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Personal History
June 29, 2020 Issue

My Mother’s Dreams for Her Son, and All Black Children
She longed for black people in America not to be forever refugees—confined by borders that they did not create and by a penal system that killed them before they died.
By Hilton Als
June 21, 2020
The author’s mother, Marie Als, left, in the nineteen-sixties.​Courtesy the author
By the late summer of 1967, when I turned seven, we’d been living in the house for six years. By “we,” I mean my mother, two of my four older sisters, and my little brother. And although we shared the place with a rotating cast of other relatives, including my mother’s mother and an aunt and her two children, I always considered it my mother’s home. The house was in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Like all the moves my mother engineered or helped to engineer for our family, this one was aspirational. Despite the fact that Brownsville had begun its slow decline into drugs, poverty, and ghettoization years before, my mother’s house—the only one in her life that, after years of work and planning, she would even partly own—symbolized a break with everything we had known before, including an apartment in Crown Heights, with a shared bathroom near the stairwell, where, on Sunday nights, my mother would line her daughters up with freshly laundered towels so that they could take their weekly bath.
Privacy was something my sisters had to get used to. Our new house had doors and a proper sitting room, which sometimes served as a makeshift bedroom for visiting Bajan relatives. (My mother’s family was from Barbados.) The sister I was closest to, a poetry-writing star who wore pencil skirts to play handball with the guys, composed her verse amid drifts and piles of clothes and kept her door closed. My brother and I shared a smaller room and a bed. My mother had her own room, where the door was always ajar; she didn’t so much sleep there as rest between walks up and down the hall to watch and listen for the safety of her children.
The Brownsville summer of 1967 was like every other Brooklyn summer I’d experienced: stultifying. Relief was sought at the nearby Betsy Head Pool, and at the fire hydrants that reckless boys opened with giant wrenches. The cold water made the black asphalt blacker in the black nights. Gossip floated down the street from our neighbors’ small front porches and from stoops flanked by big concrete planters full of dusty plastic flowers. Nursing a beer or a Pepsi, the grownups discussed far-off places like Vietnam. So-and-So’s son had come back from there all messed up, and now he was on the methadone. Then the conversation would shift to the kids. Every kid in our neighborhood was everyone else’s kid. Prying, caring eyes were everywhere. Sometimes the conversation stopped—just for a moment—as girls in summer dresses passed. Men and women alike looked longingly at those girls, for different reasons, as they ambled down the street, pretending to pay no mind to the fine-built boys who called to them from a distance.
In short, what one saw in that place on those nights was what my mother had been searching for: community. She was a proud member of Mary McLeod Bethune’s National Council of Negro Women, and had attended Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s 1963 March on Washington. When she reminisced about that march, it was with a vividness that made her children feel shy: sometime in the long ago, Ma had been part of history. Nonviolent organization, picket lines, and marches: all these strengthened our mother’s conviction that inclusion worked, that civil rights worked, that the black family could work, especially if welfare officers and other professionally concerned people—journalists and sociologists, say—paid attention to what a black mother built, rather than to how she failed. (“I don’t think a female running a house is a problem, a broken family,” Toni Morrison said in a 1989 interview. “It’s perceived as one because of the notion that a head is a man. . . . You need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child.”)
If Ma failed, then we failed, and she never wanted us to feel that. Something else Ma wanted: for black people in Brooklyn, in America, not to forever be effectively refugees—stateless, homeless,without rights, confined by borders that they did not create and by a penal system that killed them before they died, all while trying to rear children who went to schools that taught them not about themselves but about what they didn’t have.
And yet there was no way to save Ma’s idea of community and hope when, in September, 1967, our neighborhood changed forever. Someone, or a bunch of someones, heard that a young boy, a fourteen-year-old black kid, Richard Ross, had been killed by a cop—a detective named John Rattley—in Brownsville. Apparently, Rattley believed that Ross had mugged or was mugging an old Jewish man; as Ross tried to get away, Rattley shot him in the back of the head. In those years, black boys were locked up or killed all the time; you didn’t think about it much, because to think about it was to remember what a killing field New York was, and how easily you, too, could become a body in that field. The detail we hung on to in the flurry of hearsay and speculation was that Rattley was black. The activist Sonny Carson was big then; it was said that he was leading a demonstration, and it was coming our way.
