, Research Paper
Patricia Smith wrote several hundred columns for the Boston Globe from
1994-1998. The columns presetned here are those the Globe put on line, making
them freely available to the public without cost, at the time they nominated Smith for the
Pulitzer Prize. Smith’s other columns are available for a fee from the Globe’s
online archive service at http://www.boston.com/globe/search/.
"Playgrounds full of jagged glass"
April 11, 1997
CHICAGO — Deborah. Lakinisha. Marie. Sybil. Sandra Ann. Vanessa.Each time I
pray, I give the little girl a different name so the vision I’ve conjured of her has a
soft sound attached to it. ”Girl X” is such a harsh, faceless label to slap on who
and what she is. It is a painfully sharp reminder that she could be any child at all.
You can go home again — but it’s hard to resurrect that idyllic vision of what
”home” used to be once the real world rocks you with an update. I was in my home town
when Patrick Sykes calmly confessed to dragging ”Girl X” into a vacant apartment, raping
her, stomping on her neck to silence her screams, emptying a can of roach spray down her
throat and leaving her crumpled in a dank hallway to die. The child remains blind,
voiceless. Her 10th birthday was Sunday.
My mother, who was part of the great exodus from the South to Chicago’s West Side in
the ’50s, takes the moral temperature of her adopted city every five minutes or so. ”Just
think he was on the streets all this time, just walking around, knowing what he did. What
kind of man would just grab that baby and hurt her that way? He just about killed that
chile. Things sure have changed since I was raisin’ you. I thank Jesus we didn’t have it
hard like they do today.
”Raisin’ children is like being in a war.”
Sykes, an ex-con who claimed that his devastating conquest of Girl X was merely in
pursuit of ‘’sexual gratification,” stalked the streets of the West Side, the
neighborhood where I grew up, the part of the city they warn you about. I came up on these
same streets two decades ago, back in the days when a village raised a child and every
city block was a village. Girls with floppingsweatsocks and a bottomless repertoire of
rhyming songs skipped double-dutchon blacktop or city sidewalk, right outin the open. Boys
with scraped kneesand dust in their hair screeched the ever-changing rules for
stickball.Neighborhoodresidents looked out for one another, Motown blared from wide-wide
opens and the soothing smell ofsteaming collards wafted throughthe air. Granted it was
still the ”poor black side” of town — no movie theaterand not afull-sized supermarket
in sight — but it was a place of pride, a pretty good place to be a kid.
You can go home again. But now home is dotted with shuttered, graffiti-splashed
storefronts and thriving taverns, along with piles of bricks and rubble where my apartment
building once stood. And trudging along that scarred landscape are people with compromised
souls, people who are forever teetering on the verge of surrender. No music streams from
windows long ago nailed shut. Men clog the street corners in front of abandoned factories.
Once-vibrant matriarchs, in sad imitation of their lives long ago, shuck peas and corn
behind the steel-grated balconies of project high-rises while they watch their children
and listen for bullets. They have learned to tell the difference between the giddy
high-pitched screams of childhood and the edgy screams that mean I’m being hurt. That man
has a gun.
So we teach our children the boundaries, invisible and resolute, that divide incomes,
social backgrounds, skin color. It is one of the city’s great ironies that the home turf
of two Chicago mayors — let’s call ‘em Daley and Daley — is a racial battlefield, a
neighborhood where 13-year-old Lenard Clark was pulled from his bicycle by three white men
and beaten so badly that his heart nearly stopped. During this visit home, I saw pictures
of Lenard for the first time. His face is bloated and blue, burst blood vessels like
fireworks beneath his skin. And there was his mother arced over his hospital bed,
whispering, whispering, searching frantically for a connection to a child who no longer
resembles her son.
I come home from going home and remember 9-month-old Matthew Eappen, his skull cracked,
the life seeping through. A 19-year-old, living on the rough periphery of hearth and home,
meets a fiery death in an abandoned trailer. We hurl our children forth without armor, and
we are running out of other ways to protect them. In all of our cities, in all our
fondly-recalled home towns, they are the casualties of war.
