Roses and Thorns
This personal essay is featured in the “Home” issue of Louisville Magazine produced in partnership with Louisville Public Media. It recounts experiences with racism and racists slurs that may be triggering for some.
People stole my grandmother’s roses all the time.
Her name was Zilpha Mae but most everyone called her Tootsie. She had planted other flowers along the perimeter of our backyard in west Louisville: blood-red irises so dark they looked black until you got right up on them; coneflowers with petals somewhere between lavender and fuchsia, arranged around a dome of fiery orange pollen; magical yellow spinning primroses. Those primroses made my neighborhood friends and me jump out of our above-ground pool and sprint to the back of the yard, to watch them unfurl like tiny silken fireworks right before our eyes. But the roses were the real stars.
My grandmother had them in peach, yellow, red and white, huge blossoms you could smell long before you reached them. A passion fruit vine and a climbing rose bush — the one strangers would sneak up to and snip from — weaved through the chain- link fence separating our backyard from the alley. That’s the bush I caught someone stealing from once. I was in the pool alone and yelled for my mother, who came outside. The man asked, “Can I have a couple of roses?” — as if he didn’t have two or three in his hand already. I just knew my mother was going to yell at him and shoo him away, but, to my surprise, she let him take a couple more.
Even at a young age, I could tell that roses were hard to grow because my grandmother, under the guidance of her delicate hands, spent the most time on them, bent over at the waist, sweat dripping down her nose and into the big grin she always had when gardening. I couldn’t understand why my mom would give away something that we worked so hard to create. Maybe it’s because we had more than enough of them in our little oasis, that little bubble of safety, where everything was lush and green and shady and sunny, exactly what it needed to be for such unspeakable beauty to bloom.
Except for the first two or three years of my life, I grew up in the same home in the West End with my mother, grandmother and big brother, Travis, eight years my senior. I was 11 when Trav’s firstborn, Tiara, joined us in 1993. Like the rest of the houses on the street, ours was well-kept. When I close my eyes, I see it as it was: a two-bedroom shotgun not far from Shawnee Park with white vinyl siding and a green and healthy lawn, two tall and lush evergreens flanking the porch. Bright-green carpet covered the concrete ground and front steps. Two black iron rails helped my grandmother and, later, my mother, climb up and down the steps safely.
This was back when people actually knew and looked out for their neighbors. Mrs. Holt, her daughter Sandra, and Sandra’s son, Matthew, lived to our right, and Ms. Helena and her daughters, Shonda, Tana and Keisha, were on our left. Matt, Shonda, Keisha and I had the closest bond, but we hung out with the other kids who lived on our street, too. Sisters Kay-Kay (short for Kenyatta) and DeeAnna lived in a blue house across the street, and brothers Tony (known as Tone-Tone) and Damon (we called him “Pickle” because he was always walking around munching on a hot one from the B-Line around the corner) lived a couple of houses down. Isham, whose little cousin, I think, was named Justin (but we called him “Biscuit”) lived in a house on the other end of the street. We still have a picture of some of us kids together in Matthew’s backyard. Keisha wears a pink- and-white striped short set, the youngest and shortest of us all. Matthew, rail thin and sporting a wide smile that shows every tooth possible, stands in the back. To his left is Shonda, younger than us but taller than everyone. And then there’s me in denim overalls with one strap unbuckled and big caramel-colored eyeglasses (I got my first pair when I was in second grade) and, for the first time ever, with bone-straight hair because I had gotten my first perm.
My grandmother and Mrs. Holt were around the same age and spent their days gossiping from their porch swings. When Ms. Helena and her brood popped up from somewhere deep in Tennessee, she took to my grandmother, as most people did, and we all grew close.
I like to ask people what their childhood smelled like, and mine smelled like my grandmother’s cooking, particularly her yellow cake with caramel icing, made from scratch. My brother and I always fought over who would get to lick the bowl. Sometimes even my mother joined the fray. Everyone scrambled to get a piece of the finished product, and if you didn’t get there in time then it truly, truly sucked to be you. My grandmother had an electric mixer, but when she made cake batter by hand, the old way, that’s when you knew the cake was going to be amazing. I’m not sure what it was — probably something about the intimacy of her hand in the batter.
She was always cooking, but Christmas was the only time the family got her famous fruit-based dessert salads — orange (my favorite), heavenly hash and ambrosia, all three sweet, creamy and served cold. But we didn’t have to wait for Christmas to be treated to her big family meals. On Sunday mornings, she made a huge breakfast, the house filling with some combination of her children — Pauline, Reda, Ronald, Earnest and Gilbert (and of course my mom, Velva) — and whoever else came by. I’d smell everything cooking long before I woke up, and by the time I pulled on my clothes, everything was splayed across our big oak dining table: scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage (patties, not links), fried pork chops, fried apples, fried potatoes, sliced tomatoes with sugar, and her always-perfect, made-from-scratch biscuits, with sausage gravy on the side. She only made her caramel cakes when requested or for special occasions like funerals or our annual family reunion southeast of Louisville in Jamestown, Kentucky, where she and her siblings and all her kids were born.
