The photo was taken in July 1965 in Greensboro, Alabama. Five months after Malcolm X’s assassination. Four months after Bloody Sunday on that bridge in Selma. My mother, second-born of four girls, was a few months away from turning thirteen, the age Denise McNair, youngest of the four little girls, would have been. Searched for in rubble and broken stained glass. Her father glimpsed the dusty patent-leather shoe poking from under the white sheet and knew it was Denise’s. My mother’s Tennessee borders Denise’s Alabama, where in 1963 white supremacists planted fifteen sticks of dynamite under the back stairwell of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and where, hours after the ghastly explosion, thirteen-year-old Virgil Ware was shot while riding on the handlebars of his brother’s bike. Alabama, where, on the same day five children had already been murdered — Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley and Virgil Ware — a sixth, Johnny Robinson, sixteen, was shot in the back by a police officer. What is it about a traffic stop and a city block and a sidewalk and a country road and a Bible study and a choir room and a vestibule and a playground and a living room and a bedroom and a bed and a driveway and a highway and a stairwell and a gas station and a suburb and a driver’s seat and a parking lot and a balcony and the door to one’s own home. It’s raining. It’s raining in Greensboro, Alabama. Almost forty years later Agha Shahid Ali will write: “After we died — That was it! — God left us in the dark. / And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain.” Even the rain . . . even the rain, the poet will repeat. The young woman in the photo, the girl, has taken the shoes off her feet. She pinches the tops of them together and advances toward the camera. In May 1965, a few months before this photograph was taken, the white photographer moved with his wife and daughter from Pennsylvania to Alabama to work for The Southern Courier. The photograph won’t run in the newspaper. The negative will be archived under the title “Young woman standing in the rain during a civil rights demonstration in Greensboro, Alabama.” According to the article alongside which this photograph will not appear, a policeman wearing a gas mask and a blue uniform set off a tear-gas canister ten feet from the protesters that day. This policeman, wearing a gas mask and a blue uniform, first gave the young demonstrators a three-minute warning. The demonstrators prayed. Before the three minutes were up, gas erupted into the air. The wind shifted, blowing the noxious smoke toward the police officers. The children and young people retreated inside the doors of Saint Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church. White men hurled gas grenades into the building. Two days before the demonstration, two more churches had been burned. The children and young people had gathered to protest the burnings. Now, inside the beleaguered church, they had decided on a strategy. They chose to return outside, to hold their ground. Rain begins to fall. In the downpour a girl, scarcely a teenager, takes the shoes off her feet. She is about the age Denise McNair and Addie Mae Collins and Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley and Virgil Ware and Johnny Robinson will always be. She is eleven or fourteen or thirteen or sixteen. This girl probably remembers when, two years ago, she heard about the four little girls. She probably remembers a photograph of Sarah Collins, the fifth girl, who was lying in a hospital bed, skin burned, eyes covered with white patches of cotton and gauze. Today the young people wanted to march to the Hale County Courthouse to protest the church burnings. The police erected a barricade. The Klan was rumored to be waiting. The girl ran into Saint Matthew with the others. Rain began to fall. She left the church and walked outside into the rain. Now, as the photographer prepares to click the shutter, she pinches the tops of her shoes together and advances toward the camera. In the background, a brick wall. Her mouth is open as the rain falls. Singing and shouting and praying. She wants freedom. She shall not be moved.
We shall not We shall not be moved Just like a tree that’s planted by the water We shall not be moved.
Imagine this picture without the rain, and somehow the girl in the photograph appears less free. Here I don’t mean the kind of freedom a government can grant — though she wants this, too. I mean the freedom she was born with, that shaped her desire to protest two church burnings and that compelled her to walk back outside during a rainstorm into the maw of terrorism. Electric cattle prod, billy club, tear gas, raised fist, pistol, ax handle, red brick, bullwhip, fire hose, chain, stone.
