Here are the secrets Black daughters keep. Black daughters are left to tell the stories of their Black fathers. Left behind, we are tasked with telling their stories. This body I breathe in is a tribute. I am a monument.
Tell me again of how to turn the lights off. How to lie on the floor. How to pretend I am not a breathing body. How to be still. Tell me again of how to cut the wires in the intercom. How to listen for a crackling in the phone line, that invisible foley, like breaking eggshells or paper wrinkled in a palm. I am eight years old and you tell me to sit still and learn to recognize these sounds. These are our bird calls. We are each so alone in this wilderness.
I am eight years old and you teach me how to pack a bag. It is a duffel bag. Military green. You have a stopwatch. You time me. You have taught me how to roll my clothes, tight like temaki. You time me. You tell me I have to be prepared to leave. You always say that you ‘won’t be here forever’. This is how a Black father prepares his Black daughter for an early exit, one that might come at any moment. This was what you said to me whenever there was space for silence, when a meal was served, when we marked a birthday, or passed a holiday, when I told you that I loved you: I won’t be here forever.
I now know that you were waiting to die and every day that you lived, you were surprised. It was a devastating and sweet surprise to make it home, to get into bed, to wake up, to make the bed, to walk me to school, to go to work, to make it home. For all those years that you thought you might not, you had to be ready.
You remind me: our bodies are not ours forever.
Our bodies can be taken from us.
Our bodies will be taken from us.
We know so little of one another. One of the gifts you gave me was keeping yourself a stranger from me. Sometimes you would let your sister take me out for lunch on a weekend afternoon. We would go to the diner and she would let me order a muffin. She would remind me to sit up straight. She would tell me to keep my legs closed. She would remind me to eat without making a mess. The muffin crumbs, as they traveled down my shirt, were an audacity. I was a queer little child. In a moment of accidental clarity, you once wondered aloud to a childhood version of me if perhaps this sister, my aunt, loved women. This always made me fond of her, even when she told me God knew all my ‘wicked secrets’ and wouldn’t let me have more grape jelly. If they come for us, let us go with God. By the grace of God, if they come for us, let us not resist. This sister of yours, she was one of the first queer Black women I ever knew and loved. You sent me out into the world with her to go to the diner but while there we barely spoke, and we especially never spoke about you. That was her gift to me: to keep you secret, too. Lately she’s been losing her memory. She can’t remember if you’re alive or dead. She can’t remember what she has and has not told me. A cousin texts me to let me know that she’s being taken care of; the last living sibling of yours. When I ask if I can call, she discourages me: Aunt is doing ok she is at home in her apartment. You can give her a call but maybe not because she is still mad at Uncle. In the months after you died she arrived at the apartment. She said she was ‘grateful’ that you were dead. That you were ‘wicked’. I wonder sometimes if you are wicked just like me.
I had two dreams:
In the first, I was in your loft bed sleeping.
I grew up in a studio apartment on 8th Street in the Village. It was a single room, with two lofted areas. One of the areas was your bed, positioned so you could see all parts of the apartment at once, so you could have a good vantage spot to see who was coming through the door if someone came in uninvited. The other was a small room that likely was a storage area at one point in the studio’s history. That was my bedroom.
In this dream, I was in your loft bed.
My eyes are closed but the sensation in my body is that the apartment is empty because all the birds inside the cage of me are still. I open my eyes and somehow I can see head-on the wall on the opposite side, as if looking from the perspective of the WNEW AM 1130 BLESSED WITH AMERICA’S BEST poster featuring a crooning Louis Armstrong you always had hanging by the loft ladder. Across the way, I can see the empty bookshelves, the ones that fell in the months before you died, their glass panels shattered and gaping like teeth in their mahogany frame.
On the wall next to the shelves is my party dress and a strange suit hanging on hangers, two sighing skeletons. I hear you call my name in a whisper and then somehow I am rushing through the air, toward my bedroom, into the space just below, that recess where we made a bed for you, right before you died.
I am hovering over you.
I can see your feet, those toes that curl slightly, just like my own, and then I am traveling up your body.
I can’t wait to see you.
Right before I am about to look you in the face, I wake up.
In the second dream, there is only neon fog. I am again in the lofted bed and you come to the window by the table. I can sense your presence but I can’t see you. You are somehow by the window and you say to me: ‘Legacy, I am so tired.’
As you were getting sick, you asked me to record you. You said to me that everywhere we see our murders being filmed, so why not hold the lens up to ourselves? You once said to me, You cannot take a picture from the ground. Stand up. When you are sick, I refuse to record you. Then one day, when you don’t know I’m watching you, I start. In the video, your hands are shaking. Behind the eye of the lens where I can hide, my face is salty and wet.
