They aspire to be businessmen, artists and president of the United States.
Some want to change their communities by removing blight and closing the wealth gap between whites and minorities. Others are bound for the military, historically Black colleges or the Ivy League.
These 18-year-old Black men from across the U.S. want to make their mark. But the nation’s long history of violence and oppression against African Americans suggests the odds are against them. A 2019 study by the University of Michigan, Rutgers University and Washington University found police use-of-force was the sixth-leading cause of death for young Black men.
Already, they have endured the trauma of watching video footage of other Black men, such as George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks and Ahmaud Arbery, die after encounters with police or neighborhood vigilantes. Some have been marginalized by their classmates, discriminated against by adults who were supposed to protect them. Others grew up surrounded by the hardness of poverty.
And still they celebrate their culture, passions and the promise of what adulthood might bring.
Tamir Rice was also meant to turn 18 this year. The 12-year-old Black boy was shot to death by a police officer in November 2014 while playing with a toy gun at a park in Cleveland.
A 911 caller reported someone pointing a gun at people and scaring them but indicated the suspect was possibly a juvenile and the gun was likely fake. The 911 dispatcher never relayed that information to police.
When the police car pulled up, the officers immediately jumped out, and two seconds later Tamir was shot. The officers watched the boy as he lay bleeding, never providing first aid. A year later, a grand jury declined to charge officer Timothy Loehmann, who shot Tamir.
Ahead of what would have been Tamir’s 18th birthday on June 25, the USA TODAY Network talked to 31 teenagers about growing up Black in America. These are their stories.
– Nicquel Terry Ellis and Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY
Black teens reflect on what it’s like to grow up in Tamir Rice’s America
Tamir Rice would have celebrated his 18th birthday this week. The USA TODAY Network spoke with 31 Black teenagers about growing up in Tamir’s America.
Jarrad Henderson, USA TODAY
Amari Ajamu remembers how it felt to hear the full sounds of the Grambling State University marching band for the first time: when the band’s drumline passed, he could feel the marching snare in his chest.
“It was loud, but it was soothing,” he says.
This fall, he’ll fulfill a lifelong dream, becoming the fourth-generation family member to attend the historically Black university in Louisiana. He was accepted on scholarship to play snare on the drumline.
Ajamu started playing drums when he was 3. By middle school, he was enrolled at the Stax Music Academy, deciphering the notes and the lyrics of legends, including his Memphis favorites, Al Jackson and Isaac Hayes.
The songs told soulful, gritty stories. Ajamu wants his music to do the same.
Music, he says, tells “stories from that deep dark place. But it’s also a shining light. A halo in that deep, dark shadow.”
When he was 10 years old, Ajamu made a road trip with his parents and two older sisters to West Virginia, visiting his uncle who was serving a life sentence on crack conspiracy charges from before Ajamu was born. He wondered: What was a mandatory minimum?
His parents explained the particulars ahead of the visit: He couldn’t wear a hat into the prison, he couldn’t wear khaki. Ajamu remembered feeling like the prison was in the middle of nowhere.
“They put it there like … you should be forgotten about when you’re incarcerated,” Ajamu says. “It’s so far away.”
In May, his uncle arrived in Memphis to congratulate Ajamu for graduating from high school. He’d been released last year, after Ajamu’s mom advocated for a reduction to her brother’s sentence.
Ajamu says his uncle’s experience taught him the importance of his own voice. He still wears one of the Black Lives Matter wristbands he and his sisters gave out at school after the 2012 shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. The death of Trayvon – who was wearing a hoodie and carrying Skittles – later sparked the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.
In April, Ajamu celebrated his 18th birthday stuck at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. He didn’t mind. He passed the day making music.
– Laura Testino, The Commercial Appeal
The 7/11 clerk’s voice pierced the air, and Mardre Sykes’ stomach dropped.
“Empty your pockets, boy!”
“Why?” responded Sykes, already dreading the answer.
“You’re probably stealing from me.”
Hold up – why would I steal from you? Sykes thought. Why would you assume that?
Sykes, 18, was too stunned to defend himself. He glumly turned out his pockets, proving he hadn’t taken anything.
The encounter nagged at him. Being called “boy,” he says, comes with a lot of undertones: “I know you’re trying to hint at something, that you’re superior. You’re saying, ‘I own you.’”
Later, Sykes wrote about the incident in a college application essay: “I wonder if he assumes that about every Black kid that walks into his store? Could he ever assume that I had a 3.6 GPA, I take AP classes, that I love science and writing, that I sing in the choir and I volunteer at food pantries?”
Sykes doesn’t want to be bitter about how it feels like his white friends have an easier life, but it’s hard not to ignore the obvious signs. In elementary school, his friends lived in big houses with multiple bathrooms, but his reality looked different: streets with no sidewalks, clothes with holes and a refrigerator with no food.
Sykes, who is half Asian, went to elementary school in a predominantly Asian neighborhood in Portland and loved it. But his darker skin tone served as a constant reminder that one part of him didn’t fit. He switched schools in the seventh grade, to a more diverse district.
“That’s when I started finding my Black self,” he says. “It’s not just that I fit in, but I blended in.”
Shortly after the coronavirus pandemic closed schools for the year, Sykes got word that he got into his dream college, the University of Oregon. He’d be the first in his family to attend, and he doesn’t want his job at Popeye’s Chicken to be his only option long-term.
“I want to help people push themselves,” he says. “Why can’t people look at me and be inspired?”
– Lindsay Schnell, USA TODAY
Emo Ismail roamed the streets of Minneapolis, his face obscured by sunglasses and a mask over his nose and mouth. At the local Target, alarms blared and a layer of water lapped at his ankles. Outside, protesters started flipping cars and shooting off fireworks.
Ismail knew the store well. When he was a baby, his mother would take him to that Target, where he would wave his tiny hands around to high-five the sales clerks.
“People burning stuff is never good,” Ismail says of the protests after Floyd’s death. “Obviously by protesting peacefully, nothing’s getting done.”
“We’re all just Black to them.”
Ismail, who plans to study marketing or advertising at Normandale Community College, has long been treated like an “other.” His parents moved to the U.S. from Sudan, then bounced around the suburbs of Minneapolis. They ended up in Richfield, a mostly white city about 20 minutes from downtown.
In elementary school, children asked him why his hair was like sheep’s wool.
When he was 12, his neighbors gave him weird looks as he played in his yard with an orange cap gun. Afterward, Ismail noticed a squad car in his neighborhood. He wondered if it was because of him. Weeks later, Tamir was shot dead while playing with a toy gun of his own. Ismail threw away his cap gun.
“I just never wanted to see it again,” he says.
In high school, students asked Ismail if they could get a pass to say the n-word. As he got older, his father taught him that if the police stopped him while driving, he should put his wallet on the dash, prop his phone near the clock and press record.
