When a Person Goes Missing

Freedom, she asks: What is it?

Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Portrait. 2010–2011, collage. 7 × 15". Photo by Constance Mensh. Courtesy of the artist and Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia.

When my brother was a teenager and I was in grade school, he let some bullying kids from his high school persuade him to skip the day and invite them over to our house. He asked them to leave, but the boys refused. So my brother grabbed our father’s shotgun and corralled them into the bathroom, the barrel pointed in their direction. The bathroom door now locked from the inside, my brother held the gun, luckily, up toward the ceiling, so that when his finger slipped and the mechanism went off, the bullet with its massive force went through the second-floor ceiling, the attic, and then out the roof of the house into the sky. How the rest of the family received the details of the incident, I can’t recall. But to travel home now is to walk beneath the hole in the ceiling stuffed with newspaper from 1978. To return is also to encounter the past lurking behind me, contorting its face so I can really feel it—its truncated force, whispering a ghost voice into my ear.

If I believed in omens, I’d say the shotgun incident was the worst of omens, literary in its foreshadowing. We can smell a hint of devastation, can’t we, a scent we can’t quite recognize on first whiff but turn our noses away from knowingly. Where will our characters end up? Our armed protagonist? The girl who tells the story? When I began writing this essay I wanted it to be about fate—how two black kids raised by the same working-class parents could have radically different life outcomes because, as fate would have it, divergent occurrences compel divergent paths. Bruce never went back to the high school with the bullying boys. He dropped out. It’s around this time that my parents got a call in the middle of the night that Bruce was in custody at the local precinct for being caught in a stolen car. It was the 1970s and no charges were pressed, boys being boys. That night, my father beat my brother mercilessly with a washing machine hose in the dank basement of our house. The chaos of a violence like that is astonishing. The cacophonous screaming. The inability of anyone to stop it. The cold pallor that hangs in the air afterward. A chasm emerged between us—me, floating off like some wandering balloon; my brother tethered tightly to a familiar story of trouble and poverty, like most of the kids in our neighborhood.

But the question of fate is a fake question. It’s a refusal to see how the good daughter is a part of the problem. As a kid, I was the exception, the one who would “make it out of the ghetto,” the one bused out of town for school. I liked being the exception. I loved the ways people’s eyes would glimmer when I told them any little thing about my life, or when I simply said anything aloud. “So well spoken,” the middle-class blacks would say. I basked, annoyingly, in their glow. I didn’t mind either when my brother failed, because his failure meant my light shone even brighter.

When Bruce is 17, already dropped out of high school, and I am 11, I’m allowed to go on ski vacations with the white families whose children I go to school with. I can’t ski, but they are patient. I don’t notice that I’m the only black face on the Vermont slopes. On the first trip, I’ve brought with me my beloved copy of Thoreau’s Walden; or, Life in the Woods, not that I could understand much of it. I loved it anyway for its mysteriousness, and for how its I stands so solidly in the wilderness.

Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines, or rather indicates, his fate.

When I return home, I look up each word that confuses in the hardcover Webster’s Dictionary. I discover whole worlds of rebelliousness in Thoreau’s words, fascinated by the prospect of being “born in the open pasture and suckled by a wolf.”

I was drawn to orphan stories of all sorts, especially ones about wolves raising children. To stoke that fantasy, I also read the novel Julie of the Wolves, about an orphan Inuit girl, several times. After being sexually assaulted by Daniel, whom she stupidly marries even though he clearly has some kind of severe mental disability, Julie runs off to live in the Alaskan tundra with a wolf pack. I had some idea from Walden and Julie of the Wolves of a totalizing and enduring freedom of the wild—one that can only be obtained outside human society, particularly human family structures. By middle school, I already had this idea of myself as a person akin to Thoreau’s first person, who would thrive by dropping out of the known social world.

Though literature is thick with this kind of adventure of the individual, the protagonists of these narratives are rarely, if ever, black. Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs makes the point: “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.” In literature, being black is mostly about containment, or about the body as an obstacle to the wild freedom of roaming adventure. But it’s a tricky containment because the black body is contained in “blackness,” and that blackness enables further containments. The containment of the body in its skin is the means by which we, as black people, are identifiable. This ability for us to be ID’d also facilitates our disappearance in plain sight. To disappear is opposite to the self-discovery made possible by encountering, with any measure of purity, a vast nature, no matter how badly we want it.

