I added When They See Us to my list on Netflix the moment it was available on the streaming service. The miniseries looked interesting, and the online discussions told me two important things: It was based on a real event, and it was created by the brilliant director Ava DuVernay. While those details drew me in, the recaps that discussed the age and experiences of the victims terrified me.
As a mother of two young black children, I didn’t know if my heart could stand another depiction of trauma on black youth. I stalled for as long as I could and even managed to forget about it for a few days. But when my brother asked, “What’s this?” and my husband mirrored his curiosity while making a selection for family movie night, I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer.
I clearly remembered the setting three years ago in which I first heard of the “Exonerated Five,” initially called the Central Park Five, so I told them what I’d heard. Still, nothing could prepare me for the reality of watching their experiences retold on the screen in our living room, especially through the eyes of five young black boys.
Often, we depict the transgressions of the criminal justice system through the lens of black manhood. It’s a valid and important perspective, but it marginalizes black girls and women by making their experiences seem less severe in comparison. It also hurts the black community’s ability to talk about the experience of those who will never reach black manhood or haven’t yet reached that age-based milestone. While it’s true that black men are the face most often used to depict the abuses the black community faces at the hands of the American criminal justice system, that approach misses so much.
Not only does that lens overlook the specific gender-based and racialized pain experienced by black girls and cis/trans women, it also leaves black boys such as the Exonerated Five out of the discussion. There is immense power in DuVernay’s ability to tell a story that takes place during the period of boyhood.
An obvious reason to tell the story that way is that they were young boys who were robbed of many of youth’s experiences by an anti-black and inherently corrupt criminal justice system. The other reason is to challenge the criminal justice dialogue. Black men are former black boys, and all too often they have that period of innocence stolen.
For me, that’s where much of the power of DuVernay’s depiction comes from. Each episode forces us to stop thinking of the abuses of the system as a black man’s problem, since doing so both desensitizes us and enables us to make excuses and place responsibility on the actions of an adult victim.
Instead, we see a story told through the tear-filled eyes of five young black boys who were abused, coerced, and manipulated in a way that is unacceptable. They were children.
In severe pain, I watched the story unfold, episode by episode, through the lens of black motherhood.
The collective memory was triggered, and my trauma was in full force. I felt my mind return to black children on the auction block while white families placed bids in hopes of buying their labor potential during slavery. My heart hurt as thoughts of a time when freedom was a legal status but not upheld, and young black children swung in the breeze as their bodies hung from trees, crept into my head. I saw the decades of mob justice that connected to the story of Emmett Till and who knows how many other black boys whose lives were stolen by white terror.
Despite having happened at various times throughout history, all of those events had one thing in common: All too often, black motherhood means existing on high alert, waiting for the moment you will fight for the safety of your children against one of the many manifestations of white supremacy. Black motherhood means often being powerless, but determined to fight to the finish regardless.
I’ve seen this unwavering spirit depicted on the screen more times than I can count. I’ve also witnessed it in my mother, as she fought a school system that attempted to criminalize my brother and me. And I’ve seen it in myself as I prepare for the day I will fight for my children.
I saw my son’s future in the eyes of those young boys. My fictive kinship was in full force. I wanted to wipe their tears, kiss their faces, and nurse their wounds as I would do for my own son.
“Those are our boys,” one woman said in the second episode, and I cried. ALL black boys are MY boys, and I wanted to go back in time and fight for my boys.
The first episode broke me. I could see the signs of emotional discomfort on my brother’s and my husband’s faces, too. I was angry, I was terrified, and I was in pain.
Watching those boys be ripped away from their lives, and particularly their mothers, was too much for me. Truthfully, I didn’t know if I could continue watching the series. But if they were forced to live it, I was determined to watch it.
Somehow, I made it through.
I'm well aware of the systemic inequities in our criminal justice system. I know that my husband, my brother, and (later on in life) my son already have two strikes against them for being dark-skinned black males. I know my daughter isn’t free either.
When They See Us forced me to envision a not-so-distant future, when my children will get a first glimpse of the system that doesn’t give black children a grace period.
It was indescribably heart-wrenching to watch. But unlike the black mothers before me, my first glimpses of what’s to come have been mostly through media. I’m fearful yet grateful that black life is being depicted in a way that validates our experiences while allowing others to witness the ugliness of the system that dehumanizes us.
The series reminded me to hold my son tighter, love him harder, and be prepared for the inevitable day that I fight for my children.
As I wait, I extend gratitude to the foremothers who showed me the ropes and were forced into sacrifice before me. And when that time comes, I intend to win—for all of us.
A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a diversity content specialist whose work can be read in The Washington Post, InStyle, The Guardian, and other places. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
This post was written through our Daily Kos freelance program.