Jesmyn Ward and her son. Photograph: Beowulf Sheehan
I looked at the phone on the floor and thought of the little boy swimming inside me and of the young men I know from my small community in DeLisle, Mississippi, who have died young. There are so many. Many are from my extended family. They drown or are shot or run over by cars. Too many, one after another. A cousin here, a great-grandfather there. Some died before they were even old enough legally to buy alcohol. Some died before they could even vote. The pain of their absence walks with their loved ones beneath the humid Mississippi sky, the bowing pines, the reaching oak. We walk hand in hand in the American South: phantom children, ghostly siblings, spectre friends.
As the months passed, I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake at nights, worrying over the world I was bearing my son into. A procession of dead black men circled my bed. Philando Castile was shot and killed while his girlfriend and daughter were in the car. Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the police who shot him were never held accountable for his murder, for shooting and killing the man who smiles in blurry pictures, for letting him bleed out in front of a convenience store. Eric Garner choked against the press of the forearm at his throat. “I can’t breathe,” he said. “I can’t breathe.”
My son had never taken a breath, and I was already mourning him.
I read incessantly while I was pregnant. Because I could not sleep, I often woke and read in the early hours. At the time, I was doing research for my fourth novel, which is set in New Orleans and Louisiana during the height of the domestic slave trade. One day, I read about an enslaved woman whose master was working her to death to pick as much cotton as she could on a plantation in Mississippi. She was pregnant and bore a child. During the day, she left her child at the edge of the cotton field where others would watch it, so she could toil down the rows. She had no choice. Her child cried, and it distracted her, slowed the accumulation of cotton bolls in her sack. The overseer noticed. He told her to mind her row, not her child. Still, it was as if she was sensitive to the keening of the baby. She tried to ignore her child’s cries and focus on the rows, but still she lagged. The overseer warned her again. The enslaved woman tried to silence her tender mother’s heart, but couldn’t; her infant’s cries muddled her movements, bound her fingers. The overseer noticed for the last time, and in a fit of rage he stalked to the infant crying for milk at the edge of the field and killed it. In the overseer’s estimation, the mother was a machine – a wagon, perhaps, made to bear and transport loads. The child: a broken wheel. Something to remove to make the wagon serviceable again. After I read this, I couldn’t help but imagine the woman, speechless and broken. Dragging her way through the American fields.
In a book about maroon communities who escaped slavery in the US, I encountered more children, but these children were free, after a fashion. Their parents fled slavery, stole themselves back from the masters who had stolen them. Often, these parents dug caves in the forests of the south, along river banks. They dug out cabin-sized holes in the ground and built rough furniture from the wood around them. They surfaced from the cave only at night, as they were scared of being recaptured. They burned fires sparingly, built chimney tunnels that stretched metres from their underground abodes to divert the smoke from their dark homes. To trick their pursuers. Sometimes, they bore children in the caves. I imagine a woman squatting in the dark, panting against the pain, using every bit of self-control she’d curried in the endless cotton fields to suppress her desire to scream as her body broke open and she delivered. The smell of river water and wet sand under her toes.
The women who’d freed themselves raised their children in the dark. During the day, they ate underground, worked underground, amusing themselves as they worked by telling stories to one another. Sometimes, their parents let the children climb above ground at night to play among the inky trees in the light of the moon. The horror of that choice stayed with me as my son kicked at the bounds of my belly. How horrible to fear being caught and returned to slavery, to torture, to inhuman treatment; how omnipresent that fear must have been. How the parents had to sacrifice their children’s lives to save them. There are legends that say that after emancipation, their parents introduced the children of the caves to the sunlit world, and the children were forever stooped from learning to walk below the caves’ walls, forever squinting against the too bright world.
The common thread of my reading and experience was this: black children are not granted childhoods. When we were enslaved, our children were nuisances until old enough to work and sell. When we escaped to freedom, black children were liabilities, forced to bend low under the weight of a system intent on finding them, stealing them, and selling them. After emancipation, boys as young as 12 were charged with petty crimes such as vagrancy and loitering and sent to Parchman prison farm in Mississippi and re-enslaved; they worked to collapse in the cotton fields, laid track for railroads chained to other black men, fell and vomited under Black Betty, the overseer’s whip, and died when they attempted to escape under the eye of the gun, at the mercy of the tracking dog.
Today, the weight of the past bears heavily on the present. So now, black boys and girls are disciplined more than their white schoolmates. They are suspected of drug dealing and strip-searched. If they fight each other or talk back to teachers in school, school officials press charges and call the police. (This is the school-to-prison pipeline.) They are segregated into poorer schools. Their schools crumble, starved for funds. They are issued textbooks that warp history, that lie to them and tell them their stolen ancestors were “guest workers”. Police wrestle them to the ground in classrooms, body slam them at pool parties in Texas. The state will not afford them the gifts of childhood, as it marks them from the beginning as less than: a hooded menace in the making, a super predator in training with a toy gun, a budding welfare queen. Perhaps this is what happens when a child can no longer be commodified, no longer be bought and sold. When a nation reinvests through the centuries in the idea that allows it to flourish: the other must be subdued, sequestered, constrained. Today, the stooped children walk in the daylight, but they die in that daylight, too.