Ismail thought about what might happen if he was killed by police. He worried his family would have to watch his final moments play over and over on the news.
On the night of the protests, three days after Floyd died on Memorial Day, Ismail and his siblings watched a ring of fire spread around a police precinct. After a stream of officers evacuated the building, the siblings went to find their car.
By the time they got home, the precinct was on the news. The building was in flames.
– Caroline Anders, USA TODAY
The rematch was a long time coming. Mykel Alvin gathered his teammates in a huddle.
“We’re all we’ve got,” he told them. “We’re all we need.”
The first play was electric, he remembers. But it was muggy in the Deerfield Beach, Florida, heat, and his teammates were growing sluggish under pounds of padding.
In the end, the Deerfield Beach High Bucks lost by one touchdown.
Months later, the loss still stings. But it’s also one of Alvin’s favorite memories – one where his two teammates were alive.
One died in December, weeks after the game. Alvin was at a friend’s house when he heard Bryce was missing and, later, that he had killed himself.
That can’t be Bryce, Alvin thought. Are we sure it’s him?
Alvin was taught what to do if he got pulled over by a police officer. He’d heard of a 12-year-old boy being shot by a police officer. He knew it could happen to him or his friends. But suicide? He wasn’t ready for that.
The second death came in February. Terrance – his friends called him TeeJay – was shot at his grandfather’s funeral.
You haven’t had enough? Alvin asked God.
After their deaths, Alvin turned to schoolwork to distract from the hurt. Then school closed because of COVID-19. There’d be no last day of school or walk across the stage for graduation. There’d be no prom, no driving a Bentley to the big dance.
There was just Alvin and his memories – freestyle rapping on Instagram Live with his teammates in a hotel room before a game, emptying the continental breakfast buffet and forgetting to leave food for the other guests, the long bus rides to games when they could relax and be goofy.
And that last football game, and the knowledge that every memory with someone could be the last.
– Christine Stephenson, USA TODAY
Marvin Jordan received his high school diploma and took a few photos in his cap and gown, always staying 6 feet away from his classmates and their families. A small group of well-wishers cheered him on as they also kept a distance from those around them during the school’s makeshift, coronavirus ceremony.
Jordan graduated June 1 from Buchtel High School, a majority Black school in Akron, Ohio. But he was already moved on, focused on his upcoming freshman year at Highland Community College in Highland, Kansas, where he wants to study to become a personal fitness trainer. He works out regularly. He’s handsome, athletic, confident. He feels certain about his path.
“I can make a lot of money off of it even if it’s as a high school trainer or a college or NFL pro trainer,” Jordan says.
Jordan grew up with his three older siblings. As the baby of the family, he’s the only child still living in the family home.
“My dad didn’t have his dad, so he tried his best to be as tough on me as he could. My mom, she had both of her parents,” he says.
He made the most of the childhood they gave him, seeing new movies at “actual movie theaters,” playing football games with his friends and Madden NFL.
Then there was the time he and his buddies were told to leave the football field of a local Catholic school by a security guard.
“We were just going to leave actually, then he said, `Yeah, you’d better.’ He was like threatening us or something,” Jordan says.
He says he shrugged it off as part of the challenges of being a young Black male in America.
He has watched the Floyd protests but tries not to let it get to him.
“It’s like history is, like, repeating itself. We’ve been doing this for a long time,” he says. “I just wish it could just stop. But that’s how life goes sometimes.”
His parents don’t want him to take the risk of protesting, and he doesn’t want to, either.
“First we have the corona(virus), and now it’s this and it’s like COVID doesn’t exist anymore. Like it just disappeared. It’s going crazy,” he says.
– Malcolm X Abram, Akron Beacon Journal
One afternoon in March, William Brown and other students at the Red Rock Job Corps Center in Pennsylvania were summoned to the campus gym and told they were being sent home because of the coronavirus pandemic.
For Brown, 18, that meant packing his five bags of personal belongings for the seven-hour bus ride back to Washington, D.C.
He wasn’t ready to go home. He had been there only two of the four weeks for orientation. He signed up for at least two years of job training under the Labor Department program.
When he was younger, he had shuffled between his mother’s house and his father’s place, where he clashed with both, mostly about him not taking his education seriously. He skipped class, not doing school work.
“I was acting like it was a joke, thinking I knew everything,” he says.
Brown, who says he has attention deficit disorder, struggled with social studies and English. He earned his GED last year.
For nearly a year, he worked at a sporting goods store before enrolling in the Job Corps in Lopez, Pennsylvania. His dreams of going into the Air Force had already been dashed because among other things he didn’t have high enough grades.
Job Corps, which provides free education and vocational training for young adults, offered a chance to become a mechanic and electrician. Brown loves airplanes and dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer. His favorite superhero is Iron Man, an engineer who can fly.
He had other challenges in D.C. On his way to get a haircut last summer, three younger boys robbed him at gunpoint, taking his iPhone 7 and ear pods.
“It took a lot of prayers … to get me past the rough times,’’ he says, including earning his GED.
Brown bought a laptop to work on his Job Corps assignments. He’s headed back the moment the program reopens.
“I ain’t wasting no more time,’’ he says. “I see the door that’s open.”
Brown was more sad than angry when he watched the video of the white police officer with his knee pressed on Floyd’s neck.
“He was powerless,” Brown says. “That could be one of my cousins walking to the store. That could be me.”
Brown is staying away from the protests over Floyd’s death. He’s worried about the crowds, the looting and the dangers of the coronavirus.
“That’s drama I don’t need right now,’’ he says.
– Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY
Deven Bruner has had the talk many times. Each time a high-profile deadly interaction unfolded on the evening news between a Black man and police officer, his mother would sit him down.
“Look,” she would say. “It’s super-serious.
“You have to act a certain way, so you don’t end up like them, in a coffin.”
His haven from the political noise has always been music. When he was a boy, his father turned him on to A Tribe Called Quest. He later discovered Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator and Brockhampton.
“I feel like they identify with the weird. I identify with that, too, not being the stereotypical African American,” he says.
Bruner, a percussionist and the National Honor Society vice president at Putnam City North High School in Oklahoma City, plans to attend The University of North Florida in the fall and major in music performance. He says music can bring all kinds of people together.
He is troubled by the bitter division he sees over the nation’s first Black president. Bruner was 6 when Barack Obama was elected.
“It made me feel like I can do anything,” he says. “If he can do it, then maybe I can do it, too. It was truly inspiring to see that and to grow up with that. For him to receive so much hate for it, that was also interesting, because it shows if you are out here doing your best, people will still find ways to try and knock you down.”
The Black community, he says, can be divided over other issues, as well. Sometimes you are a target because you sound too educated, he says.