The night of Bruce’s washing-machine-hose beating, the images would not leave me, and have not left me still. I sat with him upstairs in his room watching his body swell up into big, bulbous bruises. He had not fought back. Instead, he hunkered and cried like a small boy, when in fact he was nudging up on manhood. This reduction was one result of his training by our tyrannical father. It was a private opinion made manifest in Bruce’s body, a transference of thought into matter, a tyranny all supreme. Before this night, my brother was swallowed already—a person trapped within a person. He had ambitions that were entirely unrealistic: architect, golf-course designer, business owner. He had begun to accumulate masses of random objects until his bedroom was so cluttered with things collected from yard sales and traded from friends that he was forced to sleep on a twin mattress on the floor. Though there were others less severe, this beating in particular seemed to cement him inside a very small world he’d likely never leave. One would think that the smaller your world, the safer you are.

What happens when a person goes missing?

My brother goes missing for almost two days in February 2017.

I find out on the Megabus en route from Pittsburgh, where I teach, to New York State, where I mostly live. It’s a regular Megabus night, the cab darkened and quiet and most of us staring into the glow of our phones or watching something on our larger screens. I don’t want to talk too loudly, so my voice is low, but since my mother is going deaf it’s difficult for her to hear me. Mostly, I listen.

My mother tells me the story of him being gone all night and her worrying. She says she thought maybe his car broke down on the side of the highway and since he can’t afford a cell phone he couldn’t call. She also speculates that my brother’s sudden disappearance is in some way connected to his owing past-due child support from a time when he was not working. There was a hearing, but where? She does not know. He could be dead by some sleight of hand, aggression, or accident. He could be in the hospital. Last year he became disoriented and dizzy at the wheel of his car, his hand tingling, which I revealed to him was likely a mini stroke. My mother does not call the police. What would the police do? And anyway, as most black people understand, it is our work to stay clear of the police, as far from their notice as possible. My mother calls me. Absorbed by my busyness I didn’t, as is my habit, bother to answer or check my messages. I didn’t answer until the next day, when the calls became more frequent, blowing up my phone.

To account for my brother’s missingness is to put ideas together that in our United States don’t ordinarily belong together. If we follow conventional knowledge, we follow a path that suggests that the missing black body is its very condition: the overt presence of the black body is an imposition. Any indication of “difference,” particularly that which marks the black body as black, is an offense punishable by a range of containments, from regulation and imprisonment to death and genocide. The racist alt-right writer Colin Liddell put it very plainly when he wrote, “We should be asking questions like ‘Does human civilization actually need the Black race?’ ‘Is Black genocide right?’ and, if it is, ‘What would be the best and easiest way to dispose of them?’” He wants to make a connection between genocide and order, the subtext being: allowing these niggers to exist causes chaos. Look how they run around stealing, selling drugs, and raping, and killing. To “dispose” of something is to arrange it, to put it in place, to regulate it by containing it. Death, of course, is the ultimate containment; other, less final containments are conversely strategies toward genocide. Perfect chiasmus. Liddell’s words are not simply rhetorical bluster. He wants to place the ideas in the room, uncloaked for the white readers who are looking for some language on which to hang their hatred.

When we were kids, our parents would drive from Connecticut down South to Florida once a year for a vacation to see our extended family. Our mother spent the entire day before travel cooking and preparing what seems to me now an extravagant cooler of potato salad, fried chicken, ham-and-cheese sandwiches, homemade pies, and grape and orange sodas. Our parents shared driving responsibilities, cursing at each other under their breath, while my brother and I lay in the way-back of the station wagon, sometimes with our feet dangling out the giant rear window. The middle bench seat between Bruce and me and the driving section gave us a feeling of being in our own world. We played games dividing up the junkyards filled with smashed cars, so that the first of us to spy a yard filled with metal junk could claim it was theirs. Bruce’s and my aspirations of owning the virtually worthless filled our heads as we slept sweaty dreams in Carolina parking lots pretending not to exist in case the cops or the Klan came tapping on the window. We were lucky. No one ever came tapping.

“Where is he exactly?” I ask, but at 84 years old my mother can’t fathom a way of finding out. I spend over an hour frantically searching Google for information using my phone. Eventually, after searching the Connecticut Department of Correction Inmate Information database, I find Bruce’s inmate name, number, and “Controlling Offense: purge civil commitment.” His ex-wife confirms with my mother that my brother was arrested at the courthouse for some reason related to the unpaid child support.