This is you preparing me for your exit.
Through this sickness, I meet other versions of you. One version is sad and remorseful. Another version is spiteful. Another has erased everything, it is as if this version has never lived a single day of your life, as if every hour has been a blank page with nothing written. That version has no memory.
You ask me to have the courage to take the footage and walk away. Desperate to hold onto you, I roll the twilight hours into video I am too afraid to watch, as I know I will not recognize you and will not even know myself as the director of this film. I understand now: you won’t live forever, but the images we make just might. This is the honest archive, our moving pictures, a Black record and a trace made in collaboration. This camera, these lenses, they are a weapon and a witness.
What is a life told through its end? We have so many ordinary moments, such an abundance of gorgeous, ordinary blackness that is rarely seen or celebrated until it is executed. In our exits, we are made to be saints. Why can’t we be saints when we are born? What is it to delight in one’s life without having to prepare daily to leave it? We begin, ending. Tell me again of how I can really live, how I can really make it, and make it through really real and really whole.
We are together, home alone. You are fitful and sick but for the first time in a long time you are peacefully sleeping. I’m going through your stuff without your permission. I want to know you. I find a poem you wrote in 1990, when I was three years old and you were forty-six. We were living back then on 8th Street in the Village, but you wrote this poem from Harlem. You wrote this poem from nine years old. You wrote this poem from summer.
1953 – SUMMER I’M NINE YEARS OLD
The story here is of you and your friends. You are all children. Harlem is your home. The police stop you on the street in Harlem. The police occupy the home where you grew up. The police hold you at gunpoint. The police hold you at gunpoint in Harlem, your home.
I WANT TO VOMIT. I FEEL THE VOMIT COMING UP SLOW.
FROM THE BOTTOM OF MY FEET IT SEEMS.
HIS BIG FEET KICK MY LEGS APART.
THE FAT WHITE FINGERS SEARCH MY PERSON.
VOMIT COMES UP INTO MY MOUTH AND I SWALLOW IT.
THE BULLET WILL SEARCH MY BRAIN.
It is not enough to have our bodies searched by bullets. These bullets will search brains, too, looking for those monsters of dangerous thought.
Tell me again the rules. To be already waiting outside after a playdate. You make it clear that my Black father cannot loiter outside the houses of the rich white parents of the rich white children that have invited me to a rich white playdate. That is a death wish.
You tell me the story of the time the police followed you through Stuyvesant Town. You said you were picking up your daughter. They did not believe you. Inside your head, you began to say your goodbyes: I won’t be here forever.
Here are the rules. Accept no gifts, we are not a charity. Remember that junk food is part of our Black genocide; do not eat what they eat if you can avoid it. When you are asked about your family, do not speak ill about your Black family to these rich white families. When they ask about your family, tell them your mother has a PhD. Here are the rules. Do not have dirt under your fingernails. Do not have tears in your jeans. Make sure your face is clean. Do not forget what a beautiful Black child you are, even inside of the houses of these rich white parents whose votes and tax brackets and investment portfolios profit from our death and guarantee we die early. Here are the rules. When I buzz the buzzer, remember I will not come up. When I buzz the buzzer, you will come down immediately.
When you are gone I will go through all of your things, touch all your clothes, trying to etch the shapes and contours of you deep inside me. The lines wobble as they come.
May 19, 1964, the New York Times headline, a clipping in a drawer, thin as lace: ‘261 Negro Pupils Study-In at 5 White Schools’. The article begins –
Two hundred and sixty-one Negro children went by chartered buses yesterday to five predominately white schools. 350 others stayed away from a largely Negro and Puerto Rican school in East Harlem.
The brief integration of the five white schools and the boycott of the East Harlem school were part of a day-long series of demonstrations held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s ruling that school segregation was unconstitutional.
Later the reporter makes sure we know: ‘. . . there were no untoward incidents. The Negro youngsters were well-behaved and received warm welcomes at the white schools.’ And then, there you are, quoted by name as a member of the Harlem Congress of Racial Equality: ‘Emergency repairs are no substitute for a decent school . . . That’s why we’re marching.’
What if we are not ‘well-behaved’? What then?
In July of that same year James Powell, a fifteen-year-old Black boy is shot and killed by Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan in Harlem. Lieutenant Gilligan murders Powell by shooting at him three times. The first hit a window. The second lodged in Powell’s lungs. The third went through his front and out his back. This is done right in front of some of Powell’s friends, right in front of witnesses standing by.
