Intentionally, and with precision
by ife-Chudeni A. Oputa
August proves a hard month for breathing. I sit in Von King Park, celebrating the Soul of Brooklyn. It’s a sunny 81 degrees. Dry heat, but the air is heavy. It has only been eight days since another unarmed black male— and Black Brooklyn is a mob decked in Afropolitan-funk and unrest. By the time the headliners take the outdoor stage, Mike Brown has been invoked five times over. My body is stiff crouched on the concrete; sweat tickles the back of my knees, making me twitch. The day has been like this—all of us discomfited, unsure of how to balance our rage with the relief of being black and here, together and alive.
A song or two into the final set, three women hold hands and walk down the center of the amphitheater like they are answering a call to discipleship. For a minute, they dance alone together in the empty space below the stage and then the slow flood of bodies follows, a river freshly thawed. The crowd dances, hands reaching out to the nearest stranger. We float that way into evening—all that weights us left behind at our seats; each of us settling, for the moment, into the vulnerability of joy.
This is only the second time in weeks that I let go of my breath without a fight, so worried the unrelenting tension in my body will keep my lungs from re-inflating. The first time, surprisingly, is brought on by an article covering the Little League World Series, an event that, before now, I didn’t know existed. I am not what you’d call a sports fan, though I enjoy a good football game (a holdover from my days in marching band), and while living in Indiana, I grew fond of sitting in sports bars and cheering on as the Heat beat the Pacers. Baseball, however, has always existed beyond even my passive interest in athletics. Yet, scrolling through my Facebook news feed, overwhelmingly populated by stories of police violence against black bodies, there is Mo’ne Davis—mouth clinched, mid-pitch—and there is my breath, my grin, my momentary relief.
It is difficult, when you allow a terror its full magnitude, to make room for anything else—joy, patience, even other terrors. So much fights for space amidst the magnitude of Mike Brown. His is not the only dead black body, not even the latest. I watch as people struggle to make visible police violence against black women and other people of color, to call out their communities for the imbalance of support for female versus male victims, to challenge the effectiveness of the rallying cry “hands up; don’t shoot,” to challenge the effectiveness of teaching black children that there is a right way to interact with law enforcement, to do it all without being a distraction, without diminishing the terror of Brown’s death.
I watch and struggle along with them. I don’t know what it is about Mo’ne Davis—a girl, the eighteenth in the Little League World Series, and the first to pitch a shutout, the first to pitch a winning game, and black—that runs through me like an antidote, gives me permission to lend a little space in my day to something joyous. Maybe, certainly it’s that she’s black. Certainly also, that she’s a girl. And maybe too that she’s a child, somebody’s child. She is the foil to Mike Brown—somebody’s little girl, alive.
Or maybe it’s more than that—how this time it is the living black body that releases the speeding projectile, how it is the white body that braces itself, arms lifted to the head, how she spares the body, misses it each time, intentionally and with precision.
In his famous comedy routine, “Baseball and Football,” George Carlin argues, among other things, that “in baseball, the object is to go home and to be safe.”
One early morning in June, I leave home. I am driving from Bloomington, IN to an interview in Chicago, where I hope to move by summer’s end. I drive a block up to McDonald’s for coffee. I don’t usually drink coffee, or eat McDonald’s, but I’ve had only a couple fitful hours of sleep, and the next Starbucks en route is a twenty-five minute drive. I’ve driven like this before: twelve hours home from the Poconos on a few hours of sleep and a steady caffeine stream. The key, in my opinion, is the music—fast-tempo and singable, my own mobile karaoke show.
The drive to Chicago is largely flat and straight. About fifteen minutes away from home, the highway curves and is flanked by trees that meet overhead in a canopy and block out the sun. This stretch of highway is my favorite; the world dims and I’m surrounded by green and the bend in the road makes my car slide just slightly and I feel adrift. I am driving in the left lane, yawning and singing along to Rihanna, but in the moment that the road straightens and the trees give way to sunlight and the shallow valley of a grassy median, I panic. Everything dizzies and I know, without a doubt, that I will crash and die on this road. Without a doubt.
I’m driving slowly now, the cars behind passing to my right because I’m too scared to change lanes. The exit to the next town is still ten miles away. The music is off; I need to concentrate to keep my hands steady and the car straight. For ten miles, the only sound is me muttering, “Jesus,” on repeat. I make it to the exit, merge into the right lane and pull off into a gas station. I wait there for an hour. I try to drive again, across the street and one light down to the Starbucks. I get there, but have to sit another hour. I never make it to Chicago. I cancel my interview, and eventually drive back home the way I came.
