Imagine what it’s like to be stuck in a reality that dismantles your family, presumes your guilt based on your God-given gear ( I’m talkin’ skin color), and leaves you with a thousand sleepless nights and I will tell you what it’s like to have a Black son, brother, husband, father or friend to undergo the unwieldy American unjust justice system. Key word here is REALITY. For some the account of When They See Us by Ava DuVernay is philosophical and conversations loom around poetic pros and pithy arguments, yet I am unable to escape the striking resemblance to my family’s reality of justice gone wrong.
So many images from this series are seared into my psyche but none more piercing than that of a pride so deep that produces prejudicial action. This is the stuff of oppressive systems. My stomach turned in knots as I realized that when they (Whites) see us, they remember her (White investment banker brutally raped). How could they not? A judge, who like most, keeps a doting picture of his (White) wife on the bench; a young, White female prosecutor; fill in the _____________. A quick substitution of the rape victim with the face of the one they love and the five black boys on trial are no longer seen as such, but as a wolf pack to protect their loved ones from. This instinctive ability to re-imagine ourselves or a person we love/care about that has been victimized is all natural. Development of my empathetic muscles has come from a place of love through proximity. So, I’ll say it – love differently ya’ll. Love different people from different places of different races with different experiences and I am certain you will no longer see a wolf pack. You’ll see a student, a friend, someone’s brother, a child, a person.
On the other side of incarceration there are parents, siblings, children, friends who experience loss from a system designed to keep so many bound.
When They See Us not only exposes what happens when justice moves away from righting wrongs to jockeying for power, but also depicts the complex choices of those “on the other side.” It highlights how the pressures of our penal system forces parents to choose between provision and purported protection. Complicated.
Antron’s dad lost his son trying to protect him. Raymond’s dad would forever regret sending him to the same park where he would be targeted by police. Kevin’s sister is crushed by her 14 year old brother’s tear-filled plea to simply return home and signs a coerced confession. Complicated. Somehow through deep loss and grief, those on the other side are able to beautifully uphold the dignity of those they love. While it is painfully obvious during each episode that whiteness affords many the privilege of a better trial than their Black counterparts, I found a few other lessons embedded within.
Clinging to normalcy: the return home. The return home is anti-climactic. Fathers unprepared to receive the sons they’ve betrayed by choosing absence on court dates. Sons bravely clinging to normalcy found in the days of old. Holding tightly to the culmination of belongings in a brown paper bag. Dreaming nightly of the return home only to realize that the heart’s deep love must now sync with the awkward moments of freely being present with loved ones as the muscle memory of trauma reminds everyone to restrain affection and the expression of feelings. Trauma makes normal abnormal. We must be gentle with one another.
We are not okay: lying to survive The penal system can produce a family of pretenders. We all pretend that everything is okay post incarceration. Because how do you even begin to process that all involved have less hope in a justice system that doesn’t value our Black lives or legacy? Korey’s mom would ask him, “What is it like for you in here? Are they treating you okay?” His response was always, “I’m surviving…” or “I’m holding it down…” Responses which are echoed all across America. We may never know the entire story of someone’s trauma. For those that choose vulnerability, let them do so in their own time and in their own way. We must be gentle with one another.
“I’m just a shadow,” says Korey Wise, one of the exonerated five and victim of horrific beatings. “I’m very empty — 46 years old and empty. At the same time, I’m talking to the kid in me: ‘I got you, baby boy. Nobody can take your story from you.'”
Real love…I’m searching for a real love…someone to really see me. (cue Mary J. Blige song) It is real love that slowly shifts our gaze beyond bias and towards humanity. Love is less about whimsy, more about choice. It is an outright intention to choose another over yourself. It is sacrificial at it’s core. Consider those on the other side of incarceration (or providing trauma support) and ask yourself, how have I loved them? These parents, children, siblings, loved ones are often left in the shadows. Those who’ve directly experienced trauma and those supporting them need that real love.
“All I do all day long is LOVE YOU.” — Mother of Antron McCray, one of the exonerated five boys.