Brown eyes meet brown eyes.
His do not make conversation with mine. They look, but they don’t see. Not me, anyway. Pa. And me. His were in conversation with some other place. They are gone. It is this way often, after he came back. Coming back, returning. He is no longer in prison. He has not come back, though. Some part of him stayed. Some part of him traveled. Some part of him came home. Bars are wrapped around that part; unreachable, untouchable, unseeable. It’s a corner that haunts him, where his daughter’s love can’t reach him.
Haunted. After being hunted, caged, and exonerated – he is still caged.
Antron McCray is a brother, a daddy, a husband, a man now. His innocence was stolen, his family broken and his future tainted by the State. He is a free man in an unfree body. His soul trapped in trauma, his mind stuck, wedged tight between the bars he spent so many years behind after being unjustly incarcerated.
In his eyes, I see a legacy of untreated trauma. Passed down from his pop whose incarceration shaped his interaction with the police that fateful April 1989 night.
Antron’s pop was Mr. Bobby McCray, played painfully and masterfully by Michael K. Williams. He said of Mr. McCray: “What drove him away from his family? It wasn’t that he didn’t care, or he didn’t love them. I believe that when Bobby McCray realized that he was the nail in the sealing of his son’s casket, I believe that the guilt, the anger, the frustration, and the shame drove him away….”
After watching When They See Us, I ugly cried, bawled, snot dripping tears. It is days later. I have just watched Oprah Winfrey’s "When They See Us Now." I find myself watching Antron and Korey especially closely. They wear their trauma more visibly.
Antron McCray speaks of the hatred and bitterness he carries.
“My life is ruined. I’m damaged. I need help. Even to this day, I know it.” says Antron during the devastatingly moving Oprah Winfrey special. Oprah asked how the men protected themselves in prison. They had aged out of juvenile facilities and transferred to adult facilities – with the exception of Korey who was tried, convicted and incarcerated as an adult. Antron said:- “I added some weight. I became real aggressive. I became a trouble maker”.
I lived in New York for 8 years. I call it home, I have chosen family there. Now, I am in Ghana, West Africa. From this distance, I can taste the bitterness of Antron McCray and feel the solitary loneliness of Korey Wise.
Korey Wise was sent to Rikers. He was just 16-years-old. Korey carries his trauma as visibly as he rocks his sneakers. When I see Korey Wise now and in the interviews I have watched, it feels as though he is reminding us of who he was back in 1989. He wears 90s clothes.– as though time froze, as though he wants to remind the world to see the 16-year- old that no-one saw all those years ago, and as though our failure to see him then can be rectified if we see him now.
The actor, Jharrel Jerome, who did an extraordinary job of playing him in When They See Us, would say of Wise “that 16-year-old is trapped in there, he’s always trying to see him, to not lose him.” Episode 4 which explores Korey’s incarceration is one of the hardest to watch.
Korey is now in his 40s. Korey lived. Korey is here. Black men learn to tuck their trauma into corners of their minds, bodies and souls. Some wrap their vulnerability in their swagger, they struggle to make sure that part stays unseen, so it cannot be weaponized and mechanized against them.
Korey’s eyes are haunted, just like Antron’s McCray’s. Oprah’s special revealed Korey’s mama, Ms. Delores Wise, played stunningly painfully by Niecey Nash, was a Black woman navigating her own trauma. Nash spoke with Ms. Delores in preparation for playing the role.
Of Ms. Delores, Niecey said:-
“Her pain was palpable. It was right at the surface. This was a woman who was afraid and vulnerable, but she did not and could not show that because the weight of the world was on her shoulders to see this family through. So, she masked it with anger.”
Nash referred to Ms. Delores past, saying: “A lot of people may think because something happened to you years ago, it should be in your rear view. But that residue is on the altar of your heart and you can’t tell someone when to brush it off. “
Korey’s mama and Korey. Antron’s daddy and Antron – living legacies of untreated trauma that shaped how they loved their boys in the swirl of an economy of violence.
Emotions – shame, pain, sadness, guilt, hurt, fear, anger, rage. These five men have walked through all of them.
