Vanessa Lewis
Editors' Pick

I Just Hope He Can Breathe

After being hospitalized for stroke-related complications, my wheelchair-bound grandmother was transitioned into an inpatient rehabilitation facility to help her get back on her feet. That’s why we showed up at a sprawling brick building in one the most affluent suburbs outside Boston with a Popeyes’ family meal deal and a birthday cake in tow the year she turned 78.

We weren’t happy with her residing there _ some were more disgruntled than others _ but we decided to gather there as a family to celebrate her day.  Gran’ma enjoyed the company of the daughters; but she adored her grandchildren. The look in her eyes always reminded us that we were her most precious gifts, but especially on that day.

For her birthday gift that year, I made a scrapbook filled with photos and memories of each of her grandchildren: six girls, six boys. I can close my eyes and see us sitting together, flipping through each page as though it were yesterday.   It will always be what I remember first of August 9, 2014.

We laughed about those younger years together.  Reminiscing between bites of fried chicken and mouthfuls of cake while eighteen-year-old Mike Brown, Jr. was gunned down by Darren Wilson, a police officer, in Ferguson, Missouri.  The backs of my eyelids have preserved the image of Brown’s lifeless body immersed in a pool of his own blood better than any photo from the news that day.

“They wouldn’t leave a dog in the street that long,” my mom said.

It felt like something too intimate or graphic to keep seeing, but we did.  Mike, lying there on the pavement for well over four hours before his body was removed, would be shown on every news outlet for days following that family gathering.  Each time the media covered his story, I was accosted.  The unmistakable boyish grin.  The one that tells us he is big and still a tender soul.  The senior class picture of a manchild wearing his pride in the form of a graduation cap on the screen did not seem to agree with the accompanying narrative of a deserving “criminal” playing audibly.

Michael Brown, Jr. was over a thousand miles away, in a town I’d never heard of, but I mourned his death as though I knew him.  And part of me did; I was reminded of the pictures of those six boys in my grandmother’s scrapbook.  He was a Junior, named after his father, like two of my cousins.   Michael’s untimely death showed me I have two uncles who share the risk of losing their namesakes as well. It could have been my brother’s corpse left in the street.

Conservative media outlets reported his death in ways that vilified and criminalized him before his family was given permission to humanely move his body from the tar on the streets. As a viewer, it forced me to interrogate the notion of respectability; and, interrogate what made my brother or those cousins any different for the first time. A chance encounter could have turned a scrapbook photo of the young men I love into an image used for his persecution.  Brown was spending the summer in the Missouri neighborhood with his grandmother Desuirea Harris.  She described Mike as “a good kid” through tears of grief, as my grandmother would have described any of us.  Mike and his close friend were walking to his grandmother’s house when Darren Wilson confronted them. As kids, my grandmother only allowed us to stay in front of the house where she could see us.  Maybe she was protecting herself from the heartache of allowing one of us leave for the corner store and never return.

Photos of Emmett Till’s battered, bruised, fourteen-year-old body were among the first images to introduce me to the consequence of blackness in America.  In middle school, I could turn the page or close my textbook and look away.  It is not as easy to distance myself from the fragility of black male life with my lived experience.

As the first grandchild, I have had the privilege of watching five young black boys become men. From my brother who was born six years after me to the youngest of my five cousins who will finish undergrad this fall.  In their early years, I saw their experiences with school bullies, how they handled disagreements with friends, how they were disciplined in comparison to us girls, and the freedoms they had that we didn’t.  I have also admired them as they crossed stages at graduations, accepted their first jobs, been promoted at those jobs, started families, and made their family members proud. These six men spanning every shade from “butter pecan” and “toffee” to “chocolate,” are at risk for premature death because they are black.  Anti-Blackness is the disease they all have a predisposition to.

In December of the year Mike Brown, Jr. was assassinated, a Staten Island grand jury decided not to indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo for murdering Eric Garner.  Cries for justice went unheard despite photo and video evidence capturing Pantaleo as the assailant using a chokehold that ultimately cost Eric his life.  As an adult, I have seen the discretion of a pissed off white woman or overzealous police officers be factors in the premature end to black lives too often.  A twenty-four-hour news cycle has shown me a new photo nearly every day since I saw Mike Brown’s and too many of us have taken my middle school approach by turning a new page.  I could not forget them if I tried.

I can protect myself from the pain of losing a black child to violence by choosing not to have one.  My anxiety assures me it does not, however, keep me from possibly grappling with this kind of heartache one day.  My nephew, Kamari, was born in the days before stay-at-home guidelines were put in place in response to the novel Corona virus.  With New York at the epicenter, I think of Eric Garner, again.  Black lives are again in crisis, losing a struggle to breathe.  A simple bike ride uphill sends me reeling with panic as soon as I hear myself say “I can’t…”  I see the photo of a man in blue uniform using the weight of his body obstructing each of George Floyd’s final breaths while his hand rests casually in his pocket.