The family reunion is always the first weekend in August, and it follows the same schedule to this day: On Friday, the early-arrivers visit, meandering from house to house until a fish fry that night. On Saturday, we hold a huge potluck — just about everything you’d find on the menu at a soul-food restaurant today — at the park beneath the gazebo. We have a business meeting to discuss the planning committee’s finances and to elect new members, if necessary, followed by a few raucous hours of bingo and an auction to raise money for the upkeep of the Greens Chapel Cemetery, where our ancestors are buried. Later that night, Cousin Dale deejays a party in the open field on Clayton Road, so named because that’s where all the Claytons in Jamestown have lived for decades. On Sunday, the leftover potluck food (always a ton of it) goes to the church, where, after the service, everyone gathers to eat together one last time before heading home. Three days of bug bites, being introduced to people I am somehow related to (“OK, now, you know that Tootsie was married to Eugene, right? And Eugene had a sister named Catherine? So that makes Catherine our aunt, and Aunt Catherine had kids, and so that means...”) and living without that big-city fear of danger setting in after dark.
'Our world was so small then, but we didn’t know it because we had everything we needed.'
My childhood also smelled like bourbon because a bottle — Wild Turkey, if I remember correctly — was nearly always around the house. Brown was the color of the stuff my mom and her siblings and uncles would sip when they were together, laughing or crying or fighting. My Great-Uncle Claude always kept a bottle of Maker’s Mark in his shirt pocket. And I liked how bourbon smelled because of my route home from school. First through fifth grade, I went to Greathouse/Shyrock Traditional Elementary out on Browns Lane in Hikes Point. On the school bus, certain markers would tell me when we were getting close to my stop. My favorite of those was the 62-and-a-half-foot-tall, bourbon- bottle-shaped water tower at Brown-Forman’s headquarters on Dixie Highway. The air was heavy with scents of vanilla and brown sugar, and as the bus rode down 22nd Street, taking Black students to the Black end of town, we’d lower the windows as far as we could and stick our noses out to get a whiff.
From the bus, I used to look for the house my family lived in the first two years of my life, on the corner of 22nd and Broadway, before we moved farther west. I’d smile and wave at our old neighbor and family friend, Mrs. Edwards, who was often sitting on her porch swing. Her phone number was the first one I ever memorized other than my own. I still remember it today.
Once I got home after school, I came alive. I could breathe a little easier, be as goofy and as imperfect as I wanted once safe from the judging eyes and ears of my schoolmates. Being an anxious kid meant being on constant guard and in constant fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, and I kept my true self locked behind a wall that only people at home could see behind. In the autumn and spring, on our porches, my neighborhood friends and I would draw or play Speed with an old deck of my mother’s cards or talk about nothing until the sky fractured into the reds and oranges, the purples and blues, of sundown. When the days grew longer, we spent the hours begging our parents to take us to the park (which they rarely did), foot racing in the street, practicing front flips and cartwheels in Shonda’s yard or playing a game we called Make Me Laugh (mostly laughing because someone failed miserably at being funny, not because we were actually funny).
We weren’t allowed to leave our block or even cross the street, and that was fine with us. Our world was so small then, but we didn’t know it because we had everything we needed. What we didn’t have at home, my mother took me out in search of: plays like Les Misérables at the Kentucky Center and Dracula at Actors Theatre (we walked out of Phantom of the Opera it was so bad), Books-A-Million, horse riding in the country, hiking in Bernheim Forest. I thought we were rich.
For me, a person with anxiety, having a home base is the center of the war that most people simply know as being alive. Well into my 30s, my family home was the only place I ever felt truly comfortable. As a kid, I couldn’t sleep anywhere else unless my mother was with me. Sleepovers with friends or a cousin were a no-go. I didn’t have the words for it then, and my mom just assumed I was really shy, but it was much more than that. Shyness doesn’t typically paralyze, doesn’t make a kid want to call her mom to come get her from a sleepover in the middle of the night (which I did regularly, until I just stopped going to them altogether). It’s still hard to describe, but, at home, I knew that Max, our German shepherd-Bouvier des Flandres mix, would sound the alarm from the backyard if someone he didn’t recognize was about. I watched too much true crime as a kid (the truest of all being the nightly news) and knew we kept the sharp knives in the drawer to the left of the sink, knew where the softball bats were in the basement. I knew where to hide if something were to happen. And when you’re anxious, even as a child, you always, always feel like something is about to happen, something bad, something harmful.
At the end of the night, our mothers called us in, fussing at us for smelling “like outside.” We complained the entire way to the bathtub, hopped up on camaraderie, a lack of responsibility and a feeling of safety we never knew we’d miss.
After graduating from Male High School in 2000, I left Louisville for Transylvania University (Transy, as we called it) in Lexington. I hadn’t visited the two-block campus before deciding to attend, and the first thing I saw when my mother and I turned into the parking lot on move-in day was the boys’ dorm, the second floor of which had a Confederate flag in every single window. I begged my mother to let me come home, but she gently refused, telling me that I had to go to class and graduate because I said I would. For the first time, I couldn’t run from having to sleep in a different bed in a different room in a different building in a different city. This time, my mother did not come to get me in the middle of the night when I called her to ask.