Everybody feels, everybody has emotions. When it comes to Black men and Black women, society often doesn’t recognize feelings. Emotions take on a color, a context, a consequence. And they then become a characteristic. So, then it becomes about Emotionality.
Emotionality becomes a description, a marker, a tag. Humanity stripped, it is a seeing of Black folk through the lens of histories of injustice and the systems of brutality that uphold them.
We then racialize emotionality. Everyone feels scared but a ‘scary black man’ means something specific. It carries the weight of ancestral bones. Everyone feels angry, but an ‘angry Black woman’, means something specific, it has a connotation, it is a description, a marker. Ms. Delores masked her fear in anger, explained Niecey Nash. How did that shape how we see her, and other Black women navigating trauma and wrapping their vulnerability in anger to put one foot in front of the other to get through?
Back in 1989, the blue eyed seeing of politicians, media and the state was parsed through a lens of ugly, violent and racist histories. It was undeclared war, and open season.
The Central Park Jogger case became more than a brutal crime. No longer a park and a city – this seeing was the manifestation of hundreds of years of narratives of pasts and places where Black male bodies, robbed of dignity and humanity, chase, hunt and prey on white women.
This story was America’s manufactured racist fear come to life. This was white America’s nightmare. Black male bodies. Lustful, longing and violent. White women’s bodies. Young, future bright, and pure white.
During the arrest, interrogation and trial - blues eyes didn’t see brown eyes.
They didn’t see the sweetness of a mother and the spirit of a father who shaped and raised and loved five black and one brown boy. They didn’t see dreams and first loves, and college paths and hanging out, and friendships. They didn’t see laughter and love and community.
The hunt was on. They hunted down the boys, their mamas, their daddies and their communities, whipping up a frenzy of boy-sized headlines that castigated and adjudicated. The frenzy was ferocious. Futures would be destroyed, but blue eyes were not nurtured to consider the futures, the humanity, the possibilities of brown and black boys.
Donald Trump, the detectives, the prosecutor and the judge all took aim at their innocence the same way Officer Michael Slaeger took aim at the fleeing back of Walter Scott. Shots fired. Guilty, shot one. Hatred, shot two. Monsters, shot three. Death penalty, shot four. Lynch them, shot five.
Black boys down. Innocence gone. Life changed. Something died.
The hunt ended with blood. Condemned, cast out and caged. Their souls and spirits would fight for between six and fourteen years.
Judicial injustice established, incarceration happened, exoneration complete – we must now focus and talk about Emotional Justice.
The beginning of Emotional Justice is to reimagine the seeing.
Black lenses matter. The world’s eyes now see brown eyes. Ava’s lens means we see what was hidden and thrown away. That is the particular success of Ava DuVernay’s masterful four-part film. It illuminates where there were shadows. We see what happened now differently. Ava’s lens is steeped in the fullest telling of the complex beauty of blackness, of beautifully brutal histories and stories of love, loss and legacy. These are our families, our communities, our stories. Ava’s lens centers brown eyed-seeing and challenges blue eyed versions of this world.
Emotional Justice means creating language, process and practice to confront, deal with and heal from a legacy of untreated trauma.
The Exonerated 5 are men now. Their stories of injustice are told now. That they love their families fiercely is clear. But how they love them matters. That is about Emotional Justice. Trauma shapeshifts your heart, it curls and twists your soul. A legacy of untreated trauma reimagines how you love.
You did the time, you did not commit the crime – Emotional Justice is yours now. Please, take it for your fullest freedom.
Esther A. Armah is an international award-winning journalist. She works across print, radio, television and theatre. She is Director of EAA Media Productions. She is a columnist for Ghana’s Business & Financial Times focusing on media, gender, policy and violence and host, creator and Executive Producer of “The Spin,” a weekly one hour all women of color round table podcast that airs in the US, London, Ghana and Nigeria. She is the creator of “Emotional Justice;” a language, process and practice exploring a legacy of untreated trauma due to global histories of black peoples and their contemporary manifestations.
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