by Sharanna Brown
When I got the phone call the third time Daveonte was shot, I knew it was the last. Still, I held my breath. I bit my lip and my leg shook. I couldn’t concentrate on feeding my brand-new baby girl. Anxiety wouldn’t let me sit still, so I handed her off to my husband and watched my phone. I prayed. I didn’t cry. There was no time for tears; premature tears solidify things, so I steadied my hands with the motions of preparing a meal instead. I don’t remember the meal; I don’t remember eating. I remember my whole body feeling weighted; I remember feeling like I couldn’t breathe. I remember screaming.
Daveonte was born in the spring of 1997; I was six years old. I remember my 14-year-old aunt on the news in her hospital gown. I don’t remember what the segment was about, but I remember her face: tired, unenthusiastic. I remember her eyes avoiding the camera. I would later learn in my junior year as a Communications major that you, the reporter, should always sit close to the camera, and that the subject should always look at you, not the lens. But at six years old, sitting on the floor of my mother’s living room, I wondered why my aunt wouldn’t look at me. Nineteen years later, a new mother, I now understand her face and her aversion to the camera.
The lens is invasive; like someone whom you’ve never met feels entitled to the most intimate moment of your life.
It’s like when your baby is murdered and strangers, as well as fake friends and family, show their empty support. These people, who’ve not shown their support when you needed it most, feel entitled to the most heartbreaking moment of your life. Your face is dismal: tired, unenthusiastic. Even your grief is muted.
My baby cousin was murdered at an AutoZone in his nineteenth winter by boys who looked just like him, had grown up in neighborhoods just like his, under-educated by schools that had failed them all. These are the facts. Feelings are arbitrary. Research studies become simplistic; the reality is daunting, weighing on the body, especially when you, degreed, middle-class, but still black, occupy spaces that are ignorant of, or worse, refuse to acknowledge these realities. It feels like your baby cousin does not and did not ever exist.
Daveonte had a laugh that sounded like it had been places that no black boy in Flint had ever been, let alone dreamed of going. Yet, the sound came from his throat, not the pit of his stomach, as if the allowance of such joy would stilt his manhood despite his chiseled arms, strong cheekbones, and steady legs. Though he was the youngest of my mother’s and aunts’ six children, his arm around my neck felt like security. So, after the murder, when they said he had used those same arms to hold guns to shoot people, my mouth snapped shut in shame.
My baby cousin had eyes like wet mud — soft, but glossed, always digging. But having never found what they were looking for, they glistened in anticipation of anything that looked alive. He wanted to study mechanical engineering, although nobody in our family knew anyone who was a mechanical engineer. That didn’t stop him from taking mopeds and go-karts apart just to put them back together again, or from restructuring the wiring of his car just to see how things worked. Despite having not yet received a high school diploma or GED, he believed that one day, in spite of the improbabilities, he would create a life that looked like sanity — just as soon as he was let off probation.
I’ve imagined Daveonte in Africa’s Sahara Desert with a college boy cardigan, like the one I bought him for his sixteenth Christmas, and an outdated 1992 haircut, like the one Tupac wore in Juice. When I imagine him across continents, I see his face wide open with a smile like the one he wore in a picture we took on his seventeenth Christmas — stuck in disbelief, but full of joy.
Daveonte had a heart like that of a dandelion: always having its spirit thwarted by weed killer, yet presenting itself season after season, spreading its seeds, even though its beauty is dismissed by onlookers. I have imagined him in the classroom teaching boys that look just like him, from neighborhoods just like his, increasing their productivity in the kinds of classrooms that had failed him, even though black men, nationally, only make up two percent of the teaching force. I see him winking at me as he bends over a child struggling to read and saying, so sure of himself in a way that black boys in inner cities are not allowed to be sure of themselves, “Big cousin, I got the juice.” When I imagine my baby cousin as an educator, I cry. Flint is a dulled city that was unwilling to smooth the edges of his personality the way that children deserve to have their edges smoothed. I watched his personality harden. I witnessed his smile narrow.
When we, as a country, talk about violence and poverty, somehow schools keep skating under the surface of the conversation, despite their funding disparities and saddled responsibilities — dealing with children who have systematically been under-prepared, who may/may not live in environments that devalue education — all compounded with a lack of creative curriculum and support. We keep talking around the fact that minority children are more likely to be dropped into impoverished settings where school systems hang on by a splintering thread. Flint has an overall college readiness rate of just over two percent; its neighborhoods have been gutted of employment opportunities and investment; the water has literally been poisoned; and most detrimentally, the children have become collateral damage amid all of this. With a median income of $25,650 and over forty percent of its population living in poverty, it is easy to assert that these are the people who just didn’t work hard enough. And that assertion is made more concrete when we live in a political climate that engages in ahistorical perceptions of reality.
