An Oakland Summer Day while Black
The flashes were blinding even during the waning daylight of the beautiful Oakland summer day. Flash after flash—and we all just stood there gazing, perplexed, and amazed at what was happening. There were so many questions, and I had so many emotions. I was sad and in equal parts, angry. I wanted to protect Mom but there was nothing I could do.
I looked to my older brothers pleadingly, but knew they were also helpless. Their expressions were oddly blank; one of them held a bat, the other a baseball glove. It was normal for them to be standing together in agreement and me standing away from them and alone. I was too little, and I was afraid. I knew what was happening was wrong and not her fault—she’d said this over and over to the officer, but he ignored her and insulted her each time she tried talking, telling her to “shut up” or he’d “drag [her] ass to jail in front of [her] kids.” He even said, “You’re lucky it’s just pictures.”
Lucky. Those words were the second worst part of this whole ordeal that was traumatizing for her, and me, and perhaps the neighbors and other kids watching the spectacle. These were the years that Mom was a victim of brutal, frequent, and unpredictable spousal abuse, a level of violence that would eventually lead to a month-long stay at a hospital. And now this.
Mom wasn’t “lucky.”
It would be another few years before she left and divorced him. She survived him—and so did I. He abused Mom the most, and he found plenty of time to visit violence to me, too, but spared my brothers. It is perhaps why they were daddy’s boys while I was decidedly a mama’s boy.
This day had started as any beautiful summer day, and we spent it as we did the previous days: playing, taking fruit from the abundance of local fruit trees, and drinking delicious water-hose water. We played sports: street football, basketball at the local catholic school, frisbee, catch with any ball we could find, baseball, and chase/tag. We played from sunup to sundown, and until we were too tired and/or it became too dark. There were breaks, especially for me, as I often went indoors to read and hang around my mom. I loved being with my mom when she had alone time because she was peaceful and would laugh and tease me about not being outside. Or she would just enjoy what she called “Blessed quietness” of having nobody in the house with her.
She’d make coffee, and sit in the corner of our beaten-up leather sofa reading some of the popular “women’s liberation books” as they were then called. I’d curl up next to her and just sit. It was peaceful, and as long as I was quiet she’d allow me to be in her moment.
“I know you won’t talk so you can sit here. Just leave my hair alone, okay?” She’d ask without looking up from her book. Mom knew being quiet was my first hobby, next to playing with her hair while she was reading.
Mom didn’t dote on babies or other people’s kids. She grew up in a large family of four siblings and a number of cousins, but she tended to keep to herself. I now believe she was an introvert, though that word and its meaning wasn’t something our small community understood; there, wanting to be alone was frowned upon and ridiculed by family and church-families. Being quiet was looked down upon but mom preferred to dive into her books and do what readers do—escape and live another life.
I’d nod dramatically and then motion to zip my mouth closed. After a few minutes I always played with her hair which was usually in a bun or ponytail—both made for me to play with as far as I was concerned, despite her instructions.
Mom rarely ventured outside to watch us play or to play with us or the other seven neighborhood kids of the same age. We were allowed to be kids and be alone in our kid world.
On this boringly beautiful Oakland day, we were playing “Strike-out,” an easy baseball-type game in which there is a pitcher, batter, and a fielder, and the batter must get a hit before getting three strikes and losing his/her at-bat. Our porch was the “catcher” and we played and rotated through pitcher, batter, fielders, and umpire. Other kids “shagged” the hit balls.
Suddenly, the smell was there. Mom’s fried chicken. It was glorious. The kitchen window was open, it was hot outside (Oakland “hot” is around 75-80 degrees) and the smell flowed through our game. The kids all noticed. It was a wonderful feeling knowing dinner was going to be good and something you wanted to eat. This was not Mom’s tuna casserole.
A little later Mom came outside and asked: “Would y’all like some fried chicken?”
She was holding a bowl of fried drumsticks—the heat-smoke still rising from the drumsticks as we all gathered around her, and it seems as the smoke lifted into the sky it made little hearts like in the cartoons. Or maybe I imagined that.
She was, as always, beautiful. She was standing at the top step and we were all below her like supplicants to the Goddess waiting for her favor and blessings. And she freely gave her blessings in the form of fried chicken that was hot, seasoned to perfection, crispy, and juicy. She stood there passing out the chicken and I watched my friends each grab a piece or two and politely say “thank you” to Mom, and she commented back to each: “You’re welcome, sweetie,” or something similar.