Marches, protests, and the like were, we knew, a prelude to the racially motivated violence that had already cropped up in nearby Newark and other places, such as Detroit. For sure, Brownsville would get more messed up if the cops were involved; that was how demonstrations became riots. I remember that night—or was it late afternoon?—our mother walking us swiftly into the house and shutting all the doors and windows. Inside, it was lights-out. The air was close. We could hear our hearts beating. Peeking from behind one of the living-room curtains, I watched as the protesters started flinging bottles and stones at the cops, and our real world turned into a movie, a horror film in which everything we’d built together—home, hope, the illusion of citizenship—was torn to the ground. Black people, mostly men, were roaming the streets, periodically smashing car windows or overturning ashcans and torching rubbish. They were claiming what they felt to be a kind of freedom. As refugees, we knew that none of it belonged to us—not that shop, not that newly built pigeon coop—even as we knew that it did belong to us, emotionally speaking: it was all part of our community. Still, why not trash a universe that has trashed you?
Standing by my mother’s living-room window, I tried, tentatively, to ask her why our world was burning, burning. She gave me a forbidding look: Boy, be quiet so you can survive, her eyes seemed to say. Did I want to be another Richard Ross, one of the hundred or thousand Richard Rosses out there? So many questions I could not ask—among them, had our desire for community also been reduced to rubble and ash? The chaos that night—it would last for two days before life went back to “normal”—was more vivid to my burgeoning writer’s mind than what I could not see: our mother’s vivid memories of King’s promise of a promised land. Where was that? And was it different from—or superior to—the world my poetry-writing sister was gradually entering, through her admiration for a number of the musicians and poets associated with the Black Arts Movement? A world that promised a cataclysmic end to whiteness, if only we could carry arms and follow the teachings of early Malcolm X? Was my mother a “better” forecaster of what was to come than my sister? Martin and Malcolm, like protest marches and riots, belonged to different generations. Because I loved my sister and wanted to think as she did, I was, presumably, part of the “riot generation”; I knew about violence from the teasing, taunting black boys in my neighborhood, and Sly and the Family Stone’s dark and furious album “There’s a Riot Goin’ On,” released four years after the Brownsville uprising, stayed in my bones more than those of any weepy folksinger. But what about Ma and her dreams? I belonged to and was part of them as well.
Who would I be when the revolution finally came? A soldier for peace, or a man who might appear in “The True Import of Present Dialogue: Black vs. Negro,” a poem by the activist and writer Nikki Giovanni?
Can you kill
Can you kill
Can a nigger kill
Can a nigger kill a honkie
Can a nigger kill the Man
Can you kill nigger
Huh? nigger can you
Do you know how to draw blood
Can you poison
Can you stab-a-Jew
Can you kill huh? nigger
Can you kill
Can you run a protestant down with your
’68 El Dorado
(that’s all they’re good for anyway)
Can you kill . . .
A nigger can die
We ain’t got to prove we can die
We got to prove we can kill . . .
But my brother and I weren’t niggers. And if called upon we wouldn’t have been able to protect our mother and our sisters. Whom could we rely on to protect them, let alone us? Would the young black men with bats and other weapons who were flitting down our street—they seemed to leap as they walked—come for us? Would they save us? Or destroy us, too? No door or lock could keep them out.

Our bad! It looks like we're experiencing playback issues.
Ma had her girls first. I wonder what it was like for her to try to understand boys—to rear boys who were not a threat to women, who would grow up to support women’s dreams and protect them. In her world, men came and went and were Something Else. My brother and I were different, and, although we were our mother’s familiars, I wonder if she eyed our difference unbelievingly at times, even as she nurtured it.
When we finally left our house in Brownsville, we walked out into a changed world. Apparently, while we were inside, Lloyd Sealy, who was then the commander of Brooklyn’s North Borough, had ramped up the police presence in the area. One way to control unruly, ungovernable refugees, of course, is to remind them that they are guests of a mighty police state. Every billy club that cracks open a black skull anywhere is proof of that. Once we learned that Sealy was black, too, we bent low in sorrow, or rose with arms high in grief and anger. What had civil rights wrought? Were powerful black men mere functionaries for a white administration? Did black lives not matter to them, then or ever?
