It’s so likely I saw her, amid the Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth reenactors, among the surviving Tuskegee Airmen, and the surprisingly soulful Isiserettes from Des Moines. It’s likely her performance, marching and shimmying as a majorette with the other band members from King College Prep got a shoulder-shake out of Sasha, a mellow head-nod from Malia, a slightly offbeat soul clap from the president.
The most prolific photo of her, splashed across websites under headlines regarding her death, looks like it may have been taken for a school ID. Her smile is faint, but her eyes are soft. At a recent news conference, her father addressed the at-large gunman, saying, “Man, you took the light of my life.” With just a glance at her, so incandescent with promise, it is easy to understand how true that must be.
I watched the entire Inaugural Parade at home with my daughter and my grandmother who, after two solid hours of pomp and pageantry, still managed to say with rapt satisfaction, “God, I love to watch people march.”
Hadiya Pendleton was among those proud marchers, many of whom were black. I do not exaggerate when I tell you that day was among the most blackness-affirming days I’ve ever witnessed firsthand in this country. Our first biracial president entered his second term in office. The great civil rights stalwart and matriarch Myrlie Evers-Williams brought forth an invocation. He was serenaded by this generation’s most spectacular black pop star. And in his parade, droves of black folks beat drums and channeled black civil war soldiers and performed the soul songs we grew up hearing our mamas play while cleaning on Saturday mornings.
For us, comparatively safe in our living room, it was a good day to be black in America. But it was not a day of ceasefire. Even in DC, just miles from the celebration, someone, somewhere, faced his or her customary threat of gun violence.
The same was true of Pendleton’s native Chicago, where for years, the president lived and worked before moving to another predominantly black city and where daily, our own die at some indiscriminate bullet’s behest.
In inner cities, homicides don’t pause to honor inaugurations, not even of a black president who “should” — by the logic of some — make them feel such a spike in self-esteem that they begin to belt their pants at the waist, tell kingpins they’d rather work at McDonald’s for that good, honest minimum wage, and turn their guns over to nonprofits in exchange for canned goods and GED prep courses.
In inner cities, no one ever says to reporters, in the wake of multiple murders within minutes, “I thought we were safe. I never dreamed this could happen on my block.”
Even Hadiya Pendleton, whose school was in a relatively safe area and who sought shelter in a park not known for violent crime, must’ve known how possible it is for an unarmed child to be killed without provocation in her own city.
She was an honor student.
It’s true that I may have seen Hadiya marching across my TV screen last Monday, may even have glanced at her as I do so many of the young black girls I teach, and wondered how closely her look and her life resemble what my own daughter’s will be when she’s older. But I wouldn’t have needed to to understand what’s happening to her.
Rather that traveling across the Atlantic to Paris as she’d planned, Pendleton is traveling through the national news circuit, no longer a girl, now a disembodied reputation.
Rather than having the luxury of unqualified mourning, those who survive her have to spend these irretrievable moments of reflection and grief stockpiling reporters with Hadiya’s “positive” attributes and exceptional experiences. Those who survive her feel the need to insist that she is different than some of the other black Chicago bodies that are reported as little more than large and senseless homicide numbers. No gang affiliations. No bad grades. No “wrong crowd.” Beautiful, built for greatness.
She didn’t deserve this.
It is fitting that Hadiya’s connection to the president is being used as her narrative hook: gun control reform is an issue that’s risen to prominence in recent weeks. Addressing it was one of the first orders of post-inauguration business. It would be difficult to write about this girl without twisting the knife of irony: she lived and died in the place where the president began his political career, yet had she not performed in his D.C. parade, no one outside of their city — which has been slowly burning from within for years before recent mass shootings in suburban areas forced the government’s hand on gun laws — would know her name.
Now that we do know it — now that the president knows it — we expect him to amplify it the way he’s so often done when children from the quiet alcoves of the country have been slain. We expect it, if for no other reason, because Hadiya marched and raised her own voice for him.
But he may not. And even if he doesn’t, we have our own imperatives. We have our own voices to raise, our own unctions to march. We are, after all, the ones we’ve been waiting for.