Martin Luther King (Eulogy for the Martyred Children, 1963)
In the middle of the back garden there once stood a rotary washing line with four arms where mum would use wooden pegs to fasten our wares to its fine plastic lines and wait for new wind to steal the old water and make our clean clothes wearable again.
It was there mum hung my periwinkle pyjama top with the navy blue cotton belt that I often wore to bed. I never wore the trousers, instead I fashioned the top into a sort of dress, cinching the waist so that the material below it would flare out like a frock, before placing an old white t-shirt over my head which became my hair.
In the dark of my bedroom at the top of the house, every night between the ages of 8 and 9 years old, I became a teenage white girl with a summer dress and long flowing blonde locks and my bed became my own Degrassi Junior High. I became Stephanie Kaye. Unlike Precious I did not want to be a white girl, but I wanted what that white girl had - packed lunches instead of school dinner; name brand instead of bastard trainers and the attention of the black boys.
One night, back in 1989, I went to the school disco, my hair was wrapped into a bun and my periwinkle dress was slashed at the back and tied at the waist. I danced in the dark to the music in my head until suddenly the bedroom light came on and there in the doorway of my room at the top of the house stood my Jamaican father. His dreadlocks were thicker, longer and more real than the soiled white t-shirt I had attached to my head. The belt that held his trousers together was much better than my navy blue cotton - which fell apart to reveal my naked black boy flesh - and was what he used to beat me.
I stood my ground and let my dad beat me without a fight. He had the right to beat me and I had the right to take it.
Whether he beat me because I was ruining the furniture or ruining my future was beyond me, but I had no idea at the time why my wrapping a t shirt on my head and putting my pyjama top on back to front would cause my dad such angst and alarm. Clothes it seemed, even when they came at a low cost, came with a high price attached. Worn in the wrong way, clothes gave men the right to beat us.
Fast-forward almost a quarter of a century and I do not wear dresses, wigs, heels or makeup. To many in my community, despite my proclivity for penetrating men, I turned out OK. In short, because I do not dress like a woman, I will not be harassed like one. According to a close friend, I dress like a man.
Given that I wear hooded tops to disguise my bodily shortcomings; I rarely shave; I despise fragrances on my skin or on any man and I do not spend copious amounts of time before a mirror, primping and preening, I would say I am closer to the modern woman than the modern metrosexual man, but who am I to say who I am.
Aside from my laziness being an incredible turn on (his words; not mine) for some men, there are no other benefits to being bedraggled. In fact, being bedraggled comes with as much drawbacks as being well-groomed for a black male in a developing nation, because though I can change the colour and style of my clothes to fit in, I cannot (and would not, may I add) change the colour of my skin, which means I never will fit wherever in may be.
The voice of the dominant culture has spoken regarding the recent death of a 17 year old black male and it says run and you will be chased; stand and you will fall.
Black skin. Can't win.
I have never been chased by a man wielding a weapon, but only because I have never run. Faced with attack, running is the smartest thing to do, but I have been taught by the same man who beat me from that doorway in 1989 that it is better to stand my ground, to fight like a man and die fighting rather than die running. This ideology is not uncommon to children of black parents. Running is seen as an act of cowardice. It is better to stand your ground, be beaten and die the death of a soldier than to run and escape with the life of a coward.
The Stand Your Ground law, far from being just a US legal means of self-defence is what black men are taught by their black fathers. My black father was never absent, he was always present in our home and whenever he beat me, I stood my ground. In my adolescent years when he expressed utter disgust at what he assumed to be my disgusting lifestyle, I stood my ground. When he hurled abuse, I stood my ground. When he tried to take my life, I stood my ground. When I survived the attack, I stood my ground in the dock, testified against him only to have him, like Zimmerman, acquitted.
I stood my ground when, aged 19, I was attacked by three white males. They flung a paving stone in the back of my head in South Bermondsey, London and were gone with the gust of wind that carried their fury and left the imprint of their ignorance in the back of my head. Years later, in a fit of verbal abuse, my dad said it was done because my clothes and my life were too colourful. The t-shirt I was wearing was the one he had brought me from Jamaica. It was the colours of the flag.
Dwayne Jones was a 17-year-old male cross-dresser from St James in Jamaica. His lifeless body was discovered with multiple stab and gunshot wounds last week after he was chased by a baying mob and killed after being caught dancing with a man while dressed as a woman. George Zimmerman chased Trayvon Martin and we all know how that ended - with a bullet in the heart.
They did the smart thing; the right thing and yet it still turned out so stupidly wrong.
I told a friend of mine my story of the periwinkle pyjama top two days back and we laughed. We laughed because it is funny. We laughed because it is uncomfortable. We laughed because we were sorry that a child could be beaten, not celebrated, for expressing himself. We laughed because black men used to be safe in the dark.
In a speech given late last week Barack Obama said: "When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. And another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago."
16 years ago I could have been Trayvon Martin.
16 years ago I could have been Dwayne Jones.
Children dress as they do to hide the fact that they fit into their clothes but they do not fit well in their skins, classrooms, communities and, often, families. Adolescence is a time when the body and mind are evolving rapidly and for young black men, who are taught by our parents to stand our ground, it is a time when we are afraid to do as we are told and so we are seen to be acting out. We are afraid to be unafraid like our fathers. We are too loud to be quietly fearless like our mothers and grandmothers who have held their peace and allowed their God to fight their battles. We are as afraid to run and live as we are to stand and fight. It is not disobedience. It is fear.
We can boycott Russain vodka. We can boycott Jamaica as a tourist destination. We can boycott Florida. Our boycotts may break the legislation but it would be better to break the system that produces and exonerates men who claim lives and claim to have been standing their ground. I stood my ground and no one died.
My dad was right - You can change the law, but it is best to change the lawbreaker.
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