Artists Detour and Hiero Veiga, thank you for capturing these faces. Your work ensures that folks will say their names for a lifetime, and their innocent faces will never be forgotten. Your work is powerful and impactful — but the reality is, I am so sorry that you had to paint under these circumstances.
I just don’t want to see these works for their reality. When I visit the mural sites, these visual expressions of history tell a tragic but factual account of our world. However, when I close my eyes to picture the history that was supposed to be, I am reminded these stories are continuously hijacked from our communities. At the moment, my eyes close; it’s like being sprinkled with the fairy tales’ magical dust. Like Alice, I am focused on impossible things. My eyes are shut, and miraculously I am transported to an alternate dimension where the deep red roses on the mural for Breonna Taylor celebrate her accomplishments. The love, passion, beauty, courage and respect (the symbolism behind red roses) now celebrates an EMT turned nurse practitioner’s medical journey. The narrative now highlights Breonna purchasing a home in the community she loved, served and saved lives in. She delivered babies, educated against health factors in the Black community. She began to leave a legacy, like a Rebecca Crumpler or Justina Ford.
I am smiling ear to ear! I see Elijah McClain in concert with the Colorado Symphony, honoring the sounds of George Morrison Sr., Denver’s first Black violinist, the godfather of the big band who was not allowed to play in the symphony because of racism. Roses are being thrown on stage to acknowledge and honor Elijah’s bold and courageous melodies. Sounds that celebrate the quiet strength of humanity and the respect for all living creatures, even stray cats, because everyone thrives in this world.
Suddenly, it happens! Like the unexpected scratching on a chalkboard or a fatal collision on the highway, I open my eyes, and simultaneously tears roll down my cheek. I’m back, no more fairy tales and pixie dust. I hear the words and visual art of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America”! I hear the lyrics from Trick Daddy, “…Got a nice home and a Lexus truck — you a nigga. World champions and you M.V.P — you a nigga — 4 degrees and a Ph.D. — still a nigga…”.
I feel the tight and clammy grasp of my son’s hands as he asks, “How do we stay alive, Dad?”
How can we make people understand that Black lives matter?
The rush of emotions that collide inside me in the time it takes to blink literally feels like years. The palpitations of my heart actually hurt. The pain feels like a constant jabbing of needles as I form my lips to lie or let my son down by not having the answer. I choose the truth: “I don’t know, son.” The pain intensifies as I realize I do not know the answer. I can’t, with any degree of accuracy, promise him that I will always keep him safe.
A massive tear finally falls from the bottom of my beard and splatters as it makes contact with the pavement.
A teardrop for Breonna. A tear symbolizing the inequity that Black women continue to experience in America, whether it was the violation of their bodies at the hands of slave masters or the physical breaking up of their families. The tear is for the tyranny Black women face, the unreasonable strength and resilience they are forced to create and expend to survive. It is for their feeling unsafe and alone, the corporate injustice, and their very lives being taken away. I shed a tear for it all.
I look into Breonna’s deep, expressive eyes. Another tear plummets from my face, as I recall my mother’s experiences growing up in Louisiana during the ’50s and ’60s. These experiences made her cautious around and fearful of white people until she passed in 2015. From stories of school segregation to retaliation against Blacks for the illegalization of Jim Crow and overturning Plessy v. Ferguson, I shed another tear for how far we haven’t come.
Factually, it’s been but a moment, and my response is no difference in front of Elijah. My eyes open. Elijah went from “genius violinist” with bold and powerful melodies to an innocent young Black man, murdered for being unique and thirsty. A tear because Elijah is from my community. I see myself, my son, my brothers and my friends in him. A tear because his excellence was executed. A tear because his Black mother and sisters have to tap into unreasonable amounts of resilience and strength to survive. A tear because although there is action and mobilizing all over the country, at this moment, it feels like no one cares.
As an educator, I feel muted. I want to help students on their prospective educational journey manage the complexity of financial aid, admissions and internships. Yet what do I say about being shot eight times at home and having your life taken after doing everything right? What’s the point of nurturing musical genius and seeking opportunities if life can be cut short and ridiculed via social media? I shed a tear of frustration.
My friends, I am one person sharing but a moment with murals, sharing the internal anguish of about ten tears. Can you imagine what the hours, days, weeks and months feel like? What that feels like when amplified through an entire community?
Close your eyes and imagine that. Perhaps you will be compelled to join the race to equity. Maybe you will help the masses understand that all lives will matter when Black ones do. Maybe you will help create the stories that Detour and Hiero capture, where roses only create tears of joy.
Let’s execute the sorrow of society, not Black lives, joy or excellence!
Dr. Ryan Ross is a Colorado native currently serving as the associate vice chancellor for Student Affairs, Equity, and Inclusion for the Colorado Community College System, as well as the president and CEO of the Urban Leadership Foundation of Colorado.
Westword occasionally publishes op-eds and essays about matters of interest to the Denver community. Have one you'd to submit? Send it to email@example.com, where you can also comment on this piece.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.