Flint, Michigan — one of the nation’s most exploited cities — is known for lead tainted water, despite its residents having paid the highest water rates in the country. In the 50s, it attracted southern blacks, who, having heard of the General Motors auto factories, came for work. My grandmother, along with her sisters, aunt, and mother, came from Rison, Arkansas, in 1963. My grandfather, a veteran and college graduate, came from Memphis; he went on to work in the factories that had called but later, in the nineties, began shutting down. Thus, an entire city’s economy was dismantled. Cradled in the mitten of Michigan, Flint is not a city for the weak, but it is showing itself not to be a city for the strong either.
When I hear assertions that “everybody has the same opportunities” and people going on and on about how they, too, were not fed with a silver spoon, I am not angered; I know they don’t know the types of spaces that exist in places like the South Side of Chicago, the urban paradises of Memphis, and the whole of Flint, Michigan. But I know what it is to occupy urban spaces that are intent on tearing up the fabric of who you are meant to be.
I know the way these spaces can thrust you into corners, place barriers in front of you, and then pretend that if you were strong enough and smart enough, you’d make it out, even though you reek of strength and your mind has already ascended ideologies created to cut you with rusted razors. I know the streets of Flint like the curves of my own body, and I know the way that this pavement pretends to love you, only to attack and leave your youth wilted like exposed lettuce.
Yet, when my baby cousin called, six months before his death, crying, saying, “I wanna go to jail; I feel like that’s the only way I’m gonna live. They don’t wanna see me live,” I closed my eyes and practiced breathing exercises while telling him, “Get your GED first.” Even though I understood the desperation of his situation, I also knew that forgotten communities breed insolence, violence, and apathy. When you believe that nobody cares about you, you learn that life is dispensable and anybody who is trying to tell you “how to live your life” is somebody who cannot be trusted: they don’t understand you. I have seen it too many times.
In 2012, MLive reported that a friend from my neighborhood, Leo Green, had been included in a 41-page federal indictment on charges ranging from murder and racketeering to drug and gun charges. I remember the night, long before the report, when I heard the music from his truck blasting down the street, and then my phone ringing. I was home from college and when he said, softly, “Come outside,” I went. At that point, he had been limping; he had just been shot in the foot. I can still hear him telling me, “I don’t wanna do this no more.” He didn’t have to tell me what “this” was, because I knew. We lived in the same neighborhood, the same city, knew the same people. We sat inside his truck, in the middle of the night, not looking at each other. I remember how heavy that silence felt. “I went up to Job Corps and talked to the lady,” he said. He had not looked at me once yet. His application was complete, stuffed into the side of his truck’s door. What I said aloud was, “You should do it,” but what I meant was, “I’m sorry.” I didn’t know why I felt that way, but I wanted to cry because I knew that he wasn’t going to Job Corps; in that silence, I think he knew it too.
One year later, in 2013, MLive reported that my older cousin, Hammer, had been arrested in Saint Helena, South Carolina, while running through the woods. He was being charged with the murder of his son’s uncle. When I picked up my phone, a friend asked me, “Did you know?” My heart stopped, then sped up rapidly. “No.” I remember my voice melting into the receiver. I remember wanting to run. I was in my last semester, walking across Alabama State University’s campus, on my way to the student media lab, where I worked as executive editor of the campus newspaper. I remember taking a sharp turn, heading back to my room, rushing my friend from the phone; I wanted to sound busy. “Let me call you back.” I was not busy because I could not think. My mind was all over the place, interpreting several different colors at once. I called my mother: “Why didn’t y’all tell me?” I demanded. “Well, we know you have a lot going on; we didn’t want you to worry,” she replied. In that moment, I wondered if my persistence in the classroom was my way of escaping whatever my fate might be if I was forced to go back home. I worried incessantly about my brothers. I worry incessantly about my nephews.
When we talk about young brown boys, surrounded by poverty and consumed with misguided energies, somehow, we skip the part about their humanity, or the way that violence festers in the womb of inner-cities, then demands that even children fight for their lives. It is always easier to see the flower, blossoming or failed, without analyzing the root. But that is the reason children are murdering one another without regard for the sacredness of life. That is why my baby cousin was murdered at an auto retail store, already limping from previously inflicted gun wounds.
I have wondered when brown boys will no longer be sacrificial, and if it will be too late for reparations. Will it be too soon to avoid retribution?
When I think of my baby cousin, I think of his life. I think of the places he could have gone, the things he could have done.
But then, I am carried into a realm of possibility that is shot dead, mid-air.
Sharanna Brown is a Ph.D. student living in Montgomery, AL, whose fiction has appeared in Fredericksburg Literary Review. Her nonfiction has appeared in Los Angeles’ Cultural Weekly, and the digital literary magazine, Museum of Americana. As a native of Flint Michigan, her work is centered around urban spaces and deals, primarily, with marginalized voices.
Featured image courtesy of Jo Naylor.