Meanwhile, two children are relearning speech, sight, movement. In some ways, they are
being reborn. Lenard, climbing back to the surface of the real world, found a word last
week. It was ”Mama.”
And you can be sure that when ”Girl X” finds those first stirrings in her battered
throat — if she ever speaks, ever remembers — they will be the hard words of a woman who
has survived a death blow. We won’t like listening to what she has to say. They won’t
sound like a child’s words at all. "Farewell toast to a legend"
May 02, 1997
Nowadays it’s difficult to fathom the glamour. Instead of those smoky, wonderfully
cluttered, testosterone-fueled city rooms drawn so deftly in films like ”The Front
Page,” newsrooms have become fluorescent-washed nods to technology and all its terror.
Computers wink suggestively, play music and make suggestions. Reporters e-mail each other
even when their desks are two feet apart. Ominously, there may be a tiny television studio
snuggled away in a corner. It’s hard to find a rotting cigar anywhere. And then there are
those endless meetings, seminars, memos touting some newfangled rigmarole called
Once upon a time there was no such thing. When I was an enamored kid
learning all I could from television portrayals of the news biz, its grit was also its
romance. As far as I could tell, there was only one kind of newsroom — perpetually
chaotic — and just one kind of newsman, as predictable as if he’d been cranked from a
mold. I imagined that every paper from Manhattan to Montana was populated by grizzled
white guys with tobacco stained teeth and a bottle of 90-proof inspiration tucked in their
desk drawers. Their flat, cavernous butts wallowed in threadbare corduroys. They were
insufferable, petulant, egotistical, brooding — but when they sat down at the typewriter
(there were those who simply refused to give up those Jurassic Underwoods) and began
punching away with two stubby forefingers, their prose could make you weep. Or it could
make you mad enough to plunge a letter opener into their hunched little backs.
Goodbye, Mike Royko. Goodbye, scowling growler who cleared the aisles with
a glare, goodbye, spinning barstool, goodbye, ever-ready invective. Goodbye, badboy
brawler, editor’s nightmare, everyman, everyday. Goodbye, era.
In 1977, the year I got my first newspaper job, newsrooms were an
unsettling and potentially volatile mix of innovation and tradition, old farts and young
turks. And the Chicago Daily News was a newspaper in the grand tradition. Even today, 19
years after its untimely death, mention that you worked there and people nod respectfully,
wistfully. It was a dream paper, a true collective effort, in a time when the bottom line
didn’t necessarily provide a foundation. Writers were renegades. And Mike Royko prowled
And the bars. And the backrooms. That was still where the lessons were
taught, over hard drinks and blade-edged babble, where a truly terrified yours truly could
worm her way into a circle of the old guys and ask the Mike Royko if he’d seen her very
first story and he’d grunt ”Sure doll, good work,” lying through his tobacco-stained
teeth, and everyone knew it and it didn’t matter. Egos clashed and fistfights were common.
It was the old newsman’s last stand, a landscape littered with drunks, prima donnas and
guys who were just mean for the hell of it. The next day, eyes bleary, they would arc
tired bodies over the keyboard and they would write — sweet, infuriating, righteous words
somehow beyond mere mortals. Who needed the fancy computers, the marketing studies, the
bright lights, progress? I wanted to be one of the guys.
So I clung to the old ways even as the old ways were slipping away. I
remember my buddy Sharon and I in the Billy Goat Tavern every Friday, puffing cigars and
asking Sam to fix us up with a couple of monster martinis, three olives each. We spent
long hours pondering a legal way to get our pictures up on the Goat’s newspaper wall of
fame. While Royko and his entourage snickered from their barstools, we’d scarf down
cheezborger, cheezborger, imagining ourselves part of the in-crowd, listening intently and
laughing much too loudly as soused sages told of newsroom antics that took place long
before either of us were born. I watched the fistfights, listened in awe to the virulent
gossip and continued to revel in writing that surprised me, enlightened me or, in the case
of Royko, made me mad enough to rip his column to shreds.
