At six I ran away when my mother changed the TV channel to watch the soap opera Secret Storm. At nine I tried to ‘kill’ myself for a reason I can’t even remember by suffocating myself under my mother’s faux fur coat. At sixteen I decided life wasn’t worth living because I always seemed to fall on the short end of the high school popularity stick. No matter what I did, or how hard I played people please, I’d never be one of ‘them.’ So I ignored my chest pains, hoped I was having a heart attack, and soon be in a place from all those I hated. But before you think my mother was monster incarnate, when I ran away, she helped pack my brown paper sack, called neighbors and my grandmother to look out for me as i walked the five blocks to Mama Sue’s house. Not quite understanding why I was curled under her coat, she did ask several times if I was hot. Like an idiot I replied yes. And when she caught on I was having chest pains, she rushed my Black arse to the doctor, and saved ’Black mama’s’ lecture after my chest ligaments torn in gymnastics had healed.
In other words, my complicated mother loved me.
In other words, my perception of that love was complicated.
In other words, complicated love wroughts complications, including pain.
And in that vein the Lionel Tate story reached me.
You remember Lionel Tate. At the age of twelve the state of Florida tried him as an adult for the beating death of six year old Tiffany Eunick. Found guilty of first degree murder, in 2001 he was sentenced to life. When an appellate court overturned his conviction in 2003 he took a plea deal that let him out of jail, but on probation. This year, Tate was charged with robbing a pizza delivery driver at gunpoint. It’s also been alleged that he gave a friend a gun owned by his mother. For the last seven months he’s been in jail, and on Friday before his trial began, Tate sent a note to the court saying voices in his head were telling him to kill himself.
Lionel Tate is a child. He’s eighteen, which makes him an adult under certain laws, but in terms of life experiences, he’s a child. At eighteen we think we’re grown. We try to act grown. We may dress grown. Life may force us to be grown. But for most of us, we’re not as grown as we play it.
Lionel Tate is angry, pained, and belligerent, and his actions reflect those of one who has either never felt or no longer believes they will feel love. At eighteen, Lionel Tate finds death a preferred alternative to living. Just writing the words … a deep thick vise of blackness wrapped around my heart … even after I decided Lionel Tate was playing the court and us.
“Voices in my head are telling me to kill myself therefore I’m incompetent” Tate took the time to also tell the court the Florida law that says where a defendant’s competency is in question a hearing is required and the defendant is entitled to a psychological evaluation. Additionally, he mentioned that one of the voices in his head was his public defender’s, who didn’t believe he was incompetent and refused his requests to order a psych eval. All in all, it sounds like someone who knows he’s guilty, but if it worked on Law and Order, then … It’s also what you expect from unloved children who have suppressed all their world’s ugliness.
I don’t believe Tate is incompetent. I don’t know if he is guilty of robbery, but suspect he is. I do know locking him away for life will be just as big a mistake now as it was in 2001 and as setting him free was in 2003. Lionel needs serious therapy to work through all his issues, if he’s willing. But his window of opportunity is rapidly shutting where he just becomes another ‘Black man lost statistic to be used as a poster child of all that is wrong.’
The windows that are still open are those all around us. Those that represent the little girl who wants to run away, kill herself, or just die. Those where we look in everything looks normal, but under the surface, just past the R. Kelly records, things are really askew. Those that we pass by, but in haste to live our lives, we forget to give life to the face pressed against the pane.
For me, it was my maternal grandmother and a high school teacher who recognized the world in my window was blurred. Her unconditional love and his belief I had talent gave me hope that I held on to until I was strong enough to seek the right help to develop that belief in myself.
I am sending a letter to the court regarding Lionel Tate’s window. But I ask you, for the windows around you, by your actions, are you throwing out lifelines of help and hope, or creating more hells and holes?