Brownsville was not their home. Was it even ours? The world that Ma desired just wasn’t possible yet. We were still refugees living within certain borders. We would live and die in this amount of space and no more. Emerging from our mother’s house, we smelled burning tires and bedding. (Our house was relatively unharmed.) I don’t remember my mother crying; I remember entering that fetid air in silence. But you could hear our community mourning the loss of itself, if you knew how to listen; mourning was our language. The world around us was not the one we had worked hard to achieve but the quiet, degraded world that our not-country said we deserved. We couldn’t keep nothing, the elders said, not even ourselves.
Had the uprising been a kind of temper tantrum? Acted out by a community that was, like me, looking for a black man it could trust to protect and lead it? Rattley, Sealy, my only occasionally live-in father: there had been so many disappointments. Someone said that Sonny Carson had helped to quiet folks down. Someone said that a young Muslim man, a local youth-group leader, had also helped to calm things by serving as a liaison between the police and the crowds. Someone said that Mayor John V. Lindsay was around. And then there he was, our first celebrity, a tall white man, trailed by a group of photographers and tired-looking black people, walking through our streets, or someone’s streets, surveying the damage. Lindsay also served on President Lyndon Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, more commonly known as the Kerner Commission, which had been established after riots took place in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Detroit. He had access to a world beyond what we knew, and now he turned his attention to me, in this world. He took my hand. He was beautiful, like a star from a movie I had never seen. Mixed with the confusion and the vague erotics of the moment—it was a thrill to feel my small hand in his big one (was he my father?), though I had already learned to hide that part of myself—was my silent bewilderment over the fact that poverty and frustration could be an opportunity for a photograph, though no one asked us what it was like to lose a home or to dream of living in one.
Hope dies all the time. And yet we need to believe that it will come back and attach itself to a new cause—a new love, a new house, something that gives us a sense of purpose, which is ultimately what hope is. Ma always had hope, because she knew that it had helped to change the world, her black world. But I had no clear examples, growing up, of what might make a difference in mine. Guns? Death? Poetry? Would any of it dismantle the economic discrepancies, for instance, that defined our de-facto underclass, that kept us scavenging for a lifeline, even if it was just a pair of sneakers snatched through a pane of broken glass? When I finally saw the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., in person, the black-and-white pictures of King’s historic gathering there played in my head, but alongside memories of 1975’s Human Kindness Day. Established in 1972, Human Kindness Day—a series of exhibitions, concerts, and literary events meant to inspire racial pride—was spearheaded by the National Park Service, the D.C. Recreation Department, and Compared to What?, Inc., a nonprofit organization for the advancement of the arts. Each year, a concert by a great black artist capped off the festival—Roberta Flack the first year, Nina Simone the next. But in 1975, when Stevie Wonder was the headliner, vandalism broke out. Hundreds of folks were robbed and injured. It’s cited as an early example of “wildin’,” but, when discussing it, people rarely mention the recession of the mid-seventies, or the way that bringing together haves and have-nots lent a stage, yet again, to the drama of inequality.
It was a drama that I saw play out, over and over again, as I was growing up. I don’t remember when we moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant, but demonstrations and riots followed us there. Then, after a time, we moved to Crown Heights again; riots followed us there, too. No place was safe, because wherever we congregated was unsafe. The laws of real estate, economics, and racism made us unsafe. To cops. To landlords. To social workers, who “visited” our houses whenever they felt like it to see if our mothers were entertaining men (and, by implication, getting paid for it). To shopkeepers, who didn’t understand that the deprivations of poverty were a pretty good incentive for us to take what we’d never be able to buy. To schoolteachers, who weren’t paid to care. To a society that demanded our gratitude for the dried gruel at the bottom of the bowl which it tossed us after years of scarcely remunerated labor. To the black men whom we wanted to stay, but who couldn’t for fear that our vulnerability would compound their own.
The question for me from Brownsville on was: how would I protect my mother and the other women in my family when the riots came again (and they always came)? Adults are supposed to protect children, yes, but when I was growing up it didn’t necessarily work that way. It wasn’t that your mother didn’t care—you were all she had—it was just that she kept running out of time. In addition to her full-time job—and, often, a second job—there was the work that went into feeding you, listening to you, and making sure no one laughed at you or cracked you in the face because you had dreams.
