Black Boy Interrupted

On the unfinished life of Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis and his mother, Lucia McBath (Courtesy Lucia McBath)

I got up at 5 a.m. today in hopes of making the gym before my train to D.C. I handled business and with some time to spare, walked over to my favorite bakery for a touch of that summer love, now lost to my life upon these shores. The waitress addressed me in a familiar accent. I asked, Vous êtes française? She smiled and said, Oui, Monsieur, and memory of the changes washed over me like a wave. 

I ordered in French. I was flustered because I did not know how to order a latte. Was it feminine or masculine? Is latte even French? Isn't it just café au lait? I know more than I can say, though very often, I say much more than I actually know. I am brutal with the language. I am a 6-foot-4, 230-pound baby, bumbling through the museum. My Je vous en prie might shatter an ancient vase, scar the work of old masters. Meanwhile, the French just dance. They speak delicately, as though they barely have a tongue. I can hear everything that is wrong with my diction, but I don't yet have the muscle memory to fix it. It's an old feeling. When I was 19, all I wanted was to write like black people sang, and I could see everything wrong but could do nothing to fix it. Ten years later I had muscle memory. And then in 10 more I had the faith to put a piece down, come back, hammer at it again, and repeat because I believed in the inevitability of work.

I'll be 39 in September, and it has taken all 39 of those years to learn how to learn. I never considered myself particularly smart. I've always learned things at a fairly slow clip. But I was insanely curious, and I've learned to not panic at my slowness, at the creaking gears in my head. I've learned to live in the curiosity, to just sit there and wait. I told the waitress I'd like "une latte." I don't even know why. Probably because I am brutal with the language, and have not yet learned to dance. But I have learned to sit and wait. I have learned so much, just in the past five years. That is to say I have gone through all kinds of changes, and I think this is a luxury.

The face of Trayvon Martin is always with me, trapped in the amber of youth. What is bracing about these regular deaths is how easily I can slot myself into the same circumstance. Follow me in a Jeep, then follow me on foot and we might come to blows. Demand that I turn down my music, at 17, and you might well not like my response. And I do not think this is a fact of black magic, of pathologies, of my culture. I think it is product of 17. I ride the trains in New York and I see boys of all colors who are very loud, because they finally can be, and no one can stop them. I see them and smile, and remember my own days back in Baltimore, my first freedoms, talking shit and being out in the world.

I finished my café au lait—I believe that's what it was. I was now late, because I am still a little young, and punctuality is not yet among the changes. I hailed a cab. The cab barreled down Broadway, past the Applejack Diner, and I thought of my twenties. I used to pass this restaurant with Kenyatta. Samori was barely one. We were broke and in trouble. I remembered getting off the train for couples counseling. I remember thinking I couldn't even buy my girl breakfast. My Dad used to visit us and leave cash. I remember thinking he was insane. We were ridiculous. How privileged are we to now see the changes? 

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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