Why We Say Their Names

June 27, 2020 By Stacey Joseph

I did not know Elijah McClain personally, but I read that he was listening to music on the “kind of headphones that fit snugly inside the ear.” They say that it was the waving of his arms that caught the attention of a man named Juan who was driving down the same street, and he called 911. What he told the 911 operator was this: “…he looks sketchy. He might be a good person or a bad person.”  Those “mights” were enough for at least four police officers to respond to the scene, and ultimately cause Elijah’s untimely death.

I read that when “a few [police] hands” grabbed Elijah, he recoiled saying “I am an introvert. Please respect the boundaries that I am speaking,” and as the officers pinned him down for several minutes in a carotid hold, he began to moan and sob and plead, and he repeatedly cried out – “it hurt, it hurts!” And after a few moments he began to whimper saying:

“My name is Elijah Mclain. I was just going home. That’s what I was doing. Just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different, that’s all.  I don’t have a gun! I don’t do that stuff! I don’t do any fighting. I don’t even kill flies. I don’t eat meat. Why are you attacking me? I’m just different.”




A carotid hold is the most widely used type of stranglehold by police officers. To perform this hold,  an officer bends his or her arm around a subject’s neck, applying pressure on either side of the windpipe—but not on the windpipe itself—in order to slow or stop the flow of blood to the brain, as it simultaneously blocks both the left and right carotid arteries, resulting in cerebral ischemia and loss of consciousness within seconds.  Without having known its proper name, we are all too familiar with the carotid hold. For it’s the same stranglehold that led to Eric Garner’s death; preceded by him echoing those unforgettable words that spawned a movement: “I can’t breathe.”  It’s also the same stranglehold that though done using his knee, Derek Chauvin used for eight minutes as he slowly, and with a menacing stare, killed George Floyd.  Not surprisingly, it’s also the same stranglehold that Minneapolis police used to render 44 people unconscious in the past five years.

Say his name: Eric Garner

Say his name: George Floyd.

I read that as Elijah attempted to roll over to vomit, the police shouted -“stop fighting!”  One police officer then threatened him saying – “If you keep messing around, I’m going to bring my dog out here and he’s going to bite you.” He said this as he stood over Elijah, watching him struggling to breath, and vomit began to fill Elijah’s throat, then overflow through his lips.

After he vomited, Elijah then stated weakly – “I can’t fix myself.”  His body went limp and then he passed out.

More than 20 minutes after the police confronted Elijah, he was given ketamine, a strong tranquilizer often described as a date rape drug, he was placed into an ambulance, and suffered cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital. On August 30th Elijah was removed from life support. Screenshot_2020_06_29_06_15_43@2x

It’s not even a year after Elijah’s death, and this morning as I read through the details of what happened to him I wept.  I wept in sympathy for his mother.  She described Elijah as a “responsible and curious child who became a vegetarian to be healthier, and who could inspire the darkest soul.” As the collective, we share in her pain, but her grief is her very own to bear, and to work through.  And she’s spent the past near year of her life grieving the loss of her son Elijah; her baby boy whom she held in her arms for the very first time in the hospital, swaddled in that same blue, pink, and white blanket.  She has spent the past 10 months, meant for peaceful grieving,  fighting for, and waiting on justice.  I wept because my mind quickly wonders what Elijah’s Incomplete Portrait will look like; a mere 23 minutes of color for each year of his life. He will now be among the Stolen, a series of partially filled-in depictions of Black people murdered by police, done by Brooklyn artist – Adrian Brandon. Each portrait remains incomplete as Brandon only colors one minute for each year of the subject’s life before it was cut short.  I wept selfishly, for the countless times that I’ve had to interrupt my son’s innocence, and interrupt his love (like mine and so many others) for good soulful music playing loudly in his ears as he moves and bops and waves his arms around in the air, deeply feeling and gesturing the words of whatever song he is listening to. “PAY ATTENTION TO YOUR SURROUNDINGS!” I typically shout, “You just never know what may happen.”  I wept for the fact that he and I, and every other black person living in the US, knows all to well what may happen. Finally, I wept because if I’m being honest, though it’s only been 10 months, I had forgotten all about Elijah’s story.  Not because it doesn’t carry the same pain and importance of the stories that I do remember, but because there are just far too many stories like Elijah’s, and far too many that we never even hear about.