Even though I did everything I could to prevent a premature birth, my son, like my daughter, came early. I went into labour at 33 weeks. When my doctor told me I was in labour, I did what I could to halt it. I took to my bed, watched movies and read. My attempts at relaxation didn’t work. I went to the hospital and delivered by caesarean early the next October morning. When they pulled my son from my stomach, he took a deep breath and wailed, inhaled and wailed again and again. His arms flung out, his fingers and toes widespread. His body arched in panic. The nurse briefly paused with him next to my face, and all I had eyes for were his tightly closed eyes, his sobbing mouth. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.”
My son was four pounds when he was born, and I worried about him in his incubator, anxious over his weight, his colour, the flap of his feet over his legs. I learned how to massage him to help his development and digestion. He was all stomach and head, and when I held him to feed him, I marvelled at how thin his skin seemed. How fragile he seemed. But he seemed to have little regard for my trepidation. From his first weeks of life, he ate voraciously, sucking down bottles of milk easily, latching even though his mouth should have been too small, his cheek muscles too weak. Once I took him home, he gained weight quickly, armoured himself in fat. He developed fine motor skills on par with children born on time. My son, it seemed, was up for the fight to live.
When his face grew to a fat moon, my son smiled and showed dimples as deep as my father’s. He charmed. When he flies with me, he stands in my lap and babbles to everyone boarding the plane. He leans over to our row mates and caresses the other passenger’s arms. White ladies with perfect teeth wearing impeccably tailored clothing smile at his sure, chubby fingers.
“He’s adorable,” they say.
White men with crew cuts, ruddy necks and weathered faces, grin at him. “I’m sorry,” I tell them. “He likes to touch people.”
“It’s OK,” they reply. “He’s so friendly!”
They reach out a finger so he will grab it, so he will shake their hand. He gives them a high five, then my boy turns to the window to shriek and slap the glass, to attempt to converse with the luggage handlers. I hug his soft bottom, his doughy legs, and wonder at what age my wispy-haired, social boy will learn that he can’t reach out his hand to every stranger. I wonder how old he will be when the immaculate ladies flinch. When the ruddy men will see a shadow of a gun in his open palm. I know it will happen before he turns 17, since this is how old Trayvon Martin was when George Zimmerman stalked him through the streets of a Florida suburb and killed him. I know it will happen before he turns 14, since this is how old Emmett Till was when Carolyn Bryant lied that he whistled at her, and then Roy Bryant and John William Milam kidnapped him, beat him, and mutilated him before dumping him into the Tallahatchie river. I know it will happen before he turns 12, since this is how old Tamir Rice was when police spotted him playing with a toy gun in a park and shot him twice in the abdomen so that he died the next day.
To be safe, I decide I should tell him about his ghostly brothers by the time he is 10. I should tell him about Trayvon, about Emmett, about Tamir, before he enters puberty, before he loses his baby fat, before his voice deepens and his chest broadens. I have nine years to figure out how I will answer his first question about his phantom siblings: Why? Why did they die? I am grateful for the time I have to formulate my reply. But I am also angry, because I know when I answer his question about all the black people America has broken, stolen, ground down, and killed, I will be denying his childhood. Burdening him with understanding beyond his years. Darkening his innocence. That the reality of living as a black person, a black man in America will require me to cut short my lovely, gap-toothed boy’s childhood. In these moments, I think I know a little of what it must have been like for those runaway parents, who bent their children silent and blind to grant them adulthood. That I know a little of what it must have felt like to snatch bolls in the fields, to hear the soft-bellied baby crying and deny the infant milk. To deny your child the gift of childhood in the hopes you can raise them to adulthood.
I hope my boy is lucky. I hope he is never in the wrong time at the wrong place on the wrong end of a weapon. I hope he is never vulnerable with those who wish to harm him. I hope I love him enough in the time I have with him, that while he can be a child, I give him the gifts of a childhood: that I bake chocolate chip cookies and whisper stories to him at bedtime and let him jump in muddy puddles after heavy rains, so he can know what it is to burst with joy. I hope he survives his early adolescence with a kernel of that joy lodged in his heart, wrapped in the fodder of my love. I hope his natural will to thrive, to fight to thrive, is strong. I hope I never fail him. I hope he sees 12 and 21 and 40 and 62. I hope he and his sister bury me. I hope. I hope. I hope.
• Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward, is published next week by Bloomsbury at £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.
• Commenting on this piece? If you would like your comment to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email email@example.com, including your name and address (not for publication).