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On Rodney King And Finding Your Writing Voice…

On Rodney King And Finding Your Writing Voice...

America should legislate a ‘moment of silence‘ for Rodney King on the day that he was brutally beaten. And, the moment of silence should be -one minute for every hit he endured. The media is running that vile beating, repeatedly. After the reporter headlines with, “Rodney King’s troubled life.” Reporting that, “Mr. King’s fiance is stating that, “he was drinking all day Saturday and smoking marijuana.” What if the reporter said, “Rodney King, who endured a violence that black americans have been subjected to, for centuries. We are, forever, indebted to him.

How in the hell does someone live with that level of trauma? And, I don’t know Mr. King’s past but he, clearly, seemed to have suffered traumas prior to that evening. I can imagine that alcohol must have felt like some kind of relief. After all, one can’t leave their body behind; the aches, the memories, you can’t just walk away from your body, sit it on a curb and go back to it when ready. That stuff comes with you, always.

Because of Rodney King and because of the individual that videotaped the beating, we took major steps forward in shedding light on police brutality. We learned, as citizens, that we have the right to document crimes by the police. Whether or not the courts arrest or punish the criminals, the record will stand and the world will know.

I can’t watch the beating. Mr. King said that he felt like he was looking at another person when he watched the video. Like, “that old self died and the new self was watching it“. He was giving us keys to understanding his coping mechanisms. I remember when he had a relapse. I would see friends on Facebook laughing at his suffering. I thought, these folks must have been beaten, at some point in their lives, probably childhood, and his pain was easier to laugh at than to sit with.

A few days ago, I heard of Ms. Erica Kennedy’s death. The cause of her death has not been released. However, some are writing about Ms. Kennedy’s struggle with depression and/or bipolar disorder. If true, the pain felt by her loved ones must be unbearable. She was a talented, well-manicured woman who had a voice. It’s tough to reconcile. At some point, coping mechanisms fail and one has to find a way to breakthrough and heal. I am hoping that her death was not a suicide.

As I coach a client through writing her memoir, she asked me, “why don’t ‘we’, as black people, tell the stories of our lives?” I said, “we learned that we aren’t important.” That’s been the messaging. We get the message in our households- if we endure the legacy of violence passed down, I believe, from slavery. “Go and get the switch.” We are taught that our pain is something to be ashamed of. Our thoughts, if bad and sinister and less than perfect, should be crushed.And, yes, Rap has provided a counter to this. For me, that is the beauty of Rap. There is nothing like it when it communicates a healing, a truth, an awakening.

Unfortunately, it has become about the other side of healing; the mask, the braggadocio, the chest pumping, the victim becoming the perpetrator by encouraging violence. Bottom line, unbridled contempt. I understand, a lot of folks are angry and in pain. And, black males have few outlets to express their circumstances. But, the legacy of black male suffering is wreaking havoc in our communities. Unless and until we deal with this tremendous public health crisis, moving forward will be slow and unsteady. I don’t care how you dress it up- in saggy pants, Kangol caps, an NBA uniform or three piece suits, the devastation is catastrophic.

I know some incredible men who have witnessed and experienced violence in their youth. The problems with intimacy, with self-love, with the need to hurt others remains, no matter how successful or unsuccessful you are. One has to make an effort to heal those demons. It seems, “white folks” write about the most inane subjects. In their lives, they were taught that they mattered. That everything about them matters. It’s woven into the culture. But, not us, not black girls, not black boys. And, we have to explode this tragedy so that we can bring more nuanced and heartfelt stories into the marketplace. I am not saying that if you ‘vomit’ your experience that that is enough. Value it by crafting and sculpting it. Understand, the specifics of your life are interesting, unique and valuable.

As a filmmaker, writer and coach, I urge people to tell their stories. It’s taken me years to develop the courage to share my personal voice. People are asleep. And, if you trigger something in them, they attack. It’s easier to attack than to take things in and feel them. But, get your stories out, you must. For a long time, I admired Federico Fellini (still do) because he spoke, purely, from his experience. And, what a pure, magical, complex, delightful, experience it was. I was focused on how to do that, how to get there. And, I was pissed when I learned how difficult it is to do. As Black people, we have to break through strictures to get to our voice.

I speak with my playwriting buddy, all of the time, about how to write our authentic and unique voice. As I script doctor, I read so many scripts where black writers can’t get beyond the superficial. The ‘cardboard cut-outs’ of what we believe we should be writing. The broad strokes, the writing on what others believe us to be. We leave behind the interesting details in who we are. I am still trying to understand why that is. I have figured out some of the reasons.

We receive messages from the culture that we don’t matter. We also receive that messaging in our households. If you endured beatings, for example, you are taught that you don’t matter. You are taught that you are vile, deserve pain for missteps, have no right to be understood. You are taught that you are bad, a demon (of some sort) or (and, this is the holy grail), disrespectful of your parents. When, honestly, as a child, you were just trying to find your voice, your way in the world, you were testing boundaries, limits, your parent’s love and waiting to see what they would do. Many of us grew up in households where fuses were short, pressures were high and there was little time for understanding the nuances of child development.

It would have been so much easier if parents understood that black children and adults have to endure enough in the culture. They do not need the added task of having to heal internal wounds. Because a child who endures a ‘whipping’ or ‘molestation’, walks with that as an adult. And, she/he has to spend a lifetime healing that or denying it. Doesn’t matter if it’s in a Chanel suit or ‘hooker’ clothes. Cultivating a voice, out of that legacy, is difficult. May the days of “we have to beat you to save your life” be over. Try something else. Or, your child will, one day, be writing about you.

Can we, for Rodney King, stop beating, hitting, slapping, whatever name you want to give it, our children? Can’t wait for the day that children turn their cameras on their parents. When children start to hide video cameras in their homes. What would you look like on a hidden camera? In your private moments? What would your childhood household look like?

Do us all a favor, when your child misbehaves, give them a pen. Have them write it out. Have them write a letter to you. Or, a letter detailing why they did it, what they were feeling when they did it. How they felt about it. Stop the knee jerk legacy of pounding on your child and encourage them to understand why they did what they did. You will get to know your child better and they will understand themselves better. Buy some paint and a canvas and let the child express their fury. Be creative in your punishment. Or, be the parent who turns on the parent doing the hitting- so that you can stop the madness.

As you see, for me, Rodney King’s legacy is not just about those reprehensible humans that beat him. It’s about us, it’s about how we treat one another. It’s about how we treat our children. When we learn that domestic violence is not acceptable, we will make a real effort to end it in the larger culture. We will make an effort to end the black-on-black violence in our communities. Black children are killing one another in the streets because they have received the message that that is the norm. We have to teach our children that it is not our birthright to be beaten and slaughtered. But, it is our birthright to have a voice.

Follow Tanya Steele on Twitter at @digtanya. Or visit

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