On April 20th, Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all counts for George Floyd’s death. Just as the verdict was on the verge of being announced, a police officer in Columbus, Ohio shot and killed a sixteen year old Black girl named Ma’Khia Bryant.
I first learned about Ma’Khia Bryant while I was scrolling on Twitter after Derek Chauvin’s verdict was announced. I read an early article about what happened and immediately logged off to avoid the inevitable release of the video chronicling her final moments. I did this as an act of self-preservation because I already felt so raw from the verdict. It didn’t feel like a victory the way that some people were making it seem. It felt more like when you’ve bitten your tongue in the same spot too many times in a row. It hurts even through the numbness, the latest bite just a tad gentler than the ones right before. But it still rips into your flesh. Still makes you bleed. You’re just able to navigate around the raw bits. You survive.
I’d hoped that police hadn’t killed yet another Black person, a child. But they had. And my momentary naiveté was quickly replaced with anger. There’s a fury deep inside of me, fueling me. I want a better world for myself, for the young people who read my books, for all the Black folks to come, for all the generations we’ve lost. Is it too much to ask that we be treated with the outright camaraderie that is given to mass murderers? Can Black people be allowed to have a bad day and still keep their lives at the end of it too? Does it turn your stomach that Black folks have to beg for the same dignity given to white people who commit planned, heinous crimes?
With each Black person’s life that’s taken, we have an order to our grief. It starts with the circulation of their killing and then we’re flooded with images of that person in life so that we can see their humanity. And we should have a moment to acknowledge that Ma’Khia Bryant isn’t just a name on the internet. She mattered.
But in addition to these images, there’s now video. And there’s something about video that makes the pain much sharper. You can see a child smiling into the camera, dancing, chatting about everything and nothing at one point in her life and also know the details about the exact moment her life ends, even if it’s the first time you’ve ever laid eyes on her. Video makes things three dimensional, limitless like the sea. It’s a bridge that arches so high into the air, so steep as you climb that you’re straining to pull yourself upright over the hump only to find that the bridge is chopped off midway. So you’re stuck looking out, far above the middle of the ocean, at all the water left to cross. The hope that could’ve been.
I am diligent about avoiding videos of Black people being killed by police. I actively don’t watch them because my spirit can’t take it. But today, I saw a video of a little Black girl doing her hair, slicking down her edges, and slipping on her sparkly headband and it hurt. It hurts real bad. I see me in her. My sisters. The faces of all the little Black girls who were given the chance to become Black women. And I know that womanhood is a milestone she will never ever get to reach, even as news outlets try to position her as an adult. She was a child.
There’s been conversation lately around Black pain being depicting in television and film. Who needs to see that trauma when Black people are forced to experience it in reality? This is something that I grapple with constantly as I write the stories that I write. But what’s more interesting is how people are able to watch a show or read a book and understand how messed up it is that fictional characters are living through terror. But there’s not an ounce of sympathy for the Black folks who face these horrors in real life.
Already people are clamoring to justify why Ma’Khia deserved to die. She was the aggressor. She had a knife. She was in foster care so her parents didn’t care about her. The fact that police shot her within seconds of arriving, made little to no attempt to defuse the situation is so easily overlooked, even though we have countless examples of law enforcement acting with restraint in the most hostile of situations. They race to paint her as a monster that needed to be tamed. But all I can see is Ma’Khia playing with her curls. Her videos have gone viral, shared on TikTok and Instagram and Twitter. It’s happened so quickly. Ma’Khia’s image is no longer hers alone, no longer for the people who knew and loved her. She’ll be memorialized in countless posts by people who shouldn’t even know her name. She should be living her life, completely oblivious to this alternate universe of hell that we’re trapped in.
And there’s no way to see the memeification of Ma’Khia Bryant happening without thinking about Breonna Taylor and how her image was also shared the world over, only for no one to be held accountable for her death. I see Black folks online already resigning themselves to the fact that the officer who killed Ma’Khia Bryant will likely face no repercussions. But this isn’t a surprise. Black women are the life force of the movement but when we cry out for help we’re met with violence, derision, disgust.
A study by Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found that “adults think [B]lack girls as young as 5 need less protection and nurturing than their white peers”. This seeps into all aspects of life: school, home, social interactions. A Black teen girl getting into a fight and pulling out a knife isn’t met with concern, a desire to get to the bottom of her call for help. The only inevitability is her end.
Each time a Black person is killed by police, Black folks are able to put ourselves in their shoes. The grief is a collective one because we see ourselves reflected in their faces. How many altercations did you get into when you were in high school? I think about the two times that I got into fistfights as a nerdy teenager, one who occasionally ran off at the mouth too much. (Shout out to Thomas Jefferson Middle School and North Miami Senior High.) The first time I had a friend intervene with a “Nah she good” and it deescalated. The second time, I was skipping school. My friend broke us up and said “Security is coming and you’re not a student here! They’ll call the police on you, Maika!” Both times I had someone looking out for me. Who was looking out for Ma’Khia Bryant?
What if the police had been called on me or the girls that I fought with? Would they think twice about pulling the trigger on a Black girl from an “inner city” school if they knew she would one day become an author, a PhD student? No. Are Black people only worthy of life in this society if they’re able to toe the line of respectability, navigating its suffocating hold at all times, trying so hard to prove that they’re not like “the others”? I’ll let you answer that.
It’s easy to get swallowed up in the endlessness of this cycle. But we need to take heart and focus on change. And I won’t lie, it’s a battle. It feels impossible to imagine anything different than the hand that we’ve been dealt. But this line of thinking is how they win. We need to focus on how we can win. To understand the imperfections that abound in all of us should not be synonymous with condemnation simply because we are Black. Black people aren’t saying that we are above reproach or should do whatever we’d like with impunity, no matter if it causes harm. What we are saying is that the spoon that’s used to measure Black people’s actions should be just as deep and just as wide as the dump truck used for others.