But even as his viewpoint sometimes made me see red, I realized that he’d
long ago hit that sweet spot we all look for, the one that brings a grunt of recognition
and respect from even the most discerning reader. The myth of the man was very much
anchored in the real world. It is his Slats Grobnik, the quintessential everyman, who will
miss him most. When I heard that Mike Royko had died, I went looking for a
sickly sweet cigar and a jolt of vodka for a stomach-twisting toast to the insufferable
old bastard, to the old days, to the ragged magic journalism once was. I hated him. I
loved him. He did what he did longer and better than most, PC sensibilities be damned. And
he’d probably offer up a sour grunt if he knew this — but he’s one of the reasons I’m
here. "Praise be these old black men"
May 23, 1997
There they were, stooped but standing, the five who were able to make the trek. And the
president of the United States stood teary-eyed before a microphone that amplified his
voice loud enough to reach back 60 years. ”I’m sorry,” he said to the survivors of the
debacle at Tuskegee, and the words weren’t hollow, they were filled with questions and
tears and the wronged blood of the men who were too dead to be there.
There they stood, awed and respectful Southern gentlemen, looking very much the way any
of our fathers might have looked, black fathers schooled in the polite ritual of the
Delta. They were men who trusted and believed, men who thought that the heartbeat in their
chests and the heartbeat of this country were one and the same.
And they deserve to be remembered because they believed. They deserve to be celebrated
because they stood tall, because while it took a long time for their country to do right
by them, what mattered most is that right was done.
They are the men who raised our parents, who raised us, who told us stories, who fed us
dreams. Their country may have forgotten who they were. But we never did.
So, to the survivors, all of them: Hallelujah for your grizzled lip, snuff chew, bended
slow walk and playin’ the dozens. Praise fatback, pork gravy, orange butter, Alaga syrup,
grits and those egg sandwiches you like, the ones mashed between sheets of wax paper. You,
my bended brothers, are wood whittling, you are three-day checker games and warm drink and
soft food sucked through holes where teeth once were.
All glory to the church deacons, their nappy knobs of gray hair greased flat and close
to conk, cracked voices teetering and testifying, reaching for the promise of the Promised
Land. Praise to you, lover of books and weavers of stories. Bless you postmen, whip-cloth
shoe shiners, porters bowing low and sweet. Bless you barbers, dead soldiers, welders and
pool sharks, bless you singers and sinners and jukebox boppers.
I hear all of you swear-scowling, gold-tooth giggling over games of bid whist and
craps, your thin shaky voices laying waste to a blues lyric ’bout a matchbox too small to
hold your clothes. And I watch as those clothes begin to swallow you, as muscle recedes
and collapses and you grow closer to the earth that will soon open its arms to receive
And if I squeeze my eyes shut, I see you young again. I see your shining eyes, I see
you spit-shined and polished on sluggish Greyhound coaches or in the colored car of a
silver train traveling from Pine Bluff to Boston, from Aliceville, Ala., to Chicago, from
Oscaloosa, Minneola, Greenwood and Muscle Shoals. I know you dreamed of the North, where
factories churned. North, which felt like an ice cube dragged slowly over your burning
Young again. Mail-order zoot suit, wide-wing felt hats to dip low over one eye. You
learn slick walkin’, dip, swivel click heel tap and you study and dream. You dance, blues
through to bone and bony hip bump when the jukebox teases. And praise to the eagle that
flies on Friday and the Lincoln Mark, the Riviera, the Electra Deuce and a Quarter, the
always too much car for what you were.
You were the lucky number, the dream book. Here is to your mojo, your magic real, roots
and conjures. Here is to you, griots of rickety back porch and city sidewalk.
And you, my million fathers, are still here past your country and its plans of poison,
you are still here past chalk outlines, dripping needles and prison cots, past whippings,
tree hangings and the call of war. You are survivors, scarred and running, choking back
news of stomach cramps, high pressure, dimming eyes. Here’s for the secret of your rotting
teeth, your misaligned back, the wild corn on your little toe, the many rebellions of your
black and tired body.
I will rub your weary head, dance close to you, shuck you silver peas for dinner.
