To Keep a Brother Living

A woman on TV says, Y’all are next, and she means it. The verdict’s come back and it’s no one’s fault her son is dead. No one’s fault her son was shot dead, that he was killed by police. That of all the things he was, black mattered most. On the TV screen, she’s furious, and every pixel of her is burning with a hurt she won’t cure for years—for all the time it takes her boy’s bullet-ridden body to settle into the ground.

She says, Y’all are next, and it’s a warning, a threat. A hope, maybe, because she’s talking to white mothers of mixed children—of brown boys who might still be black enough to die. She’s talking to a mother like mine. The woman looks right into the camera and says, You’ll be up here fighting for justice just as well as I am.

And the day may come when a mother, so raw because the boy she loved and raised is a hashtag now, a cause rather than a man, makes change; when a mother at a podium is believed enough for justice to take notice. But that fight could take a white mother, maybe mine.

Which means it could take my brother, too.

When he was little, we called my brother No Fear. As soon as he could crawl, he could jump. Baby No Fear would climb to the tallest ledge he could manage: sofa backs and changing tables. He’d wait for one of us to notice him, then leap. My brother would launch his thick, roly-poly body into the air, laughing, and wait for a set of arms to catch him.

I can’t remember any of us dropping him, though it must’ve happened. I was six then—muscles thin and wiry from gymnastics. When my brother jumped for me I’d use my whole body to catch his. After, we’d say, No. Don’t jump. But it would happen again and again. It’s hard to take a baby’s joy.

One day at the pool, my mother turned away, and when she looked back a pair of floaties and hot cement was all that was left of my brother. He’d jumped again. She found him in the deep end. The way my mother tells it, he was standing at the bottom, and as she dove in to save him, his chubby arms were stretched up toward her. She says that his eyes were open wide, and that the look he gave her was calm and sure.

There were rules to keep him safe, then, and rules enough for now:

Don’t wear a hoodie. Leave the hood pulled down. Don’t walk through a neighborhood—even yours—on a sunny day. Don’t put your hands in your waistband. If followed by a man shouting from an SUV, know that he’s part of the neighborhood watch, that he’s been watching the neighborhood for men standing in lawns, for open garage doors, potholes, children playing in the street. Don’t run. Or, run faster. Don’t defend yourself and don’t catch that man’s bullet. Don’t bleed out at seventeen facedown in the grass. Smile at every camera. Don’t take a picture looking mean or thug, because this is the one they’ll use to explain why. Carry an IDan ID where you’re smilingso you’re not tagged as John Doe, so your mother doesn’t have to identify her son from photographs of his empty, broken body.

My mother is a Deputy U.S. Marshal. She polices federal law, finds child pornographers and mail defrauders and people with warrants out for their arrests. She’s different than a cop, but much of her training is the same. The equipment, too. But the Velcro patch across my mother’s bulletproof vest reads U.S. MARSHAL instead.

I’ve heard of tired women unhooking their bras as soon as they come home. My mother unfastens her gun belt. She lays it on the bed for a moment so that my brother and I know the weight she carries. And then she locks it away to keep us safe.

My brother had pins in his elbow. Three metal pins held the joint of his arm together so that it could mend and heal. His friends dared him to skip three rungs on the monkey bars. Instead, he gripped air and then the sharp tint of pain. After the pins were gone, my brother cracked his forehead on a metal tractor toy. They fixed the split in his skin with glue. Once, an ER nurse dug an eraser from the depths of my brother’s left nostril.

Later, the pins would return, would hold the bones of my brother’s foot together. My parents had bought him a motorcycle. I warned them not to. But for his sixteenth birthday, they bought him a red crotch-rocket built to go fast. (He went too fast.) On a country road past curfew, my brother swerved to miss a possum and laid his bike down on the pavement. He leapt from the bike and ran off the momentum. His doctors couldn’t say what caused the bones in his foot to crack: either the impact against that road, or the swerve, or else pressing those damaged bones against the pedal again and again on his way back home. Just as his foot had almost healed, my brother broke his other ankle.

What I’m saying is that we’ve watched him break a million ways, and each time he’s come back to us whole.