At Transy, I met one of the best friends I’ve ever had, Brittany Robinson, who also happened to be from the West End. We clicked nearly instantly, and nobody on campus could believe that we hadn’t known each other for years. She was over six feet tall, with a shiny mop of curly hair that she usually wore in a high ponytail. (She named said ponytail Señora Poof.) The curls came from her heritage: Her mom was a Black woman who loved to make crass, edgy jokes that always stunned and scandalized me, and her dad was a mild-mannered white man with rosy cheeks and a soothing smile. I later discovered that someone on her dad’s side of the family was an actual grand dragon or wizard or something or other in the KKK. Brittany was whip-smart, outspoken and absolutely hilarious, and together we grew militant and disruptive, tossing our Louisville accents across the campus in protest of just about everything that made us feel unsafe.
We soon learned that the Kappa Alpha frat brothers lived on the second floor of the dorm my mother and I saw when we turned into the parking lot on move-in day, which explained the Confederate flags. The fraternity, I would later learn, was founded in Virginia and was basically a bunch of good ol’ boys who described Robert E. Lee as their “spiritual founder.” Though the flag wasn’t an official emblem of the fraternity, its members basically adopted it as such, decorating their rooms, functions and even themselves with the flag. Confederate litter like that covered the campus. The boy’s dorm that housed KA members was partly named for Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. A huge, larger-than-life bust of Davis hung in the lobby of the dorm, and the library kept a bust of him on display beneath a protective glass case. Brittany and I saw men dressed as Confederate soldiers and women as Southern belles in hoop skirts on what was known as Old South Day. We asked to form a Black student union to offer support to those traumatized by all the reminders of the enslavement of our ancestors, but were instead told to establish a “multicultural student union” to make it more inclusive (and likely to keep from making others uncomfortable). When Chappelle’s Show debuted during my junior year, in 2003, you never knew when you might walk past a white person gleefully yelling, “Fuck yo’ couch, nigga!” Transy is where a Black friend of mine had the word “nigger” written on his dorm door in permanent black marker. I remember taking pictures of the door because we needed proof before the word was removed. I still have a picture of it somewhere.
'This was supposed to be our home away from home for four whole years. This was not home.'
We resented the fact that plenty of the white students on campus had the privilege and opportunity to feel like they were home, to feel safe and looked after and provided for. Brittany and I reveled in opportunities to go back home to Louisville to breathe easier, to remind ourselves what it feels like to actually feel at home. Derby was our favorite time to go back to Louisville, and not because of any horse race. That was white Derby. Black Derby happened in the West End, up and down Broadway, where we gathered with the best of our culture on display. Outfits, music, hairstyles, cars, front-lawn barbecues, $5 polaroids in front of big, airbrushed bedsheets to commemorate the occasion. Brittany and I and our other good friend and classmate Candis — a Black girl from Akron, Ohio, with Louisville roots — especially loved running up to and taking pictures next to as many tricked-out, gas-guzzling cars as we could. Old Caddies, Buicks and Impalas with huge rims and gleaming chameleon paint. We wanted to soak up as much Blackness as possible before heading back to school. Returning to campus after a weekend in Louisville felt like the unavoidable crash after an intense, rapturous sugar high. In our dorm’s computer lab, we spent hours googling schools to transfer to in Chicago or Philadelphia or any city we could think of that was Blacker than where we were.
In Lexington, I attended a KKK rally. To be fair, more protesters showed up than supporters at city hall, but I still witnessed men in hoods doing the white-power salute within walking distance of campus. Near the courthouse was Cheapside, an area so named because it was the former site of the largest slave-auction block in the state. With all the things named Cheapside (a park, a bar), not a single historical marker explained or acknowledged the area’s past (though this eventually changed, thanks to the Alpha Psi fraternity at the University of Kentucky). On weekends, a huge, bright-red pickup, always washed and gleaming, circled Cheapside while honking its horn, a massive Confederate flag planted in its truck bed.
The most terrifying thing I ever saw was a group of KAs, many of them shirtless and/or draped in Confederate flags, gathered around a tree singing “Dixie” in the rain. (I would later write about this experience in an article that went viral and was issued an apology by Kappa Alpha). I remember watching the scene from the window of my dorm room near midnight, wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into.
I didn’t begin to feel outrageous pride for Louisville until I left Kentucky. Once I graduated from Transy, and I was SO ready to go, I went to Philadelphia under the guise of going to graduate school to study poetry at Temple University, which I did, but only for two months. (I knew I didn’t want to study poetry even as I filled out the application to do so; I needed a reason to see what life was like outside Kentucky, as the idea of moving just to move was terrifying to me.) I withdrew from Temple as soon as I got the nerve and got a job as an administrative assistant at an architecture firm. As a Black woman, I was used to being underrepresented, but in Philly, I was underrepresented in a new way: Everywhere I went, I was almost always the only Southerner, the only one who didn’t pronounce water as “wooder.” I didn’t use any local slang because it sounded so ridiculous in my drawl.