Everyone is watching. Even so, it doesn’t matter.
This is the starting point of what becomes known as the ‘Harlem riot of 1964’. Four thousand New Yorkers participate. Lieutenant Gilligan insists on his version of the story, that Powell had a knife. These are the rules you learned at age nine when the police stop and frisk you, the rules you learn when you hear that James Powell has been killed. That the Black boy will always have a knife. That the Black boy will always be assumed to be untoward. That the Black boy will always earn the holes he is given, a constellation so violent, wounds charted and mapped. You are twenty-two years old and you are marching. You are twenty-two years old and learning that you may not be around forever, so you better make these hot Harlem summer days count.
In June Jordan’s ‘Letter to the Local Police’, Jordan complains about the ‘lamentable circumstances’ that ‘force my hand’. She writes:
Speaking directly to the issue of the moment:
I have encountered a regular profusion of certain
unidentified roses, growing to no discernible purpose,
and according to no perceptible control, approximately
one quarter mile west of the Northway, on the southern
To be specific, there are practically thousands of
the aforementioned abiding in perpetual near riot
of wild behavior, indiscriminate coloring, and only
the Good Lord Himself can say what diverse soliciting
of promiscuous cross-fertilization
We are the profusion of ‘certain unidentified roses’.
We are ‘in perpetual near riot’.
You and I, you and I. We.
We don’t let them know it.
MAY 4, 2017
Dear Ms Russell:
The enclosed documents were reviewed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Title 5, United States Code, Section 552. Deletions have been made to protect information which is exempt from disclosure, with the appropriate exemptions noted on the page next to the excision. In addition, a deleted page of information sheet was inserted in the file to indicate where pages were withheld entirely.
Your patience is appreciated
You may file an appeal
You may seek dispute resolution services
David M. Hardy
Record / Information
Records Management Division
This material is being provided to you at no charge.
2001 – SPRING I’M FOURTEEN YEARS OLD.
Walking home from school one day there is a man waiting on the stairs. You have always told me to make sure no one is following me home from school, but never told me what to do if they are already waiting at home when I get there. The man is on our stoop. He is dressed in a suit, but he is very cool and very casual because he is wearing very bright-colored socks that show in the very place where his pants lift because his very long legs are bending as he sits on the very top step. From the street, I look up at him and he looks down at me. I think about walking by but linger just long enough that I know I now have to ascend the stairs. He looks at me but it occurs to me that he hasn’t really seen me. He stands up to let me pass by and keeps looking down at the street, at that spot where I was standing, the ghost of me, the contour of you.
Just before I put my key into the door the man says ‘Hey’. I turn around: ‘Hey’. He asks me if I know who lives in apartment four. I know that I live in apartment four and you live in apartment four but maybe he doesn’t know that. I say I don’t know and hope he can’t tell that I do. I hope you aren’t home. I also hope you are home. I also hope you don’t come up the stairs. I wish that you are somewhere far away, and where you are there are no men like this man. All these hopes and wishes I send quickly. I squeeze my eyes shut just for a second and keep my head down so the man can’t see me sending them. I turn the key in the lock and go into the door. I go up the stairs one by one and in my head I hear descending notes like the keys of a piano, each time my foot hits the next step. When I get to our apartment door, I keep playing. I go up another flight and stand at the top of the stairs on the third floor. The notes stop. I wait at the top and look down between the bannisters. I stay very still and very quiet.
A few minutes later I hear the buzzer; someone is being buzzed into the building. Between the bannisters I see a man coming up the stairs. I can’t see his socks but his shoulders slope in just some kind of way. He makes it to the second floor, makes it up to apartment four. Nose to nose with the door he stands there for a second, a face-off. Then he bends down low and I can hear the hiss of him sliding something underneath. When he stands up again, he puts his hand on the door, but doesn’t knock. Just an open palm, as if checking its temperature. He turns around. He walks down the stairs. He leaves the building.
I wait until I see him turn around.
I wait until I see him walk down the stairs.
I wait until I can hear the front door shut.
I wait until I can hear him go down to the street.
I walk down to our apartment and touch the door. I put my hand where the man’s hand has been. It is an uneasy high five. I put my key in the door, and when the door opens there is a white little business card sitting like a lost tooth, right where my foot should go. When I pick it up and turn it over I am introduced to the man. The man says: agent. The man says: FBI.
When I step into the apartment all the lights are off. I walk into the apartment toward the front window, holding the man crushed in my palm, his edges biting against my skin. As I am passing the bathroom, you whisper to me. You are in the dark, behind the door frame. I step in and stand with you. We hold hands, an agent captured and wriggling softly between our palms.