How can he be put in jail for owing child support, I wonder, when he’s been unemployed and unable to find a job? How can he look for a job to pay the child support he owes if he’s in jail? What are the chances of getting a job to pay child support if you’ve been incarcerated? These are the times, says the President, when work for what we used to call blue-collar workers has been replaced by automation and the shipping away of jobs overseas—to Mexico and China. So where is the compassion for the American worker who, for a year, has no income? When Bruce was working, almost all of his paycheck went toward child support. His take-home pay was less than $100 a week. But this last point is not the point at all.

According to the Separated Parenting Access & Resource Center, once the court has determined that there is a valid support order (a valid claim that child support is owed), it’s up to you to prove that you can’t pay the amount owed and that you have no access to the money. If you fail to prove this, or if the judge believes you do have the money but don’t want to cough it up, he or she can decide to slap you with criminal contempt and throw you in jail. On the other hand, “if the court agrees that your conduct is not willful and you don’t have the ability to pay you won’t be found in contempt.” That’s the way it’s supposed to work, anyway. A “purge” is the amount the court orders you to pay to “purge” you of contempt. In my brother’s case, my mother had given him $10 for parking that morning. The judge finds my brother in contempt when he asks Bruce if he has any money. Bruce says no, thinking that the judge meant any amount of measure against the $13,000 he owes his ex-wife. The judge asks what Bruce used to pay for parking this morning and if he has any change in his pocket. He has six dollars’ change. “Then you have money, don’t you?” the judge says. Bond is set at $1,500 and off he goes in handcuffs, easy as pie.

In the movies and once upon a time, the newly incarcerated were granted a single phone call. This call would be used to reach a loved one or a lawyer, presumably a person who needed to know about the jailing or could help. But I’m here to tell you there is no right to a single phone call, just as there is no black man hiding in the bushes in your front yard. When the phone rings, my mother tells me, a computer voice says that Bruce is trying to reach her from jail, but that in order for her to receive that call, she is required to add money to a prepaid account using her credit card. Something about the recorded voice signals “scam” to me, too, so I do a quick search to make sure the company is legit.

The “inmate phone service” they use at the Hartford Correctional Center, which, incidentally, has the same abbreviation as Hartford Community College, is called Securus—pronounced “secure us”—Technologies. It’s like two cruel jokes at once. To load an account for my mother, I first must listen to a long, complicated recording detailing a rate system that befuddles me. Finally, I proceed through the steps and add $25 thinking that should be enough for a single quick phone call from my brother to my mother, so that he knows that she knows what’s happened. That’s the bone of it. Bruce became missing because, though there is an online record of where he is, for a while he is unreachable. He has no means to contact anyone to alert them to his whereabouts. My mother, whom the current technological moment has left in some other age, hasn’t the ability to locate my brother beyond imagining him inside this vague concept, “jail.” For her, it’s like he’s fallen inside a deep hole in the earth. As she likes to point out, if I had been out of the country, as I sometimes am, or hadn’t just been paid from writing gigs, he might still be inside that hole.

Miss, the verb, has several definitions. To fail to hit, reach, or contact. To pass by without touching. To be too late to catch. To fail to attend, participate in, or watch as one is expected to or habitually does. To fail to see. To be unable to experience. To omit. When the word emerged in the late 12th century its association was with regret, occasioned by loss or absence. But the adjectival version of miss, as in missing, was not recorded in English until the 16th century, and by 1845 became a way to describe military personnel not known to be present after battle. Whether missing soldiers were killed or captured is inaccessible data. In some parts of the world, we have transformed this state of indeterminacy into disappeared. Let me use this modified part of speech in an American sentence: “If recent trends continue, one in three black men in the United States will be disappeared into jail or prison in his lifetime.” It strikes me that to miss or be missing, in my brother’s case, requires a part-of-speech modification, too—one that could perhaps help me, at least, understand his particular condition, meaning the Condition of Bruce as it intersects with the subjugated identities we know are related, race and gender. To be missing, as a noun, would be the designation itself, like a black, the racial category without the noun person. A failed sight. A passed by without touching. A failed inclusion. An unattended. A missing.

