“Please, don’t kill them,” I thought over and over in my head, shaking as I stared at the yellowing field. I was at the park, swinging on a playset with my younger siblings. Less than 20 feet away, a group of older boys were shooting guns into a dirty wooden board. An innocent childhood game. I found out later that those guns were toys, bb, or pellets, but I didn’t know that at the time. Not that knowing made me any less scared. At the time, like now, I lived in a predominantly white neighborhood. Sure they were only teenagers, and the guns were only toys, but that didn’t really matter. We lived in America, where the color of your skin can be weapon enough. All it would’ve taken was a simple call to the police from a “good Samaritan”, trying to protect the neighborhood from “dangerous black men ”, and those boys could’ve been killed.
I must have been about nine at the time, 2016. That summer before 4th grade was the height of my Disney Channel phase. Earlier that year I had fallen in love with acting, and I just knew I was going to become the next Zendaya. That day at the park, I was supposed to be working out, learning a dance routine I had seen when I snuck onto youtube. I wanted to be a triple threat, a singer, dancer, and actress. Instead of practicing like planned, I ended up praying not to witness a murder and having one of my first panic attacks. It was less than two years after 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed for doing the exact same thing that those boys were doing, playing, being a kid. I was terrified that they'd become the next hashtag.
I’m 14 now, two years older than Tamir ever was. Since then, I’ve had several other experiences where I feared for the lives of people I’ve met, simply because they were black in America. A man “resisting arrest” at McDonald's, a woman getting violently dragged away in handcuffs on the news, a kid tear-gassed at a protest. This year, the first book we read in Language Arts as a class was Ghost Boys. Ghost Boys is a “fictional” story told from multiple perspectives, blending the past and present together. I put fictional in quotation marks because of its definition:
relating to fiction; invented for the purposes of fiction.
We finished the book a week ago. The last chapter tells what the main character, 12-year-old Jerome was doing right before he was murdered by a police officer, that mistook him for an adult...a threat. Jerome, like Tamir Rice and the boys I saw on the playground, was playing with a toy gun. He was given it by a friend, to protect him against school bullies. That doesn’t sound very fictional to me. The whole story is way too realistic.
Sarah, another character in Ghost boys, was the daughter of the police officer that killed Jerome. She was also the only living person who could see him after he died. As they spend more time together, it’s clear to the reader how different the children are. Until she met Jerome, Sarah led a sheltered life, complete with a big house, fancy school, and a pink bedroom full of books. It’s a utopia compared to Jerome’s neighborhood where men dealt drugs on the street, a makeshift basketball court was built over burnt down buildings, and gunshots could be heard any time of the day.
I know for some of my classmates, and other people who read Ghost Boys, it was a window. My teacher described windows in literature to be “Texts that provide a window into the lived experiences of people whose identities differ from the students who are reading.“ Sometimes I forget just how much being black affects my life experience, in comparison to my white peers. The little things and the big things can make a huge difference. Other kids had multiple Disney princesses that look like them. I had one, and she was a frog for most of the movie. Other kids woke up on Christmas morning knowing they could get any gift they wanted, carefree and naive. Other kids weren’t taught to be wary of the police, even if they did nothing wrong. They’re meant to protect you. Other kids don’t worry that a family member, or friend won't make it home every day.
A startling thought crossed my mind a few days ago. Jerome could have been my brother. They’re both 12, play video games, and like to eat. I promised to protect my brother when he was born, but I might not be able to do that. Black children are killed all the time, for no real reason, other than the color of their skin. Seeing those stories in the news every other week almost normalizes this horrible reality. It shouldn’t be like this. Those kids could have and should have lived.
2020 has been a wild year. Right now, organizations like Black Lives Matter are organizing to fight for equality, a pandemic is killing thousands each day, and the electoral college is preparing to vote in a groundbreaking election. As I type this, I’m listening to my favorite playlist. I feel kind of weird thinking about all this while dancing around to the music, but sometimes you have to do anything just to keep from crying. The world we live in is cruel and unforgiving, filled with hatred and bigotry. As we finished up the book, my teacher taught us about something I think is really important right now. Sliding glass doors, as she called them, can show a change in the way a person thinks about the world. I hope that books like Ghost Boys and other media function as sliding doors for many. We could use all the help we can get to ensure that every child gets to grow up.