By Caitlyn Hunter
Special to the Pittsburgh Current
I don’t know what the interview that I am witnessing is about, but I can see it has taken something from her. She pauses, tenses her shoulders, and holds her hand over her face mask that reads “Jaylen Brown.” I watch as two women console her as her hands now become fists at her side, and the tears of her grief continue to flow. This is not the first march I’ve been to where I’ve witnessed this level of grief from an African American mother and felt uncomfortable, yet inspired by her grief. Somehow, though, this time feels different.
I watch the reporter, a blonde woman in a vibrant floral patterned dress, text on her phone as the cameraman continues to film. When Dannielle Brown walks by me, our eyes meet as she looks at the Duquesne insignia on my shirt. I want to tell her I remember her son’s accident as a student and teaching fellow there, how I, too, am from the DC area, how my mother is a fellow Soror, how her son’s death has validated my own feelings of unsafety, but instead I freeze. All I can do is tell her that I’m so sorry for her loss. As she walks away, I know my verbal condolence is not enough.
A black mother’s grief is visceral. This grief is so profound because it validates the fear that most of them have every time their children leave the house–that they may not come back safely. We are gut-punched when black women publicly mourn because we are helpless because black children are unjustly dying in this country in droves and it has been that way even before the founding of the Republic. Even worse, these children’s bodies are vilified as if to imply that they are responsible for their own unjust death.
Historically, it was the stories of slave women being stripped from their children at slave auctions that supported arguments around abolition. When Emmett Till’s body was returned to his family after his lynching, his mother Mamie Till Mobely made the conscious decision to allow media to photograph her son’s battered body in the coffin and funeral as an attempt to put a face on lynching, thus solidifying advocacy for Civil Rights. What we remember most about the eight minutes and forty-six seconds of George Floyd’s fleeting breaths is that he called out for his mother.
Marquis Jaylen Brown’s mother is no different. Her ongoing hunger strike at Freedom Corner will only be satiated by answers and justice for the untimely death of her son, known by family and friends as JB.
On October 4, 2018 football player and senior Duquesne University student JB Brown celebrated his 21st birthday by hanging with friends on campus. One of those friends offered him marijuana to which he took two puffs, and played video games. Between the time he left and returned to his room he told others that his stomach hurt. Video cameras in the elevator and in his dorm room hall show signs of him being physically distressed as the footage shows him dancing, moving erratically, skipping up and down the hallway, and coming in and out of his dorm room. Despite his roommate’s best efforts to calm JB down, one of Brottier Hall’s RA, a security guard, and two Duquesne Police officers were called to help with JB’s abnormal behavior.
What transpired next ended with JB falling sixteen flights out of a dorm window. Dannielle Brown was told by Duquesne authorities that her son took a chair and smashed a window before jumping. When she recovered his body she noted that JB’s face was perfectly preserved despite plummeting over 173 feet where only a small contusion on his forehead showed. She put her trust in an institution to keep her son safe, and yet he was returned to her in a casket. Something told her that something wasn’t right. She packed her things, called her family, and drove to Pittsburgh in search of answers hungry for the truth. In a rocking chair she has sat on Freedom Corner, refusing to eat until a proper private investigation was conducted. Her hunger for justice is unnerving so much so that the Pittsburgh community decided enough was enough. And so, on July 11th at 4:30pm we marched.
There is something undeniably powerful about the Black mother. Her unwavering ferocity knows no bounds because she is the pillar that holds her children up and tries to protect them, as best she can, from the evilness of this world. When I asked my mother why she named me Caitlyn, she told me it was because she wanted me to have a chance. At the time I didn’t understand what those words meant, but I continued to reap its benefits that allowed me access into predominantly white spaces, provided me with job interviews where my black friends with “ethnic” names had none. That name somehow made me appear less intimidating to white allies. But despite my name, my black body will always read as something as a threat, something that doesn’t belong.
