If I close my eyes, I can see them.
And if I quiet myself, I can hear them.
Their voices carry on the wind like the tune from chimes floating in the distant breeze.
Who are you?
Where did you come from?
When you dreamed, what did you dream of?
What is your story?
What was your name before they gave you that name?
Was the name passed down through our family?
Am I your descendant?
I stare at my face and wonder if I look like you.
I try to put faces to shadows.
Can I find pieces of your memory in cotton fields and red mud?
Scattered bones in unmarked graves that attempt to erase you from history.
But you were here.
I found your name…I found you
And in finding you, I found me.
I wrote the poem, “Finding Me,” when I returned to the United States after spending two weeks in Dakar, Senegal. While I was in Dakar, I took part in a naming ceremony that was designed for those on the trip. We were told it is a tradition in Dakar that children are named after someone with the characteristics they hold. I was named Binta, which means: with God, a healer, seer, and truth speaker. I embraced the name and wondered where my given name, Hannah, came from.
I was named after my grandmother. Where did her name come from? Unfortunately, my grandmother died when I was just nine years old, so I could not ask her. All of my grandparents died when I was very young, and any history of the names in our family died along with them.
When I returned from Senegal, I spoke to my mother about the trip. I told her about my experience standing in The Door of No Return on Goree Island. I tried to imagine how it would feel to be separated from my family and placed on a slave ship to go to a world I had never known. I could not imagine the horror, the confusion, and the devastation. As I told my mother this, she told me, “Hannah, when I was a young girl, I used to pick cotton in a field.” I was speechless. My mother was 70 years old, and in all my years of living, she had never told me this story. She proceeded to tell me how, when she was just nine years old, her grandmother would get her and her siblings, and they would get on a bus and go to the cotton fields and pick cotton for 80 cents a day. I had never heard my mom speak about her grandmother, and I asked her, “What was her name?”
The names of many Black women are often lost to history.
And she replied, “I cannot remember. We only called her Mamie.” Her name, like so many others in my family, was simply gone. Forgotten. A part of me that I would never know. A part of me that I would always be searching for.
In my search, I found myself in Natchez, Mississippi. I traveled there to work with a group of young, Black women called Girls N Pearls to explore their history and heritage through spoken word. I thought I was going to Mississippi to help them; I never knew going to Mississippi would fill holes in me I never knew I had. Traveling to Natchez, Mississippi, was like traveling back in time. I watched the asphalt road turn to gravel and the flags signifying the Confederacy wave in the wind. Then I saw them. As far as my eyes could see, fields and fields of cotton.
I knew that I had to get to the cotton fields, and I started visiting plantation homes. I visited many plantation homes. They were, admittedly, stunning, with elegant furnishings and the original china at the dinner table. After a while, they all started to look alike, and finally, I asked one of the tour guides, “Show me where I would have been. Where are the slave quarters?” And she said, “Oh, we have bricked those all over and turned them into offices.” Once again, my history was gone.
I struggled to reconcile that as I toured the next plantation that had over 1,800 acres of cotton. Who I was, who my mother was, was lost in these cotton fields. My great grandmother, whose real name I never knew, was lost in these cotton fields. I slowly walked into the fields, cotton around me, and bent down, running my fingers along the cotton before picking it. The sun was beating down on me, and I thought about my trip to Africa, my mother in the cotton fields, the history that I would never know. The names of my family that were forever erased from history.
The names of many Black women are often lost to history.
Even now, as I recall my friend calling me and telling me, “The LMPD killed a Black woman last night.” I had not heard it on the news or read about it online. “What do you mean the LMPD killed a Black woman?” Surely this was newsworthy. He proceeded to tell me about the Louisville Metropolitan Police Department entering Breonna Taylor’s home and shooting her eight times.
She existed. She was here. She lived. She breathed. She had a future. And she had a name.
Breonna Taylor was yet another victim in the long line of Black victims of police brutality. But many of the names I knew—Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Philando Castile, John Crawford, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice—many of the names that have become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement were Black men’s names.
I had to search deeply for the names of Black women. I thought of my name, my daughter’s name, which just so happens to be Brianna. I thought of the name of my mother, the name of my great-grandmother lost forever, and something inside of me said, “Not today. Not now. Never again will a Black woman’s name be forgotten. Her name deserves to be remembered.” She would not be another Black woman, erased. She would not be another Black woman, similar to Alberta Jones, who never found justice in Louisville. She would not be a memory hidden underneath bluegrass and bourbon. She existed. She was here. She lived. She breathed. She had a future. And she had a name. A name that this city and this nation needs to remember.
Her name was Breonna Taylor.
She was a Black woman.
She was 26 years old.
She loved to dance.
She loved the color blue and butterflies.
She was a young woman in love.
She is more than just a hashtag that will be replaced by another hashtag. She is more than an incident report that didn’t offer her dignity in death, to tell the truth of her murder. Breonna deserved better. Black women deserve better in this city.
Louisville has been my home for the past 22 years. It is where I have raised my daughter, Brianna. I have dedicated my work to speaking to the people of Kentucky about race and equity. I have shaken hands with the Governor, dined with some of the richest people in the city in their homes, and have spoken at almost every major venue in this city. I have written articles in the local paper, and I was selected as one of the Best of the Best in the city for poetry. I was selected as a Daughter of Greatness by the Ali Center. Still, none of that mattered. It is in Louisville that I found myself teargassed on a downtown street just for screaming, “Say her name, Breonna Taylor!” It is in Louisville that I found myself running to safety from police, who were decked in full riot gear. It is in Louisville that I found myself behind a police line trying to get them to understand why we are screaming for justice in the street. It is in Louisville where I cried as others celebrated when Breonna’s Law was passed, banning no-knock warrants within the city. I cried because I knew it came at the loss of a young, Black woman. It is in Louisville that I was reminded as a Black woman, I will always be screaming to be heard.
However, I refuse to be silent. This city, this state and this nation have silenced Black women long enough.
It is in Louisville that I was reminded as a Black woman, I will always be screaming to be heard.
So, I say her name, Breonna Taylor. I say her name loudly. I say her name often, fighting back the tears. I find myself whispering her name. I find myself pausing as I say my own daughter’s name, Brianna. I find myself taking Breonna’s name in my mouth, chewing it and spitting it out boldly for the world to hear. I say her name along with the other Black women that have died and that have been forgotten in the dialogue about Black lives mattering. Shantel Davis, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Yvette Smith, Shereese Francis, Aiyana Jones, Breonna Taylor. Women. All Black and all women, which at times is a double-edged sword — race and gender — where rock and a hard place often collide.
This essay was originally published in The Bitter Southerner.
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