Vitriol for black lives has only grown over time.  As a kid, I went to parent/teacher conferences with my mom and heard the way my own brother was labeled “mischievous”, “a distraction”, and “a handful”.  I remember him being suspended in first grade for “behavioral” issues.  I remember him constantly defending himself. “It wasn’t me. I was just laughing and I got in trouble.” “I got up to pick up my pencil off the floor and she said I was misbehaving.” Criminalized before leaving grade school, I saw my brother struggle to find his way in high school.

Young black men begin to experience this hyper-criminalization in a wind tunnel.  They are systematically denied tenderness and compassion in places traditionally intended to nurture; the school and the community, by extension. In hindsight, how could I agree that he was a “bad kid” when male cousins and friends have had very similar experiences in Boston’s public schools?  Can our resources protect his son from the same school-to-prison pipeline?

On the very day I allowed myself to believe the Boston Police Department –whose tanks and riot gear I saw employed in our street in the hunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev– would not mistreat the boys in my scrapbook, I was reminded that the role of law enforcement is to protect property.  Officers dusted off the riot gear to stand in line with wooden bats and shields to defend their headquarters. A colleague’s Facebook Live stream put me in the center of our own community’s plea for humanity.

“I would just go home but you might kill me there too,” he shouted to officers using intimidation to disperse the crowd.  I thought of my brother at home with his four-month-old baby.  The baby boy I only held once before we were separated by self-isolation.  I think of him in the series of the videos his father sends and smile considering how refreshing it is I can see his milestones remotely.

When I held Kamari he whined a little, but enough for me to look over at his mom for reassurance.  Quetta pointed at the pacifier and returned to a call.  She was scheduling camp for her tween son after adding her newborn to her health insurance so she could take him for his first check-up.  Kamari’s mother began planning for his wellness before she could sit comfortably.  I looked down at him again and told him how loved he is.

“You are so tiny,” I whispered.  He was asleep by then but I was not ready to put him down just yet.  I swayed while I watched Keke Palmer prepare a crab leg broil on daytime TV.  And then I prayed for the words to counter a narrative from a world that will condition him to believe he is one of those crabs in a barrel.

As Kamari grows, I fear he will experience the world as his father did.  Like many other black families in this country, I fear that he will go out into the world and not return alive.  Will I have to teach my nephew that standing up for himself could mean his self-advocacy will be perceived as defiance?  How many years can I preserve his innocence before we tell him his death might be justified by the manufactured fear of his cocoa skin?

My family has had to have early conversations about race and other social inequalities in nuanced ways that other parents of color cannot identify with.  Feigning willful ignorance is not an option for Kamari’s parents, they are raising two black men in the United States.  When your very being is perceived as a threat to the world, your experience is very different than that of those around you.  You must be careful not to ruffle feathers – a reality so prevalent in the lives of young black men (and women) that the website Mother Jones, commissioned writer Brandon Patterson to compile a list of  “11 More Things You Can’t Do While Black (or Brown)”, in 2018.  The list has grown significantly in the two years since the piece was written and now includes staying at home. What is the vaccine to America’s silent epidemic — police brutality and government-sponsored murder?

“My aunt’s house” was code for sanctuary when I was a child.  I want the same for Kamari. I remember being hope filled to be his only auntie; proud of the role I will have in his growth. Now I have to wonder if we will be ambushed as we play video games.  What makes my presence any more significant than that of Atatiana Jefferson in the life of her nephew?  What is the system in place that protects Kamari from becoming the key witness telling police his aunt heard noises coming from outside and took her handgun from her purse, in the moments leading up to my murder?

I used to hope to be present when he says his first words. I reserved excitement for holding his hand when he is learning to take his first steps. I would smile thinking about the little clothes he’ll wear to pre-school, when he starts grade school and the years of embarrassing school photos to follow.  I wondered if he’d like sports and hoped he did not take to football.  And I felt an early cringe for the income I will dedicate to buying the expensive sneakers he’ll ask for in high school.

I had so many hopes for him during his mother’s pregnancy.  But now that he is here__born at the height of a pandemic that compromises the respiratory system and an epidemic of losing black lives to senseless encounters with white people__ I just hope he can breathe.

 

 

Comments
  1. F. Josephine Arrowood-Ross on

    Thank you for this writing; so wrenching, tender, and urgent.

  2. David on

    Powerful. I love how it pulls together all the things – seemingly unrelated – that go through your mind in a moment and plays on how they actually are related. And the sense of how Black lives – young and old – are so vulnerable.

  3. Mzlucyb on

    I enjoyed reading this piece, very engaging story, look forward to reading more….

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