I buried my weeping eyes in my pillow and muffled myself, so that my son would not hear me.  If he hears me, he will ask me what is wrong. And if he asks me what is wrong, I will have to tell him, yet again, the story of a person who looks like him, whose life was prematurely and unjustly ended, at the hands of police officers and vigilantes.  He will say to me as he said to me weeks ago as we talked through the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Sean Reed, “I’ve already told you mom, I’m numb to this.” Those words, will then yet again, pierce through my heart like a newly sharpened sword. And I will feel like I, my son’s father, our entire circle of family and friends which we refer to as our village, and this entire america, has failed him; because we have.

elijah art

My son was seven years old when I told him through tears what had happened to Trayvon Martin.  Every day for a week when he came home from school, he’d put on his hoodie and just sit with the hood on his head.  Since then, the list has grown longer, the pain of it all cuts even deeper.  We continue to march. We continue to Pray. We continue to wait on the “arc of the moral universe” to bend toward justice; and yet, we still find ourselves asking, When? Will? It? End?

Say his name: Trayvon Martin

Say his name: Tony McDade

Say her name: Breonna Taylor

Say his name: Ahmaud Arbery

Say his name: Sean Reed

Weeks into the COVID-19 Pandemic, when we were all committed to quarantining.  I began to realize that there was a certain degree of peace I felt in my son being home.  Quarantining, even with all of it’s inconveniences: the racial disparities, the challenges of distance learning/’homeschooling’ and the endless work from home Zoom calls,  meant that day after day, my son, my nephews, my brothers, my cousins, my uncles, and most of the many black boys and men whom I love from the top of their heads, to the tip of their toenails, were home.  And while being in their homes, doesn’t guaranteed their safety, it at least greatly decreases their chances of being put in a stranglehold, and never returning.  Being at home, gives them, and those who love them, the space, and room, and the peace to breathe.

elijah playing violinI didn’t know Elijah McClain personally, but I know that I don’t want to ever forget him. I know through information that his mother and others shared about him, that he taught himself to play two instruments, one was the violin, which he played for homeless cats at the animal rescue shelter so that they wouldn’t feel lonely.  I know that just about all of the photos of him online show vibrant eyes and a genuine smile. I know that before Juan called 911 and told the 911 operator “he looks sketchy,” Elijah was likely just being fully present in a rare and unencumbered moment of Black Joy.  And I know intuitively that in the moments that he was pleading with the officers, giving them every reason why he was not a threat, and letting them know that he was “just different,” and telling them that he couldn’t “fix himself,” Elijah wanted so desperately to live, but I know that he knew then, that he was going to die.

Police officers are vested with the ultimate power. The power to take your freedom, and the power to take your life.  That sort of power, within a criminal justice system, built on a history of racism, bias, and inequality, will always lead to a disparaging difference in the loss of freedom and death for Black people.  And this is why we must watch the footage, hear and tell, and retell these stories.  This is why we cannot cease collective revolutionary antiracist efforts in pursuit of police reform and social justice. We simply cannot give up this fight. For this is why we must hold the line, and lift our voices, and plant our bodies firmly in the lines of protest, and stay the course. So that we don’t forget exactly what is at stake here.

And though it invokes in us, a near unbearable pain, we cannot continue to look away, lest we inevitably forget how fragile* we are, and be the very next to lose our breath. And this is precisely why we say their names.

Say his name: Elijah McCain.




PNG image-FCE47D3E67EB-1
Stacey Joseph is among other things, a Blogger, Social-Reform Advocate, Anti-racist, and Clairsentient Somatic Teacher. She is also the Founder of ImpactEDI™ – a social benefit startup, that partners with organizations and individuals around the work of equity through diversity, inclusion, and creating safe spaces of belonging.
Artworkcredit: “We The People” a series by Howard Barry of HBCreative. You can find Howard Barry’s work here.
*”Fragile” is a song written and performed by English musician Sting from his second studio album …Nothing Like the Sun. The song is a tribute to Ben Linder, an American civil engineer who was killed by the Contras in 1987 while working on a hydroelectric project in Nicaragua.The Contras were various U.S.backed and funded right-wing roups that were active from 1979 to the early 1990s in opposition to the social reconstruction of Nicaragua. During this time, the Contras committed numerous human rights violations and used terrorist tactics. The reference is made here to call out the various terroristic tactics used in the policing of people in America by overfunded law enforcement institutions.



