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Why I Can’t Bring Myself to Watch “When They See Us”

I will watch DuVernay’s miniseries to bear witness. But going into it, as a Black mother, I’m filled with terror.

A still from Ava DuVernay's Netflix mini-series, "When They See Us."

This is about fear.

I can’t watch “When They See Us” … yet I know I must. I have to watch Ava DuVernay’s miniseries about the five wrongly convicted Black and Brown children labeled the “Central Park Five.” I have to watch it myself and then, at some point now or in the near future, I have to watch it again with my son. But I am a Black Mother in the #BlackLivesMatter Era. I am feeling personal terror too heavy to weigh, too absolute to penetrate.

These narratives terrify me. My stomach is in knots when I think about those children, five beautiful Black and Brown babies. My stomach is in knots all the time.

I try to be strong, to gird my loins, to woman up, to chill, even. I am failing at playing Strong Black Mother.

I think about my ancestors, about the trauma of parenting enslaved children. How can my fear compare to the realities my foremothers faced? Children dragged from their love and into a pure white terror. Why do I feel so suddenly unable to cope, when they survived far worse?

But then, I remember, things have not changed so much after all. I think of videos like this one that I recently encountered of white police officers brutally attacking Black families — knocking over a toddler — in Columbus, Ohio.

Someone, a family member or perhaps a neighbor, records the encounter: A young man calmly talks with an officer. Another officer, gun at the ready, approaches, pushes the young man in conversation. Within a moment, mere seconds of time, the young man who was once standing and engaging with law enforcement is splayed on the ground. The crowd protests, and one woman’s voice is most prominent as she witnesses her child’s dehumanization. More disturbingly, another officer charges forward, stepping over a tiny girl, a person no more than two or three years old, and nearly stomps her. She, who was once standing, is also down on the ground. Two generations rendered prone. “Look what you’re doing to my grandbaby!” the woman cries from off camera. Not seeing her face makes the sound more agonizing, the scene more macabre.

The sound of this woman’s voice haunts me. This is terror. Is her tone, her choice of words, much different from the howls of horror emitted by our enslaved ancestors? I hear hundreds of years in the depth of her gravelly, throaty exhaustion. I hear countless Black mothers, Black mothers over three continents, wailing Black mothers over 500 years. I hear a cacophony of sound, of absolute helplessness pitched to yowls. Our cries are a fugue.

And I witness. They drag and cuff her son. They fell her granddaughter, who is a baby, and who is also, now, a witness.

This is history. This is now. This is intergenerational trauma.

The United States has always felled babies, has always separated children from their families — African babies, Indigenous babies, and now South American babies ripped from loving arms. Like the “Central Park Five.”

Of course my fear is intense. It is ancestral, and it is also immediate. I am riding waves of sheer terror thin like ice, slicing my heart as I try to fight my way to a safe harbor. I struggle against an undertow that is clear and menacing, hideous and transparent, churning with burning crosses and tiki torches, missionaries and Muslim bans, sundown towns and their desire to make America “theirs again.” A crosscurrent of then and now claws at my swimming limbs.

I do feel like we are living in a dystopia. I want out, but there is no escape.

I am disoriented by blazing light-hot images of children cuffed, by shackles and fists, whose cries are silenced by the arrogant bray of white privilege, as they resist becoming the kill, the next hunted Black boy tracked and shot by savages in uniform.

I should watch the Ava DuVernay miniseries in solidarity, to support the truth-tellers, to bear witness. I should watch because watching does not compare to living what the series remembers and tells.

I know the mothers of the boys labeled the “Central Park Five” heaved and trembled in fear and rage and unfathomable sadness, and knowing their terror terrifies me more.

I am suffering witness trauma. Every time I see a video of police violence, a surveillance tape, a dash cam recording, I am experiencing a kind of psychological torture. Victims sue for compensatory damages. Could all Black mothers file a class-action lawsuit? Shouldn’t we Black mothers sue the cities that use our own tax dollars to train the officers against us? I am certain this trauma could be diagnosed in us all.

Today I saw the 2018 video of Chantelle Glass, a jailed woman who sought to exercise her right to make a phone call and alert family members of her whereabouts. She complied with officers as they strapped her to a chair, and as the silent video plays I can feel my heart speed, my breath slow, my anxiety rise. It is a medieval torture scene with contemporary props, as she is pepper-sprayed directly in her face and then wheeled out, her face covered in a chemical layer, her identity now obscured by this symbol of police power.

I just want to be able to keep doing The Work: to parent, to love my baby. And to write the words that affirm the worth of all our babies — my way of making them all safer. I just want to wrap my mamma’s arms around them all. I am being honest here: I don’t always write with passion, or inspired by some creative muse, or in a focused flow. Sometimes, I write out of, and in, sheer terror. These generations of trauma have gotten in me.

The truth in this series shouldn’t be my trauma to bear. Black and Brown mothers who have already forced themselves to witness DuVernay’s work should not be alone in their fear, in the torment of reliving this violence. It is time for white women and white men and white children to have this experience, to know this story, to confront this reality. White law students, age-old prosecutors and police officers cannot claim to be professionals if they do not witness these truths. Five hundred years is long enough. Black mothers have screamed into the night long enough. It is time for white people to see them — the killers who live in their families — and confront the evil they have done.

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