Here are your redacted records, exempted and excised.
UNITED STATES GOVERNMENT
TO: DIRECTOR, FBI
ATTENTION: TRANSLATION SECTION
FROM: LEGAT, PARIS
Enclosed are two copies of a letter dated 5-26-70 from the New York City Police Department inquiring regarding activities in Paris of captioned individuals. Also enclosed is one copy of a letter Request this letter be translated and two copies of translation furnished to New York.
You are folded neatly into an envelope, an impossible contortion.
John Edgar Hoover (January 1, 1895 – May 2, 1972) was an American law enforcement administrator who served as the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States. Wikipedia
Here are the secrets kept from Black daughters.
Here are the secrets kept by a country.
Here is my father kept by a country.
Here is a secret body.
Here your body is kept secret.
Here is your body taken.
Here is a father kept from his daughter.
J. Edgar Hoover led the FBI from May 10, 1924 – May 2, 1972
J. Edgar Hoover is the DIRECTOR, FBI on 8-4-70
May 26, 1970
We are currently investigating
, brought to our attention were the following subjects:
[Your name is written here. Your date of birth. Your height. Your weight.]
Information has been received that these subjects may be staying at the Hotel la Pérouse, 40 Rue La Pérouse, Paris, France.
Your cooperation is always appreciated.
Very truly yours,
GEORGE P. MCMANUS
Sixteen years before I was born, you were in Paris.
These are the photos, never taken from the ground:
You smiling at the camera in a cafe right off the Seine
You peering through a portal of bedsheets to greet the dawn
You inside the Louvre looking up at the Nike of Samothrace
Stand up! I won’t be here forever.
Chief Inspector George P. McManus of the New York City Police Department writes in October 1962 for the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin (Vol. 31, No. 10) as published by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and United States Department of Justice under the directorship of J. Edgar Hoover an essay titled ‘Practical Measures for Police Control of Riots and Mobs’.
It begins on page three of the bulletin.
Legacy, can you see that man behind us?
Is he following us?
Is he holding a camera?
Are they taking our picture?
What is he wearing?
Can you remember his face?
Describe him to me.
A Black father and his daughter standing in the summer heat eating ice cream is a mob.
In J. Edgar Hoover’s opening Message from the Director for the bulletin, he writes:
Law enforcement and the press,
their contracts with the public, although implied, are based on trust and dependence
The free flow of legitimate information, unshackled by censorship is a basic right
Accordingly, the newspaper’s role in keeping the public informed becomes increasingly
the press is morally obligated to promote the furtherance of justice and the
perpetuation of law and order
What if we are not well-behaved – what then? Will we live?
Practical Measures for Police Control of Riots and Mobs
by INSP. GEORGE P. McMANUS, New York City, Police Department, New York
The cohesive crowd is an assemblage for a common purpose without leadership
These are the spectators at sporting events, along parade routes,
a common interest,
behave and think like individuals
The expressive crowd, too, has assembled for a common purpose, with the added factor of leadership and the intention of expressing an attitude for or against some person or idea
The picket line and the political rally are examples of this assemblage
there is the aggressive crowd, met for a common purpose under positive leadership,
determined to accomplish a specific end, and moving actively toward its objective
In an atmosphere of high emotional tension, it readily abandons reason and individual thinking and becomes a riotous mob and, consequently
an acute police problem
Like people, roses in riot are an acute police problem.
Along with the essay, McManus has included a diagram mapping the 9th Precinct in the East Village. The diagram shows Tompkins Square Park; it shows where I grew up. That playground of blooming summer playdates and bloody summer riots.
I remember now: my naked body in the sprinklers. The pavement burning the soles of my feet. The park is surrounded by police in riot gear, an entanglement of thorns, a profusion of batons in bouquet.
Though you are gone, I still fly to Paris to look for traces of you. We know so little of one another. I go to Paris to guess at you. I walk across town from my apartment in search of 40 Rue La Pérouse. I look for the hotel. I wonder the price of your room, who shared the bed with you, where you ate dinner, what you had for breakfast, if there were roses.
The building is tall and sandy and ribbed with horizontal lines. An ornamental fan of a glass awning extends from above the front door. Though now a residential building, the wrought iron sign at the entryway still reads: Hotel La Pérouse. The sun is setting and I look up to see windows reflecting the sky back at me. Everything is still. Even your whispers have shut up tight inside of me. Together we wonder: if they arrive at this door, will we see them coming?
In an apartment above, the light goes out.
Image © Ernest Russell. Courtesy the author and the estate of the artist.