He was Otis, my father, but you are George Key, you are Herman Shaw, you are Fred
Simmons, you are Benjamin Rockamore, you are Willie Earl and James and Ernest and Jimmy
Lee, you are all our fathers. All of you old black men, gentle Delta, we grieve you
wandering toward death, we celebrate you clinging to life. We apologize for this slow
love, a long time coming.
Open your bony dark-veined arms and receive me, your daughter, who is taking on your
last days as her very blood, who is learning your whispered language too late to stop your
But not too late to tell this story. Children die just out of focus
June 2, 1997
Since I first heard the story and saw the grainy black-and-white film, it’s been
impossible to shake the image. The horrifying scene keeps looping, playing over and over
and over again in my head, and I wish there was some way to snip and paste the celluloid,
to move the two people in the film away from each other, to run the film backwards and
make what happened never happen.
In the film, Sherrice Iverson, a 7-year-old cocoa-colored child with twisted braids
framing her face, darts playfully in a game of hide-and-seek, a giggle on her face. She
scoots into a women’s restroom. A tall, cigarette-thin man follows her inside. Nearly half
an hour later, the man comes out alone.
The film was a surveillance tape that captured the comings and goings of patronsat the
Primadonna Resort, a casino complex southwest of Vegas. At 3:48 in the morning, while her
dad pushed his luck at the slot machines, while other children snuggled in safe beds,
Sherrice was raped and murdered by an 18-year-old monster who had befriended her while she
wandered the casino unsupervised. After the murder, dad-o’-the-year Leroy Iverson
allegedly promised not to sue if the resort would ante up free beer and a little extra
money for the slots. Who could blame him? Otherwise, his daughter would have died for
Later I saw him on television, toothless and grizzled and beer-gutted, eyes filmy, arms
flailing as his mouth flapped and no words came out. The newscaster’s smooth commentary
took the place of whatever lies the father was busy crafting to explain away the fact that
he sacrificed his daughter, laid her down on an altar of greed in full view of the kind of
people who would populate a casino in Primm, Nev., at 3:48 on a Sunday morning.
And the tape plays. Sherrice’s braids bounce as she skips and peeks around the edges of
walls and partitions, as she engages her new friend in a game everyone knows, as she just
tries to be a kid in a place that probably smelled of whiskey and sweat and loss. Her
father, just in from LA with Sherrice and her 14-year-old brother, is mesmerized by the
insistent neon, bells and whistles and flashing lights and the occasional clink of coins.
It is nearly 4 in the morning, and he is warned three times by casino security not to
leave the child alone, but he does. He gambles her away. And she darts into a safe haven,
sure that her crafty playmate could not, would not follow. He follows. And while the
camera films women entering and exiting the restroom, Sherrice Iverson is being murdered
inside. She is losing the game.
Some kids never even get to play. Consider the fragile newborn who met his end in
Somerville, swathed not in plump blankets but in plastic, his bones broken, his skull
cracked, dead before living, living only to be killed. The tiny lungs pulled in air, but
never took a gulp of the world. The 22-year-old woman whose body was allegedly his home
before the plastic bag became his home is quoted in police reports as saying that she
”did not remember having a baby on Saturday night.”
Umm. Let’s see, what did I do yesterday? I folded and stored winter clothes, scrubbed
the sink, caught up on my reading, phoned a few friends. What? Did a writhing, squalling
human being emerge from a teeny opening in my body after growing, kicking and sparking
hormonal chaos for nine months? Gosh, I don’t remember.
This may be the case of a frightened young girl, new to the country, terrified at the
prospect of taking responsibility for a new life, who panicked and snuffed out something
which didn’t really seem alive because it was so small, so new, so utterly foreign. Maybe
she had the child and someone else killed it. All scenarios end with a barely there baby
boy dead on the sidewalk. The film keeps looping, and the ending can’t be changed.
There will be resolution, of sorts. Jeremy Strohmeyer,the 18-year-old high-school
student accused of Sherrice Iverson’s murder, bragged of the killing and was scooped up in
Long Beach. The halting story of Glendi Rivera Mendes, the new mother with the flawed
memory, will unreel in a Somerville court.
