feature: the night i became a soldier and a black woman in ferguson

September 8, 2014

An independent group of POC artists and activists traveled to Ferguson, MO, the weekend of August 29 – September 1. Their trip was unaffiliated with any organization, though they engaged with several during their trip. Hundreds and thousands of activists traveled to Ferguson that weekend and many are continuing to organize around the issues of police brutality and urban plight. This group will be sharing media content and stories with AFROPUNK in the upcoming weeks about their trip and what’s happening around the country in response to Ferguson.

By Elisa Peebles, AFROPUNK Contributor

I was always the odd one out. Growing up, I was the oreo of the block. My mother called me Cyndi Lauper, and it wasn’t until I was a teenager I realized she’d been relating me to a crazy white lady my whole hildhood. I had that stint in the choir of my father’s church choir one time, and though I landed a solo in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” I couldn’t clap in rhythm with everyone else. And I knew weird prayers; Catholic school had messed me up. I learned pretty quickly I didn’t belong around other Black people. I could speak the language and learned the rules of the hood, but that only got me so far. Underneath the swagger was the girl who’d rather be wearing a GAP hoodie (that I was never able to afford), popping her JC Penny polo collars and listening to any radio station other than WBLK. 

There was one girl who made me feel like I could belong during those ripe, formative teenage years. She probably sought me out because I was the only one with a car in our program—a program that “prepped” economically disadvantaged black and brown youth for private high school—but it became a real friendship. Sam knew I was weird, but she always called me when there was a party, even when she had a ride. She left me mixtapes of the real hood party music they never played at sanitized high school dances. She let me stand in her crew while she owned basement party dance floors. We went to BBQs and basketball games. She braided my hair. Because of Sam, I learned how to move my hips, how to own my sexual presence and my body, and how as to own my right to consent or not consent. With her I was catching glimpses of womanhood. When she went away to college, I was absorbed back into my private high school of theatre and not sitting with the black kids at lunch. A couple years later during my senior year of college, she hit me up on Twitter about wanting to move to New York and needing a roommate. I was ecstatic; would the old days of the Black Girls Club return? I was also scared: would she and the club accept who I became in NYC—a queer, intellectual, activist? Two days before I graduated college, while she was visiting back home, Sam was shot and killed outside of a graduation BBQ. There was no reason. She became what many black and brown bodies in cities become: a statistic. She was a target simply by existing. I never found out if the Black Girls Club would have been receptive.

This alienation did not make me love my people or fight against racist oppression any less. This will sound some type of way, but I held a condescending compassion for young black folk; on some “forgive them father for they know not what they do,” level (Catholic school really messes you up). So it is not a surprise that I found myself organizing a caravan down to Ferguson, MO with the intention learning from the people down there, but also with the expectation that I’d do a few internal eye rolls. It was only after our planning and fundraising got underway that I learned of the Black Life Matters ride, and despite being so delighted by its goals, the emphasis put on to the Black-only space requirement made me itchy. I knew all about the Black Girls Club. I hadn’t met any Sams in New York. My little rainbow brigade of POC and two white allies and I would stay in our lanes. At our fundraising event, a woman who knew someone riding down with BLM performed. Her performance was deep and moving—she started off by burning sage and spoke of ancestors. I appreciated her gifts; she appreciated my work and promised to give my contact information to her friend. Despite all the appreciation, I had seen these afro-centric Badu-mamas before and who has time to wait for hook-ups? But the hook-up did come, at 3AM in the morning while we were deliriously driving somewhere between Indiana and Illinois. The hook up was another young Black woman who invited us, no 

questions asked, to the Black Life Matters gathering at a church in St. Louis Saturday night. She was so inviting and welcoming, to the point of not even acknowledging that it was 4AM EST. Still, I remained skeptical of all the interactions I’d have with Black people on that trip until the moment I stepped foot on West Florissant Avenue. 

Our people were out there. They were unified, and supportive; marching, chanting, demanding, directing. Serious. In the front of the lines were women, young women, leading the crowd in chants, facing off. This alienation did not make me love my people or fight against racist oppression any less. against a line of all white officers, calling them out on their racism. They called them child murders, they told them to get out of their neighborhoods, and they boldly announced they were not afraid to die for this—for justice. “Our deaths will not be in vane guys,” one young woman with a red afro said, “but theirs will.” I was stunned into mouth-gapping silence. Black women, dark-complexioned, speaking in syrupy Missouri accents, some with and some without college degrees were leading. They were controlling the crowd as much as they were revving it up. They were getting shirtless black men away from white agitators screaming “Nigger!” They were doing more than me and all my northern book learning could ever imagine doing. They were the movement. 

