Seven Scribes is excited to present “Vultures” in partnership with Kinfolks: a journal of black expression a journal “dedicated to thinking about blackness in its infinite permutations by publishing the work of established and emerging black artists.” Read more at kinfolksquarterly.com. Photo courtesy IG: jerriodavant
It is 2012. In my second apartment since graduating college, with my third set of housemates, I am drinking wine at a socially unacceptable hour. José and I have known each other since high school. We are co-workers, we are friends (sometimes), and we are family, raised in different-colored poverties on opposite sides of the same city. José and I talk about family and what it means to be college graduates, to be artists, to be artists with college degrees, and what that means to our families, who are supportive of our career choices but still long for security. So we decide we’re going to get Pulitzer Prizes, so that our parents can breathe easy and loosen their grips on our degrees.
It is today. I am in a workshop and José and I are no longer housemates, are still co-workers, still friends (sometimes) and are sitting across from each other writing about what we wish for. After a long list of things for my community, city and family, I scribble “Pulitzer Prize” and am somewhat ashamed for writing anything at all about myself.
The day that José and I moved in together I purchase a movie called The Bang-Bang Club with no clue about the plot (Ryan Phillippe is the leading man, and I have worshipped him since Cruel Intentions). The film depicts four photographers active in South Africa during apartheid. One story in particular stays with me. Kevin Carter was a wartime photographer and journalist. In 1993 he sold a photo of a Sudanese child, bloated from starvation, laying in a fetal position, being preyed upon by a vulture. In 1994 he won a Pulitzer Prize for featured photography.
I wonder how long before someone asked him if he took the time to feed the boy.
From 2006 to 2011 I am in school at Grand Valley State University. In 2010, working on the last group project of my soon-to-be-ex-education major, I am with three white girls (one from Ann Arbor, one from Southfield, and one from someplace Americans can’t point to on a map) all wearing Uggs and North Face. We are discussing our pedagogy. They all want to go back to Detroit and save black kids (they didn’t say “save,” but they basically said save).
And I wonder what they mean by “back.”
And then I think, who am I to judge them? Born and raised on the North Side of Chicago, I live in privilege. I avoid seeing my family on the South Side as much as possible during the summer. I know what happens when niggas get hot.
I read an article in the Huffington Post reporting that the Chicago Police Department has seen a significant drop in homicides in Chicago. In 2012 there were 260 homicides. This year, only 184— a 29% decrease (though there have been 843 shootings, which is still down 25% since 2012). It is commonly understood that most of these happen on the South and West sides of the city which are heavily populated by Brown and Black people (not to say the North Side is the magical land of happiness and natural death, but it isn’t a gun range for the inexperienced).
I didn’t use the word nigga until I was at least twelve or thirteen. The other kids told me I talked and acted white and I internalized it. I was ashamed, but not enough to change, because I was more ashamed of being perceived as dumb. Nigga wasn’t like using curse words, which I practiced with little confidence under my breath so my mother wouldn’t hear me. It was a rite of passage, a sign of membership to a community I didn’t feel like I belonged to. And I was sure that if I ever tried to force it out I would sound white, I would feel white, I would be white.
One summer I am at a party with a bunch of friends, a party hosted by a community center with the intention of bringing some of the neighborhoods together. A fight breaks out and a boy my age is hit with a metal pipe, everyone scatters and I stand there and watch. He bleeds out before the ambulance arrives even though there is a hospital three blocks away. I take off when I see the blue lights. And I go to bed thinking, better him than me. Sometime soon after, “nigga” started flowing out my mouth as easily as the lies I had ready for my parents when they asked why there was blood on my stuff.
In 2009 I decided I was no longer going to double major in Education and English Literature. Grand Valley was constant white faces, white voices and white curriculum telling me how to teach black and brown children. When my professor asked me why I was dropping the program I wanted to tell him “because I am black” and I knew that he would understand, but at the same time wouldn’t get it.
Yesterday out to dinner with my white “step” grandmother (but not really, she the real deal) and mixed (but mostly white-featured) sister, a food runner placed a plate of fried chicken in front of me that I didn’t order. He appeared to be embarrassed when I slid the plate over to my sister and reached for the grilled cheese. I was more amused than offended, and then upset with myself for not being offended, and then confused and unsure of how I was supposed to feel.
It is Friday. We sit at a table mounted with celebratory barbeque in honor of Molly (who is white but mostly only hangs out with people of color, despite being raised in an affluent white neighborhood) and her graduation from the University of Wisconsin. And we all crack jokes about starving kids in Africa, even though I am sure at least half of us know what hunger pains actually feel like. None of us has ever seen a vulture. Just the shame of free and reduced lunches, or food stamps back when they came in a booklet and not on an inconspicuous card. I think about how when my brother graduated high school there was an equally gluttonous feast in his honor. Because a black boy graduating high school is as impressive as a white woman graduating college.
A bus boy asks if I wanted to box my food, and I say no, knowing I could have given it to any of the homeless people I know I will pass on the way home. I remember doing homework by candlelight because my momma chose to pay rent instead of the electricity and I am ashamed of myself for pretending I am not poor.
I’d like to think I am nothing like Kevin Carter but I have been writing other people’s stories for years. And I wonder if I am the type of person who would let someone die for a poem.
Kevin Carter’s friend and fellow photographer, João Silva, said they were riding along with the United Nations who were bringing food to the Sudanese suffering from famine. He said Carter was shocked at the starving boy— he had never seen something so bad. The boy’s mother was nearby getting food from the UN helicopter. The vultures were there because of the scent of a manure pit.
On July 27, 1994 Kevin Carter committed suicide. Excerpts from Carter’s suicide note read: “I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist…depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners… I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”
And I wonder how many times I have only captured the wrong of the story.