I stood outside in a dark alley in January. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. A 21-year-old Black man was shot three days prior. My neighbor Cynthia ran out and found him bleeding under an alley light. She held him while he died with three gunshot wounds to his chest.
This night, family, friends, and neighbors came to hold space for a life lost. For all he could have been and the children he will never have. They came to celebrate Charles (Chucky). To honor him. Mourn him. Remember him.
I was an outsider. Not in the community—it happened on the corner outside where I live—but I was an outsider in the Black community, and particularly to this crew of folks.
I met Chuck, Charles' father. Then I met his sister as she was handing out candles with her cousin. This small gathering started in the street and then we moved a few dozen feet into the alley where he died. Young Black men, grandmothers, and cousins gathered. We held candles and blue balloons. The snowflakes were falling in light, big flakes and small specks of glitter. The sky was clear with stars twinkling bright.
One of Chucky’s football teammates at Northside High spoke via FaceTime. He now plays on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL. It was humbling to see such a sturdy man him tear up as he said, “One of ours made it far today, and one of ours was taken too early.”
Chucky’s sister continued to remind us that her brother was never on the streets. He didn’t play that way. He was a football player. He was a musician. He left college early to come home and take care of his mama who was sick. She died just weeks before.
Someone in the circle was Facetiming the vigil. It felt voyeuristic and insensitive. Her narrating interrupted the stories of the family present.
Chucky’s dad spoke with such passion as he pleaded with the young men there to choose a nonviolent life. His dad was from the block, but Chucky was different. He was focused and compassionate and goal-centered. He was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Someone’s cell phone went off. Chucky’s sister spoke again. She recalled all the specific details about her brother to ensure they won’t be forgotten.
There was one White guy present and I didn’t recognize him. I was curious about his role or what relationship he had with Chucky. After the speeches, he formally asked that we pray together. And the energy shifted. I don’t know if the folks who were present (or the family) are people of faith. I hope so, because if not, the next eight minutes felt incredibly aggressive and disconnected from the moment.
Did the organizers of the vigil ask what belief system the family had? Was this spiritual guide connected to the family? Or their son? Did they request that he use it as a pitch to join Jesus on his journey? I am all about Jesus, but the timing felt dissonant to the rest of the evening’s events.
When the prayer was over and the phone was silenced, folks took a breath and then released blue balloons into the air. Blue is Northside High’s color. We watched as many of the balloons floated high into the sky. Then we watched as a handful got caught in the tree we were standing near. And in the electronic wires lining the alley. It honestly flattened the mood and took the wind out of our sails.
It was then that someone lit up a cigarette. Another started the music, and a few took the stout whiskey bottle, opened it, and began passing it around. The vigil continued to allow us all to grieve and give honor. Out of the Bluetooth speaker came the “N word”, “f**k”, “d**m”.
Chucky had been pursuing his musical career and was able to record a song. A song that spoke to his pain and captured his culture. This is what they were playing. His dad stood over the trash can where the speaker and candles were. He was connecting with his son’s voice and music. Soon he was dancing with his daughter on the icy grooves etched in the alley by cars and trucks. They were holding each other and swaying back and forth. Crying. Mourning. Celebrating.
When the song was over, the sister announced that Chucky had written a song for his mother while he was caring for her on her last days. He played it at her funeral last month. She was playing it now. In the cold alley where he took his last breath.
The song spoke of legacy. It spoke to not being here anymore. Being missed. To making the most out of the life you have left.
It was timely and devastating all at once.