In September 2019, the Pittsburgh Gender Equity Commission issued a report stating that Pittsburgh was the most unliveable city for black women. The report showed that Black women were most likely to be the least-paid in many fields, were more likely to be arrested for truancy in schools, accounted for two percent of the student body in both undergraduate and graduate programs in colleges and universities and if pregnant, have the highest infant-mortality rate, one that is unparalleled nationally. I am born from generations of Pittsburgh women. Women who had to leave this city to ensure their survival. Black women who are more likely to die here, than anywhere else in the country. I think about this as Dannielle Brown is resolved to the fact that she may die here looking for answers about what happened to her son just before he fell out of a dormitory window.
In my six years of living in Pittsburgh I have attended two institutions where the racial demographic of the student body is roughly 80 percent white. I have been one of two students of color in my department during graduate school and these experiences were often very lonely. I’ve had people challenge my authenticity of Black experience. I have been in classes where racial slurs were used unapologetically. I have had programs try to use me as a poster minority student or a success story despite my middle-class, second-generation college student background. I have had classmates make jokes about slavery in front of me, joke about my proximity to “whiteness,” or how I’m being “too loud.” I have had both students and professors ask me to “Blacksplain” material or look for my approval when appropriating Black culture. These are just a few of the ills that white students in my cohort will never have to suffer from; their complicity in allowing these microaggressions to happen is a choice that I’m never afforded. Being Black and educated is often an isolated space for students of color where our performance and functionality are constantly under the microscope. We are expected to be excellent. We are expected to be silent, and when we are not, we are often dismissed as a problem. It is often a long and lonely dance trying to figure out the right steps to ensure our survival and success. While I did not personally know JB, I knew and taught some of his teammates who expressed a similar exhaustion. I wonder if JB suffered from this isolated dance too.
In October 2018, a release from the president of the university distinctly claimed that a student had “jumped” from the 16th floor of Brottier Hall and there would be a vigil on campus sometime later that week. Out of respect for the family, this vigil would be closed to both the media and the public. I remember when JB died, I looked at the window from which he fell. I was walking to teach a class on James Baldwin’s “Notes from a Native Son” and gazed at the window, where something about the vacancy of space haunted me. I had been in Brottier Hall countless times before, and knew the thickness of those windows.
I took a picture of the window and sent it to my mother and told her the story. At the time we discussed the stigma surrounding black mental health. She told me that in law school, a Black classmate of hers opened a window at the university and just jumped. But, here there was no window to open. It had to be shattered. It took force, strength, and determination. I am told constantly that my strength is admirable but this strength is always tethered to my being both Black and a woman. Black men more often than not, are not held to this same standard. Weeks after his death, rumors circulated that “drugs” were found in Brown’s autopsy report which could have explained his erratic behavior. At the time, I questioned how any of that mattered in the grander scheme of a death snuffed out far too soon. I also wondered why mental health wasn’t the central focus, and why de-escalation tactics weren’t used to help this student who clearly was struggling so much that authorities on campus needed to intervene. Little did I know that his mother had the same questions.
Almost two years have passed since his death, and yet so much remains unknown. Black stories are often either amended or entirely eradicated from history. It is through oral traditions so deeply ingrained within Black culture that these stories become solidified. Through our voices, Black existence is made real and continues to thrive.
As I sat in the crowd of supporters I listened to Dannielle tell us about her son. I allowed her words to breathe life and resuscitate JB’s existence and demonstrate why his life and so many countless others mattered. No mother should have to starve herself to find out what happened to her son. No mother should have to fear that sending her child to school could mean sending him to his death. For us to rally in support of the value of Black life, should additionally mean that we protect Black mothers who simply want to keep their children alive.
Claudia Rankine said that the “condition of Black life is one of mourning.” I am tired of mourning. I am tired of being a silent witness to Black death and being reminded that at any point it could be a family member, a friend, or myself that could be next. At the march, Dannielle Brown and those who supported her, handed out decorated plates, each one with its own provocative message. As we marched towards Duquesne University with a battle cry in our hearts, we held those plates high above our heads in hopes that at least one mother would get her just desserts.
Caitlyn Hunter is a doctoral student at Duquesne University. She is an adjunct professor of English at the Community College of Allegheny County. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham and resides in the Pittsburgh area.