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Arts & Life

'It's A Very Heavy Kind Of Grief' — Black Kansas Citians Reflect On Generations Of Pain

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Joey Enyard
Joey Enyard made this sign, featuring the names of black people killed by police, for a Black Lives Matter protest in Kansas City.

What if protests after the death of George Floyd could be viewed as outpourings of grief? For these Kansas Citians, it's an emotion that has been building for decades.

Of the many arrests made during protests in Kansas City the weekend of May 30, one involved not a sign or a chant, but a trumpet.

Jordan Geiger stepped off the sidewalk, into the street, to play Taps. He'd been on his way home from a gig when he witnessed the standoff between protestors and police. His impromptu performance was meant to be a reminder: "This is about grief as well as anger."

As protests continue across the nation, a question emerges: Has there been an opportunity to grieve the lives lost? Or are the protests fulfilling that need?

Last week, Kansas City nurse Cicely Enyard took to Facebook to say something about George Floyd. She ended up telling the story of her great-uncle Charlie Mustiful instead.

Known to family as Brother Boy, Charlie was one of twelve children born to a seamstress and sharecropper in rural Arkansas. When he and his siblings reached high school age, they were sent to live with relatives scattered across the country, because the nearest high school only admitted white children.

Charlie ended up in Spring Hill, Arkansas. One day in 1970, as a grown man and veteran, he pulled his car over. He had a seizure disorder and must have known what was coming. Alone in his car, he began seizing. A white police officer saw him and approached the vehicle. The officer reportedly told Charlie to step out of the car. Charlie, still seizing, did not heed the officer's instructions.

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Charlie Mustiful was shot by police in his car while pulled over and having a seizure in 1970. His niece, Cicely Enyard, knows him by his nickname, Brother Boy.

He was shot and killed in his car, says Enyard.

"I'm not the only person who's got an Uncle Charlie, but these stories do not get told," Enyard says. "There was no video. He didn't get protests."

Enyard never met her Uncle Charlie. She was born a few years after his death. She grew up hearing this story at family reunions instead. She says that the killing of George Floyd has brought deeply held grief for the relative she never met to the surface.

"George Floyd isn't just a statistic. He has a name. He has a mom and dad and brother and sister and little girl who will hear his name, like I heard Uncle Charlie's name, like I heard Brother Boy."

The grief isn't new, it's just exposed, says Mará Rose Williams, a reporter for the Kansas City Star. She sees it in the anguished faces of protesters on the Plaza.

"It's a very heavy kind of grief people walk around with every day," Williams says. She likens it to a single thread in a textile. You don't notice the thread until it catches on something and snags, but you tuck it away and move on.

"It's a grief we hide, I guess," she explains.

Williams says the turmoil engulfing Kansas City has snagged the thread of generational grief from the complex fabric of her life in a way she hasn't experienced before.

"It's been going on for days," she explains with a weary laugh. "We can't tuck it back in."

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Paul Andrews
At Mará Rose Williams' desktop computer at the Kansas City Star, a screensaver shows the two grown sons who are never out of mind for the reporter.

For Williams, that's largely for and about her sons, now young adults.

Williams remembers being in the hospital before giving birth to her first son. She was walking the halls in a hospital gown with the other moms-to-be. It hadn't mattered then, she says, who anyone was or what their skin color happened to be. All the women were there doing the same thing. But in the recovery room, right after her son was born, Williams was given a social security form for the new person she'd just birthed.

She was supposed to check a box for race. She told her husband she didn't want to do it.

"I am labeling my child for life," Williams recalls thinking. "I'm labeling him with everything society thinks about black men." That's when she stopped being just a woman giving birth. It's when she realized people would someday fear her son. And that difference, she says, has followed her ever since.

"I have to ask myself now, did the grief begin then?"

There's a meme making the rounds online.

In white block letters on a stark black background it says, "Crazy thing is, they think all of this is about George Floyd when we're still crying tears for Emmett Till."

That rings true for Kansas City folk musician Danny Cox, who was a young boy when Emmett Till was killed. He saw pictures of the horrific scene in a magazine.

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Paul Andrews
Kansas City Musician Danny Cox has been writing and singing protest songs since the Civil Rights Movement.

"I remember to this day, it was Jet Magazine," he says. "It's still burned into my brain."

As a child, Cox felt both horror and curiosity. True grief didn't surface until he got older. Now in his late seventies, the image flashes in his mind with every instance of brutality. The power of it hasn't changed, but the meaning of it has. Cox, now a father and grandfather, feels deep sorrow for Till's mother.

"That's what's important to me now,” he says. “The bravery of the mother who refused to have him dressed and covered in a coffin. She said she wanted the world to see what they had done to her son."

The moment in the George Floyd video that really gets him is when Floyd, a grown man with a police officer's knee on his neck, calls out for his mother, who died a few years ago.

"It stirs up, man, whoo, it's so immediate. I think of his family. I’m tearing up just thinking about it. Hearing him cry for his mother to help him. His mother’s been dead and he calls on his mother."

For Enyard, Williams and Cox, the protests going on now bring a lot of pain from the past to the surface, but their focus is on the next generation and what they will carry with them into the future.

Mará Rose Williams' son Jordan is in his 20s. The other day, he posted a new profile picture to Facebook. Accompanying the photograph is text that reads, "In loving memory of Jordan Williams, 1996-2020."

His mother has shared her own post letting friends know that her son had not actually been killed. She explains that her son considers this post "a graphic argument, a public service announcement, a reminder" of what the national protest is really about: something he fears could happen to him, or anyone who looks like him. Friends who saw the image found it disturbing, but effective.

“My heart skipped a beat,” said one. “OK, that was scary,” said another.

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Cicely Enyard
A selfie taken by Cicely Enyard on her way home from voting captures the connection she feels to past generations of her family when she engages with American democracy.

Danny Cox, who was talking about the news with his 15-year-old grandson, asked if he'd ever seen the video of Rodney King being beaten by police in 1991. He hadn't. Cox pulled up the video on his computer and showed it to him. “Look what you see. The whole world saw it. This was on the news every day, forever. Those policemen were acquitted.”

Cecily Enyard sat her three children down for a talk. The youngest is 11, the oldest 19. Enyard told them about Brother Boy. She also told them about more recent, more high-profile incidents, like Tamir Rice, killed at 12 in Cleveland, Ohio, when a police officer mistook his toy gun for a real gun. The story of Tamir Rice is why Enyard doesn't let her youngest, an 11-year-old boy, ride his bike to the Apple Market for candy despite his pleas. It's why she doesn't let him get the toy ninja knives he's always asking for.

"I could look at all three of my kids and I could see the wheels turning," Enyard says.

Enyard's oldest child Joey, a student at the Kansas City Art Institute, went to a few protests last weekend with a hand-painted sign. When Enyard received a text from Joey with a picture of the sign, she saw every name she'd mentioned during their talk.

What Enyard sees isn't just an argument for police reform, though that is part of it. It's also the need to make loss of life tangible, a need she says all humans have.

"Why else do we put people's ashes in urns? Why else do we spend tens of thousands of dollars to build monuments at people's grave sites? You know, people need something tangible to hold onto."

"There are stages to grief," Enyard continues, "and I'm not going to pretend to know all the stages of grief and in what order, but I can tell you that anger is one of them. I think we're just kind of at that point, but I do know after anger hopefully comes healing. That's the goal. So I'm hoping that all of this will lead to some kind of healing."

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