The Truth About the “Arc of the Moral Universe”

nate woods

 by Stacey S. Joseph March 7, 2020

This morning, I am deeply saddened.  There is something still lingering.  And yet again, I am reminded of the truth about the “arc of the moral universe.”

I did not know Nate Woods.  Like many of us I learned of his story via social media posts requesting a show of support via petition for a stay of execution on his behalf.  Woods was convicted in 2005 of capital murder, but there were questions about his culpability, his representation at trial, and his co-defendant, Kerry Spencer, the confessed murderer, said Woods was innocent. “Nate is absolutely innocent,” said Spencer, who also is on Alabama’s death row. “That man didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody just like I didn’t know I was going to shoot anybody that day, period.” 

The social media petition surpassed 100,000 signatures. However, the stay was denied by Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who refused to stop the execution, stating that Woods was an “integral participant in the intentional murder of three officers.”  She also made it a point in her statement to describe Nate Woods as a “known drug dealer.”  In yet another statement Thursday evening after the Supreme Court temporarily halted the execution, Ivey said she would not step in. She said: “This is not a decision that I take lightly, but I firmly believe in the rule of law and that justice must be served.”

Three weeks ago I sat in the dine-in theater with a dear friend.  Both of us with tears in our eyes watching “Just Mercy.” The compelling story of Walter McMillian, an innocent man on death row, and Bryan Stevenson, a young attorney on what evolved into a life-long mission and legacy fighting for equality in our country’s criminal justice system. BRYAN STEVENSON FOR HARVARD LAW, MONTGOMERY AL OCT 2018
It’s been thirty-five years since Bryan Stevenson began his meaningful journey in the fight for true justice, and yet, in the name of “justice,” another innocent black man has been put to death.

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”  Eleven years ago President Obama helped to popularize this known Martin Luther King Jr. quote.  Obama loved this quote so much that he had it woven into the rug in the Oval Office.  He also often used the quote to temper the “audacity of hope” that he and his presidency inspired, using the quote to remind all of us who placed our unwavering confidence in his message of change, that meaningful and lasting change, does not come down to one single moment.

Like Obama, I have long since loved the the “arc of the moral universe” quote.  I have always asserted that I am a lover of words; and there is something about those words, that quote in its fullness, that has always settled deep within me.  However, my love for the quote has itself been tempered; both by the fact that far too few are able to draw the connection between Dr. King’s words and the original utterance of the quote, and the deeper, more true, and thorough meaning behind it; and by the fact that the sentiments behind the use of the quote by so many in America, often times feels to me like a micro-invalidation of what far too many black people know to be true.

I learned about the original utterance of this famous quote over twenty years ago.  I was in college and had to declare a major and had already fallen in love with Philosophy but knowing that my mother thought I should become a lawyer, I contemplated a major in Political Science.  My academic advisor asked me a defining question – “What is a basic belief that you hold about the nature of mankind?”  After a moment of reflection, I looked down and answered – “I think I believe, no, I know that I believe that people are inherently good.”  He looked at me curiously and then said – “Hmmm,  and why when you answered did you look down as if you were disappointed to say so.” I had no answer for him at the time, but it has since become clear to me why. As I walked out of his office still uncertain about my major, he called out to me – “Hey, (pause) you are a Transcendentalist.”  Shortly thereafter, I came to terms with the fact that I did not want to be a lawyer, and I declared myself a Philosophy major.  I quickly became particularly interested in Transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s and 30s in the eastern United States.death-row  It arose as a reaction to protest against the general state of intellectualism and spirituality at the time.  A core belief of transcendentalism is in the inherent goodness of nature and people, accompanied by the belief that society and its institutions have corrupted the purity of the individual.  The philosophy emphasizes subjective intuition over objective empiricism, and that individuals are capable of generating completely original insights with little attention and deference to past masters.

