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A Brief History of Black Folks and Sidewalks

A Brief History of Black Folks and Sidewalks

Someday you will understand just how many of our horror stories begin and end with sidewalks…
'For you and me, the sidewalk is a history book — and a circus. Dangerous clowns balancing dreadful and wonderful perceptions they have been handed day by day, generations on down.'
~ Joni Mitchell, “Goodbye, Pork Pie Hat,” Mingus

By Stacia L. Brown | Originally Published at Stacia L. Brown.August 14, 2014

When your father last visited, he took you past the front yard at your grandparents’ house and sat beside you on a square of sidewalk. I had supplied the chalk — $0.75 on sale in the checkout line at a supermarket — but stayed at home both to relax and to give you two space and time to bond.

Your father is big like Mike Brown was. At 6’5″, his walk has heft, his forearms are a bit like boulders, and whenever I think of him making sidewalk drawings with you in the cool of an afternoon, I am newly amused. He sent me pictures of your handiwork, your name emblazoned in a multicolored blast. For you, the sidewalk became a concrete quilt. For you, it told the story of a family. For now, this is all it needs to tell you. For now, this is just as it should be.

When Chalk was for Play

You won’t know this for at least a year or two — we have not started to read books like Henry’s Freedom Box or Freedom on the Menu; you have not heard of Emmett Till, have not seen what it seems that every black child must: his bloated, disfigured face in an open casket — but someday you will understand just how many of our horror stories begin and end with sidewalks.

Whether stepping off of them to let a white man pass or refusing to cross to one on the other side of a street in order to clear a white woman’s path, sidewalks have never been entirely inanimate for us. Our teeth have been broken against them. After tussling unarmed on one, Trayvon Martin was accused in court of using a sidewalk as a weapon, just before his blood was splattered across it. And even now, with no particular law in place to compel us, some confess to still ceding the sidewalk for white passersby, in spite of ourselves.

It is said that the boy in Ferguson was killed because of a sidewalk. The officer who shot him, his anonymity still being carefully guarded even six days later, is said to have told the boy and his friend to get the f–k on the sidewalk. According to Dorian Johnson, the friend who survived, he and Mike Brown were walking in the street, a practice you will someday find is quite popular in sleepy suburbs. When no cars are in view, a street may be a scooter lot, a skateboard park, a strolling path. Preferring the street to the sidewalk is not uncommon for adolescents.

Here in Baltimore it is not uncommon for grown folk — even if cars are barreling toward them. Baltimoreans play fast and loose with their lives when traveling on foot. But in the 25 years I’ve lived here, no one has ever lost his life at an officer’s gun-wielding hand for crossing against traffic. These days, the policing of black pedestrians while simply walking down empty streets or on the adjacent sidewalks, is no longer en vogue. What happened in Ferguson, Missouri on Saturday is an anomaly, one that hearkens back to a time so many of us believed we had left far behind.

But when the boy’s long untended body was whisked up from the street and taken away to be autopsied (to withheld or suppressed result), the town was left grieving on sidewalks. Eventually, the crowds took their grievances into the streets. And we were all swiftly reminded of what it must’ve been like for our elders to have been “put in their place” on the sidewalks of streets across the nation. We knew what it was to be shouted down, to be threatened with capture, detainment, canine attack, to be herded onto sidewalks as though we were cattle (or chattel).

Yes, in just a few years, you will know all about our complicated history with sidewalks in this country. And it will become quite clear how quickly something as simple as a sidewalk can get you killed. But it is not yet time and for that, I am exceedingly grateful. For now, just let the sidewalk be a site for sunshine, a concrete kaleidograph of shapes. Let it be what it hasn’t be for the children of Ferguson since Friday: a safe haven, a play yard, a shore.

Don't Shoot Our Childlike Innocence

Stacia L. Brown was born in Lansing, MI. She grew up in Baltimore, MD–the county, not the city. (Only other Baltimoreans will truly understand why it’s necessary to make that distinction. Everyone else just keeps asking if she’s ever lived by where they used to film The Wire and then gets genuinely bummed out when she says no.) She graduated from Trinity College (now Trinity Washington University) in DC, with a BA in English that didn’t really help her land any jobs. (Don’t let them hype you on college as a golden ticket to employment, kids, because… not so much.) She worked a few office gigs, while trying to jump-start her writing career.

At 27, she finished an MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. She spent the next six and a half years working as an adjunct writing professor first in Michigan, then in Maryland.

This piece was reprinted by EmpathyEducates with permission or license. We thank the Author, Stacia L. Brown for her kindness, the history, and her heartfelt reflection. We are honored.

2016-11-29T17:37:46+00:00

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