“I’ve been told I don’t speak like I’m a true African American because I grew up differently,” he says. “I can’t change that about myself.”
– Josh Dulaney, The Oklahoman
Before he speaks, Joshua Heron prays on the message he’ll deliver. Then he shares his truth: The battle we struggle with most, he says, is in our minds.
“If only we could just realize that the battle would be easier won if we could just face it,” the 17-year-old said on a recent episode of his “The Miracle Podcast.”
Heron, who hopes to study journalism this fall at Howard University in Washington, D.C., uses the program to discuss faith. “Through this, you will receive new perspective and start to walk in the dope and amazing desires that God has for your life,” reads his podcast summary.
Heron started the podcast in April, a little more than a year after he decided that he needed to take control of his life. The teen was hospitalized last year in March with anxiety as he dealt with social pressures and his aunt’s death.
A homeless man who was also a patient at the hospital calmed Heron by reminding him that he was important in God’s eye. Heron credits the man, who he still sees around Yonkers, New York, with helping to change his life.
After that experience, Heron says he stopped depending on social media for validation. He took on a leadership role in Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance at his school. Heron says the program is a “brotherhood,” where members discuss their struggles, meet mentors and complete community service projects.
Obama launched the program after Trayvon’s death. That shooting also influenced the way Heron, then 9, saw race relations in America.
“The fact that something or someone can have in their mind that I’m a harm to them just because I have a hoodie on and I’m eating a pack of candy, that really awakened me,” Heron says.
As Heron approaches adulthood, he now understands why his mother returned gifts of toy guns, which he loved. And why his parents shuttled him between soccer games and didn’t allow him to meander in the nearby park.
He aspires to a life of speaking truth to power, whether through the ballot box, journalism or other means.
“I have something to fight for,” Heron says. “I have people to fight for.”
– Tiffany Cusaac–Smith,The Journal News
Haleem Stevens watched the video of Arbery getting gunned down by white men as he jogged in Georgia. He refused to watch it a second time.
“I can’t just get mad all the time because I’m seeing that,” he says. “I understand that’s going to happen now. I’m trying to change it. I’m worried about how many people will die before I’m able to change it.”
Stevens, who plans to enroll this fall at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, wants to be a lawyer. He grew up watching news coverage of Black Lives Matters protests and high-profile shootings of young, Black men. He’s sick of it.
“I want to help end injustice,” he says.
Stevens played football for four years for Asbury Park High School. In February, he started working his first job at Panera Bread. He cooked, cleared the dining room, mopped the bathroom floors for $11.
“If I could, I would literally work almost every day,” Stevens says.
After he lost his job when coronavirus stay-at-home orders took effect, he scoured employment listings.
When he has time, he reads about history or scrolls through his Facebook feed, taking in different ideological viewpoints. That’s how he learned about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, when a white mob destroyed Black businesses and attacked Black residents. It bothered him that he hadn’t been taught about it in school.
“I’ve just been gaining knowledge from what people share,” he says.
– Austin Bogues, Asbury Park Press
No toy guns. No “cops and robbers.” No reenacting fight scenes from TV shows. As a little boy growing up in West Louisville, Savion Briggs knew he had to play by a different set of rules.
“You can’t do what everybody else is doing,” his mother told him.
Her words were in his head the night he was stopped by police officers while walking home from a pickup basketball game with his friends. He was 14. The police car slowly passed by him, circled the block and then rolled by the boys again.
“After the car came back the third time, we just took off running,” he says. “Because we didn’t know – just being scared, just growing up in that environment, you’re scared.”
The officers, part of a narcotics unit, caught up with him and “interrogated” him near an empty railroad track, he says.
Briggs, now 18, says the encounter is one of the many reasons why, after Floyd’s death, he has been helping organize protests against police brutality in his hometown of Louisville.
“I shouldn’t have to fear for my life just because of the way I look,” Briggs says.
On a recent day, nearly 1,000 people assembled for a march. Briggs, who graduated from high school this year, wore a red satin mortarboard. He and other youth organizers, frustrated by news reports that focused on looting, hoped the caps would keep him safe from police officers or National Guard troops attacking protesters.
“I’m pretty sure they have kids or grandkids, or even cousins or family members, that are graduates, too. And I feel like when they see the cap, they see them,” Briggs says.
He’ll begin classes at Kentucky State University, a historically Black campus, in the fall. He plans to be among the first in his family to graduate from college. He says that maybe he will pursue a career in teaching or criminal justice. He wants to show other young Black people how to have “pride in our skin color and that we can actually become something great.”
At the march, Briggs steps in front of the crowd, bullhorn in hand, and lets out a deep bellow.
“You can’t stop the revolution!”
– Mandy McLaren, Courier Journal
Most Friday nights, Neyland Vaughn turns the finished basement of his family’s home into a makeshift getaway.
When his lime-green and black headphones are on, he is no longer sitting in a sea of beige carpet, surrounded by burgundy walls – he’s in a “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare” daze, playing with his friends or others online.
This is his nirvana – a space where he doesn’t have to think about the anxieties of turning 18, how he’s perceived as a young Black man when he leaves his home in York, Pennsylvania, or what he wants to be when he grows up.
Before the pandemic, Neyland was seeing a therapist once a week to tend to his mental health. He felt overwhelmed by the stories of unarmed Black men gunned down by those who swore to protect and serve. He was nervous at first about therapy, but he says it helped.
At one time he thought he knew what he wanted for his career path. When he was in fourth grade, he vividly remembers a pile of dirty money in an evidence room during an impromptu “Bring Your Child To Work Day” with his dad at the Baltimore Police Department.
At the time, both of his parents were longtime officers. They have both since retired.
As Neyland became a teenager, he heard the stories – his father escaping shootouts, being robbed at gunpoint twice, his mother spending months compiling evidence to build cases against homicide suspects. Eventually, he no longer wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps.
“People are just crazy,” he says.
– Jasmine Vaughn-Hall, York Daily Record
Jonathan Gregory leaned out the passenger-side window of his mother’s car, scanning the rundown strip of businesses dotting the road. People loitered on the sidewalk. Buildings were boarded up.
“It looks like the past,” Gregory says.
In nine years of driving to and from school in Chicago’s West Side, Gregory says he has seen maybe one new business open along this road. But he has a plan to bring economic power to Black communities, starting with his own.
“Anything new that’s put into the area is often times just gentrification. So I want to bring businesses into the Black community and make it more prosperous than it already is,” says Gregory, whose mother works as a financial adviser and whose father once owned a restaurant where Gregory worked the cash register.
Gregory plans to study business this fall at Indiana University. He attended a majority Black high school, but his college’s student body is mostly white.
“I’ll have to handle myself differently,” Gregory says. “I’ll be under even more of a microscope. There are certain stereotypes that come with people like me.”
