Why Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” Is The Torturous Masterclass In Systemic Assault
When they say boys they’re not talking about us. When did we get to be boys?
As the daughter of Nigerian parents who followed the mass exodus of the early seventies from a war-torn country, thanks to the failure of Biafra and the remnants of an uncertain future, my eventual conception and birth in the United States of America was considered the ultimate blessing.
The family of four that included the addition of a younger brother, departed the temperate Midwest for the systemized chaos of the unregulated wilderness of a former colonial territory, that was ablaze with the normalized disease of bribery and corruption, that filled the path to much-needed progression with potholes of nationalized dysfunction.
As civil servants, my parents had bought the falsehood of how returning to your homeland with foreign degrees would somehow make the trajectory of enjoying the fruits of your labor seamlessly attainable.
Unfortunately the only way to survive the gangster era of bloody military coups, scarcity of homegrown resources and accessibility to basic amenities, was to convert into a tribal hoodlum, with the motivation to do whatever it takes to sustain a functional household.
My childhood was decent, although the shock of being uprooted from the comfortable existence of Kansas City to the heated metropolis of Lagos, did pose a myriad of challenges that only worsened once I entered boarding school at the age of eleven.
But as we all know, it takes the tousle with grittiness to build a tough exterior, and so while my parents weathered the terrain of navigating career goals without stepping on the booby traps of standardized gluttony — I was also tasked with the assignment of keeping my head above water under the care of cruel housemistresses — while counting down the days to my heavenly departure for the birth country that was waiting to rescue me.
The first thing that struck me when I cautiously submitted myself to the poignant four-part Netflix series When They See Us, which was spectacularly written, produced, and directed by the national treasure known as Ava DuVernay — was the glaring fact that those boys were around my age at the time of their unfortunate encounter with the jaws of a bigoted machine.
Another jarring realization that hovered was the juxtaposition in the circumstances that cradled our destinies.
Towards the end of 1989, I was a sixteen-years-old student who was trying to get through her A-levels in anticipation for the triumphant return to America to begin a new life on a college campus, that would yield the promise of better tomorrows without the buzzkill of a stiflingly warped society.
Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise were teenage boys (NOT MEN), based in the city of my dreams, New York, who were entrapped in a furious war, that featured a treacherous battlefield, with the poisoned shrapnel that was aimed at the formulated pungency of darkened hues.
It was an indescribable rattling effect that overcame my senses as I endured the irony of how elated I was to escape the crippling disposition of my homeland for the embrace of my civilized and tolerant birthplace, just as five American boys of color were being brutally persecuted by a toxic judicial system, that continues to follow those deadly blueprints without skipping a beat.
Africans in America during the sixties and seventies were righteously misled by White supremacists, who pretended to care under the guise of stealing ownership of a narrative that they recklessly distorted with multitude of lies about how American-born Blacks were the scum of the earth with lazy tendencies, and acute envy for African Blacks, who were able to successfully assimilate in the country that graciously nurtured their ambitious pursuits.
But thankfully, young adulthood permitted the the architecture of my own personalized views based on experience and observation.
And the summation of my thoughts as an American-born Nigerian definitely makes When They See Us particularly torturous to internalize when you consider the early years of heightened anticipation, that was boosted by the encouragement of my naive parents, who are now well-aware of how the country they idolized betrayed them through the tinted lenses of disingenuousness.
America was never beautiful. America was never blessed by God. America was never built on the foundation of equality. America never extended the duty of humanness to non-Whites.
Slavery never ended.
Ava DuVernay has created a canvass of love for Black and Brown eyes that hurt as much as it validates the awfulness of never-ending pain, that stings the eyes and pierces the heart with stark imagery of the outright violation of our bodies in motion.
Yes, it was hard to watch the tearful pleas and desperation from helpless parents, who were forced to witness the pulverizing process of the Black and Brown bodies that they made with the hope that they would flourish without incidence.
Yes, it was hard to watch these Black and Brown children being categorized as adult villains in a scheming pact that featured White men and White women scrounging around like a pack of wolves with deadened eyes and salivating demeanors gathered for the slaughter.
