We spoke their names, together, over forty of them, standing in the grass in front of King Hall. My student and I shared one sheet. As we rolled our eyes and tongues over each consonant, we called back human faces, memories, vibrant lives. Black women and girls’ lives. Melina Abdullah said its by speaking the names of the dead, of our ancestors, that we keep their spirits with us. Mitrice Richardson, Tarika Wilson, Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd…Refleshing bodies discarded and stripped of dignity….Eula Love, Miriam Carey, Tenesha Henderson, Anna Brown… And tears flooded every cavity of my insides, capsizing me. Astringent, cuts I had been carrying for centuries sizzled and I felt. Felt deeply.
The bent heads, the reluctant lips, purple, pleading. I let out pressure slowly, to steady sickness. Locks and braids and tight-curled fros. Blowing out breath to inch out the sediment and salt collected in my lungs. The grief was so thick. We were reading out the dead, the murdered. And all around me young black women. Fearful, formidable, fragile in the thought: “we were never meant to survive.” My student next to me one of these women--braids of bronze and cocoa, high cheek bones, who joined the class late and made her entrance schooling the rest of the students on the sterilization of black women and eugenics.
Earlier today, she shared her granddaddy’s wisdom, his everyday theorizing. She told us how everyone in her family joked about the ‘black tax,’ which meant they had to work harder to prove themselves just for being black. Kris’ granddaddy sat her down one day, looked at her and said with no bullshit, sympathetic eyes, “Girl, you’re in trouble. You’ve got double-tax. You’re black and you’re a girl.” We snapped for her granddaddy’s insight that wrapped up Crenshaw’s intersectionality into a vital lesson for a 6-year old Black girl.
Each person stepped forward holding the story and photo of a murdered black woman or child. More children’s stories than we could stomach. Aiyana Stanley Jones, killed by Detroit SWAT team while asleep on her couch in her grandmother’s arms, was 7 years old. Two mistrials with reduced and diluted charges each time let the killer cop off the hook. Rage shook us all. The woman to my left spoke. Black girls don’t deserve protection, she said. In this sad, pathetic, racist society, they’ve never been seen as innocent enough to keep safe. And I saw all the grown women who made it past childhood and the constellation of freckles on caramel skin and the eyes set in earth and harvest and the hands fidgeting with cuticles or pressed against pleading chests.
In this moment I saw them and it was a fuller sight than I had ever experienced. I realized that before this moment I still held the internal garbage of judgment I had been force-fed by every family, school, playground, restaurant, mosque that I had ever known. There was sympathy for suffering but not the empathy I walked into now, feeling responsible for knowing, seeing, feeling and fighting against this suffering, of Black women and children, of Black communities.
I keep a folded piece of paper of ancestors near my meditation cushion, telling myself I won’t forget. That I’ll ring the copper bell three times, breathing life into my broken heart. And I pray my memory is strong.