As a boy in Brownsville and in Bed-Stuy, I was tormented by the question of protection, because, of course, I, too, wanted to be protected. Like any number of black boys in those neighborhoods, I grew up in a matrilineal society, where I had been taught the power—the necessity—of silence. But how could you not cry out when you couldn’t save your mother because you couldn’t defend yourself? Although I had this in common with other guys, something separated me from them when it came to joining those demonstrations, to leaping in the air when black bodies were threatened. My distance had to do with my queerness. The guys who took the chance to protect their families and themselves were the same guys who called me “faggot.”
For a while, I thought their looting and carrying on had to do with enacting a particular form of masculinity: if white men and cops could wreak havoc in the world, why couldn’t they? But, as I grew older, I realized that part of their acting out had to do with how we were brought up. They weren’t trying to be men—they were already men—but in order to have the perceived weight of white men they had to reject, to some degree, the silence they had learned from their mothers. If they were going to die, they were going to die screaming.
The silence that I was taught as a means of survival no longer fits me, either. But I know that I wouldn’t have given it up entirely—it’s hard to give up, Ma—if Christian Cooper hadn’t shown me another way in Central Park last month, if that fifty-seven-year-old thinker hadn’t woken up next to his slumbering boyfriend, then left their shared love to look at birds, which he loved, too. By example, Cooper showed me that I was not alone. When a white woman tried to endanger him with a lying 911 call (“An African-American man is threatening my life!”), he did not run, and he did not, on a profound level, engage with his attacker’s theatrics of racism. Cooper’s actions that day said, Listen to yourself, not to your accuser, because your accusers are always listening to their own panic about your presence. And if what they are saying—or shouting—threatens your personal safety, protect yourself by any means necessary. If you can protect yourself, you’ll be around to love and take care of more people, and be loved and taken care of in return.
I don’t entirely agree with the great Ralph Ellison when he says, in his 1989 essay “On Being the Target of Discrimination,”
It isn’t necessarily through acts of physical violence—lynching, mob attacks, or slaps to the face, whether experienced firsthand or by word of mouth—that a child is initiated into the contradictions of segregated democracy. Rather, it is through brief impersonal encounters, stares, vocal inflections, hostile laughter, or public reversals of private expectations that occur at the age when children are most perceptive to the world and all its wonders.
The truth is that nothing is impersonal when it comes to racism, or the will to subjugate. Every act of racism is a deeply personal act with an end result: the unmooring diminishment of the person who is its target. If you have suffered that kind of erasure, you are less likely to know who you are or where you live. My brother has suggested that we moved so much when we were kids because our mother kept looking for safety. I don’t remember exactly how many times we moved; in those days, my focus was on trying to win people over, the better to protect my family, or—silently—trying to fend off homophobia, the better to protect myself. My being a “faggot” was one way for other people to feel better about themselves. My being a “faggot” let cops know what they weren’t.
At present, I live in a predominantly white neighborhood in Manhattan. For a number of reasons, I was stuck at home when the demonstrations started downtown last month. Panic set in when I heard the helicopters flying low and the police sirens going. I was convinced that the cops would run across my roof and, on seeing my black ass sitting in an apartment in a neighborhood where I had no business being, would shoot me dead. I asked a white male friend to come and be with me.
What I felt during that first wave of panic was a muscle memory of riots and rootlessness; the thought of those cops took away my feeling of being at home in my home. The real-as-hell feelings I had in my apartment that evening before my friend got there were also a metaphor, but I don’t know for what kind of story—and if it is all a story where do I put Richard Ross? Where do I put George Floyd, whose murder by a white police officer in Minneapolis launched those demonstrations? Where do I put Tony McDade, the black trans man who was killed by a police officer in Tallahassee on May 27th? Or Breonna Taylor, shot to death in her bed by Louisville police in March? Or Robert Fuller, whose death by hanging, in Palmdale, California, this month may have been a suicide or may have been a lynching, and how horrible it is that either is possible, in a world hellbent on a certain kind of extinction? And why are these stories becoming conflated? That is, why have they become one story in the media’s mind—a story of black death and black uprising and black hope and regeneration? Inevitably, we are losing sight of the individual stories, because it takes too long to consider them one by one. The rope around Robert Fuller’s neck becomes Billie Holiday trying to breathe out the choking words as she sings:
Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
Are we a strange crop, constantly provoking strange responses—which are now out in the open, because, truth to tell, black people are also an important revenue stream, and Hulu wants to show us that, by streaming the “black stories” in its archives? Hulu is only one of any number of media outlets that are rushing blindly to show their solidarity with the cause, without mentioning the financial and political benefits that may accrue to them. We all hurt, but some of us want to continue to be paid. And what will the world look like after this period becomes just another moment in history (and it will). Will there be a backlash? Will culture become tired of his blackness and her difference and revert to what it’s always reverted to—Andrew Wyeth-tinted dreams, impatience, or downright amnesia once black lives mattering doesn’t pay, in all senses of the word? Is this all one story?