But the hardest part was recalling how eager I was as a youngster to claim a country that I thought was pure and fair, when it was and still is the basin of hell for those who resemble my template.
I could’ve easily been the sister or cousin of one of the Black teenage boys. A regular lad with an adventurous spirit, and all the makings of a future success, with the great misfortune of fitting the slot that mandates entry into the criminalized cells of a biased society.
The brutal truth is that I could still be the sister of a Black man who tries to reach for his wallet, and gets hit multiple times by bullets from the gun of a rogue White cop. And I might have to deal with a gang of White men with badges, beating me down so hard that I can barely keep my frock on my battered and bruised Black body, while White patrons capture, upload and share for the highest bidder.
Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece is surely a masterclass in the systemic assault of Black and Brown bodies. And that thorough education that graphically details the demonization of Black children by the cowardly product of Whiteness, has been diligently prepared for the palettes of clueless White folks, who annoyingly challenge the endorsement of their privilege on a daily basis.
One of the lines from the dramatic series that hit hard was when one of the boys who was released as a scarred man, asked:
When they say boys they’re not talking about us. When did we get to be boys?
And that’s the crux of the nightmare that gripped the innocent lives of these poor young souls, who were swiftly enslaved by the supremacy of Whiteness, that dictates the urgency of stealing away the youthful zeal that White teens are able to rambunctiously indulge in with little or no interference from those who cosign that level of freedom until darker hues come into focus.
Exactly thirty years later, and the practice of vilifying Black youths with threats and fatal bullet wounds is still the standard default for law enforcement.
Not too long ago, a twitter account belonging to the Baltimore Police, unleashed a severe warning to officers in the downtown area, who were responding to an active situation that might have mimicked that night in 1989, when Black youths congregated at Central Park, and a handful were plucked for systemic extinction.
In 2019, a high-ranking officer can tweet out his extreme tendencies for the world to see, under the tutelage of a bigoted president, who once waged a highly-visible campaign to have five Black and Brown teenage boys slaughtered for a crime he knew they didn’t commit.
Sgt. Mike Mancuso can lawfully order his officers to treat Black kids like hardened criminals if need be — which is code for “kill first, and keep it moving.”
What America exacted on the primed fragility of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise is not only gross miscarriage of justice, but it represents the undiluted verses of America’s hidden National Anthem with the supremeness of the original American Horror Story.
This why we kneel.
This is why the ugliness of a currently terminal nation can be botched by a self-professed White nationalist, who refuses to acknowledge the role he played in the quest to suffocate the lives of five American teenagers, who were easily expendable in his eyes
This is why the horrid White police officers and embattled persecutor Linda Fairstein are able to sleep very well at night, despite the undisputed facts that prove how so very wrong they were, and why the potency of Whiteness can effortlessly handle the burden of guilt with the banner of how Blackness is evil enough to take the lifelong suffering that’s deemed appropriate by calculating beasts of a mercilessly flawed system.
The America that I envisioned when I was young and impressionable enough to be dangerously influenced, has been revised to accommodate the bleaker and dire translation that terrorizes the consciousness, but empowers the gratified restoration of reality.
The gruesome assault of Black and Brown children is the unforgivable sin that this country will never atone for because of the blasphemous elements that even God in his omnipotency won’t be able to wash away with the floods of cleansing.
This isn’t just a “black thing.”
White mothers and fathers can gawk with distanced fascination at the horrors of Black parenthood, but best believe that this blotted legacy of callousness that assaults our wombs and imprisons our young, is yours to claim, thanks to your pandering of Black pain and blissful inaction.
When you watch the skillful delivery of When They See Us, please pay attention to the expert commandeering of stellar cast members, and the way they instinctively respond to the bites of sorrow that consume their performances.
You have to see what they see, and when you do — there’s no turning back.
In the realm of Black and Brown, we can’t ever un-see it, but Whiteness will conveniently scrub away their stains with the limbs of our children.
Justice will never be served until we wipe away the supremacy in our midst using the same tactics of our oppressors that demands superiority at all costs.
The anger is good. The healing is power. Hunger for revenge is healthy.
Gratitude for visionaries is the currency for the security of our narratives that are packaged by us and for us.