Thoreau argues that the “mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It’s an easy case to make when you can count on the centrality of your own unquestioned I. My brother, who is now 55, in jail for the first time, is not singular in his missingness. Many of my first cousins have been incarcerated at some point in their lives, some serving long sentences for drug-related charges, others for more serious crimes. I, myself, once went missing for 24 hours—years ago, returning from the Washington, DC, party for my first book, swept up by the airport police for having (I didn’t know) the tiniest bit of marijuana in my carry-on bag. My girlfriend at the time awaited me at Bradley airport, but of course I never emerged from the gate. One cousin, Dwayne, died from a heart attack after having chest pains for several days. He didn’t have health insurance and was leery of going to the emergency room and racking up a bunch of unpayable bills, as he had once before. He might be called an untouched. In 2014, the Black and Missing Foundation reported that 64,000 black girls and women were missing in the United States. Passed by without noticing.

My brother and I grew up in Hartford, Connecticut, a small poor and working-class city in one of the richest states in the country. The racial segregation, after my parents purchased their house in what was then a neighborhood equal parts black and white, began to anchor itself, thereby dividing us from all the thems. The Puerto Ricans in one neighborhood; the US-born black folks in another; the recent West Indian immigrants gaining a foothold around Albany Avenue, the artery connecting Hartford to the small, wealthy corner bordering West Hartford, where the white families from another time resided in their multiroom mansions with circular driveways. The whole of Hartford for me, though, was always a place I was set on leaving. By middle school I was desperate to roam, and by high school I was sneaking off to Manhattan, two and a half hours away, in order to experience what I understood as “the world.” It occurs to me now that I don’t think my brother has ever been to New York City. He has been locked in place while I have been profoundly out of place. Places uncomfortable and foreign felt more like appropriate contexts than the place where I was raised.

And here is the hard truth of the matter. If I am missing in any sense, it is a missingness I created for myself in order to be free, to reach toward Thoreau’s solid I, roaming the world in wild adventure. I removed myself from the messy missingness that engulfs my own family—my brother, of course; my heart-attack-dead cousin; my 10-year-old niece already tracked by police whom her school principal sent to her house in search of a stolen cell phone. Whenever I return home, I do so in a casual manner, just passing quickly through, so that I might avoid any contagion that might corrupt my good life. I am a welcomed ghost, but a ghost nonetheless, one called to a place forever fraught, the wallpapered walls peeling, the basement damp with wet clothes. It makes me feel bad to drive through the city where I lived for eighteen years. I get a sinking feeling. I often forget that the woman suing my brother for child support now is his second wife. I missed his marriage to his first wife entirely while I was living in the Bay Area after college. When I said before that the trick of the system is that it relies on the black exception, the thing is that I play right into it. I want to be your exception because that means that I get to escape, at least in part. I can be your shining example, and if I am, you can ignore the mass incarcerations, other disappearances, murders in plain internet view, what have you.

Via telephone I reach the officer on duty, who confirms, finally, that my brother is at the Hartford Correctional Center. While we’re here, I’ll pause and note the benign associations of the word correction, as if this place of punishment were a positive adjustment where humans are brought for the setting right of something previously misaligned. The logic is that the criminal element will be contained, rehabilitated, and released anew into society after the sentence is served. Jail, though, is mostly a holding tank for people too poor to post bail while they await their trial or hearing. Sixty-three percent of people in jail have not been convicted of any crime; they have been arrested and are trying to post bail. Under the law, they are presumed innocent. Bail, when it comes to minor crimes and civil infringements, is basically the freedom tax on the poor for being poor. The word correction is simply one of the many mindfucks of the way things work. If your jail has a population of 73 percent pretrial, in this case men, then why do you call it a correctional center, when there is nothing clearly determined that needs to be corrected?

All I have to do to get my brother “corrected” is to bring $1,500 cash the next day for his release pending a new hearing in a month. My mother’s voice sounds small and tired when she hears the news. “Did you talk to him? Is he OK?”

I think of a photo of Bruce I found recently when scrounging through my mother’s old photo albums. He is about 20 years old and standing in the driveway of my parents’ house wearing a crisp white T-shirt, jeans, and a silver watch. His face is soft, thoughtful. He does not appear to know his picture is being taken. He seems, in the photo, relatively “free.” Not lost. I guess sometimes you can’t tell. I am writing this story because it is impossible for me not to write it. It’s my story too. And I keep trying to pull myself authentically into it. The photo albums themselves tell a story of an intense desire to capture our lives, the lives of my mother and her four sisters, my grandparents, my father, my brother, me. A record of existence like everyone’s, but also a kind of testimony to black life, even and especially when we become uniquely aware of the multiple means by which black life is confined, made irrelevant, and eradicated.

