I grew up immersed in words that did not make much sense, but I was expected to decipher from the evidence of so many reams of paper, daily letters of love and instruction from my manic depressive mother, that someone in the universe cared for me enough to write such things, regardless of whether or not they made any sense.
I inherited this capacity for writing until I was weary but as I have gotten older, I have learned to rein it in. I keep my manic writing spells mostly confined to my journal, though sometimes it spills out here or on another blog. This time, the death of Tamir Rice sent me to the page. The naked injustice of a 12-year-old gunned down by an inept police officer because he was brandishing a BB gun poured salt in collective wounds, and one that I’ve nursed since I was old enough to remember.
There were some words that my mother crafted that stuck and that remain. My name, for example, is a word she made up. One of those machines that tells you what words mean defined it as something beautiful but the story behind it is dark.
I am named, partly, for my 12-year-old brother, Jose, who was killed by a city bus two years before I was born. I think I was born to replace him, but Mom is gone now and I will never know whether that is really true or not.
My mother, being the creative black woman she always was, reminded me so often that I was Jose’s namesake that I feel the responsibility to live up to his memory daily. It is an emotional quota, one that informs my seriousness and makes up the contours of most things I contemplate.
Anyway, I write this now because it explains how I have always carried the weight of the death of black children as the natural order of things. It isn’t normal for a girl or a woman to say goodbye while their brothers or sons are still living and to still fight for their lives and all of ours when they are murdered, but this is what it means to be a black woman in America. You accept that what you bring into the world is still treated as dispensable property or you weep openly as you fight that presumption, knowing that there is no way to make your tears proactive. Silence does not protect us, nor does wailing. We bring our worries to the altar, but in a war between God and man, man seems to win the battlefield.
There are many people who have written eloquently and with profundity about Ferguson, Michael Brown and Tamir Rice. There will be many more writing about Eric Garner, about the epidemic of recklessness that leaves black boys and men dead. Everything in me has resisted joining this chorus because I know how futile words can feel when all you know you feel for certain is rage. I want to reserve the right to remain silent.
Out of respect. Out of duty.
But if we are to survive the daily onslaught of news reminding us that black life is not valuable enough to honor with fair legal processes, it is useful to remember that the whole of our history has brought us to this moment. We are reacting to each injustice, but also, the totality of them, the sum of every action that shows us the futility of evidence.
We can prove that we are human. We have evidence of our strength and stoicism by how numb we become at another outrageous example of how fear destroyed a life and chopped down an entire canopy of a family tree with one choke hold or several bullets or just a couple. What does evidence resurrect?
Everything about how I grew up was shaped, in part, by my mother’s reaction to my brother’s death. He was killed by a bus in Philly, and she received a financial settlement but she was forever changed as a woman. She squandered the money. She unraveled emotionally and mentally and there was no community to help her stitch herself back together. She would outlive her boy for decades, physically, but most of who she was before he died went with him to the grave.
This is important for a few reasons, but mostly: Grief stole my mother from me, from my siblings, and altered the course of our lives. For the communities of black people around the slain, the impact can trickle through generations.
All of this builds in me a kind of sadness and rage that lashing out would not solve. But I’m a nerd, and any kind of lashing out usually ends up being subversive and sarcastic, an external-facing internal war. What I really mean to say is that I’m tired of mourning. That in the peaceful protests and the damaging riots, I understand the weariness and powerlessness that shows that there must be consequences for the belief that black lives are dispensable.
A few months ago, at a town hall meeting that featured the mothers of slain black boys and men, lined up in a row like seated pallbearers, I was struck by the fact there are so many black women who are at risk of unraveling in their grief. The embrace of their community, I hope, is one kind of comfort. It does not give their babies back to them, but at least they have those of us who witness, who know truth, and that is something. I hope that as we express our disappointments and our anger, our despair and our shared sense of powerless that we remember, too, how much the black women who survive these men need our attention, our sensitivity, our witness.
In some ways, these are all just more words. They are not evidence of anything but community, solidarity and love. Compassion. Impatience. Still, we live the mantra Black Lives Matter. Let us discover what our nation will become until it believes the truths we live.