There are levels to growing up rural. I suppose that the city where I grew up and went to school could be considered semi-rural, a small town of 20,000 people, one public high school (at the time), marked by three exits on the interstate, and surrounded 5 minutes in any direction by vast rural areas. Because scales of time and space look drastically different when you are eight versus when you are twenty-eight, the eight miles it took to drive from my mother’s house to my grandmother’s house, felt like worlds away.
Really, these places were one town over, the latter being accessed via one exit on the interstate and demarcating the city limits with one flashing yellow caution light. But I thought of our weekly sojourn to and fro on Mondays and Fridays in the summer as being dropped off in the country. We described it in scalar terms almost exactly the same as my Northern friends with Southern roots described being shipped “down South” for the summer. In the “country,” I would wile away the days helping with the calves and hogs and chickens (really just watching my grandmother and big cousins do these things because I scared easily), protecting the several acres of land from wild dogs, picking purple hull peas (fertilizer on bare legs is itchy AF), watching “the stories” with my grandmama, and sipping sweet tea on the porch. It was in many ways an idyllic and iconic Southern country girl’s tale. Both of these places have been indelible to my formation – my grandmother’s rural homestead that my whole family considers home, and the semirural place where I grew up and my mother tried to knock some of the country girl off me to prepare me for a world much bigger than the rural haunts of my small parish. At the end of every summer, the first few weeks back home entailed my mother correcting my thick country accent, demanding that I speak with proper and precise English, even as the regulation of my days back to three square meals, meant a shedding of the pounds I’d gained eating my grandmother’s rich and delicious biscuits and cakes and fried chicken and smothered steak for three meals and endless snacks everyday.
These worlds though only 8 miles apart worked on different logics, different timescales, marked generationally perhaps by what one can do at the grandparents’ house versus what one can do at the parents’ house.
When he was sixteen and I was seven, my cousin, who lived at my grandmother’s house, helped to build a bridge between these two worlds. Really he was the beneficiary of his mother’s hard work in the big city. She bought him a car. A late 1980s model, dark blue Pontiac Sunbird. Suddenly, we didn’t have to flag down a ride to the grocery store or catch a ride up to the mini-mart when somebody we knew happened to pull into my grandmother’s red clay dirt and gravel driveway. We could go anywhere anytime, as long as my cousin was willing to take us, and somebody had ten dollars for ten gallons of gas.
Suddenly, when my grandmother went to her part-time job cleaning the houses of two white families in town, I wasn’t stuck in the house surviving playful harrowing run-ins with my big boy cousins. Often I provoked them, by for instance answering the constantly ringing telephone and giving their would be girl-suitors, rude messages about not calling back. The phones rang constantly. Those girls deserved it. But the car also led to lots of adventures to the far bigger town 20 miles over to the East.
My uncle, recently home from a stint in prison, and rebuilding his life, often asked my cousin to ferry him to Monroe, and as the apple of my uncle’s eye, he would look at me and ask, “do you want to go?” The answer was always yes. So my big cousin, my uncle and me and my Cabbage Patch Doll, would hop in the Sunbird in zoom down the highway. Typically, we would pull up to a tire shop. These two would leave me in the car, for about 20 minutes. I would wait and play, looking around, enjoying the scenery. Much better people-watching in the city than on grandmama’s porch.
And then they would come out and off we would return back to the country. Always a companion of my own thoughts, I never even once asked what they were “doing in there.” One thing about being raised as a late Gen X/early millennial kid, is that children learned early to “stay out of grown folks business.” I admittedly sometimes lament the erosion of that boundary. The way it was often communicated to me—“stay in a child’s place”—was harsh. But given the realities of Black girls being adultified and robbed of their girlhoods, that community desire to protect the safety and oblivion of childhood is something I think we would do well to return to in some ways.
Just a few years ago, I was telling my mama about these sojourns that happened while she was away working, trusting her familial childcare arrangement as the safest most affordable option. She replied, “probably some of the biggest drug deals were going down right as you sat in that car.” To say my brain exploded with knowing would not be an overstatement. I knew, not exactly then, but a short time later, after the police raided his house, how my uncle made his money. But I have never in years of reminiscences made this connection.
So much of understanding of my own proximity to informal economies, a word I learned in graduate school, has involved retrofitting words conceived to describe Black life in urban environments onto rural experiences, against which that urbanity is understood, but not understood correctly or well. My parents were both victims of gun violence, but not until I became a scholar did I describe it such urban terms. They simply had “gotten shot.” Gun violence was something that described people living lives like what I witnessed when I watched Boyz In the Hood as a tween. We didn’t have drivebys. Murders weren’t common. That I was just one year out from losing my own father to a shooting did not change my perception.
Being a drug dealer, a d-boy, a trapstar –these are all big city terms. Terms that at some point I recognized described some significant aspect of my experience. The times we spent riding into the rural cotton fields of Northeastern Louisiana to visit my uncle and the other cousin that lived at my grandmother’s house in prison were not things I would describe in the language of the carceral state. It’s just what people where I’m from did. Every time we visited, as we walked through the guest room to get to our loved ones, we waved and spoke at the several people that we knew from the community who also happened to be doing time.