That night, we drove to St. John’s United Church of Christ for the Black Life Matters assembly. As we walked to the church entrance we passed an older Black woman holding a pizza box and a millennial Black woman sitting with her on some steps. The woman holding the pizza box was crying—real tears, not over-exaggerated moans—and praying—real prayer, not any of that “fix it, Jesus,”—that someone, most likely 
someone from inside the church, had given her that box of pizza. She was praising God that tonight she could feed her children just because someone with multiple five dollars to spare had an extra Little Caesars to offer her as we convened in her neighborhood. I almost lost it. Black woman, dark-skinned, poor, hungry, rock of the family—how did I forget you for so long up there in the big city? I saw your daughters out there fighting today, and here you are rejoicing your kids don’t have to starve. My God, we have work to do.

Walking up to St. John’s felt like walking into 1967, and when I opened the door I expected to see a bunch of MLKs and Malcolms. Instead I saw all women. My contact was at the top of the stairs to greet me as soon as I walked inside. She grabbed my hand, and led me downstairs to a basement filled with other Black folk, mostly women. She stopped in front of a tall Black woman, put my hand in hers and introduced me to her “revolutionary sister.” I had never heard that before. I heard soul sister, sorority sister, but revolutionary sister… something about this felt different. The woman smiled and welcomed me, looked at the gaggle of rainbow faces behind me and asked, “Is this your crew?” Fearing my Black card was about to me revoked for not sitting with the Black kids again I gulped. “Yes.” She smiled, took out her phone and told me to put in my contact information. Then she said “Welcome, come on in and make yourselves at home.” In nine words, years of fearing the judgment that came with being around large groups of Black people faded away as if it never existed. I led us all in, and I made myself at home.

After the event, I went outside to do interviews with my colleague in the sizeable group of folk who had begun to gather in front of the church. As I exited, a Black woman with natural hair called out to me, “I love your hair!” Now, this statement has pretty much become empty to me given the amount of times I hear it, usually from the mouths of drunk White women who don’t know what else to say or envious Black women hiding malnourished hair under weaves. Looking at her and looking around me, I got the feeling this time it was genuine. This was affirmed when she denied my extended hand and pulled me into an embrace. We ventured into a lengthy conversation with no agenda other than to share with each other. No one was networking; no one was fidgety at the two-minute mark. We talked about how we were in a sea of beautiful hair, and to myself I noted that it was beautiful hair attached to beautiful women here to do beautiful work. We talked about the women we saw today, and about how it’s always been us that have carried the movement—the background work, the organizing, the physical front-line sacrifice (think Rosa Parks, think Fannie Lou Harmer). Just as I asked where the men were in all this, a pastor came up to us. He joined the conversation and reveled that in the neighborhood we stood in, 90% of the fathers of the local grammar school students are dead or incarcerated. The word grandfather would soon be extinct, he said. All of us choked up. Where had we been? I thought of the woman I saw while walking to the church. She spoke of feeding her children but not of a husband. She did not speak of feeding herself. Her reality and the reality of this neighborhood felt hellish, but here we were as visitors in it, hearing it, hearing her, listening to each other—finally.

It all sank in right then: all the beauty, bravery, love, warmth and commitment—all the Sisterhood. I finally found it. It had been hiding for so long underneath respectability politics, internalized self-hatred and a grand mix of racism and misogyny, but here in the midst of all this beautiful Blackness its light was shining bright. I had to travel 20 hours to Missouri to find it, but so did everyone else and now we’re here loving each other, embracing each other and for once standing by the poor, less educated Sisters we left behind when we crawled out of our holes of urban oppression to form our own identities and scratch at glass ceilings. Suddenly, in the middle of all this bliss, the crowd began to move. “Who’s ready to go to Florissant?” Everyone put up her hands. I stood still. Was this the moment we had been joking about before we left New York and got in the “pass van to Tear-gas-town”? Tef Poe, a local artist who had been involved in the day and nighttime protests since the shooting addressed the crowd to tell us what we were going into. It was nothing short of a war zone. It was a war zone:
“The gangs have all declared truces with one another, and are at war with the police…Because you’re not from here, someone might run up on you but don’t worry just let them know what’s up and keep moving. The police in Ferguson are the only police in the world that will also shoot white 
people…If you stand still you are going to jail. You got to walk around…Do not go to that McDonald’s lot. They’ll keep you walking around in circles and box you in and then you’re sitting ducks…The 
police, their egos are wounded because the community has basically rejected them and are not afraid of them…this is not about getting hyped up in a moment because fallback positions are gone.”

It went on. A fear gripped my body. I realized the young protestors from earlier today were not exaggerating: they were willing to die for this; there is a good chance they may die for this. If you’re rolling with them, then you need to be willing to die too. Tef Poe said one more thing: “We ain’t scared, don’t ever be scared you feel me?” How could he say that? Cops without bruised egos killed Mike Brown, what do cops with bruised egos do to angry black kids willing to die? Gang members with no real sense of aim killed Sam, kill a bunch of black kids. All I could see were images of one of those red-faced white officers from earlier today beating me and my friends getting caught in crossfire. Markers started going around. People were writing legal aid numbers on their arms. Everyone was writing the legal aid number on her arm. Let me break this down one more time: if you stand still, you get arrested, if you move around you get arrested, or tear gassed, or beaten. If you move in the wrong direction, you could get shot. So if you go to West Florissant Avenue at night, you are willing to be arrested, abused or killed. Everyone writing on their arm understood that and they kept writing anyway. The girls I spoke to earlier were writing, my rainbow crew was writing, the reverend in collar was 

