Three black children. Three American children. Three murdered children. Across different generations, in different inconvenience stores across the country, they are forever bound by martyrdom.
I remember with horrifying detail where and when I first learned about the life and death of Emmett Louis Till. I was not quite 12 years old and I was sitting in a 7th grade classroom. My teacher, without caution, played a documentary that I was emotionally unprepared for.
Up until that point, I had a limited understanding of what “racism” really meant in America. When I thought of racism in the past, I thought about grainy footage of “white only” and “colored” signs posted above two separate and unequal water fountains. And in my present time, racism simply meant being called a few unpleasant names as the only black kid in my middle school.
But when I saw Emmett’s face, so beaten and swollen that he was unrecognizable, something terrifying awakened in me. With the force of an earthquake, a whirlwind, and a storm, I took my first big step toward consciousness. Suddenly, the word “racism” took on a deeper meaning for me. Racism in the past was not just blacks and whites not being able to eat at the same restaurant or go to the same movie theater. And racism today did not just mean being called the n-word. It was deeper than that.
Suddenly, the inequalities between my school in the inner city and the schools in the suburbs didn’t seem quite as coincidental. I had not yet learned the vocabulary of redlining or racially restrictive covenants or white flight or mass incarceration, but at that moment, I knew that if a young black boy could be brutally murdered for the heinous “crime” of whistling at a white woman in the same decade that saw my mother’s birth, this was a hatred that was so deep that it could not be swept away in just one generation.
SEPTEMBER 23, 1955: NOT GUILTY.
My mother is the one who first told me about Latasha, back when I was just starting high school. She had been living in South Los Angeles when it happened, and so she knows what many still do not, that the civil unrest in 1992 was not just a response to the Rodney King beating but so much more. Among the causes are economic disinvestment, widespread police brutality, and the cold-blooded murder of a black child. In an inconvenience store, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins was at the counter with a bottle of orange juice in one hand and money in the other.
Talk to any black person in America today and they know the feeling. Those watchful eyes hit your body like a piercing pillar of ice. Latasha didn’t stand a chance. She may as well have walked into that inconvenience store with a ticking time bomb on her chest, for her black skin had been weaponized against her the moment she was born. Shot in the back of her head as she walked away, Latasha fell on the ground with the money still clenched between her lifeless fingers.
NOVEMBER 15, 1991: $500 FINE. PROBATION. COMMUNITY SERVICE.
“Are you following him?”
“Ok, we don’t need you to do that.”
I remember clutching a newspaper that told me that a neighborhood watchman had pursued a black boy, one year younger than me, to his death as he left an inconvenience store. A hoodie and the weapon he wielded — no not the can of Arizona iced tea or bag of Skittles — but that terrible weapon called melanin had turned Trayvon Martin into the subject of a pursuit. In the twisted logic of Florida law, his killer had been standing his ground by pursuing and shooting Trayvon.
Millions of black people were reminded that night that violence against our bodies constitutes self-defense in America.
JULY 13, 2013: NOT GUILTY.
There are no words that I can say that can heal the generational trauma that Emmett’s, Latasha’s, and Trayvon’s deaths caused my people. While the world may little note what I say here, it can never forget who they were as living, breathing human beings. The world can never forget that without Emmett Till, there may not have been a Civil Rights Movement. That without Latasha Harlins, there may not have been enough sparks to birth the blazing phoenix that fundamentally changed police practices in Los Angeles for the better. And without Trayvon, there may not have been a Black Lives Matter movement that enabled a new generation of activists to lift up the issue of police brutality to a sustained level of consciousness never before seen in this nation’s history.
But Emmett, Latasha, and Trayvon did not ask to be martyrs of the movement. Though speaking of them as martyrs may make us feel better about their deaths, we cannot pretend that they willingly gave up their lives for our empowerment. Today, Emmett Till should have been a 75-year-old who plays with his grandchildren on the weekends. Today, Latasha Harlins should have been a 41-year-old who just went to see her daughter’s school play last week. And today, Trayvon Martin should have been a 22-year-old who is looking forward to graduating from college next month and to a world of possibilities after that.
I write of these martyrs, these angels, because I know I have a responsibility to #sayhername and #sayhisname. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, when we get lost in the “the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts,” it can be easy to forget that which is most important, that racism “lands with great violence, upon the body.”
As much as it pains us to say their names, to remember them as they lived and as they died, we cannot stop saying their names. We cannot close the casket. Mamie Till, never a braver soul, taught us all that we must open the casket. Because if we are to defeat racism as a people, the world must see the heavy burden that our daughters and sons have to bear.
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