Ralph Yarl’s BluesThe teenage jazz musician learned the American history his state doesn't want to teach him.
Ralph Yarl was shot in the head because he was Black. And on a white man’s porch. On April 13, the 16-year-old Staley High School student was doing what big brothers do: using the family car to pick up his twin little brothers. The friends who were babysitting the twins live on Northeast 115th Terrace. Ralph rang the doorbell at Northeast 115th Street: a common mistake in Kansas City since nearby streets have names that alternate between “Terrace,” “Boulevard” and “Street.”
As opposed to being neighborly or grandfatherly and directing the teenager around the corner to Northeast 115th Terrace, 84-year-old Andrew Lester directed his gun towards Ralph’s forehead — and pulled the trigger. Ralph fell to the ground. Then Lester shot him again and said, “Don’t come around here.”
The confused, terrified and bleeding teenager got up and stumbled to a nearby neighbor’s door asking for help — to no avail. After Yarl was rebuffed by a second neighbor, finally, Zach Dovel, 20, brought him some towels to stop the bleeding while they waited for the ambulance.
“The worst part was seeing him get down on his knees — it looked like he was praying. He thought he was going to die,” Dovel told The New York Times.
Black children shouldn’t have to pray not to die for being good big brothers. This is my message to conservatives who say Black folks are “obsessed” with race — and my message to All Lives Matter-ers who say they don’t see race. Black folks are forced to think about race when our children are targeted with deadly force for being too tall or targeted for wearing hoodies in the rain or targeted for jogging down Georgia roads or targeted for ringing Kansas City doorbells. Black folks are not obsessed with race — we’re scared that All Lives Matter racists — are going to kill our children because of their race.
This is why we have ‘The Talk’ with our kids. It’s likely that Ralph Yarl’s parents had The Talk with him.
Even though most Black folks know that The Talk is often ineffective against race-obsessed white folks who hold ‘The Gun’ — race-obsessed white folks who are obsessed with telling Black folks where we can and cannot go and where we can and cannot be. Including being in our own Black skin.
Being Black while Black.
Historically, being Black has been reason enough for white Americans to kill their fellow Black Americans. This is Black history. The same Black history that Missouri legislators are trying to ban in Missouri schools — including Ralph Yarl’s Staley High.
As a result of Missouri Senate Bill 775, which went into law on Aug. 28, 2022, 301 books were banned in Missouri including, “Blues: A History of American Music,” “Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present,” and “The History of the Blues and African Art: An Introduction.” The common themes of this list are Black history and art. Teachers teaching this Black history to Missouri students could be charged with a Class A misdemeanor, possibly resulting in one year in jail and a $2,000 fine.
In February 2023 — Black History Month — the Missouri Association of School Librarians and the Missouri Library Association (along with the Missouri ACLU) sued the state over the law and the resulting book bans. As opposed to rectifying SB 775’s obviously racist and homophobic (the law led to many LGBTQ books being banned as well) impacts, the Missouri House legislators voted on April 11 to defund all of Missouri’s public libraries. Around $4.5 million that would have been included in Missouri’s state budget was stripped down to zero. Missouri’s lawmakers would rather fire all Missouri librarians than allow Missouri’s students to have access to books about Black history — especially books about Black art history and queer people.
Ralph Yarl is an artist. He’s a talented saxophonist who plays in the Staley High jazz band. Blues music is the foundation of jazz. White American Missouri legislators want to put teachers in jail who teach Ralph Yarl “Blues: A History of American Music.” Historically, Black musical artists and literary artists have been on the front lines of communicating the full rich humanity of Black humanity as a form of resistance to white supremacy. From John Coltrane to James Baldwin to Nina Simone, Black artists have tried to appeal to America’s conscience by creating art that articulates the souls of Black folk — while intending to move the Soul of America, to shift the Soul of America towards social justice.
When 84-year-old white man Andrew Lester shot 16-year-old Black boy Ralph Yarl in the head, he fired a shot from the past. We know this because, after the second shot, he said, “Don’t come around here,” as if it were 1953, not 2023. In 1953, Andrew Lester was 14 years old. It is likely that someone white had a very different version of The Talk with him about Black people. Or maybe Andrew Lester just paid attention to how adult white Americans treated Black Americans. Or maybe both. When 84-year-old Andrew Lester directed his revolver at the 16-year-old Ralph Yarl who was on this porch in need of directions, Lester was confirming the power of racialized stories.
The power of the white Supremacist Talk.
But Ralph Yarl survived.
To play jazz.
To learn that jazz originated from the blues.
To learn that Black life is rooted in the blues.
To learn American lessons that white Missouri legislators would prefer his brain not learn at Staley High.
But lessons he learned anyway because a white American shot him in the head.
This is The Talk, the American Talk, courtesy of that most American of American mouthpieces: The gun muzzle.Wait, before you go…
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