It was here where I found that being from Louisville gave me a reason to be in the strange new rooms I found myself in. I wasn’t great at small talk back then, and was in fact terrified of it, but I soon learned that my accent charmed and disarmed people, that hearing where I was from immediately made them want to know more. Their relaxing made me relax a little more. I had something that made me interesting, and this is big for someone lacking in self-confidence, as people with anxiety often are. At the same time, it didn’t take me long to get annoyed when people would say: “There are Black people in Kentucky?!” or “So you can ride a horse?!” or “Does that mean you can fry chicken?!” I learned, too, that people saw my being from Kentucky as a weakness, a soft spot at which to level their blades.
Nationally, Kentucky was known as a land of nothing but horses, hicks and a chain of chicken restaurants whose mascot looks like a slave owner. When Brittany and I traveled outside the state for fun or for research projects, we resented our state’s reputation and did not defend it. Why would we? What had the state ever done for us that made us proud? Sure, the Confederate flags on campus eventually came down after loud protesting from mostly Black and brown students, but what a thing to have to thank someone for. In those days, we felt corny, goofy and small- townish when we left the state. We worried that people assumed we were naïve and unworldly. Whenever somebody made fun of our home, we even joined in sometimes. It’s difficult to speak highly of a place that repeatedly smacks you in the face, and that happened every day we spent at Transy in some form or fashion.
But once I moved up North I began to resent the stereotypes out loud and quickly learned that, up there, people expected something of me because of where I was from — and pride was never one of those things. I also realized how I, and the generations of ancestors that came before me, seemingly had no claim to the land that we toiled on and bled for, often not of our own volition. No one even knew that Black people existed in Kentucky. My family, my friends, all the amazing things about us and the role we played in the state’s history — all of it suppressed to the point of erasure. That’s when I became annoying about it all. My whole belly and chest and face swelled and beamed with pride whenever someone asked me where I was from. I became what a friend of mine calls “a Southern supremacist.” Even though I saw the worst of the state while in college, I still loved my home — maybe loved it even more — because I realized how overlooked and silenced so many people are. Black people deserved to be proud, too. We had that same right. We also deserved respect for all the things we had to put up with as people oppressed by the very place we lived.
I got loud about Louisville. I went home for holidays and came back with U of L T-shirts and hoodies. I brought up my city in every conversation I could, making a big deal about people who pronounced it incorrectly (which was nearly everybody). It wasn’t until later, maybe not until the writing of this essay, in fact, that I realized my pride blossomed to keep me safe. It became my security blanket as I made my way through a world so far away from the people and places and things that calmed me and made me feel safe. Louisville became my identity.
When I was 26, after four years in Philly, I moved back to Louisville in 2008, living first with my mother in my childhood home, then in my very first apartment in the city where I was born. I’d found a good-paying job at another architecture firm, Luckett & Farley, and saved up to move. Most everyone I knew who had their own apartments in the city were paying about $550 a month in rent. So, when I fell in love with a two-bedroom, 1.5-bathroom loft at Fifth and York streets downtown, within walking distance of work, I had a two-week anxiety attack before signing on the dotted line to pay $739 a month for my little castle. It was spacious, bright, had an elevator. I bought the best of the cheapest furniture IKEA had to offer, threw epic game nights. I was able to hop a bus and be at my mother’s house in about 15 minutes or walk the three miles west and be there in an hour. (TARC schedules could be an unreliable headache, but I will always praise the 19 and 21 lines for their years of service.)
In 2014, I got an opportunity to move to New York to become a professional writer. I did not want to move, and when I agreed to do so, it was only because the person who hired me agreed to fly me home once a month to see my family. I’d intended to stay for only six months, and the first apartment I ever rented had a six-month lease. Eight years later, I’m still in New York, living in Brooklyn and working remotely as a freelance writer and podcaster. I was never more excited to see parts of my old neighborhood, to see the Virginia/Dumesnil exit sign, than I was when I’d been away in the big city for a while.
Christmas 2019 was the first and only Christmas I celebrated without my family. Spending the holidays away from my little shotgun house in the West End had always been non-negotiable, and that year I worried that the guy I was dating at the time wouldn’t understand what my heart was going through because he wasn’t the most sentimental. But he surprised me with a Christmas tree made of cardboard and a poorly wrapped present. I was moved and elated and decided that it might be OK if I relaxed a little and allowed myself to have fun. I talked to my family, drank too much and managed to survive the day in his living room, 700-plus miles away from the place I should have been, the place I felt safest.
Five months later I would be in that same living room, cardboard tree still where it stood Christmas night, as I watched protests erupt in Louisville and all over the world.
'Being Black and from Louisville means being invisible and ignored.'
I learned about Breonna Taylor’s death via an article that floated down my Twitter timeline some time during the spring of 2020. I was scrolling and scrolling and scrolling through the constant bad-news barrage and saw “LMPD” in a headline. I said aloud, “Oh, lord, what did they do this time?” before clicking the link. As I read it, I exhaled all the air in my lungs, instantly exhausted.
