African-American Studies

Birthing & Protection: Life Ain’t Been No Crystal Stair

It has been several months since I have made an entry on this site.  My writing often requires that I step back from it in order to integrate new life experiences into my being so that I may enrich the journey of the story that I want to tell. Since my last entry life has filled me with many unique opportunities that have informed the SIR book project in ways that I have never imagined it would. On March 22nd I gave birth to our son Johari Kai Hinkle-Robinson. Because I am an interdisciplinary artist and writer several people kept asking me about how I was documenting my pregnancy creatively and how was it influencing my work. The answers to these questions were always so hard to articulate. I felt guilty for not feeling compelled to document every single moment. I ended up concluding that I found the gestation of a human being similar to the artistic process. (Creating and giving birth to bodies of work.) I felt no need to elaborate on it further outside of my body. Now that Johari is here I can begin to sort out what happened during his gestation and how it has impacted my life and art forever.

The book project SIR that this site discusses was born from a manuscript titled “The Manchild & the Womanchild.” It focused on a young girl (my mother) giving birth to a son she named Sir. She gave him this name in a geography filled with racial prejudice so that he would be addressed with a title of respect no matter who was addressing him. Somehow the work surpassed this relationship and began to focus on not only naming but on historical geography, memory, selfhood and belonging. My role as writer wove into interviewer, storyteller, quote gatherer and an observer of cycles within my family. Now that I have fulfilled a cycle through giving birth to my son, I have become a better witness to the adversaries my mom knew. Although my experiences have been way more subtle and not as hostile I find myself asking the same questions that I wondered about her journey raising my brother:

How can one raise her son in a historically and contemporary hostile geography for young black males?

What can she give him physically, spiritually and mentally to protect him?

Can these gifts suffice protection from bullets and malice?

Or is it merely the gesture of the naming that  will give  power?

While writing I kept trying to channel how my mother felt giving birth to her first born child within a geography filled with forces that wanted to harm him because of his racial make-up. I interviewed her, I analyzed our family history, I researched the history of my Louisville ancestral geography, but nothing has informed me more than actually holding my son in my arms. Sometimes when I look into his eyes I worry about the unseen forces out there. I can’t help but to think about Treyvon Martin and the Zimmerman trail, The Jena 6 boys, Emmett Till and so many countless others. I think about my friend Andy that had guns pulled out on him by the LAPD while he was waiting on the bus stop (I call this SWB “Standing While Black”). I think about my husband moving out of his apartment in a somewhat affluent neighborhood in Baltimore, having to show the police his lease because they thought he was stealing items from  his own residence. I think about my brother being forced to walk barefoot on the hot pavement to the courthouse because the cops would not let him grab his shoes. I think about the layers and scars that can’t quite heal with just a mother trying to kiss where it “hurts”. I think about my undieing need to protect our son and to educate him about the complexities of the body that he will walk around in. Of course this education won’t be easy. I have to make the  showing and telling just as complex as its existance so that cycles of stripping the humanity and complexity from certain situations in favor of  a percieved victim don’t remain as simple as black against white.

Since his birth Langston Hughes’ poem “ Mother to Son” rings in my ear.

Well, son. I’ll tell you:

Life ain’t been no crystal stair

Johari is pure sunlight and has so much innocence within his every giggle, toe touch, drool drop and squeal of excitement. He drinks the world with his eyes. We are connected forever. When I am at work I call home cause I can feel when he is ready to eat. I can hear his thoughts and interpret every cry sometimes.  I cannot even fathom the forced separation of mother and child my ancestors in Kentucky had to endure during slavery. I thank them everyday for their courage and strength that I am standing on the shoulders of. I couldn’t imagine having to explain to Joahri that we can’t go to a park or drink from a fountain or be called Ma’am and Sir because we are a different color.

It’s had tacks in it,

And splinters,

My husband and I have been living in LA for the past five years and sometimes the segregation and leftover animosity from the Rodney King riots still linger. We were denied housing by a Latino woman. I guess my voice and my name did not add up on the phone because you could see her disdain when we walked up to the gate confirming that we were the ones she had been talking to for the past week to arrange the viewing. We drove all the way from Valencia, CA which can be an hour long with traffic.  I  called her when we were 10 minutes away and she  responded enthustaitcally telling us to come on. When we arrived  she stood  stone faced and kept up her same facade during the viewing. When we asked about the paperwork  she said that the apartment was already taken. “Really? In the past 10 minutes,” I asked, and she said, “Yes, someboody just gave me the down payment.” 10 minutes ago it was come on, I am here and ready to show you.

How do we explain moments like this to our son?

And boards torn up,

And places with no carpet on the floor––

Bare.

I didn’t even like the place. It had so many bars on the windows, it was dark and the neighbors gave us the same stone faced feelings the landlady did.  So it didn’t matter at the the end of the day, but the thing that hurt about it so much was that my husband was so excited about the place. He could see us there regardless of the aesthetics. We have lived in rough areas of Brooklyn and Baltimore ( his hometown) and the place was in a dream neighborhood close to the heart of Los Feliz right near the Hollywood Hills and Griffith Park. Looking back on it I thought this behavior was dead, I had never been denied housing because of my skin, not even in Louisville.

But all the time

I’se been a-climbin’ on,

And reachin’ landin’s,

And turnin’ corners

My Mama used to always pester me about having kids. I am the baby. My brother has four and my sister has one. I was a Mama to two cats before they passed away within three years of each other. When she came for my first reading of the book project in February of last year we took her out for ice cream. She, my husband and I sat enjoying our huge scoops sitting in the California sun. Out of the blue she says, “I am sick of this pet shit, when ya’ll goin give me some grandbabies?”  Our jaws dropped and we couldn’t help but to crack up laughing. I guess our 23 lb tabby named Fristkat wasn’t enough! “ You already have 5 grandchildren Mama.”  “But I ain’t got none from you!” Well I don’t want to bring a child into this crazy world. I guess our children will come when the world is ready for them.” I guess that time is now because I am holding a tiny soon to be black man in my arms. The worrying still creeps and lingers every now and then. Especially when hearing that during the Zimmerman trail the defense showed blown up photos of Treyvon’s body and how his father had to leave the room. I teared up, and kissed Johari 30 more times knowing that tomorrow is not promised and 16 years from now if shit ain’t better that could be our son. Racially profiled and not alive to talk about it.

I tell him he is beautiful everyday and that he can be what he wants to be. He is almost three months and we sing his ABCs to him. I try to help him shape his tongue to say his name. Yo-HAR-ree. In Swahili it means rare, special and unique. I did not name him Sir to protect him like Mama did with my brother. Maybe we named him a name that means unique so that his experiences navigating his body will be.

* Check out the first excerpt from the SIR book project posted on the page Excerpts from SIR. It was the first piece that I wrote for the book and compliments the questions raised in this post.

Sources for post:

Mother to Son, a poem by Langston Hughes, 1922

To read the poem in its entirety click here

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