I loved her. She held court, and I just stared at her, loving her in her light blue calf-long pants, yellow shirt, beautiful hair tied back in a bun and no shoes. She was so pretty, and her smile was radiant.
When I finally made my way to the front, she held the bowl out for me, and I grabbed my piece. I smiled and she smiled back; she’d never stopped smiling since first coming outside. I loved her and I loved seeing her make other kids happy. And Mom was so good at it. It may have been due to her restaurant experience —she was a hostess when she was just eighteen, and then later on she was a waitress at a local diner so she had the experienced kindness many waitresses have that flows so easily it can be mistaken for natural talent instead of learned skills.
Mostly though, Mom was sharing her love (in this case, via fried chicken) because her abuser was gone for the time-being and she had a type of emotional freedom to do something as audacious as share food with the neighborhood kids. We didn’t always have food, as our father’s drug problems took precedence and ate up our food money. The only silver lining to growing up with an abusive addict is the frequency they are on a drug binge and thus away from home.
This was one of those times and mom being outside, happy, giving, and sharing was who she could be when he wasn’t around. (Many years later, after mom had left him, this sharing part of her personality would shine more frequently, but at the moment it was still rare and a wonder for me to see who mom could be if he were gone for good.)
Shortly after we were finished eating, and following all the compliments my friends shared about how good the fried chicken was and how nice mom was cooking it for us, we heard sirens.
Police sirens in East Oakland are like background noise that one learns to tune out until it continues getting louder and closer. The sirens we heard were louder and closer and closer still.
We all stopped to watch and saw three Oakland police cars with lights twirling and sirens screaming, announcing their arrival. We all froze. We knew the drill. Do. Not. Move.
Four officers exited their vehicles and began walking towards our home, hands on their guns, but guns not drawn. All the kids were frozen because we knew we had to be.
This was a show of force all too typical in cities like Oakland.
One of the police said out loud, “Does this person (using my father’s name) live at this address?”
A few of us said yes, he did. What neither my brothers nor I said was that he hadn’t been there for a few weeks.
The lead cop went over to Mom and began questioning her, while the other cops told all the kids to stay where we were and not move. Nearly everyone obeyed.
I inched closer because I was afraid for Mom. I don’t know why I was afraid, other than young black kids learn to be wary and afraid around cops. And seeing and hearing the cop angrily questioning Mom was concerning and so I was afraid but in a different and unfamiliar way.
I knew my father’s violence, his triggers, and his drugged up reactions. I could, like Mom, see his approaching violence that could start with a seemingly benign word or movement. It couldn’t be stopped but it could be seen.
With the cops it was different because up to this moment police violence had been the stuff of nightmares, stories told over bar-b-ques, at school, and in church, but I had never come face to face with it. It was no longer the “talk” it was real life, and directed at Mom.
This wasn’t right and wasn’t what we had been told to expect. Mom was good, hardworking, honest, and never ever in trouble in any way and yet in this moment she stood face to face with armed cops whose attention was focused solely on her.
My lifelong fear of cops was birthed in this moment.
Mom was calm, though. She talked and she smiled, and she seemed herself—charming, wearing a beautiful smile, limiting her motions, exuding confidence—again, her people skills working magic. She remained calm for fifteen minutes or so while the cops took turns peppering her with questions. I was close enough to hear many of the questions:
“Where is your husband?” (Don’t know.)
“When was the last time you saw him?” (A few weeks ago.)
“When will he be home?” (Don’t know.)
“Where does he work?” (She told the cop where, and that he worked off and on.)
“How much money does he make?” (Don’t know; he doesn’t say.)
“Are you aware he is collecting welfare for his kids?” (No. We do not receive welfare.)
“Do you receive food-stamps?” (No. We do not receive food-stamps.)
That is when one of the officers pulled out paperwork that showed that the monster who was my father did in fact collect food-stamps and welfare for our little family. Mom was unaware and never saw any of that money, and so she told the questioning officer that it had nothing to do with her.
True: Her husband had applied for, and had been collecting, welfare for many months and now the police were at our house trying to catch a welfare fraud. Also true: The city sent four armed cops with loud sirens to traumatize a family and neighborhood kids over a drug addict cheating on welfare.
