Black and white photograph of the poet Gwendolyn Brooks sitting on the couch with her daughter, Nora Blakely.

And they await,
across the Changes and the spiraling dead,
our Black revival, our Black vinegar,
our hands, and our hot blood.
— Gwendolyn Brooks

I try to act like it isn’t the case, but race is everywhere in my house. In the baby pictures and picnic photographs in our living room. In the color of the wood around those pictures — ebony, mahogany, and pine stained in deep browns and reds. Somebody else named the colors, but we chose the furniture. There are blue agate coasters on the end tables and various remotes — all black. Some sunlight, too, through the skylights and their colorful opportunities.

On one of our living room walls is a photograph of Jack Johnson, not family exactly, but lording over the end tables and couch like it is his living room. And it probably would be if there wasn’t another photograph — this one of Miles Davis and John Coltrane — on the opposite wall. Miles would be playing his trumpet, but he’s too busy staring all of us down. Coltrane’s saxophone is in his lap. He’s not staring, but listening, in the habit of Coltrane. All of the photographs are black and white.

Below the photo of Miles and Coltrane are shelves scattered with family pictures. Like the photos on the walls, they are all black-and-white exposure: my white in-laws, my white stepfather, and my black siblings and daughter, my white mother. All of us, black and white, in matching wooden frames. We are all smiling under the pressure of the camera. We are all framed by the pressures of race.

I stood with my back to that living room full of family pictures while I tried to talk with my daughter about how she needs to act when she gets pulled over by the cops. Miles was there watching. As was Johnson, my mother, and my in-laws in their respectively still positions. There was sunlight on my face but that wasn’t why I was sweating. I was sweating because I needed to have a conversation with my ten-year-old daughter about how she should carry herself in 2016 America. I was sweating because my white mother had to have the same conversation with me in 1985 America since my black father — whose mother or father had the conversation with him in 1963 America — has been out of our family picture so long it doesn’t even make sense to bring him up. I was sweating because I didn’t have any of the right words to make the conversation I needed to have with my daughter a conversation.

So, like any middle-aged jive talker, I tried to come up with a simile to do my work. I quickly figured out that there’s not really a simile for a country that allows violence to be such an insistent part of itself. There’s not a simile for the (not-so-secret) enthusiasm that precedes and follows the violence directed toward black and brown people. So I tried other things: verses from the Bible, quotes from songs, pop-up books, and lastly, poetry — an art built on finding names for unnamable things. Which led me to Gwendolyn Brooks and these lines from her poem, “Young Afrikans”:

If there are flowers flowers
must come out to the road. Rowdy! — 
knowing where wheels and people are,
knowing where whips and screams are,
knowing where deaths are, where the kind kills are.

My daughter is ten. She doesn’t know about boys yet and she wants to be a star of some undetermined variety — an opera singer or actor maybe. She is beautiful in every way the word beautiful signifies itself, with brown skin that gets some red in it under the summer sun. She’s got enormous, dark eyes and she never gets enough sleep so there is always a minor set of bags under them. She is graceful in the world in the way that someone who doesn’t think about the world is graceful.

And she will get pulled over by the cops, whether she’s singing at the Met or living in an artist’s house in Detroit. She is a flower and she needs to know “where wheels and people are” but I don’t have the right words. Trying to explain the cops to her while cloistered and relatively safe in Bloomington, Indiana, is as out-of-bounds as trying to explain the pistons that make the car turn to a daisy.

“Young Afrikans” is from Brooks’s book Family Pictures. The whole collection navigates the way beauty and self-worth can be taught and shared inside of the community even as the outside community works to devalue and resist those beauties. In Family Pictures, that devaluing often comes in some violent form and resistance requires anger, kindness, and awareness of that forthcoming violence. “Young Afrikans,” in particular, advocates for aggressive, aware resistance that might also include violence in return. What sat with me as I tried to form the right words was Brooks’s warning in the poem that even in kindness we must be mindful and hang onto our respective angers for clarity:

As for that other kind of  kindness,
if there is milk it must be mindful.
The milkofhumankindness must be mindful
as wily wines.
Must be fine fury.
Must be mega, must be main.