He lives in a two-story home in Chicago on a calm street. His grandpa, aunt, cousins and friends live a block over. But go two blocks, and things are different, Gregory says. There’s the bus stop his mom tells him to avoid. And he knows there are shootings, though he has never seen one.
The first time he and his mom had a talk about police brutality came after Trayvon was killed in Florida. When Laquan McDonald was shot in Chicago two years later, they had the talk again. And again when Tamir was shot the following month. And again after Arbery was killed.
“I know how to act,” Gregory says. “My mom, she always says, ‘Don’t be stupid.’”
He has seen the video of Floyd’s death “a couple of times.” Earlier this month he and his friends marched outside the Oak Park police station just outside Chicago. He was able to catch only the end of the march because he was finishing up a day’s work at his summer job as a caddy at the Oak Park Country Club.
“I felt empowered because we were trying to use our voices to make a better life for everyone who was there. Everyone needs to fight,” he says.
He supports the protesters, the rioters and the looters.
“I’ve seen several instances where Black businesses have been untouched. I feel that it kind of shows that there’s a solidarity in the Black community. We’re always sticking up for each and going for the common enemy, which is police brutality,” he says. “Maybe some of these businesses (that have been looted) can be replaced with Black-owned businesses. I’d see that as a win.”
– Grace Hauck, USA TODAY
Christian Kimble always wanted to attend a Historically Black College or University. It is in his bloodline.
His mother, Lynnzie Kimble, a stern educator at Mumford High School in Detroit, graduated from Central State University in Ohio. He also has other family members who graduated from HBCUs.
“My mom has told me many stories of her attending a HBCU,” Kimble says. “She said it made her feel comfortable in her own skin and seeing and having Black excellence around her motivated her to be successful in life.”
He will attend Morehouse College in the fall. Alumni of the all-male HBCU include the Rev. Martin Luther King, director Spike Lee, businessman Herman Cain and former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson.
“All of those men are examples of Black excellence,” Kimble says. “They inspire me to believe that I can be a high achiever in life, as well.”
Kimble plans to major in biology with a pre-med track and eventually become a dentist. He wants to open a practice in Detroit, where he can serve his community.
He says being Black is is not as “popular” or “safe” as being other races in the U.S. He was pumping gas while visiting North Carolina A&T for a graduation when he was 14 when a white man called him the n-word. He says the man was intoxicated and verbally attacked anyone in sight, leaving a stunned Kimble speechless.
The incident also drove him to success, he says.
“Why does he have so much hate for me when he doesn’t even know me?” Kimble asks. “Why does he feel he has the right to call me out of my name?”
– Branden Hunter, Detroit Free Press
To Kalijah Arrington, image is everything. He wears khakis, polos, loafers and suits. He keeps his hair cut short.
As a young Black man raised by a single mother, he knows he is a likely target for racism and police profiling. Still, the 18-year-old from Fayetteville, Georgia, plans to conquer this world.
When he was a boy, he saw Obama as a superhero.
“I was like ‘Wow,’ the first Black president. Maybe African Americans have a chance to do something in this world,” Arrington recalls.
He spent his high school years doing science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs at Morehouse College and participating in youth excellence groups, such as 100 Black Men of South Metro Inc. and the National Kappa League. The programs trained him to be a leader and to safely interact with police officers.
“They taught me to keep calm, don’t talk back, don’t reach for anything, be cautious, talk slow, just listen to them,” Arrington says.
His mother, Kamare Pierce-Arrington, showed him that quitting was never an option. She went to graduate school, works as a teacher and owned a tutoring service and summer camp to provide for him.
“I know if I stop, my mom is going to keep on pushing me,” Arrington says.
Still, he worries about the country’s wealth gap, where Black families are less likely to own homes or earn as much as white families. He blames slavery and Jim Crow laws for hurting generations of Black people.
He grew up attending diverse schools in suburban Atlanta, but he looked to historically Black colleges and universities as his next stop. Black people, he says, worked hard to get their own institutions.
In 2017, Obama’s historic White House run ended with the swearing-in of President Donald Trump. Arrington saw another challenge to overcome.
“It makes me want to work harder and rise up from it,” he says. “The battles might be hard, but there’s a flag that you need to capture to win.”
– Nicquel Terry Ellis, USA TODAY
Nathan “Nate” Carter made a deal with his father after his freshman year at a private Catholic high school in Rochester, New York. His parents would pay the tuition, but he would contribute, too.
Carter wouldn’t let them down. After four years at Bishop Kearney High School, Carter had earned a football scholarship at the University of Connecticut, where he enrolled earlier this year.
It is the future his parents sacrificed to help him achieve. His mom, Viatta, is a manager at a career center. His father, Pastor Darryl Carter, works full time at the nondenominational Joint-Heirs Kingdom Ministries.
Even when his dad wasn’t earning a full-time salary as he grew the church, they sent Nate to camps, bought him football gear and paid nearly $30,000 over the years for a Catholic-school education.
“They’ve pushed me,” he says. “They molded me into the young man that I am today, and they allowed me to explore the world. I’m thankful for them.”
At home, Carter and his three sisters competed for the best grades to become the “GPA king” of the house.
He was in elementary school when Trayvon was killed. Two years later, it was Tamir who was dead.
“What happened to Tamir was an eye-opener,” Carter says. “It’s something that has been occurring for a long time, and I feel like people don’t talk about it enough.”
Carter grew up in the Irondequoit suburb bordering the city. A few miles away, a proud Black and Latino community battles to end an open-air drug trade.
His father taught him to be mindful of the company he kept, to avoid getting caught up in trouble.
“Every single kid in Rochester goes through something different, but I was fortunate to be on the other side of things, even though it’s not perfect,” he says.
– Stevie Johnson, Democrat and Chronicle
Matthew Brown sits in the shade on his front porch in Phoenix with an electronic keyboard and a laptop and plays a piece he’s working on.
He closes his eyes, his right fist thumping out the beat into his left palm.
It’s a modern pop song, pretty and melancholy. He started writing it at midnight.
“I was in that kind of vibe,” he says.
It’s what he loves about music, that it can capture feelings.
He is 17, newly graduated from Arizona School for the Arts.
He planned to take a gap year and work. But the pandemic closed the city’s public pools, so he lost his regular summer gig as a lifeguard.
So, he has been at home, with his mom, Kristina Washington, her partner, Sandra Peterson, his brother Andrew, 19, and his sister Ashley, 15. He keeps busy playing music.
It has given him time to think about the life he wants and what’s most important to him.
He was 15 when he got the lifeguard job at Roosevelt Pool, keeping people safe in the water and teaching swim lessons. It was the first time he felt responsible.
“It was life-changing,” he says.
So was discovering music. He started playing piano at 9.