I keep looking for the loneliness inherent in black life, our refugee status dressed up in self-protective decorum, because if you can get to your loneliness and articulate it you can also begin to talk about community, and why it is needed in life, too. My community is my memory, which includes the image of my late best friend—he died of aids thirty years ago now—who was white and Catholic, being beaten up outside a gay Asian club he was exiting, and me asking later, when he showed up with blood on his jacket, if he’d called the police, and him staring me dead in the eye and saying, “Why bother?” I looked at him and heard the terrifying sound of him being punched in the head because he was interested not only in his own queerness but in Something Else, a gay world where he was not looking in a mirror but was a guest in someone else’s home.
Is this all one story? As a writer, I inhabit a world or worlds where the prevalent ethos is presumed to be liberal, but I can’t remember a time when the publishing industry, like other institutions devoted to the arts—museums, Broadway—didn’t come down on the side of fashion and power. At meetings and parties, one spends a great deal of time with people I call the collaborators—functionaries in service to power—who’ll step on your neck to get to the next fashionable Negro who can explain just what is happening and why. When white America asks black artists in particular to speak about race, it’s almost always from the vantage point of its being a sort of condition, or plight, and, if those collaborators can actually listen, what they want to hear is, Who are we in relation to you? In his powerful essay “Within the Context of No-Context,” published in this magazine in 1980, George W. S. Trow described that phenomenon further:
During the nineteen-sixties, a young black man in a university class described the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century as “belonging” to the white students in the room, and not to him. This idea was seized on by white members of the class. They acknowledged that they were at one with Rembrandt. They acknowledged their dominance. They offered to discuss, at any length, their inherited power to oppress. It was thought at the time that reactions of this type had to do with “white guilt” or “white masochism.” No. No. It was white euphoria. Many, many white children of that day felt the power of their inheritance for the first time in the act of rejecting it, and they insisted on rejecting it . . . so that they might continue to feel the power of that connection. Had the young black man asked, “Who is this man to you?” the pleasure they felt would have vanished in embarrassment and resentment.
Why embarrassment and resentment? Because what passes for intellectual inquiry at cocktail parties and in many contemporary institutions is a way of masking the continued and seemingly endless grip that the cultural status quo has on blacks and whites alike. And, if you confront your white interlocutor with that truth, he has to confront why he thinks that he and his culture are better than yours. You may have blackness, but we have Rembrandt. Or, in the words of Saul Bellow, “Who is the Tolstoy of the Zulus? The Proust of the Papuans? I’d be happy to read them.”
Who will tell this story? Many of us and none of us. Because the “exceptional” black artists who are asked to sit around the fire and explain why riots, why death, or why a child has a mother and not a father, have a built-in expiration date: they function as translators of events and rarely as translators of their own stories, their own loneliness in a given place and time. As my friend sat with me earlier this month to help ease the terror I felt on hearing the helicopters, I thought about what certain other writers might have made of this place and time if life and our segregated society hadn’t exhausted them long ago: Richard Wright, dead at fifty-two. Nella Larsen, prematurely silenced. Zora Neale Hurston, broke and forgotten by the time she was sixty. Wallace Thurman, drunk and disgraced, dead at thirty-two, and, of course, James Baldwin, fatigued and lonesome, dead at sixty-three. Imagine all the things they didn’t say because they couldn’t say them. All those journeys abroad, all the shutting themselves off from the world.
Was it worth it, Ma? (You yourself died at sixty-two.) Was it worth Richard Wright spending so long on his book-length essay, “White Man, Listen!” (1957), in which he wrote about racism and his hopes for African nationalism, with all the sense and confusion that was in him? Racism can break your heart, break your body. Did Wright, Baldwin, Chester Himes, W. E. B. Du Bois, and so many others forgive their country before the end or did they die screaming? They were my parents, too. Are destruction and hope my only models? Ma, tell me where to begin this story, which will have to include your fear of my death—I’m sorry. Because we are all dying. Shall I begin by showing the collaborators the wounds I’ve suffered on the auction block of gay and black life and culture? Or should I shut up and learn forgiveness on top of forgiveness?
