd losing his life under the knee of that white police officer blew my heart out. He cried out for his mother, and I cried for my son, who was the same age I was when Rodney King was nearly killed by racist police officers who would not pay for their crimes. My mother explained to me, as I explained to Noah Roscoe Barnabas, why protests were erupting, and that it wasn’t just about one man. This will never end, I thought. We have been fighting for 400 fucking years. And this will never end.
Someone took a picture of my cousin Joe at the protests in Chicago. He was wearing a “Black Lives Matter” shirt, leaning against a building. He is 21 and his mother died a few years ago. She was a social worker in the Chicago Public School system and always taught us to stay connected to Africa and to our ancestors. I printed the picture of Joe and cut him out and pasted him on the porch with my great grandfather. He was leaning against the door, and my grandfather was sitting in the rocking chair. They were together and it was perfect.
4 Generations after my great grandfather sat on that porch, ready to defend his family against white supremacists, my cousin faced tear gas and rubber bullets trying to express the simple sentiment that Black Lives Matter. We are still fighting this battle, but we are still fighting. And in 8 generations, we will still be fighting. No matter what they do to us, we will always fight. We matter. Our humanity is sacred. We stand up for the fallen and we press on. Come celebrate with me that everyday this country has tried to kill our spirit and has failed.
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