There’s a difference between obtaining civic freedom and experiencing the psychic sensation of feeling free. A person can have one, the other, neither, or both. Photography is a tricky medium. Who knows what the girl’s expression would have revealed a few seconds before the photograph was taken, or slightly after she took her next step, or if I’d been the one taking the photograph. But, in the particular moment the photograph captures, the girl appears to possess a certain kind of freedom. The type she petitions for with every expansion of her lungs. The kind she has been systematically and materially denied. She is willing to die for this freedom.
Just like a tree that’s planted by the water We shall not be moved.
Drenched by a summer downpour or dampened by a spring rain, I have felt an aspect of freedom.
The first time I delighted in rain, ran from it precisely because I enjoyed it, was while attending a summer program between my sophomore and junior years of high school. Because I would not be home for the bimonthly routine of wash, press, and curls, my mother arranged for my hair to be braided for the first time. I sat patiently as the stylist orbited me, parting my hair into precise boxes and a plethora of braids. The hairstyle afforded me the luxury of being unfamiliar to myself. Wearing a woven crown, I existed, for a spell, within my own invention.
The program lasted a few brief weeks. I met new people, lived communally, fell in love at least three times, and, on a night of sober revelry, got caught in a downpour. The rain and the streetlight’s glow fell on me as I hurried across the quad. My fast friends and I ran for cover, squealing. I only pretended to care. We were carefree, even as we confided in one another about a parent’s incarceration, sexual angst, or the earnest questions we believed we would answer once and for all.
To this day my hair is mercurial. I can’t predict what it will look like from one day to the next. And though I’ve come to adore its unruliness and attitude, in an alternate version of this story the girl I was didn’t wear braids. She looked in the mirror after having her straightened hair soaked with rain and saw ruin. If my hair had been straightened, I would have slipped out of my damp clothes and made an excuse to stay alone in my dorm room while the others listened to music, gossiped, or made out. I would have worried and sulked, begging my hair into pink foam rollers and concealing it beneath a scarf. Even now I don’t know how to advise the teenage girl I might have been, miles from home with no mother or hairdresser to tend to her. I have compassion for the girl who would have believed her hair needed fixing.
That night, as I ran across the quad, rain became a test for how free I could feel. Years later, during a powerful summer shower, I turned to a lover to ask if he wanted to go outside into the rain. On another day-turning-evening, during a steady drizzle, I meandered uptown with my friend Angel, winding through eighty blocks of sidewalks, traffic lights, and street corners. Strolling past the windows of Manhattan high-rises, we passed thousands of people’s illuminated, curtained lives. Angel teased me for choosing without fail to walk in the street instead of maneuvering between mounds of garbage bags heaped on the sidewalk. We took an unplanned route: up and down hills, past basketball courts, bodegas, boulders, and parks. For hours we walked and talked and laughed. All the while, a gentle rain gradually soaked us. Under its influence we bared ourselves to one another in some new way. Other times I’ve stood naked in the rain with only the moon’s eye watching. I’ve closed a flimsy, broken umbrella and surrendered to the wind, sauntering down the dirty, glistening street that leads to my Bronx apartment. Most often, though, I listen to rain falling without feeling the need of its caress. I appreciate the excuses rain provides: to sleep in, to beg off, to stay home.
One June, on the weekend of the summer solstice, my friend Liz and I drove upstate from New York City to a farm near Albany where we’d volunteered a few summers prior. We would be sojourning with other artists, educators, and farmers, spending time in community and working the land. I didn’t realize until we arrived that I would need a tent. Liz offered hers to share. On the first night, the rain’s cooing lulled us to sleep as water leaked stealthily into the tent in tiny streams. I woke hours before dawn, cranky, restless, and wet to the bone. We laid our sleeping bags and clothes in the driest spot we could find: across the seats of Liz’s car. Irritated, I went looking for a task in need of completion. In silence I weeded a small plot of land, and, as my body focused on movement, discernment, and efficiency, my displeasure dissipated. Unbothered by the ongoing rain, I quickly became consumed by the fantasy of pulling every last weed — an impossible feat. Just one more, I thought, as the rain poured down on my back. The next day I pruned tomato plants while more rain drummed its fingers on the roof of the humid shelter. I trained my eyes to travel along the stem and find the parts of the plant that threatened to suck away its growth.
