Mattering, Healing, and Sharing in the Process: Working through the Trauma of Losing Black Lives (Part I)
Mahauganee D. Shaw
Shamika N. Karikari
Miami University of Ohio
Hi…so I’m reaching out because I’m exhausted and hopeless and so many other emotions. The death of Sam Dubose in Cincinnati has shook me in ways I didn’t anticipate. He got killed 10 minutes from my house. I remember the riots of 2001. When it happens in your home it becomes SO REAL. Like this isn’t just on the news, this is down the street from my home. Did you feel similar things about Ferguson? Do you understand? I’m reaching out just to share my thoughts as I feel most people around me just don’t get it….I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I don’t need or expect a response, just wanted to share. Thank you.
It was nearly midnight when I received Mika’s email. When I read an email at that time of night, I often won’t reply until the next day. Her email, however, brought a flood of memories and compelled me to respond.
I totally get it. Michael Brown’s death, watching my community be portrayed improperly in the media, and listening to my family and friends who were on the ground last fall really took me to low places. Last August through November it was hard for me to focus on anything work related when my mind and my heart were in Missouri. So, I know it’s not the exact same thing, but I do get it.
My motivation for co-planning the town hall last fall came from my need to do something productive with the energy I was placing into following the news surrounding Ferguson. The working group format was my seedling of an idea because I was exhausted from discussing the case over and over and didn’t want to sit and talk about it and leave continuing to feel hopeless. I’m not sure what will be helpful to you in this moment, and it’s likely that you’re also unsure of that. But please know that I’m here and willing to be an ear, a shoulder, or an accomplice. My suggestion is to take the time you need to be in community with others who are from Cincinnati and understand the significance of this moment, allow yourself to feel, forgive yourself for whatever guilt that may accompany those feelings, and then find an outlet for your energy. If there’s anything I can do to help you avoid the emotional pit I fell into last fall, please let me know. There’ll definitely be company in the pit, but it’s also very difficult to climb back out of it once you’re in there.
Big Hugs, Mahauganee
Soon after the indictment of former police officer Ray Tensing for the shooting death of Sam DuBose, we exchanged these emails. We found ourselves as colleagues who shared common personal experiences of working through hometown tragedies and wondered how to be supportive to each other and why it was so difficult to find that support within our professional lives. What we learned through our conversations is that the location of tragedy in our hometowns is what made the impact feel weightier than it would have otherwise.
In Mika’s words:
I reached out to Mahauganee via email because I didn’t know who else to turn to. I didn’t know who else would be able to relate to how I was feeling. It felt safe to reach out to Mahauganee because she had publicly talked about her connection to Ferguson and how it felt different because it was her “home”. What’s funny is that Mahauganee and I aren’t besties, and it was vulnerable to reach out but also so freeing to share my real emotions with someone who would get it. Through our email exchange and further conversations, I learned that shared experiences, even traumatic ones, can connect you in powerful ways. I’m grateful this was my experience with Mahauganee.
The purpose of this article is twofold. One goal is to share our story of negotiating our personal emotions and reactions to national tragedies connected to both our homes and our experiences as Black women, while also drawing implications and recommendations for student affairs practice. A second goal is to transfer the time we spent processing our experiences into lessons for others to heal from the trauma of negotiating these recurring tragedies. We accomplish these goals in a two-part article. This, the first part, introduces the two tragedies that brought us together, and how we connected (to each other and others) through those experiences. The second part of this article, to appear in the next issue of Developments, contains suggestions on how our experiences navigating these tragedies connect to our work in student affairs and provides implications for other educators.
Tragedy and Its Impact
Our experiences with tragedies connected to our respective hometowns allowed us to see the impact of community tragedy on our professional practice as university employees, and the practice of other campus colleagues. While it became clear through our process that many people around us—our colleagues, our students, our neighbors and community partners—were also hurt by these tragedies, the harm we experienced felt deeper and more severe. This harm was connected to the notion of “home” and the additional layer it added to the way we internalized these tragedies. Below, we introduce the two tragedies that were the impetus for our email exchange, describing first the large-scale impacts of each and next the individual impacts on us personally. Organized in this manner, this section highlights the trickle-down effects of tragedy.