A week later, I am in Pennsylvania, away from home, when my mother calls to tell me her sister has passed away. My aunt’s gone home. I go back to Bloomington, though not to my home. I spend the week before the funeral housesitting for a friend; I want nothing more than to be home. I spend one night at home. The next morning I fly back home to California. My aunt’s gone—. Almost everyone is home for the service. I stay four days and then I have to fly home. I spend the weekend in Bloomington and then I drive eleven hours to a wedding in Washington, D.C., a city once my home. I remind myself of a mentor’s advice to breathe. “If you’re breathing,” she tells me, “you can’t panic.” My week in D.C. ends and I try for three days to go home, each night binge-watching old shows well after my eyes grow heavy, not letting myself fall asleep until the sun comes up, waking anxious in the afternoon, too late, I tell myself, to start on my way home. When I wake up the third day, I take deep breaths, exhaling on a ten count, moving from ten to one more slowly each time, until my heart rate is even. It is late afternoon when I leave, and I drive through the night and when the sun comes up, I’m home.
The whole summer travelling back to and away from every place I’ve called home, and I never feel safe. When it is finally August and I pack up my Bloomington apartment to leave my last home for the last time, I am exhausted and out of breath.
Ross Gay invites me to write an essay about Mo’ne Davis and I say yes despite the fact that there are already too few hours in the day and I know nothing about baseball, but I know something about language, I’d like to think, and I owe at least a little bit of my continued existence to this young girl and what are the odds I’ll get another chance to say thank you?
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out baseball’s overarching metaphor. I stumble across George Carlin and circle around the idea of home and it feels like I’m getting somewhere, but I’m not there. And then I read “Sure as 6-4-3,” Cate Lycurgus’ essay on baseball in the last issue of this very journal because what better place to start, and I learn about Major League Baseball’s perfect game, “a contest in which no more than 27 batters hit and 27 are retired—that is, no opposing player reaches base for any reason.” That is, George Carlin was only partially correct. The objective of baseball, offensively, is to return home, which requires that a player first leave. Defensively, the objective is to keep a player at home and, should they manage to make it out the door, to make sure they never return.
Because it is Mo’ne Davis that has me here, writing this essay, I want very much to cling to the idea of the pitcher as a benevolent hero. After all, this is not football, or hockey, or boxing. The entire game of baseball can, ostensibly, be played without any two players ever making contact with one another. Where is the violence?
But then, isn’t that every insidious system of oppression—the violence subtle, invisible if it can be? Certainly white heteropatriarchy works like this, whatever team name it plays under: law enforcement, the judicial system, rape culture, etc.
In Ferguson, Missouri, a governor-imposed curfew means that for two nights in August a militarized police force makes sure residents stay home. But, in the perfect game, we police ourselves. The perfect game always finds us sitting at home afraid: to walk the wrong way down the wrong street at the wrong time, to swing and miss, to strike out.
The morning after I dance, happy and alive in Brooklyn, I wake up wailing from a nightmare: a child dead inside of me, its small body pushing out against my belly, stretching my skin translucent enough to see the apple-sized head. This dream is years in the making, my desire for motherhood constantly at odds with the world I live in: how to justify bringing a girl child into a world where her body is not her own, how to justify bringing a black child into a world where their body is not their own, how to justify bringing any child into a world that’s unsustainable and how to convince myself I can handle the certainty of my child in pain without breaking. In my dream, I break and I wake that way, unable to move from the corner of the couch, too afraid to leave home.
It is dangerous to think that being home and being safe are the same in this game, which, to be clear, is not a game. Baseball tells us the only way to avoid a perfect game is to make it to first. A pitcher as skilled as hegemony will never let a player walk, so in order to make it to first, you have to avoid a strikeout, and the only way to avoid a strikeout is to make contact, toward first, to leave home.
It is dangerous to think that leaving home is safe, but we already know that. We already know to pass down the strategies for survival: don’t walk alone at night, keep your hands out of your pockets, pull down your skirt, pull up your jeans, hold a key between your fingers like a blade, don’t drink too much, don’t talk back, comply, hands up; don’t shoot. And we already know that even the most careful player can be taken out before they make it to the next base, or ever make it home.
We live in that space between, always at our most exposed, knowing there are more ways out than there are ways home. And yet, most of us most of the time still step out in the direction of the next base. And so, Mo’ne Davis is still benevolent and still a hero for letting herself be exceptional when so much of the world insists that black girls are anything but. And so is her mother, for letting her exist and sharing her with a world that too often threatens that existence. And so are those women from Von King Park, for helping us find our joy when hurt is so much easier to sit with. And so, today, am I, for letting myself breathe and letting myself breathe and letting myself breathe.
I am still uneasy—about baseball and about the implications of a perfect game. Such a game is defined only in terms of a successful defense. But, what about the perfect offensive: a contest in which at least every batter hits, and every batter makes it home—that is, not one is out for any reason. Imagine—pop-up, fly ball, grounder, a home run or a leisurely one base at a time, pausing to catch your breath, always safe, always the defense scrambling, always on your way home.
In baseball, a game like that could last all night. A game like that could mean forever.
IFE-CHUDENI A. OPUTA is completing an MFA in Poetry and an MA in African American and African Diaspora Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. She is a Cave Canem and Callaloo fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in [PANK] online, Callaloo, Gabby, Crab Orchard Review and elsewhere. She is a native of Fresno, CA.