And what of the rage there on the girl’s face? I recognize it. I share it. It is, in part, located in how her mouth gapes and her teeth gleam. Her protest, any social protest, holds sorrow and funeral and river and deluge and song and keening and reverence and chanting and defiance and anger and danger and dance and release and duress and spirit and power and togetherness and agitation and rage. My mother and the unnamed girl in the photograph were born into a system that marked them as second-class citizens. My mother, the girl, and — write their names again — Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Virgil Ware, and Johnny Robinson were born into Jim Crow apartheid. I am the first generation on my mother’s side not born into either chattel slavery or government-sanctioned segregation. When I ask my mother today if she is free, I can’t predict what she will say. I search her face while I wait for the words to fall from her slightly open mouth. I ask my mother this question because I have no succinct answer to it myself. After contemplating, she responds in her soft voice, “As free as a Black person in America.”
One day, decades from now, no one will remember the name Ahmaud Arbery, but almost every time I walk through my mother’s small-town neighborhood, hugging the curbs and glancing over my shoulder, I think of Arbery just out for a run. I notice the southern magnolia blossoms in various stages of bloom and decay, and I feel the target on my back.
And when I look again at the photograph, I believe I see — I don’t think I’m wishing this into being — pleasure in the shape of the girl’s mouth, in the way her tongue can taste fresh droplets of rain. Because it is pleasing, even with the threat of annihilation, to move as one commands one’s body to move. To sing into the mouth of the demon’s lair. Electric cattle prod, billy club, tear gas, raised fist, pistol, ax handle, red brick, bullwhip, fire hose, chain, stone. Danger does not make the song more beautiful. That would be inaccurate. That would be romantic. But by walking out of Saint Matthew and into the rain, the girl in the photograph is exercising the freedom she does have. Of course, the same could be said if she had chosen to stay inside the church, or if, after deliberating with the other children and young people, she had abandoned the demonstration altogether. But with the decision to go back outside into the rain and hold her ground, knowing full well what awaited her, the girl in the photograph aims to use one freedom to gain another. Perhaps this is the source of the pleasure I read on her child face.
Living in the United States, one may be gripped, seized suddenly, by double vision. Ambling along a Memphis street, you’re startled by the southern red oak’s transformation into a lynching tree. Admiring the night sky, you perceive a creased map lined with freedom’s stars. You spoon plantation sugar from a sky-blue bowl into a cup of piping-hot tea. On your way to the airport or the dentist or the fairgrounds, you drive by the lush, white tufts of a cotton field. In Far Rockaway, New York, you lounge on a faded beach towel and watch a group of your friends rush into the frigid waters. The sea is the Atlantic Ocean, and the sea is a cradle of bones. Your friends’ laughter carries easily, as if they were splashing directly beside you and not a hundred yards away. Their breath is carried on the wind stroking your face. You watch as the waves race forward and back, forward and back. When your friends return, they rejoice at how exquisite the water felt. Relaxing, they sigh, happily spent. Later they will shake the sand from their towels and clap their sandals together and rinse their feet at the spigot near the beach entrance, but for now they stretch out their limbs on towels beside you. They twist their hair into knots at the backs of their heads. They smile, teeth chattering from the cold.
