The following is a (professionally) unedited draft of Part One in my upcoming novel, Spirit of the Movement. There are eight chapters in all. A new chapter will get posted every few weeks until the end.
What happens to children of revolutionaries? They grow up.
Spirit of the Movement is a story about survival, love, chaos and life after revolution.
Based loosely on the tumultuous last years of the Black Power Movement, Spirit, daughter of a respected R.I.S.E. member is forced to grow up quickly as she endures a childhood mired in conflict, destruction and loss.
Spirit should have been asleep but she could sense the upsurge of her father’s emotions from her second floor bedroom. She romped from each end of the bed, danced her fingers in the air, and peered out of the window every time she heard heeled shoes tipping along the sidewalk or a car stop. Her eyes burned with exhaustion as the minutes came and went, but her father’s fitful slamming and banging on the downstairs furniture kept her alert.
She had it all planned out.
When her mother came home she would warn her that Baba was mad and to not come in. They could leave together and forget about this house and him. They’d left him before when he threatened to take and raise her in his homeland because he didn’t approve of Mama’s friends and “politics”. She was three then and too young to enjoy their month-long freedom. At seven, she felt better prepared to persuade her mother to stay away from Baba’s oppression.
He was worse than the “man” she heard her mother speak about – who brutalized, demoralized and murdered the black man and woman since being brought unjustly to America.
Baba wouldn’t let her paint her fingernails, get her ears pierced, put on lip gloss or even wear shorts when it was hot outside. He was unjust. He had never hit either of them, but the anger riding his face as he hurried her to bed, shouted that her mother’s perfect skin had seen its last days.
Mama was supposed to be home hours ago to make them dinner so Baba had to cook. He pummeled the fufu around in the steel pot while keeping an eye of disdain on the tomato stew boiling at the back of the stove.
Spirit watched the incessant pucker of his temples as his teeth clenched. Yoruba bad words came out in harsh whispers. The rhythmic words were familiar, yet alien to her ears. Her mother urged him to teach Spirit his language, but he refused. Spirit didn’t mind – to her, it sounded loud and ugly. “We live in America,” he would say. “She must grow that way.”
Olu, short for Olumide (because people always screwed up his name), throws the leftover food in the trash. Jamilla was out doing “God, Almighty knows what,” he thought to himself. He’s careful not to wake Spirit but he’d had enough from his wife, he bites down on the edge of a metal spoon then waves it to the heavens, “I swear I will do her harm. I swear it.”
“She has to go,” he thought, knowing she would take his only child. And he wouldn’t fight. How could he? Children belong with their mother. He loved Spirit but his father was loveless towards him and his sisters. How could he give her more than he knew?
His mother also taught him that a woman nurtures and a father provides. His resentment ran deep for their failure to do either. Still, he loved his daughter, despite his awareness of her brewing resentment towards him. It was yet another one of Jamilla’s successful acts of disregard for their family.
He was upset by what his mind was telling his body to do. In his arms he felt the charge of rage at his wife’s insolence. She was obviously cheating; “where else could she be?” He paced the entire downstairs like an agitated lion waiting for Jamilla to come home.
“This is my house and I will not be disrespected by an American woman,” he spoke in Yoruba out loud so that if Spirit heard she wouldn’t understand.
He had known better than to marry her; she was too independent and smart. He fell in love with her because of it, but soon realized that those same traits only proved to distance them.
When he married Jamilla he begged her to let his college roommate turned Catholic priest marry them. In the end he felt he was the only one to take the sacred words seriously.
Over the years he reminded her several times that she said, “I do” to the promise of obedience. When he brought it up the same night of their wedding, she said, “If out of all of what that white boy stood up there and said, you only got that out of it, then you’re in for a world of hurting my husband.”
She chuckled at his foolishness as she lay on top of his naked body, his manhood throbbed anxiously just above his navel. Once she took his dick in her hands, he forgot about the embarrassment that rode his cheeks. By the time he released inside of her for the first time since they began seeing each other only a few months earlier, he convinced himself that she would one day obey him–it would just take a little more time.
Spirit was conceived on that night. It was their best night as husband and wife and in the seven years since; he had never felt quite the same.
Jamilla called him oppressive, a lost child of the sun; claimed she was more African than he.
“You’re crazy, woman!” He’d say when being stripped of his birthright.
“You might be from Ekiti State but you act like you’re from Baltimore,” she’d say.
Each time it was a different American city and each time he’d counter with something she would not be able to get away with were they living in Nigeria. To which she’d counter that they “ain’t in Nigeria so who gives a fuck!”
Their relationship was turbulent. Two strong-willed and intelligent beings filled with too much pride to sustain the love they once briefly shared. How they ever got along was vague.
Jamilla believed that they came together to bring Spirit into the world, “nothing more and nothing less,” she’d say, “we’re just too opposite to fake the funk.”
“We’re like a lion and a hyena.” Olu would say, he never said which of the animals he believed himself to be.
Olu finally quieted himself around the house, though he could still feel the magma coursing through his veins. “She has to be cheating,” he thought again. “It could be with anyone; she spent most of her time with those fist-pumping, uneducated drug addicts down at that storefront they call a headquarters. It could even be that nasty woman she hangs out with; no husband or children – it didn’t take an anthropologist to know she’s gay.”
Olu banged his palms against the sides of his head to quiet his mind. He wanted her to tell him who it was. “She thinks I don’t know, but I know,” he instigated, his eyes squinting with disgust at Jamilla’s imaginary actions.
He didn’t need proof, he felt secure enough in his intuition that he was right. They hadn’t had sex in over six months and even then he had to solicit her. He had turned to other women countless times throughout their marriage. Jamilla all but came right out and sanctioned his infidelity. She made it clear night after night that she had no interest in him.
“This is her last chance to be a good wife and mother. Jamilla will submit to me being the man of the house by salt or sugar.” His thoughts drove him mad.
He made his way to Spirit’s room to check on her. Jamilla’s beauty wrapped in his dark skin mapped Spirit’s face. He pulled her blanket around her shoulders and kissed the top of her disheveled locks of hair. She was too much of her mother now. This realization both endeared and angered him.
He shut her door quietly and sat at the bottom of the staircase that separated the front door from the rest of the house. This confrontation was a long time coming and he was ready for war.
Jamilla came through the door less than an hour later, singing and humming “Too Hot” by Kool in the Gang. She had meant to pass Olu as he brooded on the steps–paying him no mind.
Olu pounced on her before the door latched into place.
“Where have you been?” Olu’s words tripped out of his mouth.
“What’chu mean where I been, honey?” Jamilla said coolly, trying to avoid his temper tantrum.
“You cheat!” he yelled in a half question and half accusing tone.
“No, you cheat, husband. I’m just living.”
Olu grabbed Jamilla by her arms. “Woman! I, I, I will kill you.”
Spirit awoke in a panic hearing furniture shift downstairs with earthquake force. “I fell asleep and didn’t warn Mama,” she thought, trying to remember when and how her eyes closed. She remained in bed listening to the ruckus that shook the walls around her before creeping to the door of her room, opening it a little and squinting from the blare of light flooding the narrow crack.
“You ain’t killing nothing and get your hands off of me.” Jamilla barked.
Jamilla tried to wriggle free, her arms becoming numb in his grasp . “You’re hurting me motherfucker!” She masked her voice with the street facade she’d learned growing up on the Southeast side of Washington, DC. Anacostia taught her many things, one of which was to stand down danger with a show of strength; whether real or forged.
“Jamilla!” Olu yells shaking his wife as if she were weightless. “I’m going to ask you one more time. Where have you been?”
“Fuck you, Olumide.” Jamilla answers even-toned, staring straight in his eyes like one would a puppy in training.
Jamilla flew from his throbbing hands. A guttural sound passed through Olu’s open mouth as he watched her land across the backside of the sectional couch a few feet away. He felt possessed with unstoppable wrath as he grabbed her by the ankle, dragging her around the other side of the couch. He knelt above her hitting every available inch of her face and upper body.
Spirit stepped into the hallway, her heart pounding to the bottom of her feet. She moved down the steps with the grace of a stage performer; careful but quick. Baba hadn’t seen her and until now she had only heard the fighting.
Her father’s head bobbed wildly above the height of the couch as the caps of his shoulders moved in rapid succession. She walked heel to toes silently, keeping a cautious eye on her father as she rounded the arm of the chair.
“Baba, no! Don’t hit Mama.”
He didn’t stop and acted is if he never even heard her. Spirit looked around the living room for something hard enough to knock him out.
Jamilla’s arms took the brunt of the hits as she guarded her face from the strength of Olu’s fists. Later she would wonder if she had been in shock. This man who never raised a hand to her was suddenly beating her mercilessly.
She knew she couldn’t just lay there and she could have sworn she heard Spirit’s footsteps. She looked deep at Olu. His eyes filled with tears, mouth foamed over with saliva as his sweat dripped onto her own body. Now, with his hands quieting her breath, she had to fight.
