I represent the fourth generation of women in my family to live in the United States.
My ancestors were descendants of captive Africans. Post slavery, they voluntarily came to Ellis Island from the West Indies in the early 1900s. They planted themselves in various boroughs of New York City. My skin is filled with beautiful melanin because of them.
I accept and challenge the social implications of that and my womanhood on a daily basis. Like many mothers of the diaspora, we moved to another city (Baltimore) for something better. I learned to listen, take naps for respite, remain playful, fight, and feast on only what serves me from my mother and aunties. During times of unrest, I listen to them even more.
On May 25th, 2020, George Floyd—a man whose African diasporic experience is not unlike mine, yours, or your African-American friends’—left his home for the last time. He, too, was born in one place (North Carolina) and raised elsewhere (Houston) for what we can only assume was in search of a better life, until he took his last breath under the knee of police officer Derek Chauvin in his final home of Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Every person whose skin is melanin filled is also filled reasonably with grief, anger, and disgust. Any soul-bearing human, no matter their skin color, shares the same feelings surrounding the police-related deaths of Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade, as well as Ahmaud Arbery, who was chased and fatally shot by white men while out on a jog through his Georgia neighborhood in February.
In response to recent local protests against these unjust deaths, I’ve captured the intergenerational stories of my own mother Leslie Davis—a Baltimore transplant, grandmother, and member at Greater Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church in East Baltimore—as well as Darlene Cain, a motivational speaker and anti-violence advocate whose son, Dale Graham, was killed by Baltimore City police in 2008. I also spoke with Ebony Evans, a millennial organizer and artist, and Kibibi Ajanku, mother, artist, activist, and Director of Equity and Inclusion for the Greater Baltimore Cultural Alliance.
No matter where we are from or where we end up in the United States—from one social, civil, or political upheaval to the next—black mothers, aunties, and daughters in Baltimore flicker across roles as protesters, healers, teachers, advocates, survivors, and more. The methods are different, but the intentions are all the same.
Leslie Davis with her grandchildren. -Alanah Nichole Davis
What are some of your life-changing memories of racial injustice or civil unrest?
Kibibi Ajanku: I was a little girl in 1968 when Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I come from a time when children were sent to the other room when grown folks talked. I was limited to small snippets of conversation and a sort of secondary fear about what was happening outside. I had an aunt who was in Washington, D.C., on the ground as a protest marcher at that time.
Ebony Evans: I would walk to the corner store for candy and see police officers use excessive force on the black men who were hanging outside. It made me understand why black men ran from the police when they saw them. I remember learning about Emmett Till, the four little girls, Bloody Sunday, the Dr. King riots, and Rodney King riots sometime around the fourth grade. That day changed my life completely. I remember storming out of the classroom and being incredibly angry for the remainder of my day.
I learned to listen, take naps for respite, remain playful, fight, and feast on only what serves me from my mother and aunties. During times of unrest, I listen to them even more. —Alanah Nichole Davis
Darlene Cain: In 2008, my son Dale Graham was killed by Baltimore City police. The police responded to an alleged domestic dispute between Dale and his children’s mother and, in the end, Dale was shot and killed by a police officer. I’m a mother who misses her son.
Leslie Davis: In 1979, my brother, then age 17, arrived home in tears, shaking and angry after being pulled over by police. They questioned him tirelessly, implying that as a black boy in The Bronx he must’ve been selling drugs or had stolen his car because it was too nice. Thanks be to God it did not end in him being injured, arrested, or his death.
Some of my best male friends growing up had run-ins with police and even the prison system before they were 18. Many black women, myself included, share that coming-of-age story where you would write them letters sprayed with your perfume, pray for their safety, and wait for their return. Some never did.
What are some of the things that make up the character of your loved ones or communities affected by racial injustice?
KA: As a youth, my community was challenged with drugs. I was very much shielded from that. Fast-forwarding to my time as a young woman, I was very preoccupied with family. I was married and had four children in five years starting at the age of 20. I felt the need to create a bubble around my family and community to protect them the way my family did me. I became the guardian and was deeply immersed in art and African culture. I created Sankofa Dance Theater here in Baltimore in 1989. Every single African drummer and dancer, both young and old, has passed through a dance floor and drum experience that I personally worked to provide.
DC: When Dale was born everyone rallied around me. He had everything he needed between me and his godmothers. There’s not a day that goes by that I, my family, and my community don’t think about him. He was very family oriented. He was a person who would light up the room. He loved his daughters, Iyana and Janae, who he’s survived by. He was so funny—he would try to do their hair when they were little, and I would help him. He loved my cooking. Sometimes I would make him a toasted turkey, bacon, and cheese in the morning, and he’d come from his house to eat it.
