Kendrick Johnson isn’t dead.
Ever since I first became inextricably bound to this story of a young man’s unusual and controversial death, I have simultaneously felt this unavoidable humility when addressing his family and supporters. This seems logical to most, and reasonable. Whenever someone has experienced a tragedy of such proportions, the deference for their life-altering, milestone moment demands respect, and unless you weren’t raised right, you effortlessly extend it to them – anything they’re bearing is paramount to any of your own personal convictions, motives or feelings.
When I realized that the Johnsons and their supporters were daily rallying in front of the Lowndes County Judicial Complex in downtown Valdosta, literally only a short 5-minute bike ride from where I was living, it baffled me that I wasn’t down there every single day with my bag of Nikons, my recorder and notebooks and favorite ink pens – the usual fairly hefty tools-of-the-trade which I have for what seems my eternity been carrying around in a Northface backpack which has been on every continent with me (except Antarctica, which will doggedly irk me until I check off the list).
International travels were for so long a source of pride – not smug pride, but gracious aknowledgment of being fortunate enough to have spent a solid decade globetrotting while freelancing for various magazines, websites and any other writer-friendly outfit with a budget and a shine for me. This year made me realize that no matter where I have traveled, there’s no place like home – no matter how big or small, the vicissitudes of life can be distinguished starkly against the familiar fabric of your own hearth. This was actually something that I had always been aware of, because of traveling abroad frequently. I quickly deigned that people were basically the same no matter where you went, were driven by the same fundamental desires and needs, were filled with the same emotions and conflicts whether in a Bedouin tent in the Moroccan Sahara or a trailer park infested with crack dealers and dirty-diapered babies whose parents weren’t much older, or smarter, or more mature. I also realized that some of the most intelligent and clever people could be found in the backwoods shacks with meth labs and/or whiskey stills a few yards out back tucked into the thick Georgia woods, whose genius exceeded even the greatest icons of music, or plain old hardcore hustling.
It’s just than in New York it’s called business, and in Michigan, Kid Rock (for instance).
When the story of Kenrick Johnson became central in my mind’s already-overflowing cache of urgent ideas and extraordinary-world-changing-stories-to-write, I was wrapped tightly in my latest phenomenal passion – the virtual currency called bitcoin. By far, bitcoin trumped every other story I’d become enthralled by, with global reach and actual heroic undertones which could put to shame most comic books, or blockbuster films.
But Kendrick Johnson distracted me, repeatedly, from the first split-second moment I glanced over at the Valdosta courthouse lawn and saw what I recall as being hundreds of agitated and clearly impassioned people. Since I’m well-traveled, and because I wasn’t raised as a typical Southerner whose deep-rooted family tree has a few “strange fruit” hanging from its ancestral boughs, I wouldn’t have noted that they were overwhelmingly black. You don’t see many groups of people gathered in this area, ever, red or yellow black or white (they are precious in His sight); maybe Wal-Mart, or church services.
So, undoubtedly I got the message, and my body instinctively responded by furrowing my brow and causing me to fidget from that moment until – well, months, I’d say. Yes, months, I fidgeted.
Couldn’t stop thinking about it.
There are many things I have to share regarding this tragic turn of events which led to Kendrick Johnson’s death, and I will get to them eventually. It’s important to connect when I feel compelled so I won’t lose you who might be engaged enough with the story like I am to keep coming back.
And there are stories, stories upon stories, facts and tidbits and reflections, flashbacks, ruminations and quandaries – all of which I know are important, historically relevant, and my obligation, an actual duty, to share. I just didn’t know where until recently.
Welcome to the place where every voice is heard, every side is considered, all perspectives balanced, weighed in and cataloged. Because this is serious, this is not just a small town ordeal for all of us crazy rednecks and cornbread aristocrats to deal with. No, this is an archetype, an epic tale Odysseus himself would consider worthy of his time and trouble.
When I say Kendrick Johnson isn’t dead it’s because he isn’t. I go to his grave now and then – before his body was exhumed, then afterwards, always taking my camera and my heart and my investigator’s brain. I visited him again a few days ago on his 18th birthday. What I notice, every time I go, is that I feel like I’m the only one who ever goes. This isn’t a reflection on his family, loved ones – they are busy forgetting that finality his grave represents while they ceaselessly carry a torch day in and out to bring truth from the shadows shrouding his mysterious undoing. The grass has now grown over the place where he is buried, with the same Harrington Funeral Home stainless steel plate with his name, year of birth and year of death – that’s it. And the same silk flowers, red ones, in the plastic vase, which were there the first time I visited, remain as the only other sign that beneath lies the body of a soul departed.