What happens when a black person goes missing? I know that I am not missing in the same sense as my brother, but I also know that I am not entirely free. When I lived in Western Massachusetts in graduate school, I was pulled over by police regularly. One night after a late-night fight with my then girlfriend, I went for a drive, and was pulled over by police who asked me simply, “What are you doing out at this hour?” What should we say in these moments of encounter? I am human. I breathe and eat and shit. I have ambitions. It is as ordinary and extraordinary as the first words of any 19th-century slave narrative: “I was born.” I contribute something to society. I am not a vagrant. I sweat and ache and love and mourn. There will be many who will mourn for me if I die.

The literal opposite of missing would probably be present, but in my mind it’s free, the radical opportunity to be present. This brings me back to Walden, which honestly, I despise now, for its naive arguments about what is necessary for life. Thoreau never asks a basic question: What is a livable life? What does a human need to enact one’s not-lostness, one’s freedom? Though Bruce was incarcerated for only two days, it was for a civil offense, not a criminal one. What’s recognized in the moment of random, unexpected jailing is the fragility of one’s freedom.

The night before I found out about Bruce’s being in jail, I hosted the writer Maggie Nelson in one of the university’s big reading series. As it turned out, she read from a work in progress on freedom. Freedom, she asks: What is it?

I, too, have been attempting to think through the possibility that freedom—real freedom—might not be possible within society. We hardly even know ourselves in our ongoing encounter with the other, producing on the one hand what Du Bois calls double-consciousness, and on the other, for black people in 2017, a radically distorted version of black selfhood. What else is possible given the prolific, penetrating, and ongoing looking at oneself through the eyes of an other?

To answer the question “What is freedom?” Nelson turns to lots of thinkers, including Hannah Arendt. Arendt notes a difference between political freedom and “inner freedom,” the “inward space into which men [sic] may escape from external coercion and feel free.” In my own work I have referred to this idea as a “freedom feeling,” a sensation of freedom even when actual freedom might not exist. What I love about Arendt’s distinction is that, for her, in order to experience inner freedom you must first know outer, political freedom. We like to think about this inner, “nonpolitical” freedom, she basically says, but we wouldn’t know anything about it had we “not first experienced a condition of being free as a worldly tangible reality.”

Neither I nor my brother is free in the way that Arendt describes. As a teenager, I often sat in front of my bedroom mirror in an attempt to recognize myself. Many distortions from other people’s perceptions needed to be smoothed out. Something about an attempt to see my face as it was without mediation became, I believe, important for my growing sense of self, and thereby a sense of my own power, real or imagined. Feeling free is a relationship to being as much as it is to movement, travel, a sense of one’s own body in unfamiliar places. When Bruce moved away from home, he moved in with a woman he’d just married. After he and his wife divorced, he moved back into our mother’s house, our father long dead, and settled sadly into his old bedroom—the most familiar, perhaps, of places.

The next night, instead of heading to East Hampton for a weekend away from the university, I end up staying the night in Brooklyn and waking up at 5 AM to catch a 7 AM Amtrak train to Hartford. My mother and I do some maneuvering around the ATM withdrawal limits and pull together $1,500 in 20s and 50s, which I stuff into a zippered compartment of my computer bag. In the waiting room at the jail, the windows one approaches to talk to an officer on duty are blackened so that you cannot see whom you are talking to. Through a muted talk hole, the cop tells me that it’s going to take two to three hours to process my brother’s release and that once I start the paperwork I cannot leave the premises. There’s no vending machine, so I run across the street and grab fries at Burger King, then put my elderly mother in an Uber home. I have magazines and set up my iPad connection via my personal hot spot. At one point, I go into the bathroom and guzzle the Patrón nip I have in my pocket. Time passes quickly. The gate opens dramatically when anyone leaves or enters the door where I believe the release will occur. People, women only, actually, come to visit relatives. The guard comes out. The women go through the metal detector. The gate closes. I feel a tickle on my neck and realize that the rosary beads I bought in Mexico even though I have no religion have snapped, and the Jesus has fallen down into my bra.

After only an hour and a half, the officer on duty takes my cash and gives me a receipt. He instructs me to drive around the building and wait on the side of the road for Bruce to exit. I wait at Gate 5. You’d think there would be an official pickup area, but it’s just a dead-end street, nondescript save the random fact that my father and I would often pass by that jail before the street was blocked. We’d drive over the railroad tracks on our way back from the bowling alley where we went on the off Sundays I wasn’t forced by my mother to attend church, noticing but not really noticing the stone building with the barbed-wire fencing. Whenever I thought about who might be locked inside I imagined rapists and murders, or psychopaths like Charles Manson after I’d snuck and read my mother’s copy of Helter Skelter.

