Here is the difference: I can check out. There are days when my heart holds vigil, when I can consume commentary from useful and inspiring angles and I can be useful and inspiring myself. Then, there are days like today, when I am so overcome with empathy and when what’s happened to Sybrina Fulton feels so close to home that I cannot look fully into her face on television. And that’s the difference between single mothers who still have their children and those who’ve lost them in unexpected, arbitrary ways.
We can check out.
From this not-so-comfortable distance, I can admire Ms. Fulton’s unwavering fortitude, her composure, her faith, her love, her ability to lean on her son’s father and admit how much she needs and is grateful for his presence and support. She never appears catatonic or sedated. She is letting as much of reality in as she can, only removing herself from a space when her son’s recorded final moments are being replayed as evidence, and somehow, remarkably, listening to obvious lies about her son, without violent outburst.
I am nothing like Sybrina Fulton. I do not have her grace, and I do not have her courage. I can’t look at George Zimmerman’s impassive expressions or recall his crowdfunding efforts online or read his account of that fateful night’s events without feeling a very rational, concentrated anger and a very real need to remove myself from the sight of him.
I can check out.
(Or can I?)
In Jackson, MI where my mother was born and spent most of her childhood, crime is spiking and, as is often the case in small, economically depressed towns, that crime is hitting black families hardest.
On Saturday morning, June 22, single mother Latonia Hemphill heard what sounded like firecrackers outside her mother’s home. Moments later, according to reporter Justin Dacey, she heard her 20-year-old son Rakeish Brown asking, “Why’d you shoot me, dog?” Those were his last words. His alleged shooter was a neighborhood “friend” he’d apparently run into at a nearby store and offered a ride.
We are losing our children in the most unexpected ways, whether in suburban neighborhoods during All-Star Games or on Saturday mornings outside their grandmothers’ homes. We are losing them ten days before high school graduation, as in the case of Aquilla Flood, who was reportedly shot while sleeping, allegedly by an ex-boyfriend whose prom invite she’d refused.
In each case, their black mothers — often single, sometimes with the support of a co-parent and usually with extended family and friends lending bewildered, helpless comfort — are left to talk to the press and to appeal to the community. If we live in any major city in the U.S. or any economically depressed community where crime is on a steady uptick, we’ve seen one of these mothers on local news. Maybe she’s teary, maybe in shock, but she’s there. Present. Showing up day after day. Answering press conference questions, walking the street bearing a candle, holding up photos of her child.
We’ve almost come to expect that level of composure. And it can feel, at times, that viewers outside our own communities, whose ability to check out far exceeds our own, believe that we were somehow prepared for this possibility.
By virtue of poverty or city-dwelling or the number of blocks from our children’s school the nearest gang territory is or the thuggishness of our daughters’ ex-boyfriends or the prevalence of racial profiling or simply because we were two black people giving birth to a black child anywhere in America, there are people somewhere who expect us to remain calm and patient and to have faith in the justice system. There are those who actually believe that whatever confidence in our justice system we’ve managed to hold onto will comfort us after someone’s murdered yet another one of our children.
They can check out. And they can do it because they aren’t Aiyana Jones’ parents. They’ve never had to hear a judge declare a mistrial in a case that should’ve held accountable the SWAT officer who murdered their sleeping seven-year-old.
In a growing number of black communities, a living child is beginning to feel like a luxury. No. “Beginning to” is wrong. Historically, being able to parent a living black child has long felt like a luxury. And it shouldn’t. Of course it shouldn’t. Being able to see your children survive gun violence should not feel like a conferral of mercy or good luck.
But it absolutely does. When we talk about holding our children closer, whenever we hear about yet another mother who can’t, we are feeling blessed and fortunate in ways that say so much more about our nation that they do about us.
The fact is: there is no checking out. We have very little control over the ways our children are living and dying and very little choice in how we’re publicly handling our losses. Watching so many other black mothers lose their children carries a kind of psychic damage for us all. No amount of changing the channel or pushing the newspaper away or locking our doors insulates us.
We can’t all handle what’s happening to minority mothers and their children with the grace of the Fultons/Martins or the patience of Aiyana Jones’ parents. We can be grateful, but we cannot prepare. All we can do is pay attention, remain engaged, lobby for change, look out for our neighbors’, and — yes — hug all the children who remain. In so many daily ways, we are checking in. And we must keep doing so, if we’re to have any hope left at all.