No fellow students have paid visits to this nearly unrecognizable, undiscoverable plot, apparently. The 3-sport athlete, I would have thought, would have had teammates and friends and girlfriends who couldn’t stop thinking about him and leaving trinkets dear to teenage pain – a striking and poignant strain of pain which no other period of life will come close to equalling. In my hometown, when a young person dies, you can see their graves from the highway flanking the cemetery because of all the “stuff” decorating the graves – streamers, football team banners, jerseys, their numbers, lockets, pinwheels, angels and necklaces and all manner of sentimental offerings to the too-young-to-die altar created for those whose minds cannot quite get over or let go of the person and the memories they made.
Why haven’t fellow classmates visited Kendrick’s grave?
I cannot stop asking myself, where are the tokens of teenage sorrow for a fallen comrade? Are they afraid, and if so, of what? Or is Valdosta, only 22-miles South of my hometown of Adel, so different in how their young respond to death? This question I would like to find an answer to…
For his family, I feel like the grave is insignificant in light of their daily protestations of how Kendrick disappeared from their lives. The day when I go there and see a headstone I think I will cry.
Because that’s when Kendrick Johnson, forever 17, will finally say good-bye – use that resting place as an exit from this world. He’s busy right now, in the middle of the fray, surrounding his family and sensing their pain and struggles. His presence is as palpable as the humidity and the heat – and is the only thing which makes it bearable, I’m sure, for his family and supporters who haven’t stopped their daily vigils in what must be one of history’s most determined protests.
(Note to self: good idea for an upcoming blog..) (Note to fellow bloggers…do not touch!)
CALL FROM JOSH:
A friend of mine called right before I sat down to write what was to be a succinct blog post. We exchanged general hey-how’s-it-going and then he said, “I’m thinking about this Kendrick case,” which flipped on the light switch in this big head of mine and shot laser beams out of my eyeballs strong enough to burn through sheetrock. Anytime someone wants to strike up a conversation about it, I’m game.
Josh, who happens to be black, and used to live in Florida where he says he was integrating schools in the 80s down there, understands the way “things work” down here in South Georgia. His friend Lamar, also black, likes to give me guff and tell me, “Robin, you will never be able to relate to a black person,” to which I gasp and bluster and scoff and roll my eyes and look at Josh and say, “Did you hear that, you hear how Lamar treats me, like I’m some dumb cracker, I swear.”
Josh didn’t say anything, let Lamar and I wrangle. Josh gets me better, apparently, since we spent about five hours under my house one day not too long ago plumbing my 107-year-old busted pipes. We spent a lot of “down-and-dirty” “real” time just talking – with the Kendrick case front and center. Lamar, on the other hand, is an up-and-coming businessman, retired military taking a full-load at VSU (with a 4.0), and hasn’t wanted to get involved with the case.
“Robin, you need to stay away from that, I’m telling you now,” he’s said, and I comeback with all kinds of reasons why I can’t do that, can’t help it, I was born this way, doing what my father conditioned me for, it’s my obligation, someone’s gotta do something, can’t just sit back and let things like this happen in your community, what if it was me in that mat Lamar, I’d hope you’d be protesting….
Lamar and I got into quite a duel over this subject but that, too, is another blog for another time, so don’t let me forget because it is relevant and I know would be interesting to others.
Josh expressed today this new calm, a kind of resolve that I – being white (okay, yes, I am white, by default, and not completely privy to everything my black counterparts feel, experience, know) – have not yet been coaxed into re-adjusting my highly-suspect perspective. When I expressed doubt as to whether a federal investigation with Michael Moore at the helm would result in favorable outcome, he dismissed me (although with the politic tact which Lamar doesn’t bother with, ever).
And another contact, someone who is a Twitter and email source from Texas and a diehard follower of the KJ Movement, told me to have more faith in Michael Moore.
So both of them have renewed faith in the same system which has more often than not let their particular racial demographic down.
When I hear this kind of new hope, which is a result of the national coverage and increasing volume level of the collective – and global, not just national anymore – voice demanding justice and #NoMoreCoverUp (e.g.), I’m reminded again that Kendrick Johnson is not dead.
His spirit hasn’t left the building. He has been referred to by KJ “insiders” (we’ll call them that for now, but again – another blog) who see him as a sacrificial lamb, an innocent chosen for a real and great purpose.
Kendrick, we all owe you one. Thanks for sticking around and sticking it out when the goings gotten weird and the snake pit’s roused and hissing – which for those of us still sporting our skins, plump with blood and full of air, can get a little nerve-racking.
Here’s to you, kid.