Atatiana, Zion, Black Trauma, and Initiation

Ross D. Franklin, A.P. Images, 2016.

Ross D. Franklin, A.P. Images, 2016.

A snippet from the News One op-ed, “Atatiana Jefferson’s Nephew is a Victim, Too”, posted October 16, 2019:

"Atatiana’s nephew had to break the news to his mother that her sister had been gunned down in cold blood. I wonder when he realized it was a police officer who had done it. I wonder when he realized that the people he was supposed to look up to and call for help are actually the people who send bullets through our windows because they perceive our Black bodies as deadly.

What do we do for a boy whose life shatters like a bedroom window when police bullets enter our homes and show us the hell they’ve created for us? What do we do for Atatiana’s nephew? What do we do for a boy who would have gotten killed by that cop if his aunt hadn’t told him to stay away from the window? How do we tell Black boys and girls that they aren’t safe in their own homes and the people they aren’t safe from wear badges that protect themselves from prosecution?

How do we tell Black kids about Aiyana Jones?"

Zion may not have been physically murdered the night a police officer gunned down his aunt. But you can bet a part of Zion's soul, and probably most of his innocence, died that night. This is one of the hardest and saddest parts of being Black and Brown in the United States - our children don't get to be the innocent and open youths they should be for as long as they should be. Their reality, the dangers of being Black and Brown and viewed as a threat at practically any age, takes this all away from them far too early in their lives for anyone to deem it as acceptable.

I had a discourse with a white cis man yesterday who was trying so hard to prove that we [he and I] have had similar experiences with the police and that the kinds of conversations Black and Brown folx have with their kids about safety and the police were “similar” to ones he had as a teen with his parents. This gentleman is a teaching assistant, a person who teaches elementary-age children in Mississipi, and he could not, would not understand how Black and Brown folx did not have a similar experience to his growing up and navigating the police because, and I quote, "religion, creed, race, political affiliation, sexual affiliation, hell even gender affiliation means nothing" to him. Anything outside of his white cis male experience was a factor in how our lived experiences are not, in any way, similar. He also spouted a few "Blue Lives Matters", "Not All Cops" and "Not All White People" taglines to boot.

...And this is where I get off the bus and walk the rest of the way home. Feel me?

I walked away from the conversation, as I often do when I realize I'm practically talking to a wall and especially after he cited sexual and gender identity as affiliations and pulled the "I don't see color" card, with a heavy heart. This is no different than I often feel after talking with white folx about race and equity. But there was some extra weight there for me after this conversation because I thought about the Black and Brown children this man might teach and support. If he was Zion's teacher would he consciously or unconsciously gaslight Zion? Would he pull the "I don't see race" card on Zion? Would he even have the empathy to fully see how the police have impacted this young man's life forever? Could he see how traumatic watching the police gun down your family member could be for a Black or Brown child? Or would he view it as a "not all cops" situation and consider this an anomaly, a misstep?

My soul hurts. My heart weeps. My pain for Zion, for Atatiana, for Botham, for every Black person affected by police violence is real. I wear it on my sleeve. But I am constantly reminded that I cannot expect the same of whiteness. That, too, makes my heart weep and my soul hurt. But at this point, it's akin to pricking my finger with a needle while sewing without a thimble. My trust and belief in most white people ever truly digesting the discomfort and understanding of the trauma and pain that comes with Blackness are getting shakier and shakier with each passing moment, each unnecessary death, each defense of the reprehensible behavior of their fellow whites. I will continue doing the work of supporting BIPOC folx and having these difficult conversations and discussions with white folx but the older I get the more I wonder if I will ever see a point in time before I leave this planet where white people collectively have the same empathy for me and mine and our unstable relationship with the police as they have for The Bachelorette when she doesn’t pick their favorite generic white guy.

Zion is never going to be completely healed from this. He's young; the young are fairly resilient so I have some hope for him. His family will get him support, counseling. He will hopefully get through his youth without having to relive the trauma of his aunt's murder. He will hopefully feel some level of peace into his teenage years and adulthood. But he will never truly be "OK". It will always be there, in Zion's soul. In his brain. In his bones. Zion will never really look at the police as safe, as many white people do. He will never feel that they protect and serve him or his best interests, as many white people do.

And he gets to enter into this inevitable reality at the age of eight years old.

His childhood is over.

He is officially initiated into the reality of being Black in the United States.

Zion couldn't even make it to age ten before his initiation.

His aunt couldn't even get to age thirty, post-initiation.

I was “lucky”. My initiation was around age eleven. I got to cling on to some level of innocence and wonder at least until I got into junior high. For that, I thank my parents, as it could not have been easy to shield me from the realities of poverty and violence that permeates the Eastside of Detroit, Michigan, where I grew up. But all of the recent deaths, all of the continued and reamplified trauma inflicted upon Black and Brown folx have prompted me to begin thinking about two things again:

How long do I have, post-initiation?

And how many white people will explain it away and find a way to make whiteness and the police the victims?