We’ve never met. You were born years before I even entered the world, though I learned only recently that we share the same birthday (next week actually). You have no idea how I reacted to that knowledge. Seeing your birthdate was like a searing validation of the unexplainable connection I feel with you. My heart wrenched as if that combination of numbers carried some kind of cosmic meaning to why your face has haunted me all these years.
Your face has been flashing in my mind lately, and I found myself chasing it like a beacon, hoping the articles I scrolled through would finally illuminate why the sight of your face provokes this taut, heavy grief. I sat on my bed one night and read article after article, and I educated myself on what happened to you.
You were younger than me (23) when you were killed. You were a Guinean immigrant and spent your days selling items like videocassettes and socks on the sidewalk. You were excited that you had finally saved up $9,000 to attend college and had just called your mother the night before to tell her this.
You had no idea that hanging outside your Bronx apartment would lead to your last day on Earth. I wonder what you were thinking about in that last hour. Maybe about your family. Maybe about the meal you’d just had and how good it was. Maybe you had music on your mind, beats heard only by you that your foot tapped to on the cement.
I like to think of you this way, absorbed in some mundane train of thought on what you believed would be a normal wintry night. I’d rather imagine you leaning against your apartment front with a smile than rushing inside, scrambling up the stairs as plains-clothed policemen chased you within the place that should have been your safe haven. Instead it became your execution block.
41 shots. 4 policemen. You were unarmed. You were trying to take out your wallet, I know. You were trying to do the right thing. I feel like we’re always trying to do “the right thing,” Amadou, and yet it’s never enough to save us.
19 bullets entered your body, and I hope to God you didn’t feel them. I hope your eyes closed on the world with other music in your head and not the sound of gunshots. The police said they thought you looked like a criminal and were afraid for their lives. Your neighbor said they just started shooting without warning.
I remember the news coverage afterwards. We were living on Greenbush Road in the suburbs outside of New York City, and I sat on the carpet in front of the TV and saw the reporter with carefully-coiffed blonde hair pointing to your picture on the screen beside her. The news stations kept replaying your story, interspersed with views of your apartment complex barricaded with yellow tape. All I understood was that you were shot by police and shouldn’t have been, and that you had tried to save yourself and couldn’t escape…and that you were black.
Why does your face keep following me, Amadou? Why does your name arise whenever I hear of another black person targeted by police? Why can’t I seem to shake you?
I looked up the date of your death to figure out how old I was when I first saw your face. I was seven. I didn’t realize, didn’t remember I was that young. I’m angry for my younger self, trembling with the force of it. How is it possible that I was just seven watching the coverage of a black man shot to death, and that stayed with me all these years? How could I know at age seven that your murder pointed to something sick and deeply wrong in my country when death after death later, some people are just discovering this truth now with shock?
I’m so tired, Amadou. I’ve seen this cycle so many times, had the same conversations, responded to the same texts from well-meaning friends, wrestled with the tangle of my own emotions. I can’t stay still–I can’t be silent with your face on my mind. But how do I find rest for my soul when the world is so much with me? I feel like there’s a child in me that never grew up from being seven and just simply wanting no more black people to die. I know that’s an impossible wish now, but it’s something worth fighting for.
I’m angry about other things too. I feel betrayed sometimes by my non-black sisters and brothers in the church who say they worship Jesus with me, who say they value me, and yet I hear indictments on my black sisters and brothers in both their silences and their lack of lament for the racism in my country. I see them dismiss and diminish a black person’s story as a political agenda, offering this as an excuse not to engage it with humility.
There are also other excuses laid out for why people can’t definitively claim that black lives matter. The statement is tiptoed around like it’s a ticking bomb, reduced to being defined by one organization and not by the thousands of diverse black peoples who pursue it as an unrealized truth in our world. It’s “I believe black lives matter but–” not “I believe black lives matter and…”
The “and” should point to how black lives matter to you and how that value shows up in your actions and advocacy, but again, all too often there is silence.
We know we matter. We always have–and God declares our value. But our lives are not treated by our institutions and by individual people with equal weight, and that is why we shout BLACK LIVES MATTER until it reverberates into a lived reality.
The #hashtag didn’t exist in your time, Amadou, and yet your life is as much part of this story as mine. We exist at that intersection of two lined realities:
One reality where black people’s stories of racial pain are treated as singular anecdotes, instances caused by individual “racist people.” We feel bad about these stories and then move on with our day. It’s another blip on the national radar, and it costs us nothing.