During my time studying transcendentalism, I was introduced to the works and writings of a man named Theodore Parker; an American Transcendentalists, reforming minister and abolitionist.  Parker was involved with almost all of the reform movements of the time: “peace, temperance, education, the condition of women, penal legislation, prison discipline, the moral and mental destitution of the rich, the physical destitution of the poor, “though none became a dominant factor in his experience” with the exception of his antislavery views.  Parker predicted the inevitable success of the abolitionist cause in stating:

“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the cure and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience.  And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

And this quote, the “arc of the moral universe” quote, is one that Dr. King used many times, including during the march from Selma which began on March 7, 1965, exactly fifty-five years ago today, and a century after Theodore Parker’s first utterance of this famous and poignant contemplation. the scales

The truth about this quote and the reason why my love for it over the course of my life has been tempered, is because the repeated use of and reference to this quote seems to always carry with it the pervasive social hazard of romantic and magical thinking when it comes to social change.  It carries with it this reliance on something that is preordained.  I mean, after all, if in fact the arc of the moral universe ineluctably bends toward justice, there is little reason or even motivation for [any or all of ] us to do our part to work tirelessly toward justice. If it is only a matter of time or cosmic pre-determination, then to some extent, we’ve been let off the hook and we can continue, like Gov. Kay Ivey, to rest on objective empiricism and deference to past masters, and call it justice.

And this is why I am deeply saddened.  Because two centuries ago Theodore Parker uttered a prediction about the success of the abolitionist and social change;  and a century after that, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. uttered with even more hope than Parker, a prediction about the success of the Civil Rights Movement and social change; then twenty years after King, Bryan Stevenson began his journey of doing the “uncomfortable thing” in working tirelessly to change our country’s legal system; and twenty-four years afterward, America’s first African American president convinced us to have “hope” in a “change we can believe in.”  I am deeply saddened because after the execution of Nate Woods, I have to ask myself the same question that each of these men through their life’s work and legacy were essentially also posing about the “the arc of the moral universe.”:

“How long will it take to see social justice?”

I did not know Nate Woods but I have read that among other things, he was contemplative, and he enjoyed writing poetry.  Below is a poem that Nate wrote. He gave it to his sister Pamela, and asked that she share it with us – “in case” the state of Alabama murdered him.

nate w


The Man He Killed

Had they and I but met
At some old residence in Ensely
Had they put their badges
Before their criminal affiliations.
Claiming to be Law
Claiming to serve and protect
Didn’t forget to call us niggers
White men’s Mentality
Police Brutality
Bent on beating my colored life away.

And now, the kith and kin at once start preparing the funerals.
The cries and laments of the sympathizers are over and they are calm now.
The enemies are jubilant.
The kinsmen are busy dividing the estate –
and as for the dead man, he lies entrapped by his own deeds.

Such is the reality of mortal life.
The cause of the death is severe indeed,
and, by and large, we fail to realize its gravity.
Involved as we are in our daily pursuits,
we seldom hint at death and even when we do, we just bring it in as a piece of conversation.

This will not avail us.
Instead we ought to clear our hearts from the thought of all other pursuits and think of death as if it were facing us.
This realization can be brought by recalling
how you prepared the funerals of your friends and relatives
and bore them on a cot to grave then interred them in the grave.

Imagine their faces,
their high stations in life;
and then reflect how earth would have disfigured the beauty of their faces,
their bodies would have disintegrated into pieces,
how they departed leaving behind their children orphans,
their wives widows, and their relatives mourning.
Their goods, their properties, their apparels — all left behind,
and then let the realization dawn on you,
that one day you are inevitably going to meet this doom.

How those who lie dead and still today
used to raise laughter in the company of their friends!
How deeply were they engrossed in the pleasures of the world.
They lay in the dust today!
How remote the thought of “DEATH” was from their minds!
They have become its prey now.
They were intoxicated by the bubbling passions of their youth!
Today their teeth lay scattered, the foot lays broken; the worms are eating into their tongue; their bodies are infested with mite!
How frank was their laugh! Today their teeth must have fallen!

What plans had they conceived!
How they entertained thought of making provisions for years ahead!
And yet, death was hovering over their heads.
The final day of their lives had come,
but they knew not that tonight they would be no more.

Such is mine own case.
I am busy planning my life today.
Little do I know what will happen to me tomorrow.

No living being knows the time of its end.
Man makes provisions for a hundred years,
yet, knows not that he might die the next minute.




Stacey Joseph is a writer, published poet, and social change provocateur. She is also the Founder of    ImpactEDI – a social benefit company that works toward the attainment of equity through diversity, inclusion, and creating safe spaces of belonging.
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