This past weekend, I partnered with Community Board 3, MYBASE and the Brooklyn Chapter of the NAACP to produce a viewing and community discussion of the Netflix movie “When They See Us.” Parts 1 and 2 of the film were screened on Friday evening at Excellence Boys Academy. There were around four dozen people in attendance, mostly women and children, filled into the school’s library. At 4:30pm, the lights in the library went out and the movie began. When Part 2 ended, I stood in front of the audience to provide some information about the run-of-show. When the lights were turned on, I saw that almost every woman in attendance was crying.
And that’s where I would like to begin this article.
James Baldwin said, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all of the time.” My friend Tessa Coburn replaces the word rage with perpetual trauma, and while Baldwin is one of my idols, I think Tessa’s pivot on the classic adage is more accurate. At 44 years of age, I can think of scores of racially motivated killings and incidents of oppression against Blacks in this city alone. Arthur Miller in ‘77, Eleanor Bumpurs in ‘84, Yusef Hawkins in ‘89, Abner Louima in ‘97, Amadou Diallo in ‘99, Eric Garner in ’14. Over and over again in this city, we, as a collective, have had to face the trauma of oppression and the truth is that the brunt of that trauma, more often than not, falls onto the shoulders of our mothers, women much like the women in the library of the Excellence Boys Academy–crying when the lights came on after watching Parts 1 and 2 of “When They See Us.”
When those lights came on, what I saw saddened me. These are women from my community. I know a few of them personally. Ms. Ramona is a well-known motivational artist and curator. She is a friend of my mother. I’ve known her since I was younger. She was crying. Dozens of the women from my village crying from the triggers of unresolved trauma that a series like “When They See Us” brings to the surface. It was cathartic. I guess a collective realization is that we are all still hurting, still fighting, still afraid of America’s violent potential against us, like the abusive husband who is sweet and jovial when he’s sober but wicked and abusive when he’s drunk. And like the victimized wife that hopes he doesn’t come home tonight drunk, the women in the audience were crying for their sons and daughters hoping that America never shows their children that side, hoping that their children never have to endure the America that Korey Wise endured, or Kevin or Antron or Yusef or Ray, or their mothers and fathers, not even the America that Trisha Meili endured, because she was a victim, too. Sometimes what gets lost in these discussions is the fact that Ms. Meili was raped, and even though the “Exonerated 5” didn’t commit the act, she was violated and victimized, nonetheless.
I asked them to make a self-assessment as to their well-being. I asked them to unclench their jawbones and to make a conscious effort to loosen their neck and shoulders. I know that we carry stress like an invisible burden, and I didn’t want the women to leave that room with more baggage than they entered with. A movie shouldn’t have that effect on you. I asked them to give me three full breaths, deliberately in through their nose and out through their mouth, and then we sat down and began the discussion. My panelists were all amazing women: Nicole Chavis, ADA from our District Attorney Eric Gonzalez’s office; Hon. Ellen Edwards, Civil Court Judge; and Marsha Stephanie Blake, my high school friend and the actress who portrayed Antron’s mother Linda in the movie. And the other organizers were dynamic women: Oma Holloway and Stefani Zinerman, two beautiful women who invest their time and resources back into the community. All of the women in that room were invested. We had a well-informed discussion about the justice system and about citizen rights and about mothers. We made a covenant to communicate more, to protect one another and to teach our children about how to navigate in America. At the end of it all, the tears were nowhere to be found. Black women have been pulling that move since time began, though; crying privately, wiping their tears and continuing the work.