Facing Ugly Truths

Anyone who knows me, or has read any of my writing, knows that I often say things that rub people the wrong way. Over the years I have offended, alienated and infuriated more people than I can count, and by and large I haven’t cared. But today I got an email from someone that was upset by something I had written—an offhanded remark that I barely gave a second thought to—and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was so profoundly moved by what this person had to say, that after I was done crying, I realized I needed to address the matter.

First of all, let me say that out of respect I will not be reprinting any of the person’s email. That said, the email was regarding something I wrote in my semi-regular column, T-Shirt of the Week. In this particular edition, I mentioned two guys that I grew up with, Tyrone Wilson and Terry Boyd, who in 1986 were convicted on felony murder charges. Terry and I were never friends—he took my bike when I was about six-ears old, and he broke it. But Tyrone and I had been friends from second grade until the time my mother and I left Connecticut. One of my most vivid memories of Tyrone—one that I have never shared with anyone—was the day he showed up at my grandmother’s house after school, and asked me to help him with his reading homework. He was a year or two older than me, but he had been held back twice, so we were in Mrs. Church’s second grade class together, and he could barely read. That was over 30 years ago, but I remember being really confused, and wondering why he was such a bad reader, and why he would want my help. My grandmother told me that it didn’t matter that he was a bad reader; what mattered was that he needed help, and he had come to me.

In my T-Shirt of the Week column where I mentioned Tyrone and Terry, I casually referred to their victim as “some woman,” and in all honesty, in the 22 years since the crime, I have never thought of her as anything else. But today, I got an email from someone who knew and dearly loved that “some woman”—“Mary”, a wife, mother, aunt and friend to many that was senselessly killed when she walked in on Tyrone and Terry robbing her house.

The murder of Mary has always seemed like a pivotal moment in my life. I grew up in an environment not unlike Tyrone and Terry—poor black kids raised in an affluent, predominantly white community. I was surrounded by many of the same people, and many of the same temptations. There was alcoholism and drug abuse in my family, and relatives that openly broke the law as a means to earn an income. And when push comes to shove, I could have just as easily walked the same path as Tyrone and Terry, who were not that different than me or many of the other men in my family.

There comes a time in the life of many black men in this country when they can begin to start counting the friends and relatives that are dead or in jail. And if you possess any sort of self awareness, you look at your own life, and wonder how it was you avoided a similar fate as your best friend, or your cousin, or your father, any one of whom may be doing hard time or lying in a box.

For the past 22 years, every time I thought about Tyrone, I wondered what it was that happened in his life that led him down his particular path. I thought about how the decisions he made had affected his family and friends, and I have always wondered what it was that made him and Terry do what they did. And I have wondered how it was that I avoided the paths that led them to that fateful day when they hit Mary over the head, and threw her into a swimming pool, leaving her to drown. But I must admit—and it shames me to say this—I never really thought about Mary or her family. In fact, up until this moment, as I write these words, I have never even used her name. She has always been “some woman.” And until I got that email today, I never realized how wrong that was.

The day my cousin told me what Tyrone and Terry did, I was left wondering how anyone could do something like that to another person. To place such little regard on the life of another person is unthinkable to me. And yet, for 22 years, in my own way, I placed little to no value on Mary’s life as a fellow human being. She was never a person so much as she was the end result of something very bad that an old childhood friend had done. And while I was not responsible in any way, shape or form for her death, I have been complicit in dehumanizing her for over half of my life. And for that I am sorrier than words can ever express.

It is very easy for each and every one of us to strip others of their humanity. Most of us do it all the time in subtle ways that we don’t even think twice about. It is especially easy to dehumanize people when they are associated with something bad. War and crime are the direct result of the innate ability to dehumanize other human beings. In my mind, without ever realizing I was doing it, I had managed to dehumanize Mary. Maybe I did this subconsciously, because it made it easier to deal with the fact that someone I had helped learn how to read was responsible for her death—that someone I once considered a friend, had done something so terrible to another human being.

The person who sent me the email that led to what I’m writing asked me how I would feel if my mother or aunt had been killed, and then I read about it in such a casual and flippant way as I had written about Mary’s killing. The answer to that is simple: I would feel terrible. I would be enraged. I would wonder what kind of scumbag asshole could possible dehumanize my loved one in such a casual manner. And yet, here I am, that kind of scumbag asshole.

If the person who sent me the email is reading this…well…I know there is no way I can apologize. At the same time, I hope they know how much I appreciate them taking the time to share their feelings, and helping me take a good long look at myself.

There is not a single person who can undo the past. What we have done, and what has been done to us can never be changed. But that does not mean we are incapable of changing how we do things in the present. Each of us should strive to be a better person today than we were yesterday. And we should hope that tomorrow we will be a better human being than we are today. And there are times in our life when we must face the ugly truth that we have not been as in touch with our own humanity as we could be, and as a result we have deprived others of the humanity we are working to attain. Today was one of those days for me. I can’t change what I did. But I will try my hardest to not do it again.

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