Losing Mike Brown
August 9, 2014 was the day that Michael Brown, Jr., a Black teenage resident of Ferguson, Missouri, died immediately after sustaining at least six gunshot wounds inflicted by Darren Wilson, a local police officer. Brown was unarmed. He died in the middle of a local street, and his lifeless body lay in the street for at least four hours as a growing crowd of local residents gathered. During this time, his parents broke down from the news their child was no longer living, while social media reports and mobile picture uploads allowed people near and far to see the images of all that unfolded.
For several weeks thereafter, community activists in Ferguson gathered to protest and continually call for answers from the local government officials and law enforcement officers. Eventually, national news crews also gathered in Ferguson, giving audiences around the globe a front-row seat to view unfolding events: a growing crowd of protesters from across the United States, excessive use of force by law enforcement on those protestors, a slow trickle of facts and information regarding the incidents that led to Brown’s death, and a community in turmoil. While the local K-12 schools closest to Ferguson’s “ground zero” decided to delay the start of school, local postsecondary institutions in the process of gearing up for the fall semester were preparing for the potential impact of this community turmoil on their campuses and the students they serve.
Mahauganee’s Reflection. I was at a wedding when Michael Brown, Jr. died. I was so excited for this particular wedding as I’d made the difficult choice to forego the wedding of my cousin at home in St. Louis to attend this one instead. During the wedding reception, I learned of Michael’s death. I was sitting at a table in a large ballroom, flanked by other wedding guests, when my phone began to light up with messages. It was the GroupMe chat group I keep with my high school friends. GroupMe is an app that allows multiple people to maintain an ongoing text message conversation in a private group. This particular group includes four Black females who were born and reared in different areas of St. Louis, Missouri. Almost immediately, I was sucked into this hand-held conversation and swept away from the people partying around me. I spent the better part of the reception texting my friends, reading news stories online, posting my outrage to Facebook, stepping outside to take phone calls from other St. Louis natives who saw my Facebook post and had additional details not available via the Internet. I only took brief breaks from my phone to participate in traditional wedding activities and to greet the newlyweds.
After that day, discussions with my friends and family revolved only around Ferguson, firmly rooting my mind in St. Louis, even while my body went through the motions of academic life in Oxford, OH. I taught classes, attended meetings, and did my best to participate in professional life. But, I was most content at home, on my couch, with my TV tuned into whatever footage I could get of my hometown, and my phone ever-connected to other St. Louisans. I found myself on edge when I was outside of my home, tense any time someone mentioned Ferguson. I was falling behind on tasks, because if I had to choose between spending my evening doing my usual work or spending it tuned in and connected to home, I always chose the latter. I became this fierce public defender of information related to Michael Brown’s death, the city of Ferguson, the city of St. Louis, and the state of affairs on the ground. My body remained hundreds of miles away, while my mind, heart, and interest was at ground zero.
For a few months, I swung back and forth between the extremes of needing to feel close to home (and coping by gorging on every single detail of available information) and feeling overwhelmed with despair (coping by withdrawing as much as possible from taking in new information about the continuing unrest). The worst part about the overwhelmed side of my spectrum was the amount of guilt I felt for disconnecting from the news coverage and people who kept me afloat when I was on the other side of the spectrum. It felt selfish and shameful to take advantage of the freedom my physical distance allowed me to disconnect. How could I disconnect with peace of mind when my family and friends were living in the midst of a law enforcement-created battle zone without the option to simply turn off the television and continue business as usual?
There came a day when I became tired of feeling useless and ready to find an outlet for my angry, weary energy surrounding Ferguson. Aware of the deafening silence I’d built around me with people in Ohio, I reached out via text message to a group of Black colleagues and acquaintances, asking them to sign a petition related to Michael Brown’s case. I remember holding my breath when I sent that message, unsure of how people would receive it, as I had not heard any conversation about Michael or Ferguson from the people closest to me in Ohio. The supportive responses from within that group helped me to break my silence surrounding Ferguson with people at work, and to allow that conversation to spill over into my work life rather than being confined to the safety of my couch, my phone and other St. Louisans. Those responses opened me up to the possibility that I did not have to withdraw from social circles in my professional environment, and I could engage with co-workers around Ferguson and leave the conversation without feeling wounded.
