Before they know the meanings of their names

These words are dedicated to the Black bodies, children, young people who’ve lost their lives to gun violence and to Africans in America who’ve protected and served a country that does not honor them.

On the morning of May 23rd my Mommy asked me if I’d heard a shooting in the middle of the night. I hadn’t. Perhaps I’m so accustomed to hearing shootings that I can sleep through them. Or, maybe sometimes I assume the noises to be fireworks. I also always turn on rain noises for my baby girl. I’ve used the sound of the rain to help her sleep since she was a newborn. It also soothes me, an insomniac. I want her to hear the sounds of nature and peace at night, not gunshots. Either way, I didn’t hear the shooting but knew that it happened. I followed my Mommy’s question with questions – “Did somebody die?” Was it a young person? My Mommy shook her head and said, “Yes, a four-year-old little boy.” I became deeply sad and began to pray that the child didn’t suffer. I thought of my daughter and saw her face instead of the child whom I didn’t know.

I became anxious because the thought of someone just firing shots into shots into a home is a story I’ve heard before. I guiltily admit that I hoped someone wasn’t just firing shots for the sake of it accidentally hitting the child. That would make the likelihood of experiencing something like this all the more palpable. I hoped that they were looking for some adult who lived there and shot into the house without knowing the child was there. That, too, is horrific but easier to accept than the former.

I often have intrusive thoughts. The worst are about something happening to my daughter. I’ve learned that intrusive thoughts, even about our children, are a part of the normal human experience. It makes us think of survival and caution. Nonetheless, something happening to our children is often a parent’s worst nightmare. The night before the shooting, my daughter was sitting on my bed. She was close to the window. I’ve always had a thing about windows. My Mommy has, too. I’ve asked people to sit elsewhere or “scoot over a little bit.” I’ve had a long fear about someone being shot through the window. I fought my anxiety in that moment and likened it to me just having intrusive thoughts intensified by PMS (yeah, it’s a thing). I didn’t move her. I didn’t ask her to move. I saw this moment as empowering as I challenged myself to relax and not always think that something tragic could or was in motion to happen.

I wanted my daughter to just enjoy sitting on my bed. I wanted us to enjoy each other’s

company. I wanted to fight the urge to forbode the joy I was feeling before the thought.

My Mommy sharing the news about this baby boy’s death reaffirmed the affirmation I often hear from healers, counselors, and mental health practitioners – “All of our trauma is not our own>”

I love Detroit, deeply. It is truly a special place of resilience, creativity, innovation, fashion, and Black radical tradition. But it also a place often usurped of its power, riddled with blight, and consistently battling the cancer of violence – from poverty to police to bad policy; from gentrification to food deserts; from the violence of racism to the violence of residents.

I am not desensitized to gun violence. I am not used to it. I have heard hundreds of stories about gun violence, heard thousands of guns sound off in various neighborhood, and have witnessed the gruesome recoveries of family members, including my eldest brother, who were victims of gun violence. But nothings make this more real than hearing about children who’ve lost their lives to gun violence.

I can sleep through gunshots sometimes. But that doesn’t make waking to the news of victims easier the next morning.

4-years-old. I imagine a little brown boy with tight curls up past his bedtime, building towers with Legos and creating adventure the best way he could because “outside is closed.” I imagine his baby teeth and crumbs on his face from the snacks his grandmother gave him even though it was late. I imagine his being. I imagine him just being.

As my counselor and community continue to affirm me by normalizing my anxiety, I realize that this trauma, the way anxiety shows up for me, these intrusive thoughts don’t happen because “something is wrong with me.” All this doesn’t even belong to me. It makes me think, if my mental health and sense of well-being are informed by my immediate environment in such a way, what the hell does that mean for Black and vulnerable people navigating life in the context of America, a country that is perpetually violent? Beyond the US, we could ask the same question on a macro level. Anti-Blackness and violence against those belonging to the Diaspora is expressed. All. Over.

I am disgusted at the violence. I am disgusted about this baby losing his life. I am disgusted that his parents have to bury a child and cannot be physically comforted at the homegoing service because of COVID-19. I am disgusted that parents have to think about not allowing their children to play near windows or during typical shooting hours. During a time of isolation, we add an additional layer of restriction on our children and have to be concerned about another layer of violence against Black life.

We think about our children being hurt or even shot, because children are often hurt. Children are shot. The bullets may not have their names engraved in them but they belong to their bodies nonetheless. They should grow up sneaking tattoos not with scars with bullet wounds.

To make matters even more personal, the shooting occurred on my street just south of 7 Mile. Too close to home.

I pray for divine protection over my daughter every day. I pray that her life be long and fruitful. I pray that she is never a victim of this violence knowing that living life as a Black person in America is its own special kind of violence. Before I go to bed, I envision God’s spirit around my house, I envision the protection of our immediate Ancestors, I think about the cayenne pepper I’ve left at the doors, and I imagine that “All is well.” I want all to be well for these babies but all ain’t well. But we gotta keep working to make it so.

This Memorial Day Weekend, I want to hold exceptional space for our children. I want to pour libations for them. I want to honor their memories. I want to ask them, our new Ancestors we didn’t expect to become ancestors in youth, to protect our children here.

Nathanial Mesiah Roby-Townsend is the name of the 4-year-old boy who was killed. Nathanial means, “Gift of God.” That’s what he was. That’s what our children are. They deserve full and free lives where they are able to grow up and understand the meanings of their names!

This baby may or may not have known the meaning of his name. But I do. Now, you do. So let’s say his name this weekend. Let’s honor him. Let’s pray for his family. I will. And I think of you as my neighbor, Nathanial. I’ll be reminded of your sweet face that my eyes met in an online news article. I’ll think of your being. I’ll think of you just being.

As I hold my baby girl and type with my back towards the window, always thinking about shielding her, I am thinking of you.

To all the Black children who’ve died to gun violence in their neighborhoods, to the Black people who’ve lost their lives at the hands and bullets of police officers, to the Black veterans who’ve protected and served but were never protected or served within their country’s own borders, I salute you. I thank you for being.

This Memorial Day Weekend, be safe. Be smart. Be well. May you be divinely protected.

Published by Raina La'Shea

Mother. Writer. Social Justice Champion. Lover. Orator. Liberator. Marvel Fan. Delta. Abecedarian.

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