KENDI: Tamir Rice, Emmett Till, and Involuntary Black Martyrs

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The day was June 16, 2020, the morning of my high school graduation, and I could not stop crying.

I woke up with this weight on my chest and a bottomless pit in my stomach. I worked hard to get to this point, to graduate, and it did not feel how I thought it would. This was nothing like “High School Musical,” and not just because it was quarantine and my graduation consisted of my Drama teacher driving by in his car, handing me a gift bag with an “I survived 2020” t-shirt and party favors from a prom that didn’t happen, then driving away.

I woke up that morning with one thing, one person, on my mind: Tamir Rice.

Tamir was born June 25, 2002.

I was born March 18, 2002.

That makes me about three months older than him. We were 12 years old at the same time.

Tamir was 12 years old when white police officer Timothy Loehmann shot and killed him less than two seconds after spotting him playing with a toy gun at the park.

I was 12 years old when I watched that officer scrape by without an indictment. I was 12 years old when experts called Loehmann’s response “a reasonable one”.

My 12-year-old mind was unable to find the reasonability in any of this. I was so young when I watched the death of this boy begin to outgrow his life and become kindling for a movement that had only just begun using the phrase “Black Lives Matter”.

I watched and wondered whether my young body would one day too become fuel.

I cried the morning of my high school graduation because Tamir would have been in my graduating class. He would’ve complained about not having a prom and sent quarantine memes to his friends. His mom would have taken awkward cap and gown photos, then posted them on Facebook despite his protests. His grandmother would’ve commented on how much he’d grown.

I cried that morning because I was alive, and he was not, and there was no reason to any of it. There was nothing that could make his death make sense. There never is. Yet every time a Black child is murdered due to the roots of white supremacy that run so deep in this country, droves of people jump to justify it.

When 14-year-old Emmett Till was murdered August 28, 1955, by a group of white supremacists in Money, Mississippi, the proposed justifications were endless.

White men kidnapped him, tortured him, shot him and drowned his body at the bottom of the Tallahatchie River where it remained for three days before being found.

For decades, the factors that drove these vicious men to murder him, especially with the level of the brutality that they did, has been speculated. The story was always changing, but the claim that rose to the top was that he made verbal and physical advances at a white woman in a grocery store. Some say he asked her on a date and grew violent when she refused, others say he wolf whistled and groped her.

While this claim is hardly enough to constitute the lynching of a child, it was enough for many, including the all white jury who cleared the murderers of all charges. They said Emmett was out of line, out of place, and caught up in his ideas of the North when he should’ve realized things in the South were different. These were dangerous times. He should’ve known better.

In 2017, the woman who accused Emmett of these advances recanted her statement. She lied about all of it.

For many, it’s easier to believe that a 14-year-old Black boy with a speech impediment, known only to be gentle and fun loving, decided to sexually harass a white woman in the deep South at the height of some of the worst racial violence this country has ever seen than to face the injustice of his murder.

For many, it’s easier to believe that the blame belongs to 12-year-old Tamir Rice for having the audacity to play in a park than to face the fact that America has not progressed since 1955. To face the truth of racism in this country would mean re-examining nearly every institution that stands and recognizing the grave injustices they are built upon.

So instead, they write slander pieces about how Trayvon Martin smoked weed. They brand Jordan Edwards a criminal for fleeing for his life. They call Mike Brown a thug for being big and strong and Black and somehow all of these things add up to the justification of murder.

In America, the words of white people are worth more than Black bodies.

I cried the morning of my high school graduation. Then, I put on my cap and gown, and I graduated. Because my sister says we are their legacy. Every Black and Brown kid that keeps on going is the legacy of those who do not get to, who have been taken, stolen.

We are their legacy.

I think she is right.