Congratulations to Jasmyne-Nicole Walker for winning the GENERATE challenge for the writing department with her creative nonfiction, Hindsight.
GENERATE is a creative competition hosted by SCAD each year to challenge students to create completed works of art in a 24-hour period. SCAD Writing MFA candidate, Jasmyne-Nicole, showcased her signature prose in a heart-rendering story. We’re proud to share her voice with you.
If you knew then what I know now, maybe you wouldn’t have tried to save those two little boys. Maybe you would have hesitated just long enough that they simply slipped beneath the muddy brown waters, their slick ebony skin camouflaging them from rescue. But you didn’t do that.
The day is a normal Georgia summer’s day like any other: sweltering heat with the occasional breeze, clear blue skies, the smells of honey suckle and barbeque and sweat wafting through the air. It is a lazy and long Sunday stretching with freedom and possibility. And then there is you, all stocky build, farmer’s tan, shaved bowl cut, twinkling baby blues, and pseudo-surly demeanor. You, enjoying a typical deep South, smalltown redneck summer afternoon, filled with big red Chevy Silverados, Dodge Hemi trucks, and F-250s decked out in stars, bars and deer decals. You and your friends park curb-jump style at Turtle Park, just up from the banks of the Flint. As the Bud Lights and Michelob flow, the light laughter of beauty and youth mingle with bass-heavy country rap songs about mud-boggin.’ You are reclined, gate down, on the back of your truck. Clouds drift overhead. You are 23, all musk, might, and promise.
The chatter of your group is overtaken by the hoarse and panicked cries of an elderly black man.
He is half—running, half—stumbling through the brush along the riverbank. “Matt! Josh! Hold on! Oh my God, my boys! Somebody, please help!”
As you hear the commotion, you stop mid-sentence, jump down from your perch, and take off running toward the man. Your friends are close at your heels. As you near him, the old man breathlessly points just past him, into the water. Following his finger, you can make out two little black boys bobbing up and down in the water, visible, then gone. The river is strong. Waiting for a head to break the water’s surface is agony. As you wait, you reach back and grab the hand of your nearest friend and start wading out into the water. The cold shocks you, momentarily countering the adrenaline coursing through your body. The water is deep and swirls up around your waist after only a few unsteady steps. And then, the little boys resurface. You reach for the hand of the one closest to you.
“Grab my hand!”
The little boy’s head is dunked under by another surge of current, his hand feeling through the dark wet. His other hand is holding on to his brother. At first, the two boys are just out of reach. Their faces strain with all their might as they fight to swim closer to the safety of you and your chain of friends. Everyone in the chain stretches themselves as far out as they can. After a few agonizing misses, you get a firm grip on the little boy’s hand. The human chain is now five people—deep.
“Okay, pull back!”
As if synchronized, the group gives a collective grunt and begins dragging you and the little boys back to shore. But you stop just short of the shoreline. The water has sucked the boy’s brother from his grasp. You pass the sputtering child up to your friends and the safety of the shore and his grandfather. Then you turn back to the water. Your friends give protest.
“Whatchu doin’ man?”
“Be careful buddy!”
“Do you see the other one?”
“It’s too dangerous DJ, please be careful!”
You frantically scan the water again, searching for the second boy. When he finally does appear, he is much farther away. Dammit. He’s staying underwater more than he’s staying up. The seconds ticking by feel like an eternity. You know that there is no time to form another human chain and wade out again. He will be gone. You look over your shoulder at your friends for a moment, then turn and dive into the river toward the other boy.
You are a strong swimmer. The current matches your strength. You get to the little boy. But he is so disoriented, he is grabbing on anything to stay afloat. He is grabbing on to you. He is panicking and sputtering and choking and trying to get air. His fear makes him surprisingly strong for his small frame.
You try to position him so that he is holding onto you and kicking, but he is too frightened to do anything but fight to get air. He begins to fight you, to push you down, to try to climb on top of you like a life raft. Now you are sputtering. You are a strong swimmer. You are a strong swimmer. You keep pushing through the water with the boy still in tow, still fighting. But the water is sucking at your legs now, pulling, tugging. And you are tired, coughing, choking now.
You are a strong swimmer, but the frightened little boy and the strong current that matches your strength are stronger.
Joshua Perry’s body is recovered later that night. They find you the next day in an eddy, only a few yards from where you first jumped in to help.
In the years following your passing, many things happened. First, you were mourned with great sorrow. The depth of the impact of your life was on full display at your funeral, I was told. I hope you can forgive me that I couldn’t be there; I wasn’t ready to see you that way.
Your heroic actions shocked our little hometown, and because of you, people who would have never been in communion, were: black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, everyone. People from all walks of life came out to offer their last respects. You were submitted and accepted for commendation and received the Carnegie Hero Medal, a national award for those who, “risk their lives to an extraordinary degree saving or attempting to save the lives of others.”
Some time after the funeral, a granite bench was erected in honor of your valor and also to honor the life of Joshua Perry. Your friend Rickey Porter’s mom headed up the whole thing, got the measurements, chose the granite, got pricing. The whole of Albany pitched in and gave to the big screen TV raffle. Now there is a beautiful engraved bench, just a few feet from where you and that little boy were last seen, where the people who love you most can go and feel close to you.
On hindsight, I wish I had gone to your funeral. If I had, perhaps I wouldn’t still be so deeply wounded by your loss. On hindsight, I would have made it more clear to you how much our friendship, especially existing under the harsh racial social conditions that it did, meant to me. How much your humanity, meant to me.
In her article “Relations,” writer Eula Biss shares law professor Randall Kennedy’s theory that a “well-ordered multiracial society, ought to allow its members free entry into and exit from racial categories.” And while I appreciate the intent behind the theory, I disagree. In my ideal racial society there is no need to flow from one racial group to another, because there is but one race: humanity. And when we see each other in need, we help with no regard for the amount of pigment in a person’s skin or regional variation in their features, because we are in tune with our humanity.
On hindsight, if I am honest with myself, I know that you would still have jumped in to save those two boys, especially if you knew what I know now, because you have always been a person of true grit. However, as proud as I am to call you my friend, I still miss you terribly. You made a huge sacrifice.
But, I know that it is up to those of us you left behind to be strong in spite of our sadness, because I can think of no greater reason for you to be gone than because you gave your life to save another’s.