There is a memory I will never forget. It sits in my body like a nightmare. It crept from my feet, up to my stomach and into my mind as my ears heard “not guilty” and “Kyle Rittenhouse” in the same sentence. I sighed. “Damn,” I said, my body getting a little hot from the anxiety and the rage. “Damn.”
The memory emerges again as my eyes behold Ahmaud Arbery’s face and that of his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones. It pierces my ears as I hear the words of his father, Marcus Arbery, as he describes what he has seen in the courtroom as “devastating.” It sits in my mouth bitterly as I see Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael and William Bryan as they sit in the courtroom, watched by all of us.
And I can still taste the fear even after the words “guilty … guilty …guilty” travel Wednesday from Judge Timothy Walmsley’s mouth.
My mind tries to forget, but my body remembers.
It is June 2008. I am barely 16. In the heat of a South Carolina summer, just two weeks after my body went down in and back up out of the baptismal pool, the white garments sticking to my body like swimming trunks, I am traveling on a back road with my sister, two brothers and a cousin. As my 25-year-old brother Depaul drives our mother’s old silver Cutlass, we bob our heads to Tupac and then to Bone Thugs and then to Outkast and then to Missy Elliott. We’re on our way to my aunt’s house to celebrate another cousin’s graduation.
We hear a clank in the car, a rumble, a puzzling noise. Depaul stops on the shoulder of the road, which is barely the shoulder of the road because we’re in rural South Carolina, to take a look. To our right is an old trailer home with a garden next to it. It is beautifully Southern. I am sitting in the back seat, playing with my seatbelt.
An old white man comes out of the house and stands on the porch, about 30 feet away. He starts yelling something at us. Apparently he thinks we’ve thrown some trash in his yard. The yells are chilling. They are the yells of someone who wants to ruin us.
I see his eyes. They are dark, piercing. He sees us, but he refuses to see us. He does not see playfulness or youthfulness or the Bible that rests underneath the passenger seat. He sees a threat.
“You be here when I get back!” the old man yells, and he rushes into his house.
“I don’t give a damn about you,” Depaul yells back.
I see the rage take over Depaul’s body. I see that he is willing to stand for us and, if need be, to die for us. But more than that, he wants to protect us. So he runs. He runs back to the car, jumps in and speeds off.
The anxiety — nah, more than that — the terror takes over my body when suddenly —
He’s shooting at us.
My brothers. My sister. My cousin. Children.
I can barely catch my breath. The first thing I know to do is to run my hands down my body to make sure I wasn’t hit. My hands tremble as I pat my body. My sister is crying. Depaul is cursing. We are all afraid. I am confused. Why did he shoot at us? Why did he want to kill us? Why am I so afraid? Why can’t I stop shaking?
We made it home that day. But my hands wouldn’t stop trembling. My body wouldn’t stop shaking. I learned at church that baptism saved us from ourselves and from the wrath of God. But it did not save our bodies from the wrath of man.
No amount of prayers could save it. No amount of Sunday school lessons or math problems or names on the back of orange jerseys or degrees from academic institutions could save my body from American terror.
This was 53 years after Emmett Till’s mutilated body appeared in the pages of Jet magazine for the world to see. It was four years before the news of Trayvon Martin shot by George Zimmerman; it was six years before people would stare at the lifeless body of Mike Brown as he lay face down on the hot Ferguson, Mo., concrete for four hours; it was eight years before my eyes burned in anguish as I and so many others saw the executions of Alton Sterling and then of Philando Castile; and 12 years before the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
And as I’ve watched the trials that we are forced to endure, I see that we are killed twice: in the streets, in our homes, on our runs; and in the eyes of others as they blame us for our deaths and sit in courtrooms to justify their destruction.
“If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem,” Stokely Carmichael, the civil rights organizer, is said to have stated. “If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”
That’s what damns us: white power. It is white power, and the addiction to it, that forces us to live in a country where Black teens are seen as guilty adults and are killed while white teens can kill people but be seen as innocent kids. It is white power that sees a young man running in the Georgia furnace as someone who must be punished. It is white power that moves people to use the court and the classroom and the church and the concrete as the site of terror and suffering. It is white power that wants to erase us.
But we cannot be erased. Just last week, I looked at an image of Ahmaud that I can hardly get off my mind.
His eyes are dark. His forehead has the marks of acne but also the softness of a smile. His jaw is strong. “Bruh, you ain’t got it like I got it,” we would say to one another in high school as we brushed our waves likes his in one hand and motioned our other hand from the back of our head to the front. We would do it again. Smiling. Then we would do it again and smile again. “Nah, bruh,” one of my boys would say to me, “I got it. We all got it.”
Ahmaud had it too. His dark, serious eyes stare back at me. I wonder what he feels, what he has seen, what he knows and what dreams sit in his body. I see him. He sees me. I know him. He knows me.
Then there is another image. It is one that I have returned to again and again during the trial.
Ms. Cooper-Jones sits in the corner of the courtroom. Her eyes are filled with sorrow, even as the gold buttons on her blue dress shine with light.
I see in his mother’s eyes the same thing I saw in my mother’s eyes when she heard about the white man who tried to destroy us: her sleepless nights, our first steps, our scoring touchdowns as she cheered, her singing over and praying over our restless bodies. The difference: Ms. Cooper-Jones’s child, her beautiful, dark child, did not survive. And that haunts me.
Some of us live. Some of us die. And what remains is how we remember and show up and fight to make sure that we are free and that justice, if it is not a present experience, will become our children’s inheritance. For whatever they inherit will be as much about what we hold in our bodies as we hold in our minds and hands and stomachs and hearts. For they will hold what we held: memories of terror and stories of the ways in which some of us have pushed back against the power of whiteness. Their bodies will hold what we held: the miracle of Black aliveness.
We do not just remember the death. We remember the life, the beauty, the art, the feeling, the waiting, the living. We remember it all. It is not trauma porn. It is, as Dr. Courtney Baker calls it, humane insight.
We do not just stare down the barrel of the white gun even as it stares at us. We do not live at the mercy of the white gavel. The white gaze is not our gaze. For we do not live at their mercy. We do not see us as they see us. We can be looked upon with sacredness. We are alive, we are breathing, we are here. This world is cold and looks upon us to snatch our joy and suffocate our ability to be free. But we catch our breath.
“It actually happened,” I text my wife, Jasamine. “They’re guilty,” I write. I smile. I am still sad. Ahmaud should be here. This is not justice but at least, in the eyes of the law, his life was not in vain.
I think about his mother. I think about his father. I think about so many Black mothers and so many Black fathers who still grieve and who still hold on to the memories of their children, their smell, the way they smiled and laughed. I think about all we have lost. I am tired. I know that we must remain, even as so many are gone. We are exhausted, but we catch our breath again.