Oh, and while I’m thinking of it, you’ve heard of the Tamagotchi, those electronic
keychain critters who emulate real children? Sure they’re cute now, but when the novelty
has worn off and their ”parents” get tired of their beeping and buzzing and constant
demands, they toss them in the trash. There the lil’ techno-toddlers land on top of
flesh-and-blood kids like Baby Boy Mendes and Sherrice Iverson. Yesterday’s news. Utterly
disposable. "The silence in the story"
August 4, 1997
In black family tradition, there’s always a storyteller, a front porch griot who spins
tales with touches of down-home magic, someone who could deftly weave together the
branches of a family tree and create a story for the ages. Many of us with roots in the
American South can remember sitting at the feet of a M’Dear or a Nana or an Uncle Willie,
a human catalog of tall tales and family ways who could tell you why your mother has
darker skin than her sister, why it’s bad luck to add a pinch of sugar to the cornbread
batter, or what life was like as a slave.
In the Smith family the griot was my grandmother Ethel Conner, a gravel-voiced wisp of
a woman who always had two long, silvery braids hanging down on either side of her thin
face. I was only 4 years old when she died, but I remember being mesmerized by how she
would take people I knew — my mother, my aunt Lula, my cousin Demetria, my
great-grandfather Earl — and place them at the center of greater stories, stories that
rivaled any adventure ”The Golden Treasury of Children’s Literature” could serve up.
From her I got the sense that our family was never-ending, that our genealogy stretched
back as far as the stars. She made me believe that we were necessary threads in the fabric
of the world.
But even these congenial storytellers held secrets. Someone would ask one of those
”Whatever happened to . . . ?” questions, and silence would descend, my grandmother’s
eyes would cloud, the tale would end before it began. There were things you just didn’t
talk about, stories that didn’t respond to touches of magic. There were the children who
died too young. In the days of the great migration from the South to the North, there were
those felled by big-city vices. And I was an adult before I learned that we never, ever
talk about ”the disappeared” — those family members or friends who simply vanished in
Mississippi or Alabama or Arkansas, the one rumored to be resting at the bottom of a river
or buried under summer soil, the one who languished and died mysteriously in a small-town
jail, the one found swinging from the thick branch of a tree.
Yesterday I talked to Patricia Johnson, a friend in Elk Creek, Va. Pat is a born
storyteller, loquacious and electric. She tells stories for a living. But this time her
words were heavy and few, her voice threaded with pain. Her cousin Garnett P. ”G.P.”
Johnson was buried on Wednesday.
It’s one of those stories no one wants to tell. Garnett Johnson was the only black man
at a small gathering of five people. His body was doused with gasoline, set on fire, and
later decapitated. Since someone hated enough to kill him twice, the FBI is investigating
the incident as a possible hate crime. For Patricia, long-ago memories were stirred,
memories of a South that’s supposed to have gone the way of Pet Rocks and 8-track players.
A time when black folks were there, then they weren’t.
Patricia reached her threshold of pain and shut down in the middle of our conversation.
She had held up for as long as she could. Already she considered her cousin among ”the
disappeared,” someone who could not be reconstructed through misty-eyed reminiscence and
humorous anecdote. Once our lifeline was broken, I sat for a long, long moment, staring at
the phone in my hand.
Then I tried calling my mother. Too rooted in the present, she just hasn’t been very
good at keeping up the storytelling tradition. She didn’t inherit the gift of gab from my
grandmother. She did, however, tell me about the prayer circle.
In the South, whenever there was a death in the family, the women would dress in white,
grasp hands, and kneel, leaning forward until their heads touched. And they would begin to
moan, deep wrenching moans from someplace unfathomable, moans that would leave their
bodies and shudder almost visibly in the open air. No words recognizable as English would
be spoken. The bone-deep grief brought forth another language, raw and guttural, a purging
of the poison that loss leaves behind.
Garnett Johnson, twisted so violently from this world, will be an uncomfortable place
in the memories of those he left behind. He will be an awkward conversational moment, a
persistent question, a scar that won’t seal. He will be the silence in the story.
Patricia Johnson’s hand is hundreds of miles away, but I’m holding it now. We are
telling the story no one else will tell. We are dressed in white, grasping hands across
the void, grieving once again for the disappeared.