That one text message thread, and the experience of sharing my inner turmoil with people who, at least on some level, “got it” helped me to begin opening up in other social circles. My perspectives on Ferguson, the value placed on Black lives, and the importance of Michael’s death was not always validated in those conversations, but I increasingly became better able to engage without needing to retreat into the safety of the St. Louis couch-phone bubble I’d constructed around myself. It took me time to get to that place, but once I arrived, I was ready to channel my energy and knowledge of events surrounding Ferguson into actions that would help me feel useful.
Losing Sam DuBose
On July 19, 2015, Samuel DuBose, a Black son, father, brother, and friend to many, was shot and killed by University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing. The officer stopped Sam DuBose because he did not have a front license plate. DuBose sustained a single gunshot wound to the head that killed him immediately. DuBose was unarmed. The week following his death, peaceful demonstrations took place in Cincinnati, Ohio in support of indicting officer Tensing. On July 29, 2015, officer Tensing was indicted and his body camera film was released to the public. The video showed officer Tensing shooting DuBose in the head almost immediately after stopping him, and the story that officer Tensing shared about Sam DuBose being a threat did not add up.
Cincinnati is not new to police officers having hostile interactions with Black men. In 2001, a Cincinnati police officer shot and killed an unarmed, 19-year-old Timothy Thomas in an alley. After this occurred, the city erupted. Over 800 were arrested for protesting, vandalizing, and demonstrating their unrest with the police continually getting away with killing Black bodies. The police officer was not indicted in this case, inspiring citizens in Cincinnati to respond in protest and eventually leading to the city being placed on a curfew. Timothy Thomas’ death, and the subsequent turmoil in the city gained national attention (Moore, 2012). The memory of that tragedy impacted the sense of urgency after the death of DuBose.
Mika’s Reflection. Events that have a significant impact on me stay imprinted in my mind. Especially when they are somehow personally connected to me. This was no different when I heard of the death of Sam DuBose. It was a Sunday, the day after I came back from vacation in Jamaica with my husband. I remember that day being a blur, being exhausted from getting home late the evening before. I remember feeling so tired but what I didn’t realize then was the emotional and mental fatigue I would continue to feel in the following days and weeks. Late that Sunday evening I was scrolling through Facebook and saw mention after mention after mention of a shooting in Cincinnati. As I looked further into who was involved in the shooting I saw that a White police officer (Ray Tensing) killed Sam DuBose, an unarmed Black man. I remember calling my husband from the other room to tell him what occurred. I was angry and sad.
I kept thinking, “AGAIN! Another Black man dying at the hands of the police. When will this end?” I couldn’t help but to think back to 2001 when Timothy Thomas, another unarmed Black man, was killed by a white police officer in my beloved city of Cincinnati. I remembered the officer in that case not being indicted. I remembered our city being on a curfew. I remembered the riots. I remembered the heartache and pain. I remembered feeling like justice wasn’t served. I couldn’t help but wonder if history would repeat itself and I would have to watch my vivid memories happen all over again in real time. For the sake of self-preservation, I had to disengage. I couldn’t be immersed in the news around Sam DuBose because the pain was too much. I remembered too vividly 2001.
Ten days later on July 29, 2015, we were informed that Officer Tensing would be indicted and be put on trial for the murder of Sam DuBose. I remember sitting in my office when I watched the live broadcast. I remember feeling nervous about what would happen. I remember making a deliberate choice not to watch the video of Sam DuBose being killed. I didn’t need the video. I already believed he was wrongfully killed. I always believed it because my memory from 2001 gave me no choice not to. I was attached to my computer. I kept watching Twitter and Facebook to see how my city would respond. What would my colleagues say or do? Did anyone care outside of Cincinnati?
I remember one of my friends texting me to come meet his girlfriend. I remember thinking, “he certainly hasn’t watched the news or been on social media today, why would he ask me that?” This encounter only further reminded me that people aren’t experiencing this tragedy the way I am because the tragedy was happening in my hometown. As well, it reminded me how disconnected I felt. I stayed at work that night until 8pm or 9pm doing meaningless work; I had to. I didn’t have the energy to be around people or to give in ways I always do. I couldn’t. A friend invited me to A Night of Hope, a program at one of the local churches in Cincinnati. I appreciated the offer but declined because I just couldn’t that night. I later watched the recording of the service from that evening and that was one of the ways I was able to begin moving forward and healing. Connecting to my faith and looking for ways to bring racial reconciliation to my beloved city with my brothers and sisters in Christ was the hope I held on to.