I wish I could say I’m being dramatic, but I’m not. People are willing to die for this: for Mike Brown, for the women praising God for pizza boxes, for the grandfathers that don’t exist, for each other. Someone lit sage. We held hands. A Native American woman came up to us and said that Mike’s blood had seeped into the ground and mixed with her ancestors’ blood when he lied there for four and a half hours. The ancestors were angry. The local tribes were organizing; they stood with us. She prayed for us. We bowed heads, the pastor of the church prayed. We held hands tighter. “HANDS UP,” yelled the reverend. “DON’T SHOOT,” roared the group. “HANDS UP!” “DON’T SHOOT!” “HANDS UP!” “DON’T SHOOT!” “WHAT’S HIS NAME?” “MIKE BROWN!” “Y’all ready to roll out?” “YEAH!” The women, the beautiful women with beautiful hair began to move and pack into white pass vans. They were militarized in a second, except their only weapons were their bodies and their voices, all of which they were willing to put on the line for each other. I had to get my group and get back in our van. I had 30 seconds to decide if we were rolling out or not. 

I consider myself a brave person, but I was paralyzed with fear. It was night, in a strange place, surrounded by people I don’t know, in a situation I could barely believe and I needed to be comfortable with the fact that my decision to participate could mean my imminent bodily harm. Somehow all I could think about were my Sisters: the ones I just met, the ones I just found, and the ones already in pass vans ready to drive to the battlefield and fight for us all, myself included. “How can I leave them?” I thought. “If they get out there, if they need me, how can I not be there?” The decision was made without my own personal consent, because in that moment I was a part of something bigger than myself and longer than my lifespan. It was as great as the ancestors who had been awoken, the love that passed through that circle of held hands, and the ferocity of the young women I saw earlier. “Our deaths will not be in vane.” This was history. I could be terrified all I wanted, but I was getting in that van and I was driving to Florissant. It was my duty; it was my honor. These are my people.

Is this how soldiers feel before they jump out of airplanes or run out of trenches? Do they also look to their left and look to their right and know they are not one but a part of a whole? The car ride back was near silent. I tried to think of which family member to call at the time of my arrest. I tried to imagine what hot metal feels like entering the skin. That was too much, so I thought instead of my Sisters. I thought of their heart and commitment. I kept driving.

Somewhere around the time I became a woman my mom started calling me “Little Sister.” I thought it was some random cheeky thing she made up in her grandma-status age, but I now realize it was her own way of acknowledging my arrival at black womanhood. I just got here and have a long way to go, but I belong. See, there’s a legacy to it that goes beyond my own personal journey. It’s a legacy of strength, of tenacity, of courage, and of perseverance and survival when you don’t have any other option; it’s a legacy of survival as a choice, of choosing, of independence, of the ability to carry a whole family, neighborhood, village on your back and of leading them to freedom then turning around and getting more without ever asking for help. It’s a legacy of never being offered help, or a break, or a reward. It is a legacy of self-sacrifice for the good of the people. How many of our mothers worked 2-3 jobs just to put food on our tables, or send us to private schools or make sure there was at least one gift under the tree? How many of them made such righteous sacrifices? That night in St. Louis, MO I decided to sacrifice my fear, my doubt and quite possibly my life for the sisters standing next to me, for the woman holding the pizza, for the girls standing strong and bold in front of the police and for Sam. That night in St. Louis I inherited our legacy; I became a Black Woman.

Because we had to drop two people off at the hotel before proceeding to West Flourissant, we missed whatever action occurred there, which, we were told, weren’t as serious as it sounded at the church—this time. That didn’t matter; the transformation already happened. In one day I became a soldier and a Sister; anything, everything and nothing at all could have happened afterwards but nothing would change this. I’m back in New York now, and continue to be in correspondence with the Sisters I met down there and the ones I rode with as we plan next moves and actions to continue the movement. Make no mistake, you will not hear about this on the news but the movement is alive in Ferguson and now it is spreading everywhere. We have all returned inspired, committed and ready for this fight. The revolution is here and Black women are leading it, and many of them are queer Black women. All of them are soldiers and Sisters ready to commit acts of radical love and righteous self-sacrifice for you and for me. 

One more thing, I know it sounds crazy but suddenly every Black woman who crosses my path is beautiful. I’m not only talking about the light-skinned, working-that-up-do girl, or the red-boned woman wearing them heels. Every single one: young, old, skinny, round, natural, permed, dark-skinned, light-skinned, able-bodied, disabled and everything in between. They’re beautiful. I feel like I see them differently and feel them differently; like I’m actually absorbing their presence and it feels me with joy. I will never know if this is how the Black Girls Club felt, but I know that this is true Sisterhood, finally and forever.