Don’t stand beside your car or inside your car or anywhere near your car if it breaks down on the side of the highway. If a white man in a white truck pulls up, he is not there to help you. Assume he is an officer. Call roadside assistance. If your skin startles the man and he draws on you, a) run b) stay put c) retrieve your licensed weapon d) my god, don’t. Don’t expect a concealed carry license to keep for more than three days. Choose any of these options and don’t be surprised when one bullet tears clean through bone and the next rips through the tender ribbing of your heart.

The chain between my mother’s handcuffs is long—long enough to accommodate wrists or ankles. When my brother and I play with her cuffs, we fit our thin fists into the holes without unlocking them. We tighten the ratchets one tooth at a time, testing how little space our wrists need. Once the cold metal grips us, we fit the key into the lock and set ourselves free.

Here is a story told over and over again:

Once, I was looking after my brother while my parents cleaned the gutters. An hour later, my mother found me in the house alone.

Where’s your brother? she said.

He was just here, I said, for her sake. I’d been watching television instead, hypnotized by the screen.

We find him on the roof. He has crawled up a spare ladder and is sitting atop the shingles, now clear of fall debris. In the story, my brother is two. My mother tells my father to stand beneath the ladder, to watch him. She tells him to be ready, but not to stretch his arms out, lest my brother think this is a game. Stay there, she shouts up to my brother. Mommy’s coming. She climbs the ladder and retrieves him and my brother is unafraid and everything is fine. In the story, I drop out and my father drops out and it is only my mother cradling her son, so happy he did not jump.

Hold your hands up. Keep them out of your pockets. Keep them away from a trigger or a cell phone. Keep them away from the arms wrapped around your throat. Let them sift through the air as you run. Call it fleeing. Let those hands grip the wind like you can pull your way through it. Keep them open, flexed. In the end, let them go slack.

My brother went to counseling. He went to a school called Rainbow Elementary, and he kept drawing guns. (Drawing here means with ink and paper.) His teachers sent the pictures home with him—crude knives and bombs, glocks like Tetris shapes. He’d been to a speech therapist before who’d trained his tongue to leap faster from the line of his teeth as he spoke; this new counselor wanted to talk about the guns. She sent my brother home with a note. A very nice young man, it said. Please speak to him about the drawings. He stopped, though I wonder what inspired them in the first place. Perhaps the attention. Perhaps the simple shapes.

In middle school, a classmate of my brother’s shot another classmate of my brother’s. I’m not sure where. I’m not sure where on his body, but I know that the boys were standing at their lockers and that after, the boy, now called shooter, walked calmly to the bathroom and that the other, now called victim, fell to the floor and died.

The school went on lockdown and my brother sat barricaded in a classroom. A friend of his followed the shooter into the bathroom, watched him toss the gun into a stall. This friend tells my brother that he pinned the shooter down then, held him there. Without the gun, the shooter was a boy again.

My mother texted and called my brother. The line rang and rang. The other parents called her, thinking she had access to more information, that cops talk to cops. But the police wouldn’t answer my mother’s calls, either. She drove to the school and parked as close as she could get. She started walking toward the building, toward my brother, the shooter, the victim. Her phone pinged with a message from my brother: teacher says we can’t text. She exhaled. That was all she needed.

Don’t be large and black at the same time. Do nothing. Don’t sweat through your shirt or have a breathing problem. Breathe easy. Just tell them you have a breathing problem. Don’t fight a chokehold. Catch your breath. Bear the weight of five men on your caving back. Feel the air leave you, slowly, and then all at once. Go limp. Demonstrate the meaning of dead weight.

There’s a scar on my brother’s back, a puckered line just above the waist of his gym shorts. It’s on the right side or left side. I can never remember until I’m aiming for it. My brother is all strength and muscle, thick and wrought from football and weight rooms. When we wrestle and I’m losing, one punch to that scar is enough to make my brother’s grip go slack. The impact doesn’t hurt him—just startles him loose.

When we were young, he had a thousand ear infections. His medicine was pink and flavored like bubblegum, and sometimes my mother would let me have a taste, too. Then my brother started peeing Kool-Aid: tropical-punch orange and black-cherry red. It hurt him, but it was magic too—these new colors streaming from him. The doctors took x-rays of my brother’s swollen insides. A blockage, they told my parents. His kidney had inflated like a balloon.

