Interlude: Childhood, Emergency

27 Nov

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming – Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven

The news, again, is bad. A child, Tamir Rice, shot to death by police within two seconds of their arrival to the scene. Two seconds. An eye blink is about a third of a second. How long does it take to focus the eye? By what is the eye already focused?

The child was too young to have a criminal record. Young enough, at 12, that to claim he was “no angel” would have been extraordinarily obscene. Yet it did not take long before media agencies began looking into his parents’ past. Around dinner tables across the country, some black uncle or aunt or mother or father or grandparent or brother or sister is asking why the parents weren’t there, didn’t or couldn’t do more to protect him. People will solemnly nod, but they will know the truth. For too many black childhood is a gestation period, an interlude between a period of less-than-innocent babyhood and maturation into full social pathology. Black children, but not just black children, are denied childhood. Instead, they come to be the stuff of nightmares, youths who are simply younger versions of the terror they will embody. “A hallucination of your worst fears.”

If “for the children,” as Lee Edelman and others argued serves as a call to legitimate some forms of social reproduction and the delegitmate others, the opposite of childhood isn’t adulthood but youth. Childhood, or “our children,” represent a form of futurity that is basically the world continuing in perpetuity in the same form, even when we aren’t here, but the children are just versions of ourselves. Youths are dangerous, juvenile delinquents, social pathologies, the reproduction of the not-us that threatens to destroy “us.” Children must be protected, youths are a menace. Childhood is innocent, youth is reckless. Childhood is boundless potential, youth are potential threat, an interlude between birth and fully developed menace. Children must be protected from wayward youths.

This is all obviously racialized, and goes back to the moral panics surrounding urbanization, youths orphaned by wars, immigrant children orphaned by sickness and tenements, black youths beyond direct control. Youths perennially seem older than they are. Tamir Rice’s killer thought he was “about 20.”

When I was a child, my mother insisted that my brother and I should not have realistic-looking toy guns. For one thing, she didn’t want us glorifying violence, or normalizing black death. For another, even then, the news too often solemnly told the stories of boys shot dead by the police for holding toy guns that looked realistic, for holding toy guns that did not look realistic, such as those used to play Laser Tag. (Forgive me for not researching and appending links to the stories.)

By now “furtive movements” has entered the public lexicon as one of the reasons for being stopped and frisked. I for one was taught not to make sudden or ambiguous movements, not to talk back (if I had to speak at all it should be brief). For my mother knew, though she never put it this way, that being a black youth meant to some that I was a problem ready to explode. This is in the era when even black babies were stigmatized as “crack babies,” a category since called into question. Youths, such as “crack babies” are of an ontologically different category than children. They belong to a different time, that of the interlude, the imminent disaster, the emergency. They are the emergency, as Fanon already told us (“Look! A Negro!”) and as Du Bois told us before him.

This is just a short return to the idea of the interlude, that time between acts, that time of anticipation somewhere just short of dread that structures lives and non-lives. Continuing Robin Kelley’s theme about the state of war that shapes the black lifeworld, Rinaldo Walcott wrote:

Black people across North America are living in a state of emergency. It has been a long and unbroken state of emergency.

His title refers to NourbeSe Philip’s insistence on the need to defend the dead. The interlude is the time of waiting for death to emerge, of loving against the death we come up against, of building our lives against the emergency so constant that it does not seem to emerge at all, or seems to emerge only when something happens to remind us.

It’s Thanksgiving. I’m thankful for all of you who fight against the spectacular and quotidian forms of un-worlding and who make us think of black possibilities. I’m thankful for those powerful acts of black imagination that remake the world.

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