These memories stay imprinted on my heart and mind because they are connected to who I am and where I am from. Being a Black woman, I cannot help but feel deeply when another Black person is killed. I cannot let it go. The memory of when I found out about DuBose being killed will forever stay with me because it hit so close to home. When traumatic events happen, they just do not go away. Even when I think I have healed from them, a memory surfaces reminding me that is not fully the case. This reminds me healing is a process. It happens over time and in stages. I have to allow myself to fully heal, regardless of how long it may take.
How Tragedy (Near or Far) Touches Campus
Home is a space that is extremely familiar. For us, it is where many of our most significant memories were created and continue to exist, where we know the people and the culture, and where we felt the safest and most comfortable throughout our formative years. When we lost Mike and Sam, our communities mourned on national prime time, and we mourned alongside them. It was difficult to watch the deaths of these Black men replay repeatedly on television, knowing that either of them could have easily been one of our relatives. Given our connections to the communities in which these deaths happened, the safety of home slipped a little further away with these incidents. We each had moments when it was difficult to focus in our professional lives because our personal lives, our home lives, were in turmoil.
The impact of these tragedies on our home communities and personal lives highlights a specific problem: institutional leaders do not typically make the same considerations, accommodations, and supportive space for employees as they make for students when tragedy occurs. When tragedies occur, on or off campus, institutions have an opportunity to use these incidents as learning tools. Inhabitants of institutions dedicated to education, holistic development, and preparing global citizens, should seize opportunities to react to and foster conversation around national news events. When the news involves tragedy, the opportunity is extended even further, to offer care and support to all within our communities who may be directly or indirectly impacted.
When institutional leaders neglect to publicly address tragedies, institutional constituents may interpret the silence as a devaluing of their personal experiences and concerns. The intended goal/outcome of not addressing an (inter)national tragedy may stem from a belief that institutional boundaries are impermeable to tragedy that occurs elsewhere, or from a desire to appear neutral on controversial topics and news events. Unfortunately, members of the campus community who are impacted by that tragedy may receive this silence as a lack of care or understanding.
Since our email exchange that opened this article, and the start to this joint healing process, we have lost several additional Black lives and countless other tragedies have struck communities both in the United States and abroad. While our experiences are just two in a multitude of people who are impacted by these types of tragedies and the news coverage of them, we hope that our stories have provided some useful implications for practice. However, we realize that readers may be pondering: Why does this matter? How does this impact student learning and development? What is the value in our stories, our struggles, our healing? Part two of this article will help to answer these questions by centering our personal experiences and offering recommendations focused largely on individual and networked support.
Our goals for this article are served if our experiences prompt conversation among others and help readers to consider the impact of community tragedy and tragedy in the news on their own lives and wellbeing. Below, are questions that may help spark reflection and dialogue.
- What do you believe is the role of a college and its administration as it relates to supporting employees in healing from tragedies?
- Are there news stories that resonate closely with you or have had a strong impact on you or a colleague or student? If so, how have you worked through the tough moments? If not, how might you prepare to work through those moments in the future?
- How can connecting with others be part of the healing process?
As you consider these questions, and other topics raised in part one of this article, we invite you to engage in conversation with us in the twitter-sphere. If you are willing, please share your thoughts, responses, and comments with us using the hashtag #BLMhealing. Our personal healing processes were aided by sharing it with one another. We hope the opportunity for a larger conversation can help you to reflect, share, connect, heal, and ultimately claim that your experience matters.
Moore, D. M. (2012). Mark Twain was right: The 2001 Cincinnati riots (2nd ed.). Portland, OR: Microcosm Publishing.
About the Authors
Mahauganee D. Shaw is a faculty member in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Miami University of Ohio. Mahauganee’s research focuses on moments of crisis and tragedy that impact campus communities, how institutions respond to such incidents, and the process of recovery and healing that follows.
Shamika N. Karikari is a doctoral student in the Student Affairs in Higher Education program at Miami University of Ohio. Shamika’s developing research agenda is focused on the experiences of Black women in student affairs leadership roles.
The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.