My brother was six when he had surgery. Anesthesia is a pretty word for a kind of sleep not everyone wakes from. He’s going to be okay; don’t worry, my mother said. But I can’t remember any worry. No fear. There was the cut—the incision—on his back scabbing shut; him peeing tropical punch and then lemon-lime. I thought of his kidney like a balloon skin, all shriveled up and harmless inside him.

Don’t steal cigarillos. Don’t look like someone who might have stolen cigarillos. Don’t walk in the road with a friend. Use the sidewalks. Don’t reach inside of cop cars. Don’t stand thirty-five feet from cop cars. Don’t struggle for a weapon and don’t hold your hands up in surrender. You can’t surrender all that weight on your shoulders. Learn the way a toy gun looks like a gun. Learn the way a toy truck looks like a gun, how a cellphone is a gun, and a boy looks like a man looks like a target.

In high school, my mother was a majorette. Her baton was metal alloy with rubber tips, light and weighted evenly to twirl through the air and come back to her. Her next baton is carbon steel and aluminum—a billy club, nightstick. It’s extendable, collapsible, heavy enough to mean it.

My brother gets a call about his girlfriend. It’s her stepbrother, or her father. You’re not right for her, the voice says. You’re not right for each other. My brother says the man names every reason except what he means. Says, I don’t want to see you with her. Never says, You don’t look right together. Never quite calls him a nigger.

I shouldn’t have to say watch out for busted taillights. Heed stop signs and yellow lights. Signal every turn. Don’t look suspicious, which in this case means at all like yourself. When pulled over, don’t get out of the car. Stay still. Keep your hands in plain sight. Pass your license over. Pronounce the word off-i-cer to the toddler in your back seat. Remain calm, smiling. Thank the off-i-cer and drive away. Or, if not given the chance to do any of this, bleed into the seat beside your girlfriend. Look into her camera. Hope that someone calls for help, but fade out with the barrel of a gun still trained on you. Hear the way the voice of the off-i-cer cracks as he passes the buck. He sounds like a boy again, the pitch of his voice so high and frantic. Catch four of his bullets and listen to the way your girlfriend begs for your stolen life, the sweet register of a toddler’s voice when she says, It’s okay, I’m right here with you. I can keep you safe.

My mother drives a minivan except she did not get it for us and, actually, is not allowed to drive us in it. When she’s pressed for time and we’re late for soccer practice and football and choir, she does it anyway. She pulls up to the carpool lane and says, Let’s go, let’s go, and we pile into the back, making sure our friends can see.

We call it the prisoner van. There’s a steel grate between the front and back seats, and we press our faces against the cold metal—hard—for the spider-web netting it’ll leave on our skin. If we’re lucky, my mother might relent to our begging and press the button that makes the siren shriek. Sometimes the lights, too. She will only do this briefly in our driveway. Otherwise, it’s like any other minivan.

Keep your neck straight and stiff. Wear a seatbelt. Ask for a seat, Please, not the floor. Ask nicely for the six arresting officers to fasten your seatbelt, Thank you, you can’t do it yourself with your arms latched behind you and your legs in irons and your neck so strong and intact. Know that a spinal cord twenty-six years young can still sever eighty percent at the neck. Necks like yours have snapped before, so keep your neck unbroken. Don’t let it snap of its own accord, or on impact, against the divider of a police transport or a tactical hold. Don’t expect anyone to pay for it but you, but me, but all of us.

One weekend, a storm switches the power off. When it turns back on, the alarm system sets to screeching and then goes quiet. My brother and I are home alone, and I pack us into a closet, hold my hand over his mouth. He squirms free, already too strong for his own good. As my brother leaves the safety of our closet, I hiss at him to stop. I text our mother: There’s someone in the house.

When my brother returns, he’s holding a gun. I’ve never been this close to one without my mother, and the danger changes. In that small space there is slick metal and plastic, a trigger and all that potential, my brother and I. Where did you get that? Put it away! Is the safety on? I lose the whisper completely.

Somehow, he’s learned the code to my mother’s safe. She rushes home and finds all the lights on, no one there but us. The gun is locked away again, but I tell on him. Of course I tell on him.

