The August 9, 2014 killing of Black 18-year-old Michael Brown by White Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson rocked the nation, transformed the Black and progressive activism landscape, and jumpstarted long-overdue discussions about racism in law enforcement. "Ferguson" is now synonymous with a youth protest mindset that reverberates throughout the streets of American cities, college campuses and even the presidential election.
But as the nation flashes forward, Mike Brown’s family still has to pick up the pieces. This is the story his mother, Lezley McSpadden,* shares in her new memoir, "Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil." The first-time author sat down with Colorlines to talk about the person her son was, how her other three children are coping, and what it’s like to be famous for the worst possible reason.
In your new memoir, "Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil," you say that your son being killed messed up your whole world. What is one of your fondest memories of Michael?
On our last family gathering, we went fishing. We went to the fishing bank at about noon, and we didn’t leave until 6 o’clock. And within that timeframe, it was really hot outside, bugs were everywhere, and I got a headache. But, Michael was, like, “Mom, we cannot leave because I have not caught a fish yet.” And I was, like, “OK, Mike-Mike, we’re going to stay a little longer, but I got a headache.” Right at about five minutes to 6, he got a fish on his hook, swung that pole back and the fish flew over his head breaking the string. Then he said, “Now we can go, mom, because I caught me one.” I asked him, “You’re going to take it with you or you’re going to throw it back?” And he said, “Mom, I stood there all that time. I’m taking my fish.” It shows his patience. He didn’t jump in the water to get the fish. He didn’t get mad and throw the pole. He waited patiently. That was just my son.
What was a typical day like for you before your son Michael was killed?
I had ordinary days: Get up, go to work, make sure the kids get to school OK, go through my eight-hour shift, pick up my kids, start homework and make dinner. After dinner and homework, my kids would be looking at their favorite shows, playing games or going outside to jump on the trampoline. Just regular days.
How are your three other children doing?
In addition to Mike, I have a 17-year old daughter, an 11-year-old son, and a 7-year-old daughter. How are we coping? It’s hard to say. Normal doesn’t exist anymore, you know, because we can’t do anything that we used to do without this coming up, especially when we’re out in public. It’s hard because we don’t need to be reminded; we have to live with it every day. It’s hard for my kids to understand why and how it happened to their brother. We see therapists. It’s a day-to-day process for all of us.
I’m reminded, as you’re talking, of one day I was with Sybrina Fulton in the airport in Philadelphia. She was looking at a scarf in a store and people came up and asked to take pictures with her. I imagine it must be the same for you. How do you feel about that?
You don’t want to be rude or mean and say "No!" because some of it is just people being supportive. But sometimes I think people should allow you your space. If I’m window-shopping, let me window shop. If I’m shopping actually, let me shop. Try to help me feel somewhat like myself. That’s hard to do when the whole world knows who you are. People describe us as celebrities. We’re not celebrities. We’re mourning mothers trying to cope day-to-day. If [we’re] in a serene space, let us have that for 10 minutes.
Being a mother of four and working full-time, I would imagine you didn’t have a lot of time to do a lot of other things. Were you involved in any activism before this?
No, I wasn’t.
Did you develop a relationship with any of activists on the street in Ferguson?
Oh, yeah, several activists, several of the protesters, just several of the people. I don’t like to put labels on people, you know? I’ll say that I connected to many people that were in the streets of Ferguson during those days, and I have a connection with them.
Oftentimes in these situations—and we have seen it in Baltimore and in Cleveland—at some point activists want to go in one direction and the family is thinking another. What is the ideal relationship between the activists and the family?
When these things happen, it enrages lots of people and everybody is looking and wondering and asking, "What can I do? What should we do?" If you’re not a family member, the first thing they should do before you take action into your own hands is reach out to the family. Have a conversation with that mother or father or both and try to help them with what they would like to do because that is their loved one.
What’s the best solution when activists want to continue fighting for justice and push back on issues like families settling lawsuits with the city?
It’s up to the family. It’s up to the mom and the dad on what steps that they choose to take in getting the type of justice that they’re seeking for their loved ones. It’s not up to anybody else. This is not to say that activists don’t have a role to play. I think that activists and protesters have been really good at keeping the conversation going, because sometimes the family will get moments where they are weak because they’re still grieving. Sometimes when you’re missing the loved one, and trying to do your everyday, you need someone to be strong for you. But there still is a line that has to be drawn on who makes the decisions.
What do you hope will be the impact of the book?
What I’m saying in the book is my truth and Michael’s truth. I want people to know that what they saw in the media does not give you a sense of my son’s totality or his character. For me, as a mother, a Black woman and just a woman, I want other women to read the book and understand me and my truth.
Bakari Kitwana is the executive director of Rap Sessions, which is currently touring the nation leading town hall discussions on the theme “Election 2016: Reform or Revolution?” He is the author of the forthcoming "Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era."