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 child 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 child 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.
Ariel Cobbert, The Commercial Appeal via USA TODAY Netowrk
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.’”
Mardre Sykes, 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?
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.”
Emo Ismail, 17, watches a protest in honor of George Floyd on Thursday, May 28, 2020, in Minneapolis.
Trevor Hughes, USA TODAY
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 child 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.
William Brown, about George Floyd
He was powerless. That could be one of my cousins walking to the store. That could be me.
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.
Sports Life. Real News. Real Voices
Help us tell more of the stories that matter
– 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 younger, 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.
BRYAN TERRY, THE OKLAHOMAN VIA USA TODAY NETWORK
Deven Bruner, about President Barack Obama
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.
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.
TANIA SAVAYAN/THE JOURNAL NEWS
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 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. 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 children 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.
“We’re marching for something bigger,” sa
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