Olu felt Jamilla scratch, punch and bite at him but it was as painless as a child’s pinch. He didn’t know what took over him but he couldn’t stop. “This woman was disrespectful. She was cheating on him. She was the mother to his child and his wife. Her behavior was unacceptable;” the thoughts infected his psyche. He wouldn’t stop until she learned some respect.
The heavy sting on his shoulder-blade woke him out of his violent trance. “Ahh, ahh,” he cried as another more blindingly painful hit fell across the top of his head. He turned just in time to grab the iron fireplace poker from Spirit’s small hands before it hit him a third time.
Olu falls from Jamilla’s body, trembling, it was as if he was waking from a terrifying dream. He let the poker slip from his hands onto the floor.
Jamilla gasped for air, each breath noting the trails of blood and lumps decorating her face. She looked at Olu who didn’t look any better after the war, his bottom lip was busted and feral scratches were raised on his neck and face.
Their belabored breathing pulsed through the now calm room.
“Daddy’s sorry, Spirit. You hear?”
Spirit couldn’t focus on her father, she was rapt with guilt for falling asleep and failing to warn her mother like she had planned to.
“Baba is sorry.” Olu heard a voice of desperation that he didn’t recognize as himself as he drew his knees to his chin. His back rested against the coffee table, grieving for the loss of his family. He hadn’t thought it would end this way.
They had fallen in love when Jamilla was just 19 and he was 25. Her complexion, an earthy reddish-brown and her natural hairstyle of cornrows reminded him of the women back home. He knew she was involved with Black American civil rights but he didn’t think that she’d put it before him. When she gave birth to Spirit he thought she’d then realize how great America is and settle into the family life he wanted to create for them.
He was an accomplished engineer; able to afford anything she may have wanted. As soon as they married he bought a home in what residents called the Gold Coast of Northwest, DC because of the established black families that lived in the neighborhood.
Why couldn’t they live the American dream? That’s why he crossed the ocean in the first place–and she–born and raised here; spit on it. He never understood that and “finally,” he thought, “it has destroyed them.”
Olu’s cries sounded like a languishing tribune to the gods. Jamilla could feel the tap of his feet against her as he rocked back and forth, his voice rising and falling with his mother-tongue.
Spirit didn’t know what to do first. Mama hated the police so she knew that was the wrong answer. Maybe she should call an ambulance. Baba’s crying was making it hard to make a decision.
Jamilla raised her hand to Spirit.
“I’m okay, Baby. We’re okay. Come. Help Mama up.”
Olu continued to rock himself, his tears spilling onto the wood flooring.
Jamilla is careful not to grimace or moan from the pain as she walks with Spirit towards the stairs. She limps one step at a time as the effect of Olu throwing her settled into her bruised muscles.
“Sleep in here tonight, Mama.” Spirit led Jamilla into her room.
“Ok, Baby.” Sitting on the edge of the small bed, she lifted her feet as Spirit began carefully taking off her shoes and socks.
“Thank you, my brave girl,” Jamilla kisses Spirit’s forehead. She was concerned with Spirit’s stoic demeanor, normally she would cry or raise a fuss whenever she and Olu argued, but tonight–in the worse of it, she showed little emotion.
“Mama’s strong. We’ll get through this.”
“But your face is all bloody,” Spirit says unconvinced of her mother’s reassurance.
“It will heal.” Jamilla says.
Jamilla reaches for her daughter to climb into bed beside her. She lays Spirit’s head on her breasts despite the raw pain that lay there as well.
Spirit could smell the blood beginning to dry on her mother’s face. She didn’t want it in her hair but she didn’t want to risk not knowing if Jamilla left her bed if she fell asleep again. She locked her arm around her mother’s side and nestled into her bosom. As soon as she closed her eyes she could see Baba and his fists. Fear scampered from the nape of her neck to her tailbone; the tears came easily.
Jamilla holds Spirit tighter and rubs her hair. “Shhhh, it’s all over. Try to sleep.”
The pain of the beating began to rest along the length of Jamilla’s body as she lay, reliving the last few minutes between she and Olu. She fixed her gaze just outside the window next to Spirit’s bed. “The sky is so calm,” she thought. Seconds later Spirit’s breathing changed from anxious to restful.
Jamilla hoped none of the pseudo blacks in the neighborhood heard them fight. She could never let them see her down. They knew what she was involved in and called her a militant. Told her it was the mid-70s and Jim Crow was over.
She knew they despised her for being a member of the Black Nationalist movement and Olu for being African. He dispelled all the myths they bought from the white man’s education and religion; that Africans are savage imbeciles.
They all seemed to be Christians, shaking their heads in disapproval on Sunday mornings. Olu’s car seemed to always be the only one left in the driveway as they left for their respective churches.
“Fuck them,” she thought defiantly, rolling her eyes at the neighborhood as she imagined what they would think and say about her bruised face. For the first time she wondered if Olu was still in the same spot they had left him.
“I let this happen,” she thought. She had always been too strong for him or as he put it, “too much”. After she gave birth to Spirit they should have split; they both knew it. She muted her thoughts to listen for him. As her swollen eye lids surrendered to fatigue she could still hear his cries.
Spirit squinted her eyes through the natural sun lighting the room, it was her third day waking up on Auntie Karren’s couch. She could see Jamilla and Auntie Karen sitting at the dining room table, speaking in hushed voices over their coffee cups.
She surveyed the cuts and bruises shading Jamilla’s face and arms to see if they were healed and was sad to see that not much had changed. She just wanted the scars to go away so they can be happy again.
“Good morning, sleepy.” Jamilla calls out to her.
“Good morning Mama. Good morning Auntie Karren.” Spirit answers sitting upright on the couch.
“Good morning Baby.” Karren says.
“Go brush your teeth and wash your face so you can have some breakfast.” said Jamilla.
Spirit noticed that her mother looked cheerful, not like the other mornings since they’d arrived at Auntie Karren’s. It made her want to feel that way too but every time she tried to forget that night she just couldn’t stop seeing the fire poker crashing down on Baba’s head by her own hands.
Karren posted Spirit on the living room couch, turned the TV channel to Saturday morning cartoons and made a bowl of her favorite cereal the day they arrived; seven o’clock in the morning, with a only a few bags of clothes between them.
In Karren’s bedroom, Jamilla laid her head on her lap as Karren gently touched and kissed each bruise and cut.
“Cry sister, get it all out.” Karren said. “Cry as long and hard as you need to.”
“You got to. Let it go.”
“It’s over. It’s done.” Jamilla weeped inconsolably.
“You’re free now.” Karren said. “No more lies.”
Torrents of pain rocked Jamilla’s body for hours. Karren was the only person she could trust but not even that mattered. She couldn’t have held this back if it were a stranger’s shoulder. All their late night conversations, sipping hot toddies, with more bourbon than tea and talking about the day she would finally leave Olu, down to this.
When Karren wasn’t in the room with her she cried like an abandoned newborn, laying in fetal position and accepting her aches both inside and out. Karren gave her space and time, entertaining Spirit for her and sleeping by her side at night, always watchful and patient.
Karren was Jamilla’s oldest friend and often, people who knew of Karren’s sexuality, mistook them as lovers because of their closeness.
Jamilla never cared to address the rumors. “Let them think, what they want. I love your dirty draws girl.” Jamilla would tell Karren, their protectiveness of each other always forefront.
Karren’s mother had taken Jamilla in when she was seventeen. They were next door neighbors and best friends. Mrs. Johnson, wouldn’t have Child and Family Services shipping her around in her final year of high school so she took her in and cared for her. The bond between Karren and Jamilla was solid from that day forward. She had no other family until Olu and Spirit.
Jamilla’s mother had died in St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, DC, when she was only ten.
Gem Nolan, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia when Jamilla and her brother were still in diapers. Her Irish parents quickly had her committed 800 miles away from where Jamilla and her family lived in Peoria, Illinois.
Jamilla’s father took less than a month to move their family to the Anacostia neighborhood of Southeast, DC to be close to her. Until the day Gem died, they visited her every Saturday.
Jamilla’s father, James Langley III, was the kindest alcoholic she had ever known. He mourned her mother until his own death and never stopped claiming her as his wife; though they never married.
Seven years after Gem’s passing, her father and brother were gone too.
They had promised to catch a foul ball for her at an Oriole’s game the day they were killed in a car accident on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
The ball was found in the ditch along side one of her brother’s shoes during the accident investigation. The first responding officer brought it to her when he came to deliver the news.
“Do you think Olu will look for you? For Spirit?” Karren’s voice interrupted her lamenting.
“No, we’ve both had enough,” Jamilla says.
“Well. sister you know you have a home here as long as you want.” Karren says.
Karren never left the neighborhood they grew up in, she moved only a block down the street from her mother’s home into a one bedroom apartment after high school.
For Jamilla, being back in her old stomping grounds felt right. She never wanted to live, detached in the Gold Coast and didn’t make any effort to try.