“What I love about music is the way different types of music can make me feel,” he says. “I love the power in that.”
He wants his music to make people feel that way.
“I like how I can put my emotion into it,” he says. Because sometimes it’s hard for him to express himself in words.
For six years, he participated in the YMCA’s Youth and Government program, where students learn about democracy by debating issues and proposing legislation. It taught him to discuss issues with people who disagree with him and find common ground.
“I feel like everyone needs to learn how to have those conversations without demonizing the other person,” he says. Especially now.
He went with friends to protest police brutality. It was important to show up.
“Mass matters,” he says. He was heartened to see people of all colors and religions there. It made him feel hopeful.
Too many black people have been killed by police. Each is a lesson for him.
“It frightens me, but I do my 100% best not to judge every cop,” he says.
He decided to attend Phoenix College, where he’ll take classes in audio production and business, maybe learn to play the guitar. Someday, he’ll have his own music label.
“I have all the tools I need,” he says. “I’m going to use them right to create the life I want.”
– Karina Bland, The Arizona Republic
Amir Casimir’s activism blossomed after he enrolled in a majority Black middle school in his hometown of Los Angeles.
He read “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates instead of “Huckleberry Finn.” A teacher gave him Malcolm X’s autobiography.
“I got to spend it with people who look like me,” he says. “It formed my relationship with Blackness, made me proud to be Black.”
He wasn’t shocked when Tamir was killed in November 2014.
“It’s something that you’re used to as a Black person,” Casimir says. “It’s a fact of life.”
Two years later, Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in front of his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter.
“I haven’t been the same since,” Casimir says. “I realized I had to 100% all the time be advocating for Black people.”
Casimir became an activist his freshman year of high school, working with local social justice organizations to protest the use of pepper spray in schools and the school-to-prison pipeline. He talks to the media and other students, goes to school board meetings, leads Zoom meetings that stretch past six hours.
His mother taught him to be proud of his Blackness.
“Sit here right now,” she’d tell him when he was a young boy. “We’re going to watch ‘Roots.’”
In 2018, he visited South Africa, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia as part of a social justice trip. At a church in Zimbabwe, he ate rice and peas and fish, chicken and oxtail stews.
“It felt like sitting in the kitchen with my grandma after church,” he says. “It felt like home.”
A year later, several school administrators randomly went through his things. He handed over his backpack and watched them take out his social studies book, math book and English books, searching for something that wasn’t there.
“It felt like I was violated,” he says. “They profile you, look at you like some kid who’s up to no good. They make you feel like a criminal, like that’s all you’re seen as.”
That spring, under pressure from advocacy groups, the Los Angeles Unified School District voted to end random searches.
“They showed me change was possible,” he says.
Then came Casimir’s 17th birthday. He chose to spend it at a demonstration.
“No justice, no peace,” he chanted in a sea of hundreds. Signs bobbed above heads. He could barely hear himself over the roar of the crowd.
It was his first Black Lives Matter protest.
“The best birthday present I could ask for,” he says.
– Christine Fernando, USA TODAY
Kyion White wants to be like the businessman in the movies – the one that wears the crisp suit, carries the important briefcase, has an office on the top floor of a tall building and makes big decisions.
He doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be doing. But he knows that whatever it is, it’s going to be his ticket out of Tupelo, Mississippi.
White always tells his mom that he’s going to miss her, but if he could leave tomorrow to start his freshman year at the University of Mississippi, he would. Every night he thanks God, to whom he says he owes everything, and thinks to himself, “You will be better than where you came from.”
People around town aren’t used to seeing people his age be successful, he says. They always tell him going to Ole Miss means he wants to be one of the “white folks.” But that’s not it – he’s proud to be Black – he just knows he has more to give than his town will allow.
Mississippi ranks near the worst in the country for poverty, healthcare, education and access to opportunity. In Tupelo, one in five people are poor.
Mississippi is sometimes known for being racist, he says, but that can happen anywhere – people are protesting for Black people’s lives in every state.
“Some people just live with the hate for Black people in their hearts due to how they were raised,” he says.
White grew up in a family of teachers.
“When your brain is dead, you’re dead,” his grandma told him when he was 6.
“The mind is a terrible thing to waste,” his mom often says.
When he was in middle school, White’s mom sent him to a church camp so he could experience living in a dorm overnight. A couple years later, she sent him on a mission trip in Missouri to see if he could handle being away for a week.
“All this time, I’ve been setting you up for college,” she told him.
– Christine Stephenson, USA TODAY
The pain of gun violence returned again and again. RuQuan Brown’s close friend and teammate was gunned downed three years ago. A year later, his stepfather, who introduced him to football, was shot and killed. His grandfather and cousin were also shot but survived.
As he worked toward healing, Brown wondered if the rest of the nation was numb to gun violence, especially when it came to young Black victims. There’s not the same universal gasp when Black people are shot, he says, as there was for shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado or Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
“What we’re taught is that our lives don’t have very much value,’’ says Brown, who lives in Washington, D.C.
In January 2019, Brown launched “Love1,” a clothing company that sells T-shirts and hoodies as part of his anti-violence campaign. Some proceeds go to a program that buys back guns and turns them into art.
Brown says there aren’t many places for young Black men to learn to cope with their emotions: not school, not the football field, sometimes not even home.
“We’re not taken care of on the inside,’’ he says. “There are not any spaces where Black men can be honest about how they feel.”
Brown remembers feeling fearful after Tamir’s death. He realized he, too, could have been shot on a playground.
“I learned what it meant to be Black,’’ Brown says. “And while it comes with so many perks … so many gifts and talents, you also are considered a threat to society and we haven’t discovered how to prevent it.”
Brown says his faith in Jesus helps. He listens to a daily dose of Anita Baker and Sade, but also Justin Bieber and Kayne West’s Sunday Service. For fun, he hangs with his girlfriend, Carlita.
Brown graduated this spring with a 3.9 GPA from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, one of the top public schools in the city. He was student government president and captain of Theodore Roosevelt High School’s football team because Banneker doesn’t have one. He had 25 college admission offers. He picked Harvard University, where he is slated to play football this fall.
He wants to play for the Cowboys and the Seahawks. One day, he says, he could be mayor or president.
His slain teammate and stepfather would have been thrilled by his success, he says.
“They’d have been there every step of the way,’’ he says, ‘’celebrating and enjoying with me.’’
– Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY
After a football game a few years ago, Rashan Efiom and his friend set off for the iconic Bloomington, Indiana, limestone quarries, a magnet for generations of teenagers. As they peeked into an abandoned shed, school administrators got a call about kids on private property and came to find them.
Efiom, not his white friends, was the one the adults questioned.
“We didn’t know it was private property,” he told them.
