Even before her son was endure, Jesmyn Ward was preoccupied with one thing how she would prepare him for survival

Five years ago, I bore my first child, a daughter. She was born six weeks early. She was slow to cry and pale when she emerged from behind the tent shielding my stomach. In a reply that I am ashamed to admit, and one that I suspect was driving in stress, surprise and anaesthesia, my first words to her were,” Why is she so white ?” My obstetrician giggled as she began the work of preparing to stitch me back up. I lay there softly, stunned by facts: I was a mother. I had a child, a ghostly, long-limbed daughter, who was still curved from the womb.

On the eve of my daughter’s first birthday, I seemed as if I’d survived a gauntlet. I’d nursed her to plumpness, become attuned to her breathy yells as she adjusted to life outside my body, learned to follow a checklist whenever she was upset( Hungry? Dirty? Tired? Overstimulated ?). When my solutions to the list sometimes did not ease her to soothe, I learned to carry her and stroll, to say again and again in her ear the same phrase,” Mommy’s got you. Mommy’s got you. It’s OK, honey, Mommy’s got you .” I said it and felt a fierce enjoy in me rush to the rhythm of the words, a sure honesty. I meant it. I would always comprise her, have her, never let her fall.

When I found out I was pregnant again, I was happy. I wanted another child. But that happiness was gale with obses from the beginning: I was anxious about whether I could oversee two children, about whether or not I would be able to be a good mother to both my children equally, whether the thick desire I felt for my daughter would blanket my other child as well. And I was dreading pregnancy, the weeks of daily migraines, of random aches and pains.

As the months progressed, I developed gestational diabetes, and agonised over future prospects of another premature birth. I craved my second child to have the time in the womb my first didn’t. I wanted to give the second the safety and day my body failed to give the first. I likewise underwent an entire battery of tests for genetic abnormalities. A bonus of one of the tests was that I would discover the sex of the child I was carrying. When the nurse called to deliver my test outcomes, I was nervous. When she told me I was having a boy, my stomach turned to stone inside me and sank.” Oh God ,” I thought,” I’m going to bear a black boy into the world .” I faked joy to the white nurse and plummeted the phone after the call ended. Then I cried.

I wept because the first thing I thought of when the nurse told me I would have a son was my dead brother. He died 17 years ago this year, but his leaving seems as fresh as if he were killed just a month ago by a drunk motorist who would never be charged. Fresh as my heartache, which walks with me like one of their own children. It is ever-present, silent-footed. Sometimes, it surprises me. Like when I realise part of me is still waiting for my brother to return. Or when I realise how ferociously I ache to learn him again, to assure his dark eyes and his thin mouth and his even shoulders, to seem his bumpy palm or his buttery scalp or his downy cheeks. To hear him speak and laugh.

Jesmyn Ward and her son. Photograph: Beowulf Sheehan

I look back the phone on the flooring and thought of the little boy float 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 hit or run over by cars. Too many, one after another. A cousin here, a great-grandfather there. Some was dead before they were even age-old enough legally to buy alcohol. Some died before they could even referendum. The pain of their absence walkings 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 worlds” I was carrying my son into. A procession of dead black humen circled my bed. Philando Castile was shot and killed while his girlfriend and daughter were in the car. Alton Sterling was assassinated in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and the police who shot him were never held accountable for his murder, for hitting and killing the man who smiles in blurry scenes, 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 breather, and I was already mourning him.


I read endlessly 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 lord was operating her to fatality to pick just as much cotton as she could on a plantation in Mississippi. She was pregnant and bore small children. During the day, she left her child at the leading 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, slackened the accumulation of cotton bolls in her sacking. 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 newborn. She tried to ignore her child’s exclaims and focus on the rows, but still she lagged. The overseer alerted her again. The enslaved girl tried to stillnes her tender mother’s heart, but couldn’t; her infant’s yells muddled her movements, bound her fingers. The overseer noticed for the last hour, and in a fit of fury he stalked to the newborn 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 stimulate the wagon serviceable again. After I read this, I couldn’t help but suppose the woman, speechless and violated. Dragging her style through the American fields.