I sat with that fatigue a few seconds, felt the crushing weight of learning of yet another defenseless Black person killed by police, closed the story and kept scrolling. It becomes a reflex after a while. Then the seriousness of what I’d read hit me: a 26-year-old Black woman shot to death in her own home in the middle of the night by police officers executing an ill-begotten no-knock warrant. Police officers used a battering ram to bypass any locks or security measures she may have had to gain entrance into her home. Her home. The one place she should have been safe, the one place she should have been allowed to let her shoulders drop and relax, the one place she shouldn’t have had to be on guard from all the threats that Black women find themselves under every day. (Note: My body has a physical reaction every time I use the word “death” or “killing” or “passing” instead of what I want to write when referencing the end of Breonna Taylor’s life. As “murder” is a legal term, and no one was found guilty of or even charged with it in this instance, I cannot legally call what happened to her such. But please know, dear reader, that in the courts of the hearts of the people she lived among, of those who loved her and look like her and worry about their own safety because of what happened to her, that is the word I use, that we use, and each time we do feels like a tiny little smattering of something like justice.)
After reading the details about her death, I said aloud, “I wonder if it will make national news.” As reprehensible as the incident and the details were, there was still plenty of room to wonder: Would anyone care?
As a Black Louisvillian, I know how the voices and entire lives of Black people can be overlooked and silenced, not only by the national news but by our very neighbors and the people we’re supposed to trust to keep us safe. I truthfully didn’t expect the story to catch national attention because Breonna was not blonde-haired, blue-eyed or white. She wasn’t from a big metropolitan city. She was a Black woman, and our deaths rarely make headlines.
The more I read and thought about her, the more haunted I became. She was an ER technician who had worked as a certified EMT for the city, and her mother, Tamika Palmer, told the C-J, “She had a whole plan on becoming a nurse and buying a house and then starting a family.” It was impossible not to imagine myself in Breonna Taylor’s place. I was a 26-year-old Black woman once, living in Philadelphia trying to figure out the world and my place in it, thinking about my future, sure of absolutely nothing and constantly looking forward to my next trip to Louisville, where I could let my own shoulders drop and relax and rest and breathe a bit. That’s exactly what she was trying to do when she was killed.
Sometimes my mind drifts and I find myself imagining her that night. Arriving home, maybe she sighed the same big sigh that I sigh when I finally get a chance to safely set down my armor after being out in the world all day. It was reported that, the night of her death, she and her boyfriend had dinner at Texas Roadhouse (an old favorite of mine) before going home to play Uno and watch the movie Freedom Writers. I imagine her sitting down at last, pent-up energy from the day draining from the marrow of her bones. Guard completely down, and vulnerable because you should be able to be vulnerable in your own home. The same could have happened to me on a trip home. It is easy, terrifyingly so, for me to imagine that it was my eldest niece Tiara’s name in the headlines that day, and the knowledge that one day it very well could be stalks my consciousness, randomly breaking into my thoughts. When the thought seizes my chest and shallows my breathing, I must talk myself down from panicking as if it has happened already. I always worry about my young nieces and nephews having a run- in with LMPD out in the streets. Now, I also worry about them having a run-in with them in their own homes, too.
I don’t remember having “the talk” about the police and the potential dangers they can pose to Black people, but I do remember my brother being profiled by Louisville police officers more than once. I spent a lot of my time as a kid mad at my brother for teasing me, but no matter how angry I got at him, I knew he had a good heart. He was smart, sensitive, protective. To all of his peers in the neighborhood, my name was “Travis’ Sister,” and they knew not to bother me. He could be a jerk but was a good kid. When I was nine or 10, I became conscious of Travis having confrontations with LMPD — being thrown against a garage in an alley, receiving a bloody lip (“Gave me the business,” is how he describes it now) — and of my mother having to go collect him and calm him once he arrived home. Trav and our mom reminisced on a bunch of different incidents in our family group chat, including their getting pulled over because my mom had on a baseball cap and the officers thought it was two young dudes who “fit the description.”
“It was a part of my life that was pretty much regular,” Trav says. As soon as I learned the police had the right to rough up my brother just because he was Black and out after dark, I learned that they were a threat to be added to my list of things to worry about.
Still, I was able to hold in my mind that not all police officers are bad and hateful and racist, and this is strictly because of the officer my mother befriended while working as a civilian employee at the LMPD headquarters at Sixth and Jefferson streets downtown. (Right by Jefferson Square Park, which, during the protests in Breonna Taylor’s name became known as Injustice Square.) Whenever I asked my mom about her time at LMPD and what the officers were like, she said that, for the most part, they were respectful and well-mannered. But she also acknowledged that the job attracted a certain type of person.
“It was a hard job for decent men,” she says, implying that some used their badge and positions to make themselves feel bigger.
One of the decent men was an officer named Herbert Alpieger, known to everyone as Bud. Bud might have been one of the first white people I ever met, at least outside my family. My whole life, we displayed a framed picture of Officer Bud in his LMPD uniform holding two-year-old me in his arms. My mother said he used to take my brother and our cousin, Tyrone, to police summer camps, and I remember going to his house to play with his daughters a time or two. Bud was nice.