They asked for his mom’s phone number. Efiom explained her phone wasn’t working. He told them he simply wanted to explore the shed.
“I don’t believe you,” they said.
Only after his white friend backed him did the administrators finally let him go.
“That was kind of racist,” his friend said after the adults left.
Efiom’s father is Black and his mother is white. When he was young, he only hung out with white students. He tried not to be too aggressive, worried he’d be seen as an angry Black kid. He avoided listening to Black rappers and opted for Skrillex instead.
“I never really accepted my Black identity because the rest of the world didn’t accept it,” he says.
His dad’s family quickly noticed him pushing away from their history.
“Black is beautiful,” they’d tell him. “You should be proud to be Black.”
As he got older, Efiom listened to Drake and Kendrick Lamar. He studied Black culture and the civil rights movement. He thought racism ended in 1965, then he read online about how it persists.
“I couldn’t believe I wasn’t learning this in school,” he says.
Efiom still sometimes feels like he doesn’t completely belong in either racial group. His Black friends tell him he talks white. But his white friends call him their Black friend. Reminding him of his curly hair and darker skin, his mom tells him that society – and the police – see him as Black.
Efiom hopes to become a police officer and eventually a detective. He often hears about Black cops being called pigs and not being accepted by other Black people because of their blue uniform.
But Efiom wants to change police departments from the inside and to be there to de-escalate situations that might otherwise end in another Black life lost.
“I want to work to protect and serve the people in my community,” he says.
– Christine Fernando, USA TODAY
Emanuewell “Manny” Clay lives in a town named after Andrew Jackson, where confederate flags fly and support for Trump is strong.
He wonders who in Jackson, New Jersey, is afraid of him and who isn’t. The town is 87% white. He has friends who don’t support the Black Lives Matter movement and do not believe America is unjust.
“People I’m friends with don’t even have the heart to stand up for me,” he says.
He often talks to his small group of Black friends about how any one of them could be the next Floyd or Tamir.
Clay was nervous about attending the town’s Black Lives Matter rally in the wake of Floyd’s death. Before the rally, he found an upsetting comment on the town’s Facebook page: “A terrorist group in our own town, isn’t that special?”
But he did go, and it was an electrifying surprise when hundreds of people knelt beside him, fists raised in solidarity as they chanted “Black Lives Matter!”
“It was life-changing,” Clay says.
Clay will leave the town behind next year to major in psychology at Morehouse.
He is passionate about studying the mind and helping people with mental illnesses and disabilities. Clay credits his grandmother, Heidi, a former school drug counselor.
Last December, Clay lost his grandmother and his childhood best friend within two weeks of one another. His grandmother died unexpectedly the day after his 17th birthday. His childhood best friend, Naz, died after a long fight with leukemia.
“All these deaths have just made me want to live,” Clay says. “I want to be able to honor their names because of everything they’ve done to create the man I am today.”
– Mary Claire Molloy, USA TODAY
Jeremiah Paul was 7 when his family celebrated Obama’s election. He remembers watching the results from a television in the basement of his home.
“You felt like ‘Wow, anything is possible now,’ and it was almost a feeling that things were changing,’’ he recalls.
When Trump won, Paul realized Americans had a lot more work to do.
“I wouldn’t say that I lost hope,’’ he says. “Obama was a sign of hope, and Trump was a sign that we are not finished.”
Paul was born and raised in Hackensack, New Jersey, about 17 miles from New York City. He counts Black, white and Latino people among his friends. The son of an elementary school teacher and real estate agent, Paul says he has not experienced blatant racism but at times has wondered about people’s intentions.
But he also remembers his parents being upset over the deaths of Castile, Tamir and Trayvon. Now that he has a license, he says they often remind him that if he is ever stopped by police to “keep your tone low.”
He graduated this year from high school and wants to pursue a career in film. Floyd’s death in Minnesota has him thinking he should launch an online movement to educate people about racial injustice. The coronavirus pandemic, which has hit New Jersey hard, has kept him from protesting in the street.
“A lot of this shows what happens when a community feels unheard and is oppressed, as well,’’ he says. “It feels like history is repeating itself. It feels so chaotic. It feels like the 1920’s mixed in with the 60s and the 80s, and it’s all in one year.”
– Monsy Alvarado, The Record (Bergen County)
Paul Smith describes the United States in one word: “dangerous.”
White teachers look at him differently, as if he could be a threat. Cashiers at the mall assume he can’t afford anything in their stores. When he was 5, his stepfather told him never to give a police officer a reason to pull their gun.
“You have a white male shoot up a school and before he goes to jail, they buy him Whataburger,” Smith says, referencing the police buying Dylann Roof a burger in 2015 after he murdered nine Black parishioners at a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Whatever George Floyd did … it shouldn’t have been that deep,” Smith says. “He didn’t have to kill him and have his knee on him.”
Smith finds refuge from this America in football, track and drawing original cartoons. He is 5 foot 5 inches of energy, dancing on the field and charging every room he walks into.
“I am the smallest kid in the room, but they look up to me,” he says. “I am the one-man army.”
Smith’s father left when he was born. His stepfather taught him to be a man. They talked about racism, authority, resilience.
Smith got only eight years of lessons. His stepfather died of an overdose when he was 11.
While he rarely talks about it, this loss, along with the deaths of his aunt, grandfather and grandmother all from cancer in the span of the same two years, propelled him to fight harder and work for his goals.
“When I look in the mirror, there’s no one I’m trying to be, no one I can see in my past,” he says. “I see me. What I can do, what I can change.”
Smith, a senior at Dickinson High School just outside of Houston, remembers his mother banging on pots for hours when Obama was elected in 2008. He was only 6 at the time and thought she was crazy.
As he got older, he realized the significance of America’s first Black president. Now, at 18, he is preparing to cast his first vote for U.S. president.
– Mary Claire Molloy, USA TODAY
Tevelle Taylor aimed his camera at the world around him, capturing iguanas, small island stores, the uniforms of school children going to school. He listened to his grandmother speak Papiamento, a Spanish creole language, and tried to learn a few phrases.
He was 8 and visiting his family’s homeland, the tiny Caribbean island of Curaçao. Generations of his family had lived on the island until his great grandmother brought his grandmother and her siblings to the United States.
“The air was different,” he says of his time in Curaçao. “I was able to capture things my friends in Brooklyn don’t see on a daily basis.”
The island gifted him his passion for art, he says. When he returned home to Brooklyn, he continued his photography. Later, he wrote essays about Malcolm X and slam poems for his 10th-grade English class.
In time, Taylor developed his own style: unnamed poems, often about the Black experience, with the first letters of each word capitalized.