On their fourth day at Karren’s, Jamilla put enough cover-up makeup on her face to look three shades darker. No one needed to know why she was back, only that she was. She looked out of the bedroom window, the summer day invited everyone out of their house.
There were a few elderly perched in their window sills, observing any and every going on up and down the block. Come night fall they would’ve shook their heads in judgement at least a thousand times.
Karren was at work so it was just her and Spirit for the day. She had promised Spirit a day of sightseeing around the neighborhood and meeting her friends. Her work at R.I.S.E. during the day as their Minister of Communications, never left her much time to keep in touch as she rushed back across town every evening to walk Spirit home from school.
The first stop was easy, she went to visit Karren’s mother and lay as many kisses on her that the old lady would allow. She hadn’t been by to visit her in some time and Karren said she’d been asking for her and Spirit.
Spirit could hardly believe that her Mama grew up in such tiny places with Grandma J and then where she showed her she lived with her dead Pop-Pop and Uncle.
When they arrived at the R.I.S.E. headquarters on the corner of MLK Avenue, Spirit skipped with excitement. This was the place Mama was always stealing away to and making Baba mad.
It was a deal Jamilla made with Olu when Spirit was still very young, she could go whenever she wanted but only if she never took Spirit. He didn’t want his child hanging around “shiftless American Negros standing on the corners all day”. He didn’t care to hear the facts that some of them stood on the corner because the education was shit and the jobs, if there were any, were even shittier.
“Mama, why are there periods in RISE?” Spirit asked picking up a pamphlet they handed out through the neighborhood off a table near the entrance of the building .
“Because it’s not just the word; it stands for Resist. Identity. Survive. Educate.”
“Oh,” Spirit said.
“Put that back and come on, Spirit.”
Jamilla wasn’t in the mood for answering a million in one questions from her inquisitive child.
Her nerves were starting to get the best of her as she got closer to Amar’s office. He was the real reason she brought Spirit to R.I.S.E. today, she was finally going to introduce them.
“Peace sister,” the young woman’s face looked up at Jamilla with respectful admiration as she spoke, “brother Amar told me to tell you he’s sorry but there was an emergency in Prince George’s county.”
“What sort of emergency?”
“You haven’t heard?”
“Some young Cats were fingered for a hold-up last night, there was a high speed chase from 13th street, NW to PG and one of the boys was fatally shot by the police. Amar left to be with the family at the hospital and find out if we should get involved.”
Jamilla was somewhat relieved that he wasn’t in, it wasn’t until she stood inches away from where he was supposed to be that she thought it may be too soon for Spirit to meet him.
Amar was the reason for her and Olu’s fight. Even though Olu didn’t know who, all he needed was the idea of someone else. She had felt some guilt over loving another man but the heart is a stubborn dictator and good sense, a willing servant.
Amar was everything Olu was not; he made sense – a streetwise man with a passion to live free and see his brothers and sisters do the same. She worried that Spirit would feel betrayed.
“Thank you sister. Let him know I stopped by and to give me a ring at Sister Karren’s later.”
“Will do, sister. RISE.”
“RISE.” Jamilla responded, ushering Spirit out of the office.
Spirit thought it was pretty funny that they said RISE instead of bye. “Mama, why did she say RISE and then you said RISE?”
“So that we don’t forget.” Jamilla answers.
“Hush now, I’ll tell you later. Are you hungry?”
“Good. Mama knows just the place; my daddy used to take me when I was a girl.”
“Spirit, this is my friend Amar.”
The living room was smoky, blue curtains rebuked the sun from lighting the space only rays of dust swirled in the air where light couldn’t be denied. Spirit smelled a accustomed scent of sandalwood incense and jasmine oil – Jamilla’s favorite smells – it made the stranger’s house feel familiar.
Everything looked second hand. The couch had tears and stains; a green vinyl card table sat against the kitchen wall, and the wall paper was graffiti’d with black marker ink, some words were short enough for Spirit to read as she skimmed the big block letters, at the end of each squared group of words, she read recognizable names “Bro. Mao, Bro. Malcolm, Sis. Harriet.”
She was in the middle of reading “I had a dream…down with the police.” –Bro. Tariq when Amar got her attention.
“So, this is Princess Spirit?”
Spirit frowns at being called a princess, only white girls were princesses and she was a Black queen just like Mama and Aunt Karren.
She didn’t like that he was talking to her like a cute baby, “I’m a revolutionary,” she said, having noticed the respect it seemed to always command when spoken as an introduction.
“Shit, Jamilla.” Amar spoke excitedly impressed by Spirit’s response. “Well, you are your mother’s child, that’s for damn straight.” He looked Spirit up and down and saw Jamilla in her but also the face of the man he wanted to lay hands on at that moment.
“Well revolutionary, you’re as beautiful as your mother. Did you know that?”
“Yes,” Spirit shied, turning her attention to Jamilla, “Mama you’re heavy.” Spirit slouched under the weight of Jamilla’s hands pressing nervously on her shoulders.
“Oh, sorry baby,” Jamilla giggled anxiously and winced at the pain her lips felt whenever she smiled.
Amar grew angry as he watched Jamilla try to look and act normal despite the pain living on her body. He had told her to leave that square a long time ago. It only took Olu beating her near death for her to finally come around.
“Spirit, go get the coloring book and crayons we just bought and go in the other room.
Spirit shot Jamilla a cautious look.
“Go on, now. I need to talk to Amar about something.”
Spirit walked slowly to the other room, careful to obey but not before showing her dislike of leaving Jamilla and the stranger alone.
“Move it, Spirit and close the door behind you.” The patience in Jamilla’s voice had disappeared. Spirit shut the door without another second of hesitation.
“Amar, you promised me.” Jamilla whispered forcefully. “I can see it all over your face.”
“Have you looked at yourself?”
“I don’t have to look, I can feel it.”
“There’s got to be consequences Jamilla. It’s the principle. How does it look if I let some motherfucker off the street violate my woman.”
“That motherfucker is my husband and I don’t need you to fight for me only with me. You gave me your word, now keep it.”
“Alright,” Amar’s gruff response is unconvincing.
“Say the words, Amar.”
“I will not fuck that motherfucker up for putting his hands on you.”
“And, you won’t have anyone else do it.” Amar’s eyes shift from Jamilla’s stare.
“Amar!” Jamilla’s voice rose with low hysterics.
“No one will touch the man.”
“Thank you.” Jamilla kisses him on the mouth, long and hard.
“It’s me and you now baby.” Amar said in between breaths with their lips still mashed.
“Yes, lover, I know.” Spirit wraps her arms around Amar’s neck as he brings her closer to him.
“How you think Spirit is gonna take all this?” Amar asks, his breath warm on the top of her head.
“It might take a while but she’ll be fine.”
“Mama, I have a picture for you.” Spirit sang between the opening she made in the door.
“I knew she wouldn’t sit still for long.” Jamilla winks at Amar.
“Let’s see it.” Jamilla motions Spirit out of the room.
“He’s a giant; a big, stormy looking giant.” Spirit thought as she walks toward the two.
It felt as if the whole house moved when Amar dropped to one knee to examine her picture. “Jamilla, how come you didn’t tell me we have an artist in the family. Like a young Barbara Jones-Hogu. You know who she is?”
“Well, stick with me and I’ll show you all the baddest artists out. You’re gonna be just like them. Now, sign that for me so I can hang it on the wall. This is gonna be worth a lot of money one day.”
Spirit signs her name and tears the page out; pursing her lips to veil the excitement of creating sought-after art.
“What’s that sound?” Amar asks Spirit, standing up and looking mysteriously around the room, “You hear that?”
Spirit pushes her ear to the side trying to hear too.
“Jamilla, what kind of child did you bring in here that don’t know the sound of a ice cream truck,” Amar teases.
“I know you’re not going to pass up ice cream acting shy, it’s your favorite.” Jamilla whispers in Spirit’s ear.
“Well,” Amar stands; reaching in his pants, he pulls clear two wrinkly dollar bills. “I guess I’ll have to go by myself. Shame, I thought all pretty girls – excuse me…revolutionaries liked ice cream.”
“What kind of trick were these two trying to pull on her?” Spirit thought. She put her hand to the side of her mouth letting Jamilla know she had an answer for both of them. “You told me not to go anywhere with strangers.”
“He’s not a stranger.” Jamilla whispers back.
“He is to me,” Spirit maintains.
“Well not to me.”
Jamilla shrugs at Amar. She wasn’t going to force Spirit.
“I like ice cream,” Spirit blurts.
Jamilla’s laughter was tense but relieved.
“Can you help me across the street?” Amar reaches for Spirit’s hand.
“Yes, I’m good at that.” Spirit proclaims.
“Good, do you know I almost got run over by a elephant the other day?”
“There aren’t any elephants in DC, except at the zoo.” Spirit says.
Jamilla giggles at Amar’s joking as if she were the seven-year-old.