Bruce comes out carrying a small, transparent plastic bag and a calendar. He hugs me long and hard. I can feel his body shaking as he towers over me and says, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” He tells me that his cell contained more than thirty men, all in similar situations to his, unable to pay bail. “Did you talk to each other?” I ask. “Not really,” he says; “mostly we just slept. There were no windows or clock so you never knew what time it was.” The stench of bodies was overwhelming, he tells me, very stuffy, the air stale and hot, the smell of shit and piss from the open toilets. We drive down streets familiar and drenched in the memory of the life I lived before I left home. On Tower Avenue, the long street that leads to my mother’s house, we pass Mrs. Alberta’s old house, a friend of my mother’s so frightening to me as a child that I never addressed her in any way. She’d whack her children right in front of us, demanding their respect and discipline. The house looks so much smaller than it did when we were children. We pass a once-grand house on a hill, boarded up now, that belonged to a preacher and his typing-teacher wife. He was scandalized after being caught stealing money from his own church. When we finally pull into my mother’s driveway, I’m staring at the shabby decay of her house, the three shutters that remain demanding paint. My brother says, “Seriously. I don’t know what I would have done.”

The bail system for nonviolent, misdemeanor offenses is currently under intense scrutiny in this country. More and more media outlets are reporting on jurisdictions that have increased their jailed population exponentially over the past two decades by locking up people who can’t afford to post bail. Some, like Kalief Browder and Sandra Bland, suffer the direst consequences. At the less fatal end of the spectrum, pretrial detention keeps the poor poor. They get a choice: We’ll release you if you plead guilty. It’s a systematic and some say illegal practice that keeps commercial bail bond corporations making profit off poor people and coercing guilty pleas from those who may or may not have done the crime. As it happens, during day two of my brother’s jailing, he received a voice message on our mother’s landline for a job interview that day. It was a good job, paying well over the $10 minimum wage he’d been making at his last position. During his eventual quick Securus phone call with my mother, she alerted him to this fact. He thought about that, he said, from his stuffed jail cell—the missed opportunity.

At my mother’s house, things are surreally normal. She’s propped up on the couch watching Martha Stewart on TV. “She’s making something with ‘ramps,’” my mother says. “What’s a ramp?” I tell her it’s a wild leek, like a kind of onion. Suddenly we’re all in a discussion about Martha Stewart’s recipes and her friendship with Snoop Dogg. “Are you spending the night?” she asks? “No,” I say, “I have to get on the road in an hour or so, need to catch the last ferry. Deadlines tomorrow. Need to work.” I am, in fact, desperate to disappear. But I need my brother’s help in order to do so. I don’t have my car, and my mother can no longer drive the hour and a half to New London and back.

To reach the freedom feeling, I must first reach the dock in New London where the ferry departs to travel across the Long Island Sound to Orient Point. But in order to do that I need to ask Bruce to come with us so that he can drive the car back home. I ask this of the very recently incarcerated brother whose wallet and other personal effects are still in custody at the Hartford Correctional Center. To retrieve these objects he must return to the jail during an appointed time window on a weekday, and since he was released on a weekend, he is not in possession of his driver’s license. My mother and brother and I reason it out, ignoring certain facts. We say, “Well, he does have a license and he’s accompanied by two people with licenses. That should be enough.” We say, “What are the odds that he’s pulled over?” The risk we all take together is great. It’s a risk I facilitate to some degree, unwilling as I am to stay one night in Hartford. I drive the fifty minutes to New London in my mother’s aging Dodge Neon with a rebuilt engine so loud we can barely hear each other speak.

Above the engine’s grumbling roar, I lecture my family on the school-to-prison pipeline and the systematic, institutional effort to disappear as many black people as possible. As the volume of my voice increases to drown out any protestations by my mother, who’s always been more a bootstrap-theory gal, despite the evidence supplied by Exhibit A, Bruce, I feel an old impulse taking over: the impulse to dominate the situation, to control it. It’s all swirling out of control so I do what I do best, which is to try to analyze things to death. I gain my footing at the expense of my mother, who still has optimism for some long-annihilated black American future, and my brother, who is nodding heartily at everything I say. Repression occurs on the infinitesimal level. It becomes so much a part of you that you hardly feel it. Your heart rate increases when you see the police drive by, but you feel relief the second the car turns the corner. You’ve been spared, however temporarily, and that gives you peace.

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