My Eyes Have Been Fixed To See That There’s
No One Below Me As My Blackness Has Brought
Me Low Enough …
My Tongue Has Been Set to Taste Every Crumb
Of Cement That A Black Was Thrown On Due To
Their “Resistance” To Become A Legal Slave
My Ears Have Heard Every Scream That A Black
Has Let Out, In Hopes Of Being Freed From Their
Captivity & To This Day, That Scream Has Only
Taylor’s family has always emphasized education as a way to a better life. When his relatives came to America and didn’t speak a word of English, education unlocked pathways to jobs and citizenship. Today, it is his safeguard against becoming a statistic.
“I don’t want to be dead or in a jail cell because of my skin color,” he says.
It was the best day of Taylor’ life when he found out he was accepted to his dream school, Morehouse. His older sister cried at work when she heard the news, and his mother couldn’t stop telling him how proud she was.
“One thing racist people don’t like to see is an educated Black man,” Taylor says. “I am an educated Black man.”
– Mary Claire Molloy, USA TODAY
Xavien Reid wanted to buy barbecue chips, a Snickers bar and AriZona iced tea from a corner store. It was past midnight in his hometown of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and he noticed a parked police car.
“Just remember, you’re Black,’’ he told himself. Keep cool.
He went inside and got his snacks. But as he left to walk to a friend’s place, the police officer turned on the vehicle siren. The officer stepped out of the car with his hand on his gun, handcuffed Reid and made him sit on the sidewalk in the rain as he called for a description of a suspect who had stolen a car seat. When the call came back clean, the officer dismissed Reid without an apology.
The encounter last month marred his new chapter into adulthood, just weeks after his 18th birthday in April.
“I don’t understand,’’ he thought as he ran to a friend’s house. “Why it’s got to be that way?”
Reid, a rising senior at Warren Harding High School, had witnessed unfairness and violence before. Some friends didn’t make it to 18. One was shot three times in February outside a corner store.
He had pushed back peer pressure to join gangs and sell drugs, instead turning to football and track. He was co-captain with his twin brother, Xavier, of the wrestling team. He boxed at a local gym.
Reid, who has dyslexia and attention deficit disorder, is considering vocational schools to become a plumber or engineer. He likes to write poetry about love and what’s going on in the world. He wonders if he should go to college and pursue a career in journalism.
He remembers being angry as a young child, feeling as if he didn’t get enough attention. His grandmother and aunt helped raise him in between homes in Connecticut and Georgia. At one point, his family was homeless and lived in a car.
Reid acted out by stealing, talking back. He says “through the grace of God’’ and family he stayed out of the juvenile system.
“I grew up really fast,’’ he says. “I was a boy doing grown-man stuff.’’
Floyd’s death made him cry. He saw himself under the policeman’s knee. He saw his cousins there, too.
“The police are supposed to protect us,” he says. “Now I can’t trust the law.”
Reid wants to use his pen to help others. He’s a representative on the Bridgeport Junior City Council and will spend his third summer in a writing program. In April, he started his first full-time job doing housekeeping at a nursing home.
He plans to one day start a mentoring program for children.
“I don’t want them to feel alone … to feel like there’s nothing out there for them,” he says.
– Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY
At Warren Barnes Jr.’s elementary school in Houston, the light-skinned students would gather on one side of the playground for recess, while the dark-skinned students were on the other.
Later, when he was home, he would look at himself in the mirror. His skin tone reminded him of the Black men, women and children he’d see on the news in stories about police violence.
“I’d see that those people’s skin color looked like mine,” he recalls. “So I thought people would hate me without even getting to know me.”
When Floyd died, it seemed to confirm his childhood fears. As he watches protesters carry signs with Floyd’s last words – “I Can’t Breathe” – Barnes wonders if that could have been him.
He sends out petitions with hashtags #DefundThePolice and #BLMinSchool. He posts resources about anti-racism and police accountability. He wants to protest, but he’s worried about bringing his 3-year-old sister, whom he babysits during the day.
“When have we ever come together like this?” he says. “This is going to be in history books. And if it’s not, we’ll protest that too.”
Barnes loves Color Guard and dance. His family could never afford dance lessons, but now he plans to major in dance at Sam Houston State University. Later, he’ll open his own nonprofit dance studio with free lessons.
“I want to give people the opportunities I didn’t have growing up,” he says. “And walking into a dance studio and calling it my own, that’s heaven.”
Months ago, Barnes, a Cypress Park High School student, waited in the dark at a city bus stop with his Color Guard rifle and flag in his arms. A police car stopped in front of him.
“Sir, I need you to step onto the sidewalk,” the police officer told him.
Barnes was already on the sidewalk. He took a few steps back.
Minutes later, the police officer got out of the car, walked up to Barnes and repeated, “Get on the sidewalk.”
Barnes froze and stepped back even further. He said nothing until the officer left.
“It was like the world was lifted off my shoulders,” he says. “I was holding my breath the whole time, and then finally I could breathe.”
Barnes never rode the school bus again.
– Christine Fernando, USA TODAY
For his 18th birthday, Ryan Williams got a tattoo stretching down his left forearm. At the top is a hand of cards, all spades, then a rose with petals made of $100 bills. Then there are the words: ”Respect the past. Create the future.”
The cards, he says, represent the chances he took in the past. The rose symbolizes the success he wants as an adult.
It took a lot for Williams to grow up, he says. In November 2019, he drove his grandmother’s car without permission while she was out of town and crashed it into another car. He was charged with careless driving, not carrying a license and driving without insurance, but ultimately wasn’t convicted.
It was a moment of reckoning. He told himself, “’Oh, you’ve got to act like an adult now.'”
Williams lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, with his parents, siblings and grandmother. He’s interested in working as a professional YouTuber, filming and producing his own videos. This summer, he’s taking online classes so he can graduate from high school next year. He has three jobs: He works for Chick-fil-a, Wawa and the city of St. Petersburg as a canvasser to pay his bills and save for filming equipment.
Williams’ family has moved around the St. Petersburg area since he was 2. He wants to buy his mother and grandmother their own houses. Once he does that, he’ll feel successful.
“I’m trying to get the things I want and trying to get to where I want to be in life,” he says.
– Ellen Hine, USA TODAY
Eric Sykes stands at the end of a checkout counter wearing black slip-on Vans, a Nike jacket and a black apron that says Publix.
Past him flow folks who ended up in Clearwater, Florida, from the Midwest, the Northeast, the Caribbean and elsewhere to start over, or relax, or disappear. He carefully packs their frozen pizza and chicken wings and Budweiser into plastic sacks.
“Have a great day, Honey,” says an older white woman, as he hands her groceries.
“Thank you,” he replies. “You, too.”
A month shy of his 18th birthday, Eric is working 20 hours a week, tucking $100 into his savings account each month for tuition.