“Smart girl,” Amar answers Spirit. “I like that,” he steals a look at Jamilla as he escorts Spirit outdoors to track down the ice cream truck.
Jamilla falls on the couch glad for a moment alone. Amar expects her and Spirit to move in with him before the end of the week. He had waited long enough, he said. She thought this is what she wanted but now that the time had come she wasn’t so sure – even though – here is where her heart had been for so many years.
The only thoughts she had more than living with Amar was if Olu would fight for custody. That fear woke her up at night in fits of rage and loss. If he did, she knew the Pigs and their paid-off judges would use her affiliation with R.I.S.E. against her.
As much as white folk hated Blacks from the continent they despised Africa’s bastard children more, especially the ones bold enough to say “go fuck yourselves.” For now Olu was under her protection but she was prepared to take any action necessary to keep Spirit out of the system. The look on Amar’s face said she only needed to say how much of a hurting she was willing to live with.
Amar’s pad was neat but bare; as one of the co-founders of the group most of the furniture was either donated or bought with R.I.S.E. money. This was just a temporary set-up, he’d said, they would move somewhere bigger so Spirit could have her own room. They both agreed that the normal set-up of a couch, mattress on the floor, one dresser, 2 sets of linens, and cache of weapons hidden around the house wasn’t ideal for Spirit.
The large picture of a Spanish bull-fight by the front door disguised the Tek-9 attached to the back, the couch cushions hid an old AK-47, the box spring and mattress incubated a semi-automatic Glock, and the card table and toilet tank hid the two Smith and Wesson pistols. She knew his .22 was tucked slightly in his front waist, where he always kept it for protection.
It was the life she chose, still, she isn’t jumping out of her skin to throw Spirit in the middle of it. White supremacy and Black rage was a long, exhausting and violent battle. Once the racist powers get a whiff of nonconformity they make it their responsibility to eradicate the offender, psychologically or physically, whichever comes first.
Being Amar’s woman was tantamount to being a drug kingpin’s – he was always a target by police or another brother wanting his position. Only the fact that he was trying to empower the Black community instead of destroy it gave him hierarchy on the most wanted list.
Every minute of the day, the Feds, state troopers, local gangs — street level and the ones with shields could bust down the door of Amar’s place. It would take Spirit awhile to get used to what life was like for the other eighty percent of non-white people but Amar was right – she was definitely her child – Spirit is resilient she told herself.
Jamilla laughed loudly at Spirit calling herself a revolutionary; she didn’t even know the child knew the word. “Right on,” she thought.
Olu had been determined not to have his child touched by the grime of America’s premeditated so-called ghettos but the Gold Coast was more of a hapless utopia than a free suburban escape, those niggas were only as safe as their last mortgage payment. Spirit would have to learn the truth of America’s crimes against their people and in time decide for herself if she would be a part of the problem or the solution.
“We’ll stay in the old neighborhood at Karren’s for a while longer.” Jamilla decides. She still needed time to eat lunch with Spirit at the Shrimp Boat dive on Minnesota Avenue and take her to Anacostia Park to watch the barge ships coast by. Yes, there was deep culture and kinship to be found in the city streets. “I’ll enroll her in R.I.S.E.’s summer youth program Monday,” Jamilla spoke out loud, feeling better that she was making up her own mind for her and Spirit. Amar wouldn’t like it but he’d have to understand.
She had never been one of these naïve sisters, fresh out of school bent on making a difference, falling blindly in love with the first revolutionary she meets with her legs wide and her mouth shut. Her place wasn’t underneath or behind the brothers but on the front-lines wherever needed.
At twenty-seven she had experienced enough to know a chess game from checkers, she knew she was Amar’s main woman but she wasn’t his only one. Most of the sisters he bedded when she went home to Olu weren’t going to fade to black just because she was finally done with her double life. He still needed his own space and she intended on giving it to him “Whether he’s with it or not,” she thought.
Jamilla adhered to three allegiances, being a conscientious woman and mother first by raising Spirit with political and social awareness, second, controlling her own destiny regardless of any man or powers that be, and last, was her commitment to R.I.S.E. For her that was revolutionary 101; her bond to those three pillars was akin to a gang affiliation, “blood in and blood out”.
When Amar and Spirit reemerge with ice cream cones masking their faces she greets them with an inward smile of resignation.
“Here, Milla,” Amar hands her a chocolate éclair bar.
Spirit isn’t distracted enough to overlook their interaction, licking wildly at the chocolate dripping down the cone and chilling her fingertips, she conceded, “not all giants are mean.”
Spirit leans toward the mirror in the bathroom. Had her face changed overnight? She wondered. It was her ninth birthday. Almost, two years had passed since she and Jamilla left her father’s house. Two years of relearning the mother she thought she knew.
Her father had been right about her, she was an unfaithful wife. Amar wasn’t just her Mama’s friend he was more like a boyfriend. At first she didn’t know how to feel about it – about him – them. She never really saw affection between her father and mother unless a bottle of wine lay sideways on the kitchen table, empty of its smelly content. Even then it was weird to see them touch. Amar and Mama touched easily and kissed like it could be the last time – every time. That was strange too in the beginning, especially catching them when they tried to hide it from her.
It was Spirit who finally swayed Jamilla to live with Amar. She had grown tired of sleeping on Auntie Karren’s couch. Amar had promised her, her own room if she talked to Jamilla about moving with him. He didn’t have to convince her, she had envisioned yellowish-orange paint for her room, the color of sunlight. He had the room painted by the time she came home from school the day after they brought their things over. She was anticipating a new brother or sister out of the deal but Amar said he would handle that part.
Spirit loved Amar and wondered how her father would feel about that. She hadn’t seen him since that night. She dreamt about him – Mama said it was because he was a part of her and that would never change. She was proud of her Nigerian ties, although the children at school made it out to be the worst of offenses. Mama had already explained to her that she was bi-cultural, the truest definition of “African-American”, not how the whites intended it to mean by making a distinction of their Americanism. She carried her last name with satisfaction, and couldn’t understand the pride the other kids had in the names they inherited from their great-great-grandparent’s master. Amar said one day she would understand the ignorance that plagues their community but the daily taunts of her classmates made ‘one day’ seem far away.
She was home alone, again. Amar and Jamilla were retaining legal counsel for brother Lennox. He had been picked up on a robbery charge the night before; for “looking like the suspect”. When Amar got the phone call about Lennox, he shouted into the phone, “Every black man in the universe matches the description!” They left the house before Spirit was awake leaving a note for her to make her own bowl of cereal and to sit “tight” until they returned. Sitting tight simply meant to not do anything that might get her into trouble or cause the Pigs to come there. Spirit jumps at how loudly she let the cereal bowl bang the table, exhaling with relief that it didn’t break at her insolence.
She hated being in the house alone though she had grown use to it. Amar and Jamilla were working for the people. It was a sacrifice – for the greater good. Still she couldn’t help but dislike how much more time the people got from her mother and Amar than she did. She was only allowed to join them on their pursuits when the cops weren’t expected to show up. This excluded her from all protests, courtrooms, hospitals, and trips to R.I.S.E., especially if it were directly after a run-in between any members and the police.
Spirit sits at the table eating her honey nut cereal, the house echoing with the flaky crunch. Suddenly, she becomes aware of how unrefined the noise of her mouth is making. She was nine now, it was time she acted like a young lady, she thought to herself. What do nine-year-olds do? She wondered. She’d clean up after herself for one thing. Then go clean up her room. Mama will be happy about that and Amar will look down on her, proud of her maturity. She would show them that she was big enough to take on some of those Pigs herself. They didn’t have to leave her behind for fear that she’d get hurt. She could watch out for herself and if a Pig touched her she would use the combat tactics they taught her at the R.I.S.E. children’s program. Aim for the eyes and privates.
She practiced the martial art movements she had learned as she cleaned up her room. Being an only child had taught her well how to distance the loneliness by entertaining herself. She looked at the digital clock she used for an alarm on school mornings. It was almost time for lunch and they weren’t back yet.
Anxiety dropped in her stomach like a marble in a tin pan. The abrupt mist of cold sweat that claimed her neck and face sent a signal of panic to her mind. She had never felt this way before; she could hear her heartbeat crescendo as her throat tightened around her breath. “What if the Cops took Amar and Mama too? What if Mama was beat up and Amar was killed for trying to save her. What if they had been shot on their way to the lawyer’s office?”
She stood in the middle of her floor, squeezing clothes meant for the hamper against her chest. Her ears ring as she grows angry thinking about what the police might have done to them. She would get one — no, two of Amar’s guns and shoot every pig she saw if something bad had happened to them. Even the white lady officer that directed traffic in front of her school and smiled at her every morning would get a bullet. She began to cry.
The knocker on the door jerked in unison as it closed shut. Spirit’s head registered Amar’s voice as he recalled with delight the look on the desk officer’s face when he dropped the bail money for Lennox’s release on the front desk. Jamilla chuckles inwardly before catching the terrorized look on Spirit’s face through her open door.