On TV, the heroes don’t aim to kill. They aim for the hands, the knees. They say, You don’t want to do this. They incapacitate, shoot the gun right out of the villains’ hands. When this happens on screen and a shooter loses a finger but keeps his life, my mother scoffs. Officers aren’t trained this way. In real life, if a suspect points a weapon at an officer, protocol says to unload the entire magazine into his body. In this case, weapon means anything that puts the officer’s life in danger. Officer means my mother. In this case, magazine means a chamber of bullets.

There are places you cannot go: gated communities, back lots, down a road or on a road or beside one. If you are standing somewhere, sitting somewhere, it’s called loitering. Walk everywhere. Keep away from convenience stores, white girls, and your own grandmother’s house. Steer clear of a screen, a body camera feed. A video won’t prove a thing, won’t save your life or mine. Stay out the mouth of newscasters, away from a newsfeed on repeat. If you find yourself there, don’t watch. Don’t let your loved ones watch. But also, don’t let them look away. Don’t let anybody look away. Play the clip over and over. Let them watch a black body in pain, in resistance, laid out on any given sidewalk. Show them how many badges it must take to bring a black body down. Show how quiet one voice can be in a crowd, especially from the ground. Show how quickly a man becomes a body becomes a symbol. Count how long it takes for them to check for a pulse. All black boys go to heaven, but they go to the pavement first.

My family drives to a firing range in the woods. We aim at bright, clay disks with shotguns. I hate the game of it, the gun’s kickback, the bruise blooming on my shoulder. I let the barrel fall again and again, don’t watch where I point it. We keep score, and my brother wins. He is an almost-Eagle-Scout, and he’s done this before. My father is next, and I’m last, two points behind my mother. She shrugs. I’m a terrible shot, she says. I’m glad I didn’t learn this earlier. It makes me feel both better and worse.

There was a time when I was testing the boundaries of my brother’s love for me. I taught him to pronounce words wrong, to lean into false syllables. Once, at a Lone Star Steakhouse, I saw a fresh cut on my brother’s arm. You know what’ll help that? I passed him the salt.

Here’s the last and very worst of it: once, I put my brother in the dryer. I told him he was the only one small enough to check if the light turned out when the dryer door shut. He climbed in—trusting, trusting. I pressed the Start Cycle button. I heard the clunk of his head against metal (Once! Only once!) and threw the door open and held him as he cried. I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I said. Perhaps to learn to protect something, you must bring it close to ruin. Don’t tell. And he didn’t. For years, he didn’t.

My brother is allergic to penicillin, a fact that’s discovered during his kidney surgery. They pump it into him and his skin breaks out in hives, no telling what it does to the walls of his veins. Medicine to others—a saver of lives—but that antibiotic could wreck my brother. Can you see what I’m saying, here? Penicillin is a well-intentioned thing, but that good, blue mold might wreck my brother, and so I want it nowhere near him.

Plan your future loosely, son. Don’t enroll in college classes. Don’t wait for your son to get off a school bus. Have a son, or don’t. Please do, but know that he’ll need to hear this, too. That you’ll be the one to tell him. Learn the dread of blue lights and the dip in your belly and the way you think of the last words you said to us when you hear a siren. If you don’t already know it, learn it now. After another story on the news, another morning coffee over the video you can’t help but watch another black man go down, don’t look at that officer and think of me. Think of me. Know that the average bullet travels 2,500 feet per second, which is something like 1,700 miles per hour, which leaves two-tenths of a second to react. Know that it takes 4.42 seconds for all 210 pounds of you to run forty yards, which is fast. Know the difference between fast and fast enough. Between fast enough and alive. Know the anatomy of a bullet—a cone of hot lead and a shell and a primer that a gun sparks to action. Know that you are blood and life inside of tendons, muscles, skin. Know which is the bigger giant. Know that no one can save you but you but me but no one. Don’t think that a black man is the only one in danger, or that this is something new. Don’t believe that you’re doomed but don’t imagine you’re free, either. Know that even though we never sat down to say this—to have this conversation—that we’ve been having it your whole damn life.


The Alive Sister

“They’re in imagination land. Each of them is a giant and they’re fighting over who will be the next queen of giant land.”


How many stars named after black kids, or light-years until / the next supernova? I want him to know what room America has left / for black love, black boys, black families. Maybe. Hopefully.

To Black Girls Everywhere

“There are letters to us about finding things and people, about how to lose other things and other people. There are books to us, prayers to us, for us.”