BLACK WATER RISING
BEHIND BLACK WATER RISING
I have always felt that I was born at the end.
The end of a marriage, and the end of a movement.
I was born three years after the political moment in time for which I was named – the uprising at Attica prison in upstate New York, in 1971 – and shortly after my parents had walked away for good from the political movement that had defined their very young lives. By 1974, Dr. King was dead. So was Malcolm X. And two Kennedys. Nonviolence had exhausted a people’s patience, and “black power” had turned out to be less an organizing principle and more an outcry of debilitating rage, a different kind of enslavement.
By the time I was born, civil rights, as a movement, was finished.
My parents were then, as they are now, highly resourceful people. They each made rather successful transitions from college activists to working professionals – just in time for the Reagan ‘80s and the seeming promise of a new decade. My mother made use of her graduate degree, eventually heading her own company, and my father went to law school, sometimes dragging me and my sister in tow when he had no babysitter. (My parents were divorced by then; theirs was one of many marriages that wouldn’t outlive the youthful energy and political passion that had bound it in the first place.) As they each began a new life, Mom in her Anne Klein separates and Dad in a suit and tie instead of a dashiki, they rarely spoke of what they’d left behind: the friends they’d lost, the guns they’d owned, the time they’d spent in jail. Nor did they speak of the disillusionment they felt about a social movement that had stopped just short of victory. Sure, black people had earned the right to vote, to eat at a lunch counter, to send their kids to any school. But some things as a basic as the right to walk down a street unmolested by law enforcement, to shop without being followed by store personnel, to feel completely free in one’s own country, were still beyond the reach of many black citizens. But my parents, like so many others of their generation, didn’t stop to mourn. They simply turned the page.
They sent me and my sister to all-white schools.
My mother bought a Volvo and a split-level ranch in the suburbs.
I remember my dad’s first Audi.
It was if they, and the other members of the new “Cosby” era, had decided that if politics couldn’t completely free a race of people, then surely economic prosperity would. And anyway, there were kids to raise, college to pay for.
Still, I felt the weight of what went unspoken. In both my parents’ lives, in their hearts, in their quietest moments, there was a palpable sense of melancholy, a sense of loss that the times didn’t make a lot of space for. In the early Reagan era, the whole country was caught up in a collective fit of amnesia over the wounds and hurt feelings of the 1960s and ‘70s. And no place more so than Houston, Texas, which in the early ‘80s was awash with oil money and a blind, almost arrogant sense that the future held nothing but promise.
When I was maybe ten or eleven years old, my father threw a birthday party for my stepmother. He was a young(ish) lawyer with his own practice and not a lot of money, and a boat ride on Buffalo Bayou in Houston, Texas, was all he could afford. The boat was raggedy, carpet coming up on the cabin’s floor, and we’d actually had to bring our own food and beer, even our own music, plus a boom box we could plug in. We turned up the music and tried to pretend we were on a romantic ride on the Riviera. In reality, Buffalo Bayou is little more than a narrow, muddy strip of water that snakes through the city. Through downtown, the bayou, with egrets and turtles resting on the banks, can be somewhat picturesque. But the bayou also travels through some of the roughest parts of the city, places where the lights of downtown fall away, and the thick brush along the banks of the water provides cover for all manner of bad behavior. It was on a stretch of the bayou just like this when my family heard a woman a screaming for help. The music stopped. We all crowded onto the deck. In the darkness, none of us could see her, nor did we know who or what the woman needed help from. And then… we heard gunshots. A debate immediately broke out on the boat’s deck. There were those who felt we should stop the boat, and those, like my father, who felt that would be a grave mistake. I remember watching as things grew particularly heated between my father and his oldest friend, a man who had gone through the movement with him, had even been on trial with him as a codefendant in 1970, and who had gone on to become a minister. He felt we had a moral obligation to help this woman. My father, a criminal defense attorney, thought the woman and her circumstances – who or whatever she was running from – were nothing but trouble. He had his wife on the boat to think of, and his daughter. Forced to choose between the safety of his family and that of a stranger we could not even see in the thick of brush along the bayou, he chose us.
In the end, my father won the argument. We never stopped.
As soon as the boat docked, we called the police.
Over the years my father was often haunted by his decision that night. He would bring it up from time to time, often after a couple glasses of whiskey. For him, it had become an almost religious parable, a tale in which one might discover the person they really are: a man who is led by cynicism or by his faith.
I have, likewise, many times wondered who that woman was along the bayou that night and what, god forbid, would have happened if we had stopped the boat. And in that question, in that distant memory, Jay’s story was born.