“Baby, what’s wrong?” Jamilla asks sobered by Spirit’s facial expression, her tears weren’t noticeable from where she stood but something wasn’t right.
Spirit gazes at them as if they are apparitions.
“Spirit,” Amar’s voice is more demanding than her mother’s. “It’s your birthday. Cheer up.”
Spirit plops to the carpeted floor, fatigued by the overwhelming sense of loss she had felt only moments earlier.
“I thought you weren’t coming back,” she whispers only to herself, closing the door with her foot – she didn’t want to look at them.
It was a rare excursion from the normal routine of R.I.S.E. business. Jamilla was relieved that Amar was finally over her leaving him and Spirit for the weekend to be with the “dykes” on Capitol Hill. Women across the country were demanding an extension of the deadline for ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Jamilla, Karren and dozens of other women from R.I.S.E. and sister organizations joined in the march, armed with placards that screamed, “R.I.S.E. for Women’s Rights!”, “Women & LGBT Rights Aren’t Just 4 Whites!” and “Ain’t I a Woman!” It was a protest within a protest, one that Amar refused to understand and she didn’t push, just left a note:
I’ll be back Sunday night. Tell Spirit her Mama has gone to fight for our future and yours too brother. If you decide to come looking for me I’ll be a brown speck in a sea of women. You can’t miss me.
The Black Nationalist movement had a history of being deeply homophobic and R.I.S.E. was no exception, despite a call from respected brother Huey P. of the Black Panther movement urging solidarity between the Black Nationalist and women’s and gay liberation struggle over a decade earlier.* The subject caused tension in Jamilla and Amar’s relationship from the beginning.
“I don’t have anything personal against the woman, but it ain’t natural, how are we supposed to survive as a people without the Black man and woman creating our next generation?” Amar argued.
“Same way we been doing. If you think women and men loving each other is gonna stop our existence than you need to check your history, that kind of loving is ancient Man.”
“But it’s people like them…”
“Amar Damon West! I love you too much for you to be so damn ignorant so before I forget what kind of brilliant you are, shut up about it. Please!” The arguments were in vain, she would defend Karren until the day she died and he knew it too.
The sexism and hetero-normative complexes in R.I.S.E. were a huge distraction to the struggle; brothers acted as if womanizing was the only normal that made sense. At least once a week, there was an internal riff because of who fucked whose man or woman. The issue had dismantled more than one organization and she wanted to believe that R.I.S.E. could be better. Black people already dealt with enough discrimination for the color of their skin to have to contend with homophobia and transphobia too. If they were going to succeed in this fight they needed every ready and willing body.
When Karren wasn’t being harassed by some brothers claiming to have the skills to make her want dick 24 hours and seven days a week, she was being ignored. The justification, that being gay and black is counterrevolutionary. She wasn’t alone in R.I.S.E.’s ranks but she was the only one who didn’t hide it.
Jamilla worked with Karren to initiate a separate safe space for LGBT brothers and sisters throughout the metropolitan. When rumor got out, she was accused of sleeping with Karren and threatened to be removed from her position.
‘No one is free when others are oppressed,’ she repeated the freedom quote they all knew during their chapter meeting.
“I’m not going anywhere, neither is Sister Karren or anyone else,” Jamilla hurled her hurt and disappointment at the room. Karren and other women helping them to organize the new group rose from their seats in unity. The shock in the crowd took over as the men’s wives and girlfriends stood among them. Their collective was known as one of the earliest straight and gay alliances within the Black Nationalist factions. They gained a few more members and supporters that night but those who opposed stood their ground. Amar was one of them, although it was becoming more about saving face around the brothers. His respect and trust for Jamilla was beginning to overpower his learned beliefs.
He only raised an eyebrow, not a fuss when Jamilla told him that she had invited Karren and her lover, Neff for their ride to Ocean City. “They’ll be here any minute so if you got something to say, my love, now is the time to get it out.”
Amar had bought a purple van only a week before and was determined to take it further than Ward 7. Lennox who was recently exonerated of robbery charges, his wife Denise and their young sons Sheldon and Yuri were also tagging along.
“Hope there’s enough room in the back for them.” Amar answered.
Spirit let the sand fill the gaps between her toes on the beach. It was the first time she ever saw this much water outside of the community swimming pools they frequented at home. The ocean seemed to meet the sky or the sky the ocean, she couldn’t tell which but the illusion amazed her. Jamilla had braided her hair the night before so that it laid straight back, the beads on the ends clattered against her shoulders and neck. She loved the sound, shaking her head often to hear the rattle. Amar was being overprotective not allowing her into the water without him by her side. She was almost ten but he said it didn’t matter because that only made her his “ten-year-old baby”.
She helped Sheldon bury himself in the sand and chased Yuri half way down the beach for throwing dead seaweed at her.
Jamilla’s smile was permanent; it had been a rough week at home with them arguing about her running off with Karren. Spirit had felt certain that Amar would do what her father had done to Jamilla a few years earlier. She made him promise he wouldn’t touch her Mama when she came back home. The hug he gave her saying that he would never lay a hand on Jamilla, helped her sleep that night and he had kept his promise.
Auntie Karren and Neff took her to get a soft-shell crab sandwich; they held her hands the entire way. Spirit protested having to walk between them like a toddler.
“Can you keep a secret, Spirit.” Karren asks sensing Spirit’s reluctance.
“Me and Auntie Neff can’t hold hands out here like we do at home.”
“Cuz people are stupid.” Neff said.
“Hush Neff,” Karren said playfully. “Well because people don’t want us to love each other.”
“Well that is stupid.” Spirit retorts.
“Told ya,” Neff says through laughter.
“Because we love you so much, we can hold your hands and pretend.”
“Ohhh, ok.” Spirit’s smile returns, skipping between them with a sudden feeling of importance.
“You’re going to love this, Spirit.” Neff says when they reach the boardwalk stand. “My mother used to make these for me all the time when I was growing up.”
“Neff grew up just forty-five minutes from here, Spirit. She knows her seafood.”
“Why is it called soft-shell? Crabs don’t come like that, what happened to its shell?” Spirit asks full of skepticism.
“It fell off. Here, taste mine.” Neff answers.
Neff and Karren laugh wildly as Spirit’s eyes light up from the taste.
“I want it!” Spirit yells excitedly grabbing the sandwich from Neff’s grasp.
They are all spent when it’s time to leave. Amar and Lennox carry his boys to the van –they protested the walk from the beach to the parking lot with howls of exhaustion.
Before turning onto the first street, Spirit, Sheldon and Yuri are asleep in the rear of the van.
“Hey, keep your eyes on the road, lover.” Jamilla calls out to Amar, the women play cards on the collapsible table in the middle of the van’s cabin.
“I’ll try, ain’t nothing more beautiful than a group of shit talking women playing spades, though.”
“Right on.” Neff laughs.
“I got next game.” says Lennox
“No sir, you stay right up there with Amar. This is a sister’s only club back here baby. Amar push that Songs in the Key of Life 8-track in man.” Karren says.
“Yeah, love is definitely in need of love up in here right now. Telling me I can’t play.”
“Aww, me and the kids will play with you when we get home.” says Denise. Laughter bursts from the table infecting Lennox.
“I can dig it, have y’alls fun.”
It had been dark for over two hours when they merge onto Pennsylvania Avenue, SE.
Just to Be Close to You by the Commodores pours through the speakers as they near home. Neff was the first to notice the swirl of red, white and blue lights reflecting off the side bubble window closest to her head. Amar recognizes the lights seconds later as he switches the speaker volume to a murmur.
“Everybody stay cool so we can get this over with quick.” Amar says, turning onto a dim side street before stopping. If there was going to be an altercation he didn’t want too many witnesses.
Spirit opens her eyes, feeling the car stop. She read the stress on the faces of the adults instantly, Jamilla’s was especially telling.
“Fuckin bastards,” Lennox spit.
Spirit moves instinctively in between the boys as they began to rouse from the cease of motion.
“We’re cool, man.” Amar waves a sideways hand at Lennox to calm him. “Be easy. I was riding the limit; they just fucking with us.”
“I’m still on paper man.” Lennox continues, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“Man, who in this car ain’t on these pig’s radar besides Denise and the kids,” Amar says annoyed at Lennox’s onslaught of panic. “Just be cool, I’m the one driving.”
Spirit’s legs began to tremble, it was the feeling she always got when she sensed trouble creeping up her spine. Jamilla had told her they were anxiety attacks and when she felt like that to breathe hard, in and out. She tried but the chills from the cold sweat distract her and her breathing relapses to angry gasps of air.
Jamilla catches a look at Amar through the rear-view mirror; they knew each other’s thoughts – to defend at all cost. Even though they had planned for a good day at the beach they had left the house as soldiers who knew their enemies well. The back of the van concealed enough arsenals to take down a full squadron.