I thought about that picture often as time wore on, as I grew older and learned about what happened to Rodney King in L.A. and, later, to Amadou Diallo in New York City. I thought about that picture when Desmond Rudolph, an unarmed 18-year-old, was shot and killed by police in 1999 in the alley behind our house, where the Rev. Jesse Jackson later showed up to hold a rally. This was right behind the backyard, where my friends and I used to play and swim and watch my grandmother’s spinning primroses bloom right before sunset in the summer. (Rudolph was in a stolen and stuck car when he was fired upon, 22 rounds; the two officers, who said they feared being run over, were later honored for “exceptional valor.”) I thought about it as I watched my hometown’s streets explode in protests in 2020. I thought about it when a National Guard soldier, deployed to enforce a curfew, shot and killed David McAtee at his barbecue business
at 26th and Broadway, 20 blocks from the heart of the protests. I thought about it as I watched a Vice News documentary about patterns of sexual misconduct by LMPD officers (one of whom was involved in the killing of Breonna Taylor). Taking in story after painful story of police seemingly turning on the people they’re supposed to keep safe made me wonder if there were any more officers like Officer Bud, and if so, where the hell were they? How could they stand to be so silent?
The protests didn’t begin until May 28, 2020, 76 days after Taylor was killed. It made sense so much time passed before the public heard about her. George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis was caught on camera. It’s much harder to refute what we see with our own eyes, which, in Floyd’s case, was the horror of Floyd, a big, strong man, with an officer’s knee on his neck. Floyd was essentially tortured until he called out for his long- dead mother, until he died. It inspired a more visceral response than the story of someone being killed by a gun in her own home, even if the details of Taylor’s death are just as heinous. The ability of civilians to record the actions of police officers has forever changed the pursuit of justice for everyone in America, Black people especially. For centuries, it was white people’s word against ours, so much so that you nearly have to have video of us getting abused for people to believe that it happened, that maybe we didn’t deserve it. Without visual evidence of our blood being spilled, our words are often just that: words — easy to ignore, simple to shut out. There was no video of Breonna Taylor.
It’s difficult to describe what it was like to see my city on the national news, mobs of rightfully angry people marching near my old office near Third and Broadway and passing the apartment where I lived at Fifth and York. It felt like watching a movie that just happened to be set in Louisville. It was a dizzying experience, looking at the television screen and seeing a familiar setting — seeing home and connecting so deeply with it, feeling like I was back there — and then peering out the window of the apartment I was in and seeing a decidedly Brooklyn scene: a block-long brick apartment building sitting right on the sidewalk (front lawns are rare in New York City), a delivery truck double-parked in the middle of the street, a raucous chorus of car horns and East Coast accents screeching their annoyance. My jumbled senses added to the surrealness of it all. I snapped back to reality when I recognized someone in the crowd of Louisville protesters — Nicole, a friend of at least a decade and a mother of two. She was in a mass of people being swatted at by the police; one cop had a hold of the jacket a woman was wearing, and Nicole stepped in to help pull her from his grip. My family lived mere miles from the violence; this was officially too close to home for me. I felt it in my body — my stomach sank down into the tips of my toes. My breathing quickened, my shoulders tensed, my fists balled.
In the past, I’d been able to stay off social media when I recognized I needed a break for my mental and physical health. But this was different. This was my home, and these were my people. Even though I was more than 700 miles away, it felt like my physical survival depended on my staying glued to the coverage and conversations. As soon as my eyes opened in the morning, I volleyed between CNN, MSNBC and the BBC. I slept with my phone under my pillow, checked Twitter when I got up to pee in the middle of the night. I had anxiety attacks at work, even though I was working from home as a freelance podcaster, pulling it together long enough to get through a recording, in disbelief that I (or any Black person) was still expected to work and perform in the middle of such an assault on our bodies, on our minds. I wondered often (and still do, honestly) how many years the stressing was taking off my life.
The only time I was not consuming the absolute trauma of the situation was when I was asleep, and even then it sometimes crept into my dreams.
The people calling for justice for Breonna Taylor grew palpably desperate as time wore on and the reality that her killers may not be arrested or charged began to set in. Early on, I noticed that the news coverage seemed to focus more on Floyd’s story and the protests in the bigger, sexier cities: Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, London. I wondered if it was because Taylor was a Black woman or if it was because Louisville was a smaller city that no one cared about or both. I still wonder.
Whatever the reason, those hoping for justice received the disappointing news during Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron’s announcement in late September 2020, that if there was justice to be had, it would not be coming from the state of Kentucky, home to the city that killed her. We were disappointed and angry and hurt, but not surprised. I imagined that the news was especially expected in Black Louisville, where we are used to being let down and ignored and forgotten. I’d remained hopeful as the protests wore on, but in the pit of my stomach I always knew what was coming: absolutely nothing.
In the interest of fairness, I should mention that Louisville banned no-knock search warrants, with legislation known as Breonna’s Law. And I suppose I should mention that there were charges in connection to the shooting that took Taylor from this earth — officer Brett Hankinson was charged with (and ultimately found not guilty of) wanton endangerment for firing bullets that went through a wall and into another apartment. This felt malicious, like AG Cameron wanted to add a little more poison to the toxic message his decisions sent to anyone listening: Not only are we uninterested in honoring and protecting the lives and civil rights of Black women in this city, but we value the protection of an apartment unit, a piece of property, a whole lot more.
