The Trajectory of a Bullet Never Shot
I first saw the gun in the days after my father’s death about a year and a half ago, when we emptied out the safe in his bedroom closet. I held the Smith & Wesson for a moment, placed it back in its box and took a photograph of it on his bed where it lay on top of his rosary. He got the gun during the July 1967 uprising in Newark, NJ. At the time he had just turned 30 years old and was months away from having his third child—me.
When both my parents were still alive, I asked them about those three days in Newark when police and National Guardsmen clashed with protestors leaving 26 dead, most African American. Protests began when police stopped John Smith’s yellow taxi and Black cab drivers radioed news of his arrival with injuries at the Fourth Precinct. The police force was overwhelmingly white, the city majority black. Two African American men had been killed by police in the previous three years. Protestors outside the Fourth Precinct began throwing stones. Civil disobedience and conflict with police escalated. The governor called in the National Guard and state troopers, who were not only mostly white but mostly Italian American—like me.1 One observer reported: “…there were two riots in Newark. One was started by Black people and one by the state police. The first riot was over in two days. It took very few lives but a hell of a lot of property. The second riot was pure retribution on the part of the national guard and state police.” Law enforcement expended 13,326 rounds and arrested 1400 people.
After my phone conversation with my parents about the uprising, I imagine my 29-year-old mother in their rented duplex in neighboring Bloomfield. On the morning of the uprising, my father leaves for jury duty in Newark’s downtown. My mother is pregnant with a child they had not planned. At night she will see smoke from fires burning through the city where she was born. At night she will see looting on the news. For the rest of her life, she will sleep with a gun she does not want in her bedroom.
After I hold the gun, I wonder what image, what sound, what report of misinformation, what switch flipped, what threshold did my father step over. Of the 26 people killed in the uprising, only two were white: a sheriff and a fireman. There is no conclusive evidence they were killed by protestors. What beside a revolver can be used as a weapon: a news story, a photograph, a simple conjunction (like when or because)?
I was born in Newark, but never lived there. I returned often to visit my maternal grandparents in their one-bedroom apartment, where my mother had grown up, where my aunt and her children still occasionally lived (my cousins sleeping three to a bed). Most of the neighborhood kids spoke Spanish, but we were never allowed to talk to them or play off of my grandparents’ porch. Once my grandparents passed away, I only went back to Newark to attend funerals, get married, catch a flight, or change trains.
“Do you know the Black national anthem?” my aunt once asked me. She worked as a teacher for many years in the Newark Public School system. Before the uprising, despite Newark’s majority Black population, whites occupied all the school board seats. After the uprising, African Americans gained more political agency at City Hall and in the city schools. School children and their teachers sing the Black national anthem every morning.
After the uprising, my parents bought a house in the New Jersey suburbs, a twenty-minute drive from Newark. What kind of life might I have had in Newark, if I had been taught the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” knowing that song was not meant for me, but that I could still learn from it?
I don’t know if the gun ever left the safe or its box. I wonder if my father could resist the urge to carry it with him psychologically: gun in the smile, gun in the mind, gun before a gesture or sentence, gun of white supremacy and anti-blackness. There are no guns in the safe in my home in Tucson, but I do have an alarm-system, I do belong to a neighborhood Listserv that reports on petty crime as well as those folks who might walk through our neighborhood raising someone’s suspicion. Without a bullet ever being fired from its chamber, my father’s gun produced a trajectory—a shameful line stretching from the early 20th century through the Civil Rights movement and the years of backlash that follow, a line that cuts through Newark, NJ, my father, and me.