The cops sat behind them for over ten minutes. It isn’t until the second black and white pulls up that the cops from the first car approach them.
He had put the car in his mother’s name to avoid detection with the license plate. No doubt there was a snitch in the community that hipped the cops to his new ride. He made a mental note to find out if the rat was within R.I.S.E. It was evident by the additional car that they knew exactly who occupied the vehicle and were prepared for a confrontation.
“Ya’ll get ready.” He spoke to the women without turning his head.
“Sheldon…Yuri,” Denise call her sons, “Let’s play a game. Put your hands over your ears and see who can count to one hundred the fastest.”
The boys were young but they were smart and knew something wasn’t right. Spirit looks at them both, noticing that they had done their mother one better and cinched their eyelids shut as well.
“Spirit,” Jamilla says, “whatever happens you stay back here with the boys. If we have to get out of the car take them and get on the floor. Do you understand Mama?”
Spirit shakes her head “yes,” hoping it won’t come to that.
Flashlights intentionally blind the view of the side mirrors as the cops approach on both sides of the van.
“Put your hands where we can see them.” A male voice booms from a loud speaker. Amar nods for Lennox to follow the cop’s order as they both slide their arms as far as they can reach outside the windows.
“Where ya‘ll coming from?” A puny voice says just outside the driver’s side window.
“Don’t you want my license and registration Officer?”
“Answer the question.” A more forceful voice came from Lennox’s side of the van.
“Coming back from the beach, man,” Amar answers petulantly.
The side door slides open abruptly, causing them all to jump as the cop whirls the blinding flashlight throughout the length of the van. He pauses at the sight of Spirit staring back at him and quickly turns his attention to the women.
“What is the problem, officer?” Jamilla asks. “Don’t you see we have children back here?”
“I didn’t ask you anything.” The officer grunts. “You black son-of-a-bitches can’t keep your women in line?” The puny voice officer chuckles at his partner’s comment.
“You out of order, motherfucker,” Amar says, his undertone meant as a warning.
“Step out of the vehicle.” The puny voice officer opens the driver door enforcing his command.
“I ain’t steppin’ out of nothing until you tell me why ya’ll stopped us.” Amar says.
“Why y’all fucking with us,” Lennox cosigns.
The officers step back in unison, pointing their guns and flashlights at Lennox and Amar. Jamilla slides her hand underneath her shirt allowing her index finger to rest on the trigger. She took comfort in knowing that at least Karren was doing the same.
“Get out of the vehicle,” the loud speaker blares again. The backup officer, audibly agitated by the unfolding scene.
“Cool it,” Amar says attempting to diffuse everyone’s tempers. “I’m going to get out of the car. You don’t have to involve anyone else.”
“Nah, this Nigger’s getting out too,” the officer at Lennox’s door snorts.
Lennox leaps onto the officer like a cheetah on a stunned impala. The cop’s gun can be heard skipping under the van like a weighted stone. Lennox’s elbows battle the air as he lay a barrage of fist down on the officer’s upper body and face. The puny officer scrambles around the front of the vehicle to assist his partner but it’s too late, as he rounds the corner Neff is already there with a sawed off shotgun to meet his chest. “Drop your gun,” Neff says. Her butch mannerisms belie her bikini top.
Spirit makes sure the boy’s foreheads still touch the carpeted floor of the van as she peers above the seat to see what’s going on. The sight of the guns gives her a peculiar feeling of security. Guns had always frightened her, hearing them pop and bang just outside her window throughout the night. “Black on black crime,” Karren had taught her the term. The Pigs didn’t show up once the street lights flickered on in their neighborhood. Amar said it was exactly what the man wanted, for Blacks to kill their selves off and save them the trouble.
Spirit wonders why the cops didn’t shoot. She didn’t have enough fingers to count how many times Amar or Jamilla talked about a shootout between R.I.S.E members and the police. Maybe they were scared? She had heard that the police were never so tough when they weren’t the only ones armed.
Amar moves out of her line of view…someone was getting beat up. It was Lennox and a cop who didn’t look to be putting up a fight. Her body fell cold watching the lifeless body of the officer jerk involuntarily with the force of Lennox’s blows. A blur of Jamilla’s orange and turquoise sundress breaks her fixture on the two men as the open door slams shut.
The other officers were met with a similar welcome as Jamilla, Karren, Denise and Amar all point weapons at them. “Drop your weapons and walk over here.” Amar motioned for the officers with his .22. The side street was dark but he was sure the police lights had gotten the attention of some residents and he didn’t want to risk someone spotting their guns.
“Take this,” Amar handed his pocket knife to Jamilla careful not to say her name. “Put a hole in those tires and cut the radio. These motherfuckers can hitch a ride back to the station.”
Adrenaline races through Jamilla’s body as she stabs at the tires with the finesse of a hunter penetrating tough animal hide. She leans in the window of the first vehicle to cut the radio cord. Luckily, the second car’s doors were still open from their hasty exit so that she didn’t have to balance herself through the open window to avoid touching the interior with her hands.
When she returns, the three officers are on their knees stripped of their utility belts. Amar had managed to pull Lennox off of the rough voice officer who was laying on his back unconscious from his beating. Lennox reopens the side door to sit on the edge of the van, sweat pours from his body as he brushes the gravel from his bleeding knuckles.
“We know who you are Amar,” the puny voice officer barks. You ain’t gonna get away with this.”
Amar silently motions for everyone to get back in the van, unresponsive to the taunt.
“We know who all of you are,” he continues, “Jamilla, Lennox, Nefertiti, Karren – you’re all good as dead!”
Jamilla takes the wheel and Karren climbs next to her in the passenger seat. Denise, Lennox and Amar head for the children crouched on the floor in between the seats, each searching for comfort that only a child could offer. Amar places Spirit on his lap; their tight embrace, reciprocal.
Neff kicks the pile of state issued guns, batons, flashlights and cuffs under the table.
“Fuck,” she mutters to no one in particular.
Jamilla speeds off in the dark, improvising their destination as she leaves the kneeling cops on the side of the road.
The trail of broken skin and dry blood marching across Lennox’s knuckles keeps Spirit alert – waiting, she was convinced the officer was dead. He didn’t move when Amar pulled Lennox off of him and the heavy sighs and occasional under-breath mutters didn’t confirm or deny her thoughts.
Amar’s haste to find refuge in her arms only frightens her more; she was used to the security of his strong arms; instead his fear rippled through her senses like a noxious spider.
“Why did the cops have to bother them,” Spirit sneaks quick glances at the adults, careful not to make direct eye contact. She didn’t need or want proof that life would never be the same because of tonight.
“Mommy, I gotta throw-up.” The candy apple, boardwalk fries, funnel cake and soft-shell crab all washed down with gulps of ocean water revisited her at once.
“Can you hold it?” They were heading south on a dark street just as unfamiliar as the last. “Where were they, how much longer before they are caught, what will happen to Spirit,” tornado-whipped through Jamilla’s mind.
“Jamilla, we’re gonna have to stop,” Amar says.
“Mama’s stopping, Spirit, hold on.” The tires spit gravel and road debris onto the shoulder as the van slows.
Neff slides the side door open for Amar, carrying Spirit as if she were a rag doll to the outside.
By the time Jamilla reaches them, Spirit is already releasing all she had eaten. She gathers Spirit’s chattering hair away from her face – wet with tears and sweat.
“You’re gonna be alright Spirit, just let it out,” says Amar.
“She’ll be fine, just ate too much.” Jamilla says. “Are you all right, Lover?” she asks Amar searching his eyes for assurances they both knew he had no control over.
“We have to keep moving.” Amar answers, his mind guarded and on high alert.
Karren joins the three, wiping Spirit’s mouth and forehead with a beach towel she wet with melted ice from the cooler.
“We need a plan.” Jamilla whispers to both Karren and Amar. “The sun will be up soon and I don’t want to be in this van when it does.”
“Shit, I don’t have no fucking idea where we are right now,” Amar says.
“We’re still in Virginia, that’s all I know.” Karren says.
“I’ll make a phone call at the next rest stop. My brother lives in Charlottesville. We can go there.” Lennox says.
“Nah, they’ll be all over our relatives, especially yours and mine.”
Spirit stands from her squatting position offended by the stench of her vomit and escapes straight into Karren’s arms.
“Well, we can’t just stand around here.” Lennox responds.
“My ex-girlfriend lives in Durham do you think we can make it there before sunrise?” Neff asks.
“We can make it but we’ll have to get on the highway.”
“We’ll have to switch license plates from somewhere.” Lennox says.
“Are you sure she’ll help.” Jamilla asks Neff.
“She ain’t gonna be happy to see us but she’ll help,” Neff assures, “All I need is a phone book and map.”
“Tank is almost empty anyway; let’s stop at the next station. Diana will have to go in since she’s probably the only one of us not on the APB yet.” says Amar.
“I’ll tell her.” Lennox says.