And this is the place that I am supposed to feel at home in. This is the place that I loved more than most things in my life, the city that I made a part of my identity. This is what that place thinks of me? I was furious but also deeply, tremendously, unspeakably sad, on behalf of Taylor and every other Black woman in the city of Louisville. The place that is supposed to love and protect us spat in our collective faces, and it felt there was little that could or would be done about it.
In August 2022, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced federal civil rights charges against four officers (two of them now-former officers, including Hankison) who were tied to the raid, mostly related to obtaining the faulty drug search warrant. Garland said, “Breonna Taylor should be alive today.” I was shocked, relieved and overjoyed that at least somebody was stepping in to do the right thing, then I felt deeply embarrassed that Kentucky (and Louisville) could not be trusted to do it, and had indeed failed tremendously on a national stage.
After being steeped in trauma long enough, trauma becomes the norm, settles into your core, becomes a part of your cellular structure. Trauma is why Black people are more likely to die of pretty much every disease and medical condition. Trauma stunts emotional development and weakens the immune system. Childhood trauma, in particular, contributes to a shorter lifespan, and the transgenerational trauma Black people face simply by being born Black begins to impact life as soon as we are born. It seemed logical to me that organizers and people on the ground in Louisville feared Breonna Taylor’s name would vanish. Being Black and from Louisville means being invisible and ignored. Being invisible and ignored means that oppressive systems are not interrupted and the same old shit keeps happening to the same people. And it keeps happening, and happening, and happening until it kills us.
'If you cannot be safe in your own home, can you be safe anywhere?'
I learned early on that my family and people like us, those of us who lived where we lived, couldn’t depend on the police or on white people to give us help when we needed it. Even the smaller things. For as long as I can remember, issues raised in the West End — everything from lacking access to healthy food to not being able to get recycling bins from the city — were quickly dismissed and forgotten by the masses, particularly those who actually had the power to do something about the problems. When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to write a play called Ain’t No Garbage Cans in the West End. I always wondered how people who lived in the West End, who were always criticized for being lawless and dirty and too violent, were expected to keep their neighborhoods free of litter without city trash cans. I didn’t have the words for it, but I knew that it made me mad. It made me feel the same way I felt when, as a child, a drug house sprang up across the street from us and thrived no matter how often my grandmother called the police (and she did so often). The evening LMPD finally shut the whole operation down, my grandmother stood at the end of our walkway, providing a statement to an officer, a blond woman, who had the gall to ask, “How could you all live with this stuff going on across the street?”
Of all the uncomfortable statements I heard while at Transy, the one that cut deepest came from a guy I’d graduated high school with. He had one white parent and one Black one, and he once looked me in the face and asked, “Is the West End really all that bad?” I froze briefly, then said no, then probably something like, “It’s the same as any other place, you just watch the news too much.” My instinct was to detail for him all the amazing things about my neighborhood — how Shawnee Park would burst alive with color and energy as the whole neighborhood turned out to ride, walk, talk and just commune in a public space; how everybody on my block looked out for one another; how we raced up and down the street; how we recapped Def Comedy Jam on the school bus — but he didn’t deserve that insider’s view. No one who had the nerve to ask such a question did.
I proudly called Louisville my home, boasted about the person it had made. I sang its praises every chance I got once I left it, and before that I loved it because it was home, was where all my favorite people and things were. It is true that the street where I grew up became less safe over the years, but that is to be expected when the price of being alive keeps going up and the conditions that make people poor stay the same. But when Breonna Taylor was killed, everything changed. I changed.
It is a society’s job, especially one in which people think of themselves as good, to care for the most oppressed. When people are aggrieved upon, trespassed against, victimized, unjustly killed, society will demand some combination of three things: revenge, justice and accountability. Anger demands revenge. Sorrow demands justice. The will to continue living requires accountability.
Holding the aggressor accountable is a measure taken to ensure that such aggressions will no longer happen. It sends the message that, first, the act inflicted upon the person and similar people is wrong and will not be tolerated, and second, that such people are worth being protected — that such people are important to the society in which they live, work and pay taxes. When that doesn’t happen, the opposite is proven true: Those lives are not considered worth protecting. That if it happens again, and with no consequences, it will again be tolerated. And again. And again. Surely any good, empathetic person who believes that Black people are people can understand the devastation, can understand our wanting the pain to stop. When you don’t care about the pain, it is likely because you don’t care about the people.
Breonna Taylor’s death made me feel like I’m not from anywhere. I’ve lost my anchor. For someone whose hometown had always been such a huge part of her identity, that means that I’ve lost a piece of the person I knew myself to be. I do not have the words to describe what it feels like to feel unsafe, to feel like prey, no matter where you are in the world. If you cannot be safe in your own home, can you be safe anywhere?
During this year’s Derby, I watched many in the crowd roar with delight as Donald Trump appeared on the huge screen in the infield following the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home” — a song soaked in the blood of slaves, no matter how you try to explain it away. (In 2020, without fans in the stands for the pandemic-postponed Derby, Churchill Downs presented, in their words, “a thoughtfully and appropriately modified” version, meaning no lyrics on the screen.) Hearing the crowd return to singing it made me feel like Louisville, nearly two years after the protests, had returned to business as usual, had returned to being a place that only a certain type of person is allowed to miss. The time for thoughtfulness was over, I reckoned. Dr. Maya Angelou’s famous quote came to mind: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” Louisville showed me what it is.