At this point, though, the officers seemed to believe Mom and it appeared like this ordeal would soon be over. Then one asked if he could look around the house, a typical tactic to save face and find something, anything, questionable. And she said he could. The cops searched the house and found nothing because the monster never brought any money or food-stamps home.
After a few minutes, he came back to the front of the house with a plant that was perhaps a foot and a half tall and that I learned was marijuana after the officer held it aloft and said so—loudly to the other officers and all the neighbors.
But one cop went to the backyard.
Even at my age, smoking weed was common in our home when my father was there, as he and his friends smoked weed, drank, and played dominoes for hours at a time during those few days he was home every month. But mom told the truth—she was never a weed smoker and often complained about the smell (to no avail).
The cop said the plant was illegal and that Mom had tried to hide it from them. Mom said she didn’t even know it was in the backyard and if it was, then it was the monster’s, and she knew nothing about it. “I don’t even smoke weed,” she said pleadingly.
It was one very small plant.
I thought weed was stinky and I knew it made people act funny, but I didn’t have a concept of the illegality of it. And certainly not worthy of the dramatic scene I was witnessing.
The cops talked among themselves for a moment as they discussed what to do. The mood was tense. Mom just stood there holding the empty bowl that had once held the wonderful fried chicken. She stood there and the entire neighborhood—now out of their homes watching alongside their kids —watched with fearful anticipation.
There’s no way they’ll arrest Mom, I thought, fearfully. Looking back, I don’t know what I would have done or how I would have reacted if they had tried.
Instead, the cops broke their huddle and walked back to Mom and said they would not arrest her because they believed her, the plant was small, and there were too many kids to look after. But they said she needed to call them when her husband returned.
Mom willingly agreed and she expressed relief. She looked like she wanted to bury her head and block out the world. She held a smile but it wasn’t her smile. It was the smile from a waitress after a long day and now she has a group of men who are on her last nerve.
I saw through it.
It was finally over, I thought.
But it wasn’t over, it turned out. The lead cop said they needed a picture of her.
She just stood there stunned and with a confused look and heavy eyes. We all did. What was a moment of relief —hearing the cops say they would not arrest her—was now a spectacle of humiliation and embarrassment.
Our games and laughter had stopped and the street that was just filled with teen and pre-teen kids running, screaming, laughing, living—remained eerily silent. There were no bouncing balls, no roller-skates, no skateboards, and no songs. We were a city street of kids under siege by a gang of armed men in blue.
The fourth cop headed over to one of the police cars and returned with a camera—a giant camera with a big flash—the kind that were popular in the 1970s. He asked Mom to stand in front of the house and hold the single marijuana plant while he took her picture. The sun had just about fully set and so the flashes were extra bright and blinding. Mom stood holding the empty bowl that had held the fried chicken in her right hand, and the marijuana plant in her left hand.
He took eight pictures of mom holding that plant.
I imagine the images illuminated by each blinding flash:
The first illuminated the empty white bowl and the marijuna plant. The second showed her half-smile, which, for all who knew her indicated anger. The third revealed the shame of being made a spectacle at her own home, and the humiliation of exposure to her kids and neighbors. The fourth told of the unfairness, the unequal power, the abuse of public resources; three cops and one cop-photographer rolling up with sirens, lights, and horns to investigate a possible welfare fraud? The fifth flash was extra bright and blinding; my young anger building, at the police, at the system, at East Oakland with all its problems, and mostly, at the monster. The sixth, seventh, and eighth flashes were all him. His violent, stupid, and irresponsible actions at the root of this humiliation that he wasn’t even unlucky enough to be present for like he deserved.
The cops packed their things and left. Mom’s charm and warm smile may have kept her out of jail, but her skin color made sure she was kept in her place. The neighborhood kids and families had questions for Mom, but she would not answer them tonight. She stood staring deep into nowhere before she said, to no one in particular, “I wish his ass was here so they could have taken him away. I’m so sick of his shit.”
Then she walked into the house.
The sun was fully set now and the cops and mom’s fried chicken was long gone.
The effects of that beautiful terrifying day are complicated. A fear of cops. Never smoking weed. Flashes that trigger fear. A favorite color that is light blue like mom’s pants that day. And a fried chicken recipe that evokes comfort, not terror; safety, not danger.
Copyright 2020 by Myron J. Clifton. All Rights Reserved.