Petrichor is the word coined to describe the unique scent of rain, especially after a dry spell. Maybe, for the rest of her life, this particular smell will remind the girl in the photograph of the rain that drenched her young, vulnerable body. The rain that, for us, she stands in still. Look at her wide, ecstatic mouth. Look at her narrow hips. Look at her left arm swinging. The girl’s mouth releases a song that can’t be contained. The clouds release water that can’t be held in any longer. Having spent so much time with her, having spent so much time studying this photograph, I have fastened the young woman onto my idea of rain. Days from now I will stare out the window at rainfall, and she will appear: a fleshly apparition. Years from now I will smell a cracked-open, mineral odor and be reminded of the time I spent contemplating the relationship between freedom and rain.
No doubt the girl in the photograph has long forgotten the precise moment it was taken. The photograph did not, after all, run in The Southern Courier. The girl did not open the ten-cent newspaper on July 30, 1965, and discover a picture of herself. Thousands of marchers trod across Alabama in 1965. March, fill the jail. March, fill the jail. Children forced into paddy wagons singing songs of freedom. Morticians making promises to do their best, to present the mutilated beloved as “nicely” as possible. Injuries, close calls, eulogies, nightmares, and panic attacks. Shelter, strategy, self-defense, and resilience. Care and collaboration. Bridges and bombings. Five days of marching to cover the fifty-four miles from Selma to Montgomery, often through mud and cold rain. Stinging, bruising water blasting from fire hoses. Menacing, growling, barking, biting dogs. And on and on and on and on, without the chance to breathe. But perhaps, to this day, when the smell of rain invades her nostrils, the girl, who is now an elder, remembers not the Greensboro demonstration but her wedding day, when her mother’s friend comforted her by saying, Don’t worry, darlin’ — a little rain is good luck. Perhaps when a sudden May shower streams down the windows of her yellow house, the elderly woman thinks only of how she must rush to put the hammock in the woodshed. The petunias, she thinks, I am glad they will be watered.
If the rain is just rain, if the memory of the protest has not become a scar, then is the girl in the photograph — who is now the elder in my imagination; who is now the same age as my living mother and the same age as the fifth girl, Sarah Collins Rudolph, the younger sister of Addie Mae Collins: Sarah who survived but lost an eye in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing; who in 2013, fifty years after the bombing, said, “Every day I think about it, just looking in the mirror and seeing the scars on my face. I’m reminded of it every day” — is that girl free? If I look at the southern red oak and see only a tree, am I free?
The first demonstration I joined was in New York City after the acquittal of the four officers who’d murdered unarmed, twenty-three-year-old Amadou Diallo in 1999. Thirteen years later I was teaching high-school students in a Saturday art program, sitting in a solemn circle with a dozen teens, and I mentioned Diallo’s name. It did not stir recognition. I felt a clenching heat in my chest when I realized they did not know Diallo, whose death had awakened me and whose first name echoed mine. My feelings should not have been bruised; the young people had been infants, perhaps staring into the ceiling above their cribs when, mere miles from where we sat, plainclothes police officers had fired forty-one shots at Diallo in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment. “Forty-one shots!” I had chanted as I’d joined the swell of people and voices. The young people did not recognize Diallo’s name, but they knew the name of Trayvon Martin, killed by a vigilante. I was, at the time of Diallo’s death, a few years younger than he was; they were a few years younger than Martin. We sat in a circle the Saturday after Martin’s murder. We sat in a circle again a year and a half later, after his murderer was acquitted. We made art to express our rage, grief, confusion, and pain. We painted signs and banners. We marched. During my life, even dying words have become a repetition. And on and on and on and on, without the chance to breathe. A year after that, when Michael Brown, also unarmed, was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, we joined thousands at a protest in lower Manhattan. “I put my hands up in the air,” I chanted with the same young people who did not know Diallo’s name. “Don’t shoot, don’t shoot, don’t shoot!” I felt a sad joy when I heard my voice swell in protest with the other demonstrators’. In song we became one mouth with many tongues, one body with many limbs. Singing and chanting in unison with others made us, for a time, larger and more powerful.
“Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop.”
“Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop.”
“Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop.”
