Editor’s Note: Danté Stewart is writer, speaker and author of “Shoutin’ In The Fire: An American Epistle.” Named by Religion News Service as one of “Ten Up-And-Coming Faith Influencers,” his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, ESPN’s The Undefeated, Sojourners, and more. The views expressed here are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
There should have been tears, Ocean Vuong begins his essay on grief, despair and the weight of our living.
I have stared at the house in Kansas City where 16-year-old Ralph Yarl was shot, noticing the beige tint that mimics the homes in the old neighborhood where I used to live in Augusta, Georgia.
When I see it, I remember the night President Donald Trump was elected years ago. My neighbor to the left and the neighbor to the right set off celebratory fireworks for what seemed to be three hours.
I have seen homes like Andrew Lester’s before, and have seen the ways each road interlocks. This is not home, it is not safe here.
I am reminded that neighborhoods across America that are mostly White, mostly rich and mostly cut off from people who look like Yarl were designed to be that way. Lenders back in the day used rules that protected these types of neighborhoods through redlining and, assisted by, racial terrorism.
In America, the neighborhood has always been a racial battleground. It has a long history in which a Black person in the wrong place (and in some sense what is a wrong place for any human to exist?), could hear monkey sounds, see paint sprayed on their homes reading “Get Out!”, have rocks thrown at them, have their homes devalued and could ultimately be shot or killed for the simple fact that they are Black and alive and here.
This is not home, it is not safe here.
I suppose that is what I am feeling when I look at the image of Ralph Yarl holding his clarinet and then back to the home of Andrew Lester: a numbness that feels but doesn’t, a confusion that wonders but doesn’t, a sadness that cries but doesn’t.
Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun, I imagine in my mind the phone ringing as the chimes first reached his ears. He is 480 miles away from the house where his son was shot in the forehead, stumbled back, and then again shot in the arm just before running to another house to ask for help. I imagine that the words “Ralph,” “shot,” “in the head,” “in the arm,” “come,” “now” are but echoes of a past time that is remembered and misremembered.
Yarl’s mother, Cleo Nagbe, called Paul Yarl to tell him that their son had been shot after mistakenly walking up to the wrong house. He was simply looking for his brothers. Instead of being met “by two twins,” the mother said in a recent interview, “he got a couple of bullets in his body.” She looks toward the camera as she talks to Gayle King, blinks her eyes, moves her lips, looks back up again as if with each passing second, time runs in the other direction back to that Thursday night just before 10 pm.
If you travel I-70 west from Indianapolis where Mr. Yarl, Ralph’s father, lives, it will take you some seven hours and eleven minutes to arrive – traffic notwithstanding. In order to get to Kansas City, you must pass through St. Louis, Missouri as you make your way back up the curve the interstate goes.
One has to wonder, and I wonder this as a father of a beautiful Black boy of my own, if Mr. Yarl did not think of Mike Brown, and every Black person who has become a hashtag since then.
I don’t know if he is a praying man, that is neither here nor there, but I can imagine he prayed to his God that his son would live. I don’t know if it happened this way, but I know that he and Ms. Nagbe only wanted what every Black family wants for their child’s life: to grow up, to be free, to make mistakes, to laugh, to play, to grow, to be protected, to wonder, to make it home, alive and intact, just the way we sent them out and remembered them.
Yesterday morning, just as I dropped my son off to school, about 20 minutes after we left the Waffle House, I was listening once again to Ms. Nagbe’s interview. What I can’t get out of my mind is how she describes her child. “Ralph was shot in the frontal lobe,” she said as her accent staggers between each syllable. “The residual effects will stay for a while,” she said. “The bullet was in him for about 12 hours,” she said.
I hear this and I can feel what seems to be an invisible boulder in my esophagus.
In the last 12 hours, I have run back forward from one end of my backyard to the other, listening to my son’s thick laugh scream, “woooo!” In the last 12 hours, I have listened to my mother say, “that White man is eviiiiillllll,” her 60-year-old tongue carrying every “i” and “l” to its bitter end.
In the last 12 hours I was reminded that the same way many in this country view Yarl is the same way, let’s say, they view the Justins out of Tennessee or Angel Reese or Naomi Osaka: young, Black, loud, dangerous, criminal, not worthy of safety, not worthy of peace, not worthy of humanity. In the last 12 hours I have stared at the picture of Yarl and the picture of the place where he was shot more than I care to admit.
I study Ms. Nagbe’s eyes as speaks. She blinks what seems to be 40 times a minute. She struggles to look at the camera again. “That’s all I can say,” she said. “I can’t say anymore.” The first tear goes from the crease of my eye to my cheek. Then the next. Then the next.
It is sad that we live in a world where a Black kid knocking on the wrong door is met with bullets rather than compassion. It is sad that Black mothers and fathers must tell the world how beautiful and worthy their children are in the face of such intense desire to erase and destroy them. It is sad that the name Ralph could be replaced with the name Renisha and the story could be told the same and the only thing changed is that one was murdered and one was not. It is sad that we must repeat these words: Black children deserve to make it home.
What haunts me is this: we live in a country where you can be Black and run, be Black and drive, be Black and walk, be Black and breathe, be Black and make a mistake – and end up being Black and shot.
That is not even the worst part.
The worst part is that written into American law is the volcanic distance between our safety and justice. The legal frameworks – “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” – were not written with Black people’s safety or humanity in mind. These laws were written to protect White male property owners. Lethal self-defense does not work in our favor or to our advantage – not just Black people but all of us.
We are a country in love with guns and in love with the inordinate use of them. I am so afraid of what this country means for us.
With these legal measures, there is still the possibility that Lester walks free even though he’s been charged. I am terrified of that possibility. I am terrified that we still live in a country that allows White men who shoot innocent people to go home, sleep, shave, watch their favorite TV show, and get up in the morning like nothing has happened. I am terrified that this story is just another act in the script of our Black American heartbreak and this country’s White American nightmare.
Ralph Yarl has survived.
I tremble to say this, but: praise God. My God – what a horrifying, sacred thing to have to grieve and be grateful.
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But I too know that he has not survived whole. Nor do his parents or his siblings or his family or his friends. And yet, his survival is real. Lester refused to see Yarl for who he is. Lester claimed he feared for his life. Lester did not see Yarl, did not know him, did not want him to be here. And yet, Yarl’s survival is real.
“Mostly he just sits there and stares and the buckets of tears just roll down his eyes,” his mother said about Yarl’s recovery. “You can see he is just replaying the situation over and over ….tears are just rolling from both of his eyes.”
Her son only speaks when he feels like it, she said. He cries more than he speaks.
When he is able to fully speak again, I hope he says: “This is what he tried to do, this is what the country does, this is who I am, this is what I have survived, this is what I choose to remember, this is what I choose to forget.”
If he does not say anything I have imagined, that is okay.
His breathing is enough.