In the 35 years since I was accompanying my uncle and my underage cousin on alleged deals while playing with baby dolls in the back of the car, I have come to reckon with the devastations of the carceral state in my own family. During our book tour for Feminist AF, Chanel frequently pointed out that we don’t talk extensively enough about the pathways from the working class to the middle class for Black folks who grew up poor or working class in the Reagan and Clinton eras. For Black boys, many mapped their freedom pathways through ball or rap or dope. The men in my family have tried each and every avenue. But, Chanel reminded us, the other pathway was being smart. And for many of us Black girls (you know us – we’re the ones out here being impolitic telling all the family business, the unassuming observers and chroniclers of these lives our folks have lived, the “walking tape recorders” as my family called me with chagrin, playing quietly with baby dolls in the backseat) the pathway was school, books, smarts. My family loved to point out that I had “plenty of book sense, but no common sense.” I have real good sense, and they know it (though admittedly not much street sense back then.) But it was a way of leveling the playing field, of making sure that where safety was concerned, these folks could still be my trusted authority figures, could still teach me something.
But everybody doesn’t get out. Traps gon’ trap. And when you willingly pull up to the trap, it’s so easy to find oneself ensnared. Almost impossible not to. So much of my life as a girl and a woman in my family has been about navigating making it “out of the country,” and out of my small town, even as drugs, both the dealing of them and the doing of them, have ravaged my family, and farther afield my community. It has been a reckoning with how I was not ensnared, recognizing all the ways I was shielded even in proximity, the way the logic of my life seems to be that since I couldn’t see those particular traps, I never perceived the limits of my environment. I’m sure it’s more complicated than that.
For instance, does one “pull up to the trap?” I don’t know. I’m not a big city girl, and this of course is the problem with retrofitting current language onto experiences that were talked about in very different terms 30 years ago or urban language onto rural experiences. More to the point, the experiences weren’t talked about directly. They were talked about indirectly – they got him again. Call the lawyers. Entrapment. He threw the money out where? Who told it? The phone was ringing all night.
A recent white feminist offering on trap life betrayed a stunning misunderstanding of what the intramural environs of everyday Black life relative to the trap, whether rural or urban or somewhere in between, actually involve. Trap music is the story that has been told about our life in the midst of the War on Drugs and the carceral dragnet engineered to
perpetuate “stop it.” But the time and space scales of the rural South skew many things. They don’t feel like a hip hop song all the time. I mean maybe an Outkast song on occasion. A Big Krit song, definitely. But in general, this life is not a movie. These takedowns didn’t happen in a parking lot off Piedmont Ave in Atlanta or in front of a small cookie shop in Memphis. They happened in places with no street lights, after dark, where the stars abound and the crickets are loud, and none of it matches the siren screams against the backdrop of rural night sky. Which is to say, I didn’t realize that I had been living in the middle of war zone (ie, living a Black life in the U.S. of A.) until I got to grad school and learned about the policies that shaped my relatives’ copious entrances and exits vis-à-vis the carceral state.
My mama’s house, the one I grew up in in my semi-rural hometown, today looks like a war zone. Its windows are busted out, boarded up—the aftermath of an early morning police raid administered via a no-knock warrant, conducted one day before Breonna Taylor was killed. This time, my cousin, he of the Pontiac Sunbird, now a fully middle-aged man, had fully crossed the bridge, making my mama’s house, my house, the trap. I still don’t know where he put my high school diploma, my honor cords, and National Honor Society sash, my debate trophies, and treasured collection of Baby-Sitters Club books. I don’t know if he sold or pawned or trashed them. I know, because the family tells me, that all the evidence of my journey from being a knock-kneed country girl riding around barefoot with no seatbelt in that Pontiac to being high school valedictorian (most likely the first Black person in my town ever to do so) is nowhere to be found. The place has been dismantled, made hospitable as a haven for drug addicts. I cannot bear to see it. My mother cannot either. The house one kind of bridge for us, an entirely different bridge for my cousin. I resent the way my mother’s house that she scrapped for as 27 year old single mom, the house that she refinished all the cabinets in, the house that we bought after the poor white folks who lived in it before had ruined it, is now in ruins once again. I resent that my cousin’s bridge to nowhere has been built on my mother’s back.
This is still a war zone. The War on Drugs isn’t over. I just wrote a letter to another judge for another cousin. This cousin. The last cousin was different. Asking for mercy in a system that doesn’t know the meaning of the word. That’s the job of the little girls playing with baby dolls in the backseat when they grow up to become Black women with Ph.D.s and pretty words. But I am also pointing out the disjuncture between the shit we write for academic clout and the letters we write to wrest mercy from the systems we are so keen to theorize about. Some of this – performing for clout, demonstrating one’s intellectual ingenuity and prowess-- is the job. I have done it myself. (This might be a form of doing it. I don’t know.) But subject location, experience, and genealogy matters. Humility matters.
Traps gon trap. That’s what they do. And I write this to you as one who made it out. But who still, because so many folks she loves did not and have not, must sit vigil there with them, letting them know they are not alone. And until all of us make it out, none of us will make it very far.