Neff and Karren gather in the front seats, Lennox returns to the back with his family and Amar, Jamilla and Spirit take center.
“Karren, you okay with this?” Jamilla asks once everyone is back in the van.
“We do what we have to.” Karren answers. “Ain’t about me.”
The shifting of emotions in the car was evident. What they had known was over – their homes, nine-to-fives, schools and community, all gone. They were fugitives of the law, homeless and running out of moon light fast.
“Spirit, lay your head on Mommy’s lap and rest.”
Spirit bends her legs to fit between Amar and Jamilla, their hands meet on her back rubbing her as if she were a newborn.
Sounds of the heavy tires on a timber bridge roused Spirit from her sleep.
“I think that’s it, down there.” Karren said to Neff as they both study the drawn circle on the map.
“Gotta be — We’re running out of road.”
The sunrise unveiled the array of trees on either side of them as the van pulled itself along the dirt road.
Spirit doesn’t look at Jamilla or Amar to find the reason they were no longer moving; she was convinced now that as much as they could hide from her they would. She took her time listening and surveying the perimeter of the van to determine if she should be alarmed.
The petite, green ranch house sat along acres of wild grass. “I’ll be right back.” Neff says exiting the van.
“Should I come with you?”
She might take it better if she doesn’t know you’re with me just yet.”
“Fine,” Karren responds trying unsuccessfully to dismiss the territorial pitch from her voice.
The mood of the group shifts from anxious to dismay as Neff knocks, pounds and kicks the door without an answer from inside. After peering into a curtain covered window adjacent to the front door she disappears around the back of the house.
“She’s probably just sleeping…it’s early,” Karren says nervously.
Moments later, the front door opens and a woman wearing a green terry cloth bathrobe and matching towel wrapped high on her head emerges from the entrance, staring directly at the mysterious van.
“She must really like green.” Spirit thought, her verdict interrupted by Karren’s sudden dash out of the van to greet the stranger.
The woman gathers her robe closer to her body, her face rapt with curiosity as Karren walks toward her yelling for Neff to come back to the front of the house. Spirit watched the scene like it was one of those soap operas the teachers at school talked about during recess.
Neff almost ran into Karren when she emerges from around the corner. Seeing Neff the woman hastily tugs at the towel covering her hair, her long dark curls falling at her waist. Her hair was wet but Spirit could imagine how thick and bushy it must be dry. She had seen hair like hers on the shampoo commercials but it mostly belonged to white women, this woman was brown as Olu – tall and beautiful like a model.
Spirit watches the interaction of the three women as Neff talks excitedly, moving her hands as if she were putting on a show.
“Now what do we do?” Spirit asks Jamilla assuming that the woman’s disappearance and Neff and Karren’s return to the van meant rejection.
“Hush, you let us worry about that.” Jamilla answers Spirit, barely looking at her as she searches Neff and Karren’s face for answers.
“It’s cool.” Neff says when she opens the door. “She’s just getting some clothes on.”
“I’m hungry,” Sheldon says.
Karren holds her hand out towards him. “I’m sure she has something in there to eat. Get your brother and come’on. Mommy and Daddy are right behind you.”
Jamilla could tell Karren was uncomfortable with the situation and wanted to use the boys as a distraction from Neff and her ex.
Yuri climbs over Sheldon to get to Karren.
“Oww!” Sheldon yells holding the foot Yuri stepped on.
“I got to pee.” Yuri exclaims. He wasn’t all the way out before he started pulling his pants down and peeing on the side of the van.
Jamilla covers Spirit’s eyes from the sight. They’re shared laughter is tense but a welcome diversion.
“This is Shanelle,” Neff says introducing her ex-lover to everyone once they were in the house.
“How ya’ll do?” Shanelle asks.
Spirit covers her mouth with both hands to push back a giggle. Shanelle talked like the wives on those old black and white western shows Amar cursed at on TV for being phony.
“Been better,” Jamilla says.
“Well, please make yourself at home.” Shanelle says. “I was getting ready for work when ya’ll pulled up.”
“You live alone?” Amar interrupts.
“No, my uncle stays here but he’s been at his girlfriend’s house for the past few days.” Shanelle answers. “Not sure when he’ll be back, though.”
“How long he normally stay gone?” Amar insists measuring the potential jeopardy the man of the house might be when he finds them in his home.
“Hard to say,” Shanelle answers.
“You can’t leave,” Lennox says to her.
“What do you mean, can’t,” Shanelle asks, shifting her stance and looking from Neff to Jamilla to Karren then again at Neff.
“Shanelle, don’t worry. But can you call in sick or something?” Neff answers her. “No one is going to hurt you; you have my word on that.” She looks at Lennox with a protective glare. “We just need you to stick around until we figure out what we’re going to do.”
“What kinda trouble ya’ll in?” Shanelle asks.
“Listen, we’ve been going nonstop since yesterday evening.” Jamilla intercedes. “We’re all hungry and in desperate need of your bathroom and shower.”
“Of course,” Shanelle responds looking at the children who are watching her just as intently as the adults. “Bathroom is in the back, and whatever’s in there to eat is yours.”
“Thank you,” Karren says. She had been quiet since they entered the tiny living space.
“You’re welcome.” Shanelle responds shyly, recognizing her as Neff’s new woman. “Friends of Neff’s are friends of mine.”
The boys scramble to lie next to Spirit, on a floor pallet of pillows, sheets and covers Shanelle laid for them. Each of them freshly bathed, fed and in need of uninterrupted sleep. The only cool stream in the entire house sputters over their heads from a window AC.
“Hindsight is a motherfucker ain’t it,” says Amar.
“What’s up man?” Lennox asks.
“Should’ve listened to myself, my gut said stay the night at the beach. But I didn’t listen. The night always brings out the worst in people, especially those goddamn Pigs;” his voice rose an octave shy of madness.
“Amar.” Jamilla says, “The children need to sleep.”
“They need to live, Jamilla. Fuck sleeping. Now here we are in bumfuck North Carolina – trapped like panthers for real! I need some fresh air.”
Amar falls under the shade of a plum tree not far from the house. “The more we fight the harder shit gets,” he thought to himself picking and analyzing the unruliness of the perennial grass surrounding him.
R.I.S.E. meetings had turned into rhetoric and grandstanding about what Niggas used to do for the community. Koreans were taking over whole cities with their stores; foreigners owning more shit than Blacks who built the country was bullshit. Nobody wanted to talk about self-improvement, black and brown dollars, education, and the fact that a brother can’t get a job if his life depended on it, which often times, it did.
He and Jamilla could stay up for hours at night talking about the cyclical nightmare for Black people in America; government sanctioned drugs and weapons, fucked up education, jail cells and poverty but let them bring it up at R.I.S.E. and they were negating slavery, Jim Crow, Brown vs. Board of Education, COINTELPRO and the assassinations of Martin and Malcolm.
“Fuck it. The moment those cops stopped us it was checkmate.” He thought, looking up to see Jamilla appear through the glare of the sun.
“Gather up everybody. We need to meet, now.” Amar barked at Jamilla.
“Come here, Lover.”
“Jamilla, we ain’t got time…”
“Don’t tell me what we don’t have time for, I’m in this with you. Talk to me,” Jamilla insists putting her arms around him.
“It was us or them.”
“They want to kill the revolution.”
“Spirit…Lennox’s boys. What kinda life will they have if we don’t fight.”
“We did what we had to do.”
“We did Jamilla, but – I’m sorry we got to live like this baby. Fuck.”
“We knew this could happen one day. We’re prepared for this.” Jamilla pulls him closer as if they could merge right there under the southern sun. Her hands on the back of his head, pulling him in made the moment dissipate and his dick shudder – his Johnson was a demanding son-of-a-bitch. This was her affect, being inside her made the world go away but this wasn’t the time or place for that kind of desire.
“Go,” he pushes her toward their comrades before the blood in his brain left for the other end.
Lennox rushes towards him minutes later, bopping like a fifteen year old about to get his first taste. “Man, don’t you think we need to handle this without them.”
“They’re a part of this defense man. Ain’t enough soldiers on this, just me and you – how far you think that’s gonna get us?
“Diana don’t know the first thing about defense.”
“That’s your fault, brother. You think you’re invincible? Who supposed to take up arms for your boys, if you dead or in jail?”
“I protect my wife and children.”
“That right there is part of the problem.”
“You don’t have kids, don’t tell me about mine.”
“What is this?” Jamilla comes in between the two.
“Tensions are high,” Amar answers trying to diffuse the situation.
“Damn, right!” Lennox says defensively.
Amar jumps on Lennox’s insolence. “Dig this, I out rank you – if you got a problem, you can take your wife and kids and get the fuck on!”
“And we have time for this?” Karren asks the two men. Lennox looks away from Amar’s glare and at the women who await his reaction.
Lennox was a buck fifty in a downpour and five foot eight with shoes on, it wouldn’t be the first time since they went toe-to-toe but it had been years. Flashing memories of him and Lennox meeting in juvenile hall when they were just twelve, sharing bunks, battle scars and street tales softened him.