As a young child, he dreamed of becoming a Secret Service agent or a criminal justice lawyer. This year, his senior year at Clearwater High, a friend pulled him into an elective called Freedom Ambassadors. The group visited Southern cities, the settings for key Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. They studied lesser known characters from that era, such as Ella Baker, an organizer who worked in the shadows of the movement’s lions.
In January, the class commemorated the march from Selma, Alabama, to Montgomery with a Unity Walk. Sykes and 800 other students marched over the Memorial Causeway Bridge in Clearwater under a bright blue sky. There were no dogs, no police with batons.
In May, after Floyd died, Eric went with his friend and his sister to a march in Clearwater. The sky was cloudy, foreboding. He wasn’t sure what to expect. The scenes from other protests were dramatic. In nearby Tampa, police doused protesters with pepper spray.
But there was no resistance. When Eric and the other protesters marched through the streets, locals came out of their houses and cheered.
“I thought, ‘Wow, you all agree,’” Eric says. “Finally, we are being heard.”
Eric is quiet by nature, and he isn’t sure he belongs on the front lines. He no longer dreams of protecting the president or fighting for justice in a court of law. For now, the revolution sounds like the beep-beep of the Publix checkout line so a young man can save for community college.
He has decided he wants to become a speech therapist. He’ll help others find their voices.
– Asher Montgomery, USA TODAY
The air felt thick when Cameron Gray jumped out of his stepfather’s old Ford truck, planting his feet on Johnsonville, Alabama, soil. This was what Southerners called country; where paved roads ran until they turned into dirt and flies as big as bumble bees jostled you as they passed by.
Gray and his family had traveled 90 miles south from their hometown of Montgomery for his stepfather’s family reunion. About 30 people were gathered at the family matriarch’s house, a ranch-style home with a large patio.
“It’s nothing but heat, bugs and woods out there,” Gray says of the small unincorporated town.
Gray fetched his brother and cousins. They grabbed their bikes and skidded off, in a hurry to get away from the adults. Johnsonville wasn’t a big city like Montgomery. There wasn’t much to do for entertainment. They coasted down a big sloping hill and turned left toward a giant stadium with a tennis court where they kicked around, drawing circles with their bikes.
Soon, they found a ramp that led to a ditch and a dried out open sewer. They dropped down into it. Gray heard yells and advanced, curious to see what all the commotion was about. Gray saw a long black snake coiled and waiting. He wasn’t afraid like the others, he was intrigued.
Gray likes the idea of a little adventure. After graduating from Park Crossing High School on June 4, all Gray will need to join the city’s firefighter training program is the arrival of his 18th birthday in July. Being a firefighter is the only job he’s ever wanted.
“When everyone is running away, you have to run toward danger,” he says.
But some things do scare him.
When he was in middle school, Gray’s father bought him an airsoft gun. It was long and black, with an orange tip. After Tamir was killed, his mother threw it in the trash.
“I’m glad we got rid of it. I didn’t want my mom to be sad because she lost one of her sons,” he says.
– Safiya Charles, The Montgomery Advertiser
Erick Kamanzi had never been camping. He’d never considered it, really, because people like him didn’t go camping.
“I used to think that was some white people stuff,” says Kamanzi, who lives in San Antonio.
It wasn’t until Kamanzi joined Black Outside, a local group that aims to spark a love for the outdoors in black youth, that he found his love for camping. Being out in the woods away from his phone, being able to leave his problems in the outside world, felt like spiritual healing, he says. Nature is one of the few places where it’s quiet enough that he can hear himself think.
He learned about the group from a Black teacher at his school when he was a sophomore. Since then, Kamanzi always asks the teacher whenever they talk: When is the next trip?
One of Kamanzi’s favorite memories is the first time he rode a horse. He went with a friend, and his friend’s horse stopped to eat grass every few minutes and held up the group. His friend grew frustrated, but Kamanzi couldn’t stop laughing.
Kamanzi will attend Texas Southern University in the fall, where he’ll study psychology. He doesn’t know exactly what he wants to do, but he knows he wants to work with children. He wants to help them find interests that bring them happiness and help them feel like they belong, like Black Outside did for him.
In May, after Floyd died, Kamanzi felt the anger he’d felt before, the anger he felt each time he learned of a white police officer killing someone who looked like him.
As protests spread across the country, a few of his white friends posted “All Lives Matter” on their social media accounts. But he also watched many more of his white friends who had long been silent on racism and police brutality post about the Black Lives Matter social justice movement.
Maybe this time, he thought to himself, things will be different.
– Christine Stephenson, USA TODAY
Police lights flashed in Bryce Tarver’s rearview mirror. He looked nervously at his mom in the passenger seat.
“Bryce, it’s OK,” Whitney Tarver said. “Calm down. We haven’t done anything wrong.”
Tarver had just gotten his learner’s permit and was logging driving hours with his mother. As he pulled over, his palms were sweaty and clenched onto the steering wheel.
He remembered what his parents taught him. Don’t wear your hoodie in public. Don’t let your pants sag. Don’t blast music. Always show your face. When a police officer speaks to you, say “Yes, sir. No, sir.”
“Do you know why I pulled you over?” the police officer asked.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Tarver said. “I don’t know.”
When he was younger, Tarver worried people didn’t see him as Black enough. In middle school, he struggled to fit in with other Black students after going to a majority-white elementary school.
“I felt uncultured,” he says. “When I was around a lot of people of my own race, I didn’t speak their language or lingo.”
He wanted a cellphone to help him fit in better. He sold leftover Skittles, Snickers, Twix and Orbit Gum his dad brought home from work meetings at $1 a piece to save up for an Android.
He graduated this spring from Frederick Douglass High School in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The public school named after the famous abolitionist was the first high school for African Americans in the county. When he walked through its halls, he could feel history looming over him.
Tarver was an honor roll student in the International Baccalaureate program for most of high school and a member of the National Honor Society. At home, he cares for his sisters, washes dishes, cleans the bathrooms, mows the lawn, cooks dinner. His mother always told him he came from good stock. His great-grandfather had a master’s degree from Columbia University. His grandparents had advanced degrees.
“It’s in you, Bryce,” she’d tell him.
Once, Tarver stopped at a 7/11 for a Slurpee after swim practice. His mother’s face filled with fear. Take off your hoodie before you go into the store, she told him. She worried he looked too much like the young Black men on the news, the ones who had been shot by police officers.
“They explained to me how my skin color looked to the rest of the world,” Tarver says of his parents. “They told me how there would always be some sort of hidden target on my back.”
Tarver was accepted to the honors program at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a historically Black university. For graduation, his parents bought him a 2019 Toyota Camry. Tarver wanted tinted windows, but his parents worried that would make him more of a target for police. They opted to leave the windows alone.
– Christine Fernando, USA TODAY
This story was produced in partnership with the Media School at Indiana University.