Here, in our photograph, rain crystallizes into dashes and dots. The right side of the photograph is occluded: damaged by light, or a ghost, or a reckoning. The top of the photograph is framed by dark leaves, which release rivulets of rain. Outside the frame, others like the girl refuse, disobey, open their mouths in protest, terror, pleasure, or song. The young woman, the girl, is outdoors because nature is large enough to hold a freedom cry. In a letter to me, a friend once wrote, “One definition of nature is everything that is not one’s self.” In the rain, or in the ocean, or in a flood of people singing freedom songs and calling out the names of our unjustly killed, I feel a part of nature, a part of nature’s self, which may be anything that gives nourishment and everything that breathes.
Water is the portrait I most resemble. When I am in water, stroked by its smallest droplets or immersed in the ocean’s immensity, I am aware of the weather beyond my psyche, dragged into a bodily presence I often live estranged from. Water lets me get close. I can’t wade into the stars, or float on fire, or press myself, boundless, into a tulip tree’s inner rings. When, under an open sky, I let water join me, I feel permeable and animal. I once swam in the ocean at night, in the warm Gulf waters off the coast of Florida, with a group of misfit artists. After wading into the sea, I closed my eyes and fell back onto the water, letting my legs drift to the surface. On my back I faced the full moon and the stuttering stars. I marveled at how large and buoyant I felt, how insignificant. Reluctant to leave the water, I listened to my breath lap like waves against my eardrums. The sounds of my body, its breath and heartbeat, wet the spiraling shells of my ears. Every inch of fat on my body pinned my skeleton to the water’s surface. And for those moments, I was an astronaut. The moon, which hours earlier we had watched rise, grew smaller and farther from reach. Eventually my feet righted beneath my hips in an awkward search to find ground again. Joining the others on the shore, I wrapped myself in a borrowed towel and gazed at the black water and the black sky.
A few nights later I went in again. Unlike on the first night, the sky was overcast. A steady movement of clouds obscured the waning moon. When a friend asked if I was afraid, I replied, “It’s the same ocean we swim in during the day.” But her question made me aware of the danger I couldn’t see. Chest deep in water, talking to my friend, I moved my hands away from and toward my body, enjoying the water’s pressure against the muscles of my arms. I noticed something peculiar but not startling, something my mind didn’t fully grasp. Then another artist, who had swum farther out, joined us closer to the shore, and, almost in sync, the three of us noticed it: a cold white light — what I had seen from the corner of my eye but had been unable to comprehend. Surrounding any movement our bodies made, the water glowed with bioluminescent algae, like oceanic fireflies so small, thousands could fit inside a single dewdrop. I laughed out loud. Mesmerized, I waved my hand back and forth and watched as the water shimmered.
Joining a demonstration, I exercise one aspect of freedom at the risk of losing another, and in pursuit of yet another. The last protest I participated in was with my living, breathing mother in west Tennessee. Though the march commenced in the early morning, it was already sweltering. I had the urge to protect her against the heat, the police, the unknown. To honor George Floyd, unarmed and murdered by a police officer, we progressed in silence. My mother and I stayed physically close, but, as time went on, we separated psychically, each of us dwelling in what might be called prayer. I remembered the weeds I had pulled in silence at the farm and how I hadn’t wanted to stop until I’d pulled every last one. The bewilderment and anguish my students had expressed, the knowledge they’d been initiated into, crept into my gait. I tried to fathom my mother’s Southern girlhood. I recalled a family picture of her and her sisters, dressed in their Easter Sunday best: four little girls squinting at the sun and smiling at the camera. I heard the dying words of a dying man, which echoed the words of another. I heard a man calling for his mother. It wasn’t raining. The bright sky was shockingly blue. I used a tissue to wipe the tears from my cheeks. Toward the end of the march, I found a tree with meager shade for my mother to stand under. I found water for her to drink. We chanted, a call and response, along with a woman projecting her voice through a megaphone. When the woman’s voice grew fatigued, another took up the lead and kept the song going.