And I know that my heart is not the only one broken. Shively, Newburg, the West End, all of Black Louisville — we lug our shattered pieces with us through life, shards clinking and clanking in our chests, cutting through silent moments to gently remind us that we are not fully free or seen or accepted. You learn to balance the weight and you learn the medicinal, healing power of joy and laughter and you learn to be OK until the next time your city reminds you that it rarely thinks of you, and when it does, it isn’t in high regard.
When the war in Ukraine began in February 2022, a poem — titled “Home,” by Warsan Shire — circulated wildly on social media, quoted over and over and over by people wishing to express their anguish.
Shire, who was born in Kenya to Somali parents, writes:
“no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well...
you only leave home when home won’t let you stay.”
I had the opportunity to talk to Shire about her poem during an interview roughly a month after the war began. “I can always tell when something has happened in the world based on people sharing the poem online,” she said, “and it’s never by the people the poem was intended for.”
Shire wrote “Home” for, and about, Black refugees forced to flee the violence and instability of their native homes. It is about the racial violence and oppression they face once they reach the “safer” shores of white society. The stanzas people leave out — always the same — when quoting the poem online are specific and very telling. Those who share “Home” incessantly, they strategically leave out the most important part: that those being forced out of their homes are Black.
“go home blacks
sucking our country dry niggers with their hands out they smell strange savage...”
I worked on this piece over the course of a couple months, and the whole time I’ve struggled to describe what home feels like to me, but I think it’s kind of like that — like the lines left out of Shire’s poem, like everything that isn’t said. Home is now a feeling of heard but not listened to. Of being gazed at but not seen. Of being an inconvenience that threatens white people’s opinions of themselves as good and kind and Christ-like and on the right side of history. Of living with people who love and praise being from the same city as Muhammad Ali without acknowledging how he would be deeply disappointed in his city if he were alive today. Of, at best, being used and, at worst, being completely forgotten.
I used to think that “Possibility City” was a ridiculous nickname for Louisville (or any city, for that matter). Things can potentially happen here! Some might be good! But will they? Possibly? Maybe? Who’s to say?
But I get it now: What takes something from possibility to reality is work, passion, ambition, dedication and heart, and with those things, so much good can happen in Louisville. Justice for Breonna Taylor was possible here, but that’s all it was: a possibility. It was only ever a possibility. The passiveness of the slogan is shamefully appropriate.
But the roses remain.
My mother still lives in Louisville, in the same home we moved into nearly 40 years ago, with mostly new neighbors we barely know. That house was my grandmother’s pride and joy, and when we moved her into a nursing home, she pined for the home, cried about it, ached to be in her own living room and bedroom and kitchen.
I always knew that, eventually, I was going to settle down in Louisville. When I was living at Fifth and York after college, I was comfortable with my life: great apartment, close to family, dating the person I genuinely thought I was going to marry.
I was content. I am the most indecisive person in the world, thanks to my anxiety disorder, and can count on one hand the number of times I knew for sure what I wanted for my future. Louisville was it. It isn’t anymore.
Louisville used to be a respite. Now, so much has changed. My grandmother is dead, in her heavenly home now — the only place she’d ever willingly leave our little shotgun house for — with her mother and brothers and the son and grandchildren who died before her. I grieve her, and I grieve for the relationship I used to have with the city that holds the house she was so proud of. I miss it. I miss it most when I am back there on my mother’s couch, trying to remember what being home used to feel like.
My mother gifted me a small votive urn containing some of my grandmother’s ashes. I used to feel like I needed to be within the city limits and within the walls of that home to feel her presence, but now that I have a piece of her with me, the house feels more like a symbol, a representation of what used to be. For me now, home is the warmth and security of my mother’s arms, wherever they are, and now I want so desperately to move her out of the West End, out of Louisville, to someplace where I won’t have to worry about her being shot by police officers in her own home, hundreds of miles away from the big bourbon-bottle water tower that I used to delight in seeing after spending time away.
The pool is gone. Everyone who used to gather there on lazy summer days has moved away. We barely use the backyard anymore, besides the deck my mother and Uncle Ronald built with their bare hands.
But the roses remain.
My mother has dutifully taken over their care, and on days when they are particularly bright and boastful, she calls me on FaceTime and walks from bush to bush, showing them off. Somewhere in the back of my heart, I feel a pang of panic:
I am not good with plants. I have no idea how to care for something as complex as a rose bush. Does that mean one day they’ll just be gone?
Maybe my mother let that man snip some blooms off our rose bush all those years ago because she knew something I hadn’t yet learned. Of course they’d be gone one day. Everything will, including us. In the meantime, it is beauty’s job to soothe us, to teach us gratitude for its existence while it is here, and to teach us to let go when it fades. And for Black folks in Louisville, it is our job to look out for each other, to pass on a smile when we can, to send our bodies marching out into the street because, far too often, we’re all we got.
If the velvet petals of a native rosebush make that reality easier to bear, then yes, neighbor. Yes. Take a few more.
Now that you've read this, tell us — what does home mean to you? We hope you’ll take a few minutes to reflect and answer a few questions.