In a volume about maroon communities who escaped slavery in the US, I encountered more children, but these children were free, after a fashion. Their mothers fled bondage, stole themselves back from the masters who had stolen them. Often, these mothers delve caves in the groves of the south, along river banks. They delved out cabin-sized pits in the ground and built bumpy furniture from the timber around them. They surfaced from the cave only at night, as they were scared of being recaptured. They burned fires sparingly, constructed chimney tunnels that stretched metres from their underground abodes to divert the smoke from their dark homes. To trick their pursuers. Sometimes, they endure children around the caves. I suppose a woman squatting in the dark, panting against the ache, applying every bit of self-control she’d curried in the endless cotton battlegrounds to suppress her desire to call 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 created their children in the dark. During the working day, they eat underground, ran underground, amusing themselves as they ran by telling tales to one another. Sometimes, their parents let the children climb above ground at night to play-act among the inky trees in the light of the moon. The fright of that selection stayed with me as my son kicked at the bounds of my belly. How horrible to fear being caught and turned over to bondage, 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 childrens” were forever stooped from reading to walk below the caves’ walls, forever squinting against the too bright world.

The common weave of my reading and experience was this: black children are not awarded childhoods. When we were enslaved, most children were nuisances until age-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 determining them, stealing them, and selling them. After liberation, boys as young as 12 were charged with petty felonies such as vagrancy and loitering and sent to Parchman prison farm in Mississippi and re-enslaved; they worked to collapse in the cotton battlegrounds, laid way for railroads chained to other black boys, fell and vomited under Black Betty, the overseer’s lash, and died when they attempted to escape under the eye of the firearm, at the compassion of the tracking dog.

Today, the weight of the past endures heavily on the present. So now, black boys and girls are disciplined more than their white schoolmates. They are suspected of medication cope and strip-searched. If they fight one another 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 employees “. Police wrestle them to the ground in classrooms, torso slam them at pond parties in Texas. The country will not render them the gifts of children, as it recognizes them from the beginning as less than: a hooded danger in the making, a super predator in developing with a plaything firearm, a budding welfare queen. Perhaps this is what happens when small children 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 repressed, sequestered, restraint. Today, the stooping 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 two daughters, came early. I went into labour at 33 weeks. When medical doctors told me I was in labour, I did what I could to halt it. I took to my couch, 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 drew my son from my belly, he took a deep breath and wept, inhaled and wailed time and again. His arms flung out, his fingers and toes widespread. His torso arched in terror. The nurse briefly paused with him next to my face, and all I had eyes for were his tightly shut 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 colouring, the flap of his feet over his legs. I learned how to massage him to help his developing and digestion. He was all belly and chief, and when I comprised him to feed him, I marvelled at how thin his scalp 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, fastening even though his mouth should have been too small, his cheek muscles too weak. Once I took him home, he gained weight rapidly, armoured himself in fat. He developed fine motor abilities 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 indicated dimples as deep as my father’s. He charmed. When he flies with me, he stands in my lap and babblings to everyone boarding the plane. He leans over to our row teammates and caresses the other passenger’s limbs. White ladies with perfect teeth wearing impeccably tailored apparel smile at his sure, chubby fingers.

“He’s adorable,” they say.

White boys with crew cuts, ruddy necks and weathered faces, grinning 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 thumb so he will grab it, so he will shake their hand. He devotes 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 age-old he will be when the immaculate ladies cringe. When the ruddy humen will see a darknes of a firearm in his open palm. I know it will happen before he turns 17, since this is how age-old Trayvon Martin was when George Zimmerman stalked him through the street 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 becomes 12, since this is how age-old Tamir Rice was when police spotted him playing with a plaything gun in a park and kill him twice in the abdomen so that he died the next day.

To be safe, I choose I should tell him about his ghostly brethren by the time he is 10. I should tell him about Trayvon, about Emmett, about Tamir, before he enters puberty, before he loses his child fat, before his voice deepens and his chest widens. I have nine years to figure out how I will answer his first issue 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 topic 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 times. Darkening his innocence. That current realities of living as a black person, a black humankind in America will require me to cut short my lovely, gap-toothed boy’s childhood. In these moments, I belief I know a little of what it must have been like for those runaway mothers, who bent their children silent and blind to award 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 endowment of children in the hopes you can elevate them to adulthood.

I hope my boy is lucky. I hope he is never in the wrong day at the incorrect place on the wrong purpose 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 cook chocolate microchip cookies and whisper tales to him at bedtime and let him jump in muddy puddles after heavy rains, so he can know what it is to volley with rejoice. I hope he lives his early adolescence with a kernel of that exhilaration lodged in his nerve, wrapped in the fodder of my enjoy. I hope his natural will to thrive, to fight to flourish, is strong. I hope I never fail him. I hope he insures 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 PS16. 99. To ordering a photocopy for PS14. 44, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.

* Commenting on this part? If you would like your remark to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazine’s letters page in print, please email weekend @theguardian. com, including your name and address( not for publication ).

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