O.K., Ma, maybe forgiveness is the way, because I love you. But can I forgive myself for forgiving? For the temerity of wanting to be an artist and eating shit to support that impulse? An impulse, Ma, that you supported from the very beginning by writing your comments on the stories I shared with you (“Very good. Mommy”), just as you supported all those poems my sister wrote in her bedroom with the door closed in Brownsville. I’ve lived with forgiveness for so long—surely there is another language, a different weight on the soul?
Ma, can I forgive the white movie executive who thought it might be “fun” to tell our black host at a luncheon that he’d confused him with another black man? Can I forgive the white Dutch director who asked me to step in for a black actor—to play the character of an old family retainer—since I was, you know, black myself? Can I forgive the self-consciously “queer” white academic at a prestigious Eastern university who made disparaging remarks about my body in front of his class—I was his guest speaker—because he wanted to make a point about one of my “texts”? Can I forgive the white editors who ask me who the next James Baldwin might be, so that they can stay on top of the whole black thing? Can I forgive the white female patron of the arts who, after I’d given a lecture in Miami, at a dinner that was ostensibly in my honor, turned the party against me because I hadn’t paid more attention in my speech to an artist whose work she collected? Can I forgive the white former fashion-magazine editor who promised me a job but then discovered that his superiors would never hire a black man? Can I forgive the white magazine writer who, a day or two after I was hired by this magazine, yelled at me in front of friends—with whom I was celebrating the occasion—that I had been hired only because I was black? Can I forgive the white musician who “accidentally” faxed me a racist drawing that her child had made in school, which she thought was funny and his teacher saw no reason to criticize? Can I forgive the white couple who, at a memorial for a friend, made it a point to tell me they’d had no idea that I was so big and so black? Can I forgive the white book editor who said on a first date that his family had had some financial interest in Haiti, where they had owned people “just like you”? Can I forgive the white arts benefactress in Boston who, at another dinner after another lecture, told the table how much she’d loved spirituals as a child, and said, rhetorically, “Who doesn’t love Negro spirituals?” Can I forgive the white woman who sat next to me at a Chinese restaurant while I was enjoying a quiet dinner by myself and leaned over to ask if I was a cast member of “Porgy and Bess,” which was playing across the street? Can I forgive the white curator who shapes much of the city’s, if not the world’s, understanding of modern art, who, exhausted by the whole question of inclusion and apropos of an exhibition at her institution, said, “I’m just not into Chinese art”? Can I forgive the white editor who invited me to lunch and during the course of the meal defended his use of the word “nigger” in one of his predominantly white college classes with the Lenny Bruce argument that the only way to defuse the word is to take its power away by speaking it, and added that, besides, one heard it used all up and down Lenox Avenue, in Harlem, and what about that? The old model—Ma’s model—was not to give up too much of your power by letting your oppressor know how you felt. But, Ma, I was dying anyway, in all that silence.
You get it only when the shit happens to you, too; we all know that. And now the effects of our segregated democracy are happening to you. And now you can see or understand that, all along, I’ve been trying to get along, just like you. The way Ma taught me. To be independent and help my chosen family. I’ve tried to make a living at something I love and to explore the intricacies of love, just like you. I’ve lost friends and forgotten to pay a credit-card bill, just like you. But I wasn’t allowed to be like you. And now my “other” is happening to you. Now degradation and moral compromise and your body breaking down are happening to you. Because Donald Trump has happened to you. Oxycontin has happened to you. Broken families have happened to you. Gun violence—in schools, in supermarkets, in movie theatres, at concerts—has happened to you, along with riots, and frustration, and cops who can’t pass up an opportunity to flash their guns and their batons in your presence, even as you search for home, even as the dream comes tumbling, tumbling, tumbling down. ♦
A previous version of this article misstated the manner in which “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” was recorded.
Race, Policing, and Black Lives Matter Protests
Published in the print edition of the June 29, 2020, issue, with the headline “Homecoming.”
Hilton Als, a staff writer at The New Yorker, won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for criticism. He is the author of “White Girls” and an associate professor of writing at Columbia University.
Racial Injustice in America
Essays and Commentary on Race and Racism
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