“Brother, we got to stay strong for the sisters and the young ones. I need you on this.”
“Yeah, all right,” Lennox says smacking the palm of Amar’s hand that extended into the handshake of the R.I.S.E. brothers.
“We good?” Amar asks him.
“Right on.” Lennox says.
“Let’s get down to business.” says Jamilla.
They agreed to ditch the van but where would they go and how would they get there. They talked about splitting up but with only two men, four women and three children they were stronger together. They could hide out during the days and only move at nights but it wouldn’t be long before the Pigs figured them out, leaving them vulnerable at any hour. Frustration began to take over as every conceivable plan had more holes than a wedge of Swiss cheese.
Hours pass when they look up to see Diana and Shanelle bringing a clear bowl of cut watermelon, a jug of lemonade and a bag of plastic cups towards them. Neff tried to run interference, greeting the two women in mid-step, the agitation of the group akin to a disturbed beehive – one more irritant and it could erupt.
“Nefertiti Davis, if you don’t get outta my way, you better.”
Neff’s hands went in the air as she allowed them to pass. “Now, ya’ll take these refreshments and listen up, I might just have a way out.”
“You been telling her shit she don’t need to know, Diana?” Lennox asks sternly.
“Diana hasn’t said anything more than the obvious.” Shanelle retorts. “Do you want to hear what I have to say or should we just run on back in the house?”
Jamilla chuckled inwardly at Shanelle’s boldness. She hoped Amar and Lennox would take it easy on her, she might have been time enough for Neff but if those two didn’t want to hear something they were unmoving.
“What you got?” Amar says to Shanelle, annoyed by her intrusion but eager for any fresh idea.
“My Aunt Lena passed away a few months back.” Shanelle says. “She has a house a little further south, in Dunn, North Carolina. She never had children – or anyone to lay claim to the house. I was the closest to her so she left it to me — if I wanted it. Well, I don’t want it; my work is here in Durham.” Shanelle explains.
“Uncle James, the one who lives here. He’s been meaning to go clean it out and keep up the property in case somebody’s fool enough to buy it and you see what this yard looks like, don’t you?” She asks rhetorically. “He’s too lazy to be a problem if ya’ll was to go stay for a while.”
“How do we know we can trust you?” Karren asks.
“Now that’s y’alls problem to solve.” Shanelle responds.
Diana who’d been pouring the drinks for each of them stayed behind as Shanelle walked back in the house, her high butt swaying with the tepid breeze warming the backyard.
“I think she can be trusted.” Diana says.
“Why,” Lennox was gruff and to the point. Jamilla figured Diana had gotten used to her husband’s mannerisms over the years. She never seemed intimidated and met him with the same directness.
“She’s too simple to be dishonest.” Diana answers him. “Look at her, she’s gorgeous. That woman could be traveling around the world, in magazines and runways but she’s poor just like us.”
Neff and Karren sneak a look at each other, self-conscious by Diana’s description of Shanelle.
“And she’s making it work just like us.” Diana continues. “Ya’ll been out here almost three hours, surely you realize she’s our only hope.”
“You got a good feeling about her?” Lennox asks.
“It’s worth a discussion,” Jamilla speaks up.
“I’m going back inside, think I saw the kids stirring.”
They sip their drinks and ate the cooling watermelon in silence, individually mulling over Shanelle’s proposal and Diana’s endorsement.
“What ya’ll think?” Neff is the first to disband the quiet.
“None of us know her like you do Neff,” Jamilla counters. “Can we trust her?”
“I think so,” Neff says.
“We need more than a think,” Amar interjects.
“It’s been a long time.” Neff says. “The last time I saw her she had graduated from George Washington’s law school and moved back here to join the Black Farmer’s movement. All I remember is something about a decline of Black farms in this area from well over six thousand to almost a third of that.” Neff’s voice trailed with the memory. “She left without so much as two fingers in my direction.”
“She’s a fucking lawyer?” Lennox asks.
“Nah, hold on – that could be a good thing eventually.” Amar says.
“Yeah, but what I want to know is why nobody said that before now.” Lennox says looking at Neff.
“The point is she’s down for the cause.” Karren says. “She’s down here fighting for the people instead of staying in DC prosecuting young brothers into prison. That says a lot if you ask me.”
“I don’t know.” Lennox says skeptical. “She still working for the farmers?”
“I wouldn’t know.” Neff responds. “Like I said, I haven’t spoken to her in almost five years.”
“Well it’s obvious she ain’t making no money.” Karren says. “So I’d bet that she is.”
“Yeah, I’m with you Karren.” Jamilla says.
“To hell with this,” Amar interrupts the debate. “We either gonna make a move or we gonna wait for the Pigs to make one. We’ll do this like we would if this was a R.I.S.E. meeting. Let’s take a vote.”
“Who here thinks we should move to Dunn with the rest of the country bumpkins.” Amar sparks a grin; the droning thump in his head evaporating, satisfied that they’d finally reached a decision.
“Right-on,” the women sang, one after the other.
“Damn – told myself I would never move past the Maryland-Virginia line. Confederate fucks.” Lennox says dusting the dirt off his pants as he stood from the ground.
“Is that a right-on or a no, my brother,” Jamilla asks continuing the light-hearted attitude of Amar.
“It’s unanimous then.” Jamilla says.
“Let’s do it.” Amar says. “We need to be ghosts by the time her Uncle gets back.”
The furniture remained as the old woman must have left it; wafts of expired moth balls and damp wood oscillates the air. Hollywood told the tale of death as covered mirrors and sheet-draped furniture, this was the home of a plain woman with simple and hard earned belongings, Jamilla thought.
“It stinks in here,” Sheldon blurts.
“I’m scared,” Yuri announces.
“Ya’ll hush,” Diana scolds them. “We’re in a new place…so much to explore. You should go upstairs and see what y’all can find.”
“Might be hidden treasure,” Sheldon’s eyes widen with his own suggestion.
“Nuh-uh, its ghosts and snakes in here.” Yuri squeezes Diana’s hand tighter.
Diana looks pleadingly at Spirit.
“I’m not scared.” The boys turn towards her in unison, “Race you upstairs.”
The boys tear from Diana’s side, up the stairs and out of sight.
The upstairs is cluttered and gloomy with hardly enough room to stretch. An open room immediately to the right of the stairs is separated by a door leading into a smaller room. Spirit stands on the tips of her toes stretching her arms to touch the ceiling; she wondered how any of the adults would be able to stand in here. “No way, I’m staying up here by myself,” she thought.
Sheldon and Yuri were looking through record sleeves stacked in milk crates along a back wall and naming each artist they recognized.
Spirit looked out of the window; she had no interest in touching anything in the dusty house let alone snooping through things that didn’t belong to her. She had taken very seriously all of the ghost stories she’d heard over the years and knew for a fact that dead people don’t like when folks go through their stuff.
Downstairs, Jamilla began opening windows – starting with the front room and the den. She suddenly missed DC; the South was as foreign to her as motherly affection but here she is with her own daughter, lover and comrades.
If it were just her, Amar, Spirit and maybe Karren she wouldn’t be worried but the personalities and energy of the six adults were all too different to predict the outcome of cohabitation. She could already tell that Spirit had grown weary of Lennox’s boys. It was only a matter of time before the children began to fight amongst themselves. The thought of refereeing exhausts her.
Neff, Karren and Diana look for a room where they could unwind while Amar and Lennox went off to find a place to hide the van. As the highest ranking members in the group it was understood that Amar and Jamilla would stay in the master bedroom. It would take some serious convincing to have Spirit sleep anywhere but close to her, Jamilla thought. She listens at the foot of the stairs where Spirit and the boys had disappeared minutes earlier.
“Chaka Khan”, the boys called out excitedly. Spirit was quiet but she took that as a positive and proceeded to the master bedroom in the rear of the house.
At Spirit’s age Jamilla was already cooking and cleaning for her brother and father, she reflects as she clears the already made bed for fresher linens. Spirit’s dependence was her own fault; she never wanted her to be more than a child, now, she second guessed herself.
Spirit would need survival instincts and common sense to deal with the Pig’s counterattacks if or when they are found. She had a lot of retraining to do and would have to get started right away. Any day, hell would arrive at the front door and they’d all have to be ready.
“This is some heavy shit,” Jamilla’s head begins to spin; “maybe I’m just tired.” She thought to call for Karren as she plopped onto the half made bed but there was no need to alarm her with a little dizziness or the sickening realization that except for the last two months, her period hadn’t been late in the ten years since she had Spirit.
“I can’t bring another child in this fucked world,” the idea rudely ushers her to sleep.
—Check back soon for the final chapter of Part One—
Please note that Part Two & Three are works in progress. If you enjoy the story keep checking back for the added chapters and details on the completed work.
(c) Talib Jasir All rights reserved. 2015
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.