By Alysha Newton
I got my First Name seventeen years ago at the tender age of eleven. I was in sixth grade, attending a majority white intermediate school in the same school district that would end up educating me K thru 12. Less than two weeks after my birthday, on February 25, 2000, four police officers were acquitted on all charges after firing 41 bullets into Amadou Diallo on the steps outside his home.
He was my First Name.
I remember the shock, horror and terror that gripped me when I first learned of his death the year before, and I remember it multiplying ten-fold after the verdict. At eleven, I was beginning to look further outside myself, my family, and my community for a fuller understanding of the world and how it functioned- specifically, how I would grow to function within it. Amadou Diallo’s murder was the First Name, whose loss I felt with a full understanding of the injustice, and what it meant for it to be occurring in the present moment.
This differed from my usual experience with the aptly timed slavery lessons during Black History Month. During those moments, I felt hyper-visible and exposed, as if my white classmates could see the trauma in my very DNA, as if they could easily envision me in the position of my ancestors, as if they wished there. Their gaze was so very heavy. In the aftermath of the Diallo verdict, I felt the opposite. My pain was so acute, marrow-deep and immediate, yet completely invisible. It was the first time I experienced the isolation that comes with Black Pain. I would recognize it later with the many names and incidents that would come after.
I carried a copy of the newspaper article with me to school. I asked my classmates- white and Black- if they had heard of Amadou Diallo and what the police did to him. I asked them if they had heard the justifications the officers used for their actions. I asked them how could you mistake a wallet for a gun. I sought understanding from a peer. I searched for a pair of eyes in a child’s face that would mirror the sorrow, outrage and helplessness that I felt about Amadou Diallo’s murder. I needed to feel that I was not crossing this bridge alone.
Here, is where I first buried the public school version of King’s Dream.
I no longer saw what my white teachers had taught me to see as my lived reality, and I started to doubt I ever really would, if a man could be shot 41 times in front of his home reaching for his wallet. I brought myself to tears framing it in the context of America, in the context of my very existence on this piece of land, in the context of my Blackness.
I tried so hard to reach out to my friends and classmates, because the adults in my life were already tired. The proverbial books of Black Pain I realized we all carried were overflowing with names- some I’d heard, some I hadn’t- in the margins, on the insides of the cover, the spine. Nothing they said could explain it, because as I was in the midst of learning and understanding, it was beyond explanation. Beyond explanation, but not beyond comprehension, if you knew enough about America’s history, if you knew how far Black people had to climb to reclaim their humanity in the face of centuries of dehumanization.
Amadou Diallo was my First Name.
Today, I wonder how many children will have Alton Sterling and Philander Castile as their First Names. I also wonder in what new ways our media landscape will make the experience less isolating, yet more traumatizing.
In 2000, I didn’t have access to footage of the actual shooting, or photographs of his body after the fact. Children today swipe a finger and have access to images of horrific violence and death interspersed with photos of acquaintances’ meals, OOTD photos, celebrity news and memes. These images are coupled with comments by strangers blaming the victim, outlining reasons why Blackness was at fault, attempting to justify the unjustifiable, and making jokes. There is no way to insulate yourself from this type of assault. These words and images are funneled directly to you, curated by forces outside yourself riding the wave of know-everything-now that permeates our media culture.
These channels also bring images and words of protest, action and healing. They can learn of demonstrations across the country. They can see black and brown people standing up for the lives of their brothers and sisters and for themselves. The meaning behind #BlackLivesMatter expands beyond a backlit screen, and they understand that the weight of that phrase is armor you wear facing down police officers in riot gear, and as handcuffs are placed upon your wrists.
How does the juxtaposition of the traumatizing images and acts of resistance change the experience of children today? Are they less afraid? Do they feel more empowered to affect change? Everything moves so fast. Are they able to process any of it?
I want to hope. I want to see a generation without First Names. But, if I have learned anything from studying and living history in America, I doubt I will.
Alysha is a writer in Philadelphia, PA working on her word count.