Right now my daughter has neither anger nor mindfulness and part of why the conversation was so full of stutters and stops is the future: both anger and mindfulness are waiting for her nearby on the other side of age ten. Especially if we still live in Indiana. When my daughter gets her driver’s license, she will get pulled over because she is not white and she herself will need to be “mindful / as wily wines.”

The same way my friends and I were when we got pulled over in Indianapolis at sixteen for being three blacks in a car. Or four blacks in a car. Or a solo black in a car. For being in a car. For having the audacity to know how to drive and having access to a car. For having the temerity to be black in a state that wants nothing to do with black behind a wheel or at a kitchen table or in a library. Or off of the basketball court and barely even on the court. You’ll find pictures of Bob Knight, Steve Alford, and Larry Bird everyplace, but nobody around knows what Oscar Robertson look like or if he got pulled over every weekend in high school.

Back when we got stopped frequently, we expected to get harassed: Hands on the car! Where are the drugs? The officers would keep us on the side of the road, guns in holsters and batons at the ready, for between 10–20 minutes. The passing cars, almost completely filled with white faces, respectfully slowed to avoid hitting the officers while also getting a good look at us for future reference. No doubt our radiologist neighbor inched by us in the family Astro minivan at some point. No doubt my math teacher and the lady with the wig who worked at Village Pantry saw us with our hands on the car. Occasionally one of us would get cuffed or popped with a baton, but it wasn’t often and was mainly for effect: intimidation through possibility and it worked. We were scared.

This was before a video recorder could fit in your hand. This was before Rodney King. We heard stories about people getting shot but they were always thirdhand from somebody’s cousin’s cousin’s ex-boyfriend. This was when urban legends and the mythology of police violence were enough to force my mother to give me the cop talk even though she’d never experienced it herself:

1. Get your insurance and registration out of the glove box before the cop gets to the window.
2. Keep your hands where the cop can see them at all times.
3. Cops aren’t your friends.

She told me the last one with some extra fury, making sure I understood they were her friends even if she didn’t want them to be. Which brings me back to Brooks’s “Young Afrikans.” The poem is full of instruction, maybe not tied directly to police violence, but certainly applicable. It’s hard for me to think of anything else when Brooks wraps the poem up with

And they await,
across the Changes and the spiraling dead,
our Black revival, our Black vinegar,
our hands, and our hot blood.

As I was mumbling around for wily words, staring at my hands, trying to remember any poetic platitude I might give to this confused child sitting before me, I realized that one of the hardest things about being a parent is figuring out when to crack down and when to let things ride. When to let the flowers “come out to the road. Rowdy!”

I love it when my daughter thinks she’s pulled a fast one on me, whether it’s sneaking an extra bite of dessert or getting in some extra screen time. I let that ride and enjoy getting bamboozled the whole time. My mother let most things ride, too, but something 
I did caused her to crack down one day in 1985. Something — maybe 
staying out a little too late, maybe one of my buddies got caught shoplifting — pushed my mother into cop talk.

My daughter didn’t do anything to instigate the talk. After the murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, after the trauma Castile’s fiancé Diamond Reynolds and her daughter endured    ...    no. After Sandra Bland and John Crawford III and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice and all of the other black men and women who should also be named here who have been murdered by police. After all of this death so very clearly tied to race, I knew it was time for the talk.

My mother and I were sitting in the HUD kitchen when we had the conversation. I was walking from the living room into the kitchen where my daughter was waiting, about to get into a PB&J and milk. It’s crazy how food is still the buffer for every conversation I don’t want to have. “We need to talk,” I said.

My daughter sat at the brown wooden table alternating between being confused and frightened, munching on that sandwich and looking for her mother to bail her out of what she thought was going to be yet another, When I was a kid    ...    lecture. Not this time. You have to be careful with the cops, I told her. That’s when she put down her milk, but the milk mustache was still there.

Originally Published: May 30th, 2017

Adrian Matejka was born in Nuremberg, Germany and grew up in California and Indiana. He earned his BA from Indiana University and an MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale. His first collection of poems, The Devil’s Garden (2003), won the 2002 New York / New England Award. His second collection, Mixology (2009), was a...