Another reality where black people’s stories actively shape the way we move in the world and how we commit ourselves to improving it. In this we recognize that these stories point to deeply-rooted problems in the very fabric of our nation, problems that demand each of our participation in reckoning with.
I wish stories like yours were not treated like arguments instantly picked apart and cross-examined to prove why you deserved to die. My country is so deeply uncomfortable with the idea of white people killing us that even acknowledging the staggering number of cases provokes a defensive posture because you can’t acknowledge the numbers and leave unchanged. And I think at the heart of it…many people don’t want the world they know to change, to see a world stained by the blood of those who were killed to prop it up.
My world changed at age seven when I understood why you were killed and then stretched out my arm, looked at the color of my skin, and then back at yours. I didn’t opt into this education–it was forced on me. I almost envy others who can sign up for racial reconciliation conferences and antiracism workshops and choose to watch documentaries on Tulsa, and that’s how the reality of racism is learned. I learned racism through your eyes, Amadou, and I’ve been learning it ever since.
I wish there was an end to the tears. There are so many painful reminders around me that while much has profoundly changed during this pandemic, black people are still crying out for justice over the same bleeding wounds. I cry out to God, and I know He hears me in my grief. I feel like I’m only now grieving you, Amadou, though I never knew you. I guess we Septembers have to stick together when the rest of the world won’t.
I hope you find rest. My soul is restless and waits for justice.
Writing this letter was so important to me, and it was hard getting the words out. Even now as I type this there are so many emotions choked up in me, not only because of the tragedy of Amadou’s story, but also because I mourn my seven-year old self who grieved him.
I share this because I want my non-black readers to understand that carrying the burden of racism is NOT an option for a black child. How else can I wrap my mind around the idea that at the age of seven I saw Amadou’s picture and accepted that he was killed because he was black–like me? How does that shape the psyche of a child who continues on in the world knowing that people like them are not treated equally? And then that child grows up seeing more signs of this inequity but is told they are “playing the black card” or “being too sensitive” when they point to these things.
Black children do not have the privilege of avoiding the tensions of racism. This is not to say that black children’s experiences are universal as we must account for how factors of socioeconomic status, culture, and social community shape those experiences. However, when a black child walks out the door, in the eyes of my country, they are still a black child, and there are histories and latitudes of meaning attached to that identity.
For myself, these tensions are woven into my body, contracting when I sense there is something wrong with how members of my community are being treated. That is part of the generational trauma of racism: children have to carry the faces of slain black sisters and brothers in their minds, sometimes lacking a way to weep for them until years later.
This summer, Vox posted an article examining this experience, noting:
Systemic racism has its hands deep into the physical health, mental well-being, future economic prospects, and daily lives of Black people — and Black children have always been watching, experiencing, and feeling it all.
Instead of images of their future selves on television as doctors and lawyers and policy leaders, they are bombarded with stories of people who look like them being slaughtered in the streets and in their homes by police officers with no justice.
Much has been written in recent years on race-related stress and the racial trauma experienced by black children when exposed to discrimination directly or through observation. One article by Phi Delta Kappan points out that in a world where kids are racially socialized so early, this exposure can result in psychological effects such as anxiety, depression, negative self-concept, and sleep disturbances. The American Academy of Pediatrics also highlights the physical impact of racism on children’s health as they not only experience racial disparities in the health system in terms of access to resources, but also the mental and emotional strain of absorbing negative messaging connected to black identities.
Dr. Maria Trent, a professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, confirms that children are watching:
They’re watching our words, our behavior — they’re waiting for us to teach them differently for a healthy future.
I think about what our children are seeing when we post about race in America. What messages about black people are they receiving when you post that meme on Facebook about Black Lives Matter or question the criminal status of a black man recently gunned down. When you talk about what is going on in our country right now in respect to race, what stories do you listen to and reference and share? Are these stories predominately from people who look like you, or are you taking the time to sit with the stories of people who do not? Do you seek out stories that reinforce a tension-free view of race…or do you seek out stories that challenge you?
For those of us raising black children or in relationship with them, how do we anticipate the questions they will bring up about race and respond with honesty and sensitivity? I am not going to answer that question here, but my point is that we start with the acknowledgment that children are not race-less. They are impacted by how racism acts on everything from playground social dynamics to the brutality they may see on TV.
I think of Jacob Blake’s children who watched from their car as their father was shot 7 times by a police officer. Many black children are not afforded the privilege of innocence. They cannot be colorblind.
Remember this when you teach black children. Remember this when you counsel them. And remember this when you are faced with a choice of whether to be silent in the face of racism or speak to it.
Children will listen, and they are listening.