Today, Monday is insistent. It shows up with no concern for yesterday’s amusements. The sun hides today. It’s 9am, and it feels too early.
There’s a funeral today. Freddie Gray’s. At New Shiloh Baptist Church — not too far from Mondawmin Mall. I’m pretty sure I saw New Shiloh’s ushers “two step” their way to the altar three months ago at an usher anniversary at my cousin’s church. I keep trying to remember the song that called them forward to show off just how good they welcome church members. But I can’t.
I can only remember that today the ushers will offer seats to those who’ve come to send Freddie Gray “home.” Jesse Jackson will say “Well done,” and perhaps, a glimpse of sunshine will remind us what spring looks like here.
I look at the clock. It’s time for me to leave home now. I can’t help but to think again of “home.” If I stay home maybe I won’t have to bear witness to a feeling — an aching sense of loss — that’s hunted me for weeks. I hide at home, yet it seeks me wherever I am. Talk of today’s funeral names this loss for me. I have to admit that I, too, grieve.
Grieving feels lonely. Not ready to leave, I call my uncle, my mother’s brother, to talk about his home 70 years ago. Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was murdered. My uncle tells me he moved there, sometime in the early 1940s — maybe when he was 4 or 5 years old. He lives there when the Baltimore Sunproudly reports that the construction of Gilmor Homes is one of the many benefits of “slum clearance.” He lives there when the Afro-American touts Gilmor Homes as a new housing project for defense workers that will remedy the city’s “colored” housing shortage. I already know my grandfather worked at Bethlehem Steel but what I don’t know is that his parents — my grandfather and grandmother — are one of the first families to move into the new housing project. He can’t tell me why my grandparents decide to leave their first home together on N. Carrollton Avenue where my grandfather’s people live too. I suspect that my grandparents want their own space in a brand new building that promises to offer a clean, safe, and affordable environment to raise their young son. No one, in the weeks since Freddie Gray’s murder, seems to remember when Gilmor Homes was clean, safe, or desirable.
I head to my office on a campus that abuts a former slave plantation. The Ridgely family owned the largest iron foundry on the east coast (or at least that’s what I’ve heard). Its ironworks proved useful for making weapons during the Revolutionary War. There’s a mall on the land there now. The movie theater left years ago but I hear a new one has opened up in a neighborhood once occupied by the Ridgely family’s freed slaves. I wonder sometimes what the scattered trees might confess if only I could speak their language.
Twitter tells me that there is anticipated activity at Mondawmin Mall — not too far from Freddie Gray’s funeral or my office. Yet, Twitter can’t tell me what’s about to happen. Talk of a “purge” though. A pic from Instagram explains, “All High Schools Monday @3 We Going to Purge.” I don’t know if it’s real, but businesses are closing throughout downtown and at the mall too.
It is real. The so-called “purge” is happening at Mondawmin Mall. I learn first from Twitter. 140 character fragments alert me to a danger that disorients me. It’s not my safety that concerns me but rather the illegibility of what’s happening. I watch from a Twitter feed that mimes the chaos not so faraway.
I lose my words to feelings that I can’t read. I can’t seem to find my way so it’s loss that finds me again.
I look out my office window. While Mondawmin remembers to us what protest looks like, nothing looks different from here. I don’t see police officers — Baltimore County or the fully sworn university police. Students move through campus with ease, and the university’s alert systems make no mention of the growing unrest at Mondawmin, less than 10 miles away. Not even a mention of the suspended bus service or closed roadways.
Mondawmin Mall rests on top of a former country estate of the same name. The grounds belonged to Dr. Patrick Macaulay (1795-1849), a physician, railroad man and certainly, more. He liked gardens. He had his land decorated with them. I wonder who tended those gardens but the historical record doesn’t confess to me what I suspect. But to remember Baltimore in the 1840s is to recollect the enslaved as well as the nation’s largest free black population — a population that labored throughout the city and countryside. Though neither the gardens nor the mansion is there anymore, I find myself thinking on the stories of unrest, uprising, and racial conflict that the land may hold.
A student in my first-year seminar wants to know if he should go home now. Before it gets too bad. But I tell him it’s already too bad.
“Turn on the news now!” None of us can find our way to speak. I try to be the teacher but I forget the student presenters who are presenting today on the student-led sit-ins of the 1960s. I couldn’t have planned better this intersection of real life and history.
But until now I have never thought about what it would mean for me to know a protest happened in real time — the street names, the look of the intersection, its smell on a hot spring day. Sure I can pull up a map and see Montgomery or Greensboro or Cambridge. I don’t need a map to know Mondawmin.
Mon-daw-min. It’s a hard word for national news correspondents to say. No one knows where to put the emphasis. Here’s the trick though. The “mon” sounds a bit more like “maw” than “mun” and the “daw” is always overstated. Maybe that’s why mapmakers added the “w” at some point in the name’s Baltimore history.
The local news helicopter replaces on-the-ground reporting. What we see from the sky is how quickly the bodies move — bodies with no names. The bodies dodge occasional green smoke, throw lots of rocks and sometimes, bricks. “Where did they get those big, big rocks,” my cousin will ask later. Police stand still in riot gear. What’s hard to see or hear is the fear. What I have learned to claim as loss speaks first as fear.
After class ends, I keep watching the unnamed bodies run away from police officers and toward a something, something other than material objects. They run down Reisterstown Road as it turns into Pennsylvania Avenue and intersects North Avenue in search of what feels like control. This kind of control is tactile; it aims to touch or feel the stuff it wants. I don’t suppose it’s destruction at all but instead a confession of desire to feel.
At Pennsylvania and North Avenue, there, the crowd grows, and I watch as those bodies move together on top of police cars, down sidewalks, into storefronts. The crowd seems to breathe together. For a quick second, I see them win back some kind of control and I’m jealous. Because I want to know just what it feels like, if only briefly.
Fear makes it easy for spectators to decide who those bodies are — “thugs,” “high school students,” or “criminals” — when they have neither names nor the armoring that reads “POLICE.”
Fires burn. And, the bradford pear trees lose their blossoms.
I can’t sleep. The nighttime’s quiet brings with it the smell of those fires. Today’s unrest seems to anticipate my restless evening. It’s an invitation but I don’t know it yet and neither will the national news. I will learn that it’s an invitation into the anger we share that seeks a kind listener. And a kind listener can hear well enough to provide medical attention to a 25-year old man in the back of a police van. A kind listener can hear well enough to catch the wailing of a grieving city. I lay awake.
What is today but a burnt offering? I can’t help but to wonder what we are offering and to whom.
Tara Bynum is a writer and scholar living in Baltimore City.