Who knew that being exceptional could cause a black man so much trouble? —Leslie Davis
LD: We lived in a good community. As youngsters we played outside a lot, traveled to Canada and Jones Beach, and once we got older, there were the neighborhood park benches and DJs out back. I’m the oldest of four and my youngest brother who got pulled over was a good young man. His only close call with the justice system in New York was with Muggable Mary in the early ’70s. She was a decoy detective who was inevitably responsible for tons of felony arrests in New York. My brother’s friend actually tried to mug her while they were together. Luckily, my brother was only guilty by association. Years later, when my brother was pulled over, he was a master technician for Volkswagen handpicked straight out of high school to work at their facility in Connecticut. He made good money and that is how he was able to afford the car he drove. Who knew that being exceptional could cause a black man so much trouble?
Where are those people and the community now?
KA: I always believed that you have to address young people as whole people. Anyone who came to my dance classes went on to become excellent artists, engineers, doctors. People like Nneka Nnamdi, founder of Fight Blight Bmore, Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of The Water Dancer, and the list goes on.
EE: Some have become community activists, while some continue to live their lives never having addressed the deep trauma. Others have passed on and some are in prison. There will always be unrest between my people and the police. The racial history is far too brutal to ignore. Without its context, it completely disservices the people who have had to remain docile in these horrid situations.
DC: A chain was truly broken in our community when we lost Dale to police violence. His legacy lives on through my work. I do many things to speak out in the community and advocate. I’m his voice now. The work I do as a mother is a real job. [We laugh]. I do as much of that work as I can without re-traumatizing myself. I’m only human. He’s buried here in Baltimore, but after his daughters expressed how hard it is to visit, we don’t go much. I’m so proud of my granddaughters and how they’ve grown from this. Iyana just graduated with over a 4.0 from City College High School and is on her way to college.
The immense amount of defeat that falls on my body when I hear about our lives being taken is unfathomable. There has been a war on black bodies for over 400 years. —Ebony Evans
LD: I left New York in ’98 so my family could have a sense of safety, more than what we had growing up. I stay connected with the community I grew up with on Facebook groups or phone calls. Just last year, there was a story about a parent being killed in front of their son in front of the building I lived in. I’m so glad we moved. My brother is now in his late fifties and lives in New Jersey with his wife and son who’s nearly 18 now. Not much has changed in terms of what his son can expect during a run-in with police. I pray every day for my community.
An illustration of Ebony Evans by artist Micah Bazant.
Kibibi Ajanku, who created Baltimore's Sankofa Dance Theater in 1989.
How do you feel about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade losing their lives to the police violence?
KA: Tired, but the memory of these tragedies is required. We have to lean into the pain. It’s the only way it won’t happen again. You can take a break and turn the news off for a day, but you gotta lean into it. Make sure your families, your children, your neighbors, and extended family are aware. You have to make sure you’re not avoiding these issues or being numb to them. If you have any sensibility around these social ills, remember that for everyone one of you there are 50 people who are mindless.
EE: Incredibly hurt, angry, and tired. The immense amount of defeat that falls on my body when I hear about our lives being taken is unfathomable. There has been a war on black bodies for over 400 years. It was at one point normal for police to murder us with absolutely no accountability. Klansmen traded in their robes for police uniforms, and their horses and trucks for police cars and patty wagons. Yet, the work continues.
DC: Confused, hurt, and nervous. This really shouldn’t keep happening.
LD: I was born in 1957 and in 2020 I can’t believe it’s still happening. I’m very tired. My people are angry. Can you blame them for looting? All I can think is how dare they racially profile these men like they did my brother, your brother, father, uncle, cousin, son, our daughters, nieces, homegirls. Ain’t no good gonna come of that.
When we create platforms or safe spaces, we have to guard them like warriors. Our young people need stories that garner leadership. We have no choice. —Kibibi Ajanku
At times of unrest, what would you urge we do?
KA: I am a marcher, but I’m old now. I went to the youth-led protest, though I shouldn’t have been out because of COVID-19. I sent a family text because they should know where I’m at and what I’m doing. Many of them texted me back quickly to go home. My granddaughter, who is 21, texted back saying she was down at the protest. I wanted to be near the energy and even ended up linking with her. Everything in me wanted to stay—everything—but even on my way out, I was proud to see everyone there and in masks. When we create platforms or safe spaces, we have to guard them like warriors. Our young people need stories that garner leadership. We have no choice.
EE: Gather resources and materials to educate yourself if you are going to be on the streets protesting. You need to know what to do if you encounter police in the street, if you are Maced, or you encounter tear gas or rubber bullets. If you are at home and organizing, I urge people to unplug. At times, the infiltration of trauma through imagery, videos, and racist commentary that you consume can be draining. An attack on one of us is an attack on us all. Everyone’s role is vital and it’s so important to remember that you don’t have to get online every day. You do not have to exert your energy. It is okay to wake up, cook a meal for yourself, experience the beauty of nature, or catch up on your favorite show. Take a day, or two or five. Self-preservation is first.
DC: People have different roles in times of unrest, some people fear protests. But you have to respect that because there’s a lot of unknown things involved in being out there. It takes a team of creative people in the community to put their skills together. That’s how our voices are heard and can be powerful. Moms like myself don’t get paid for our work.