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The Worst Day of My Life and the 20 Years of Trauma That Followed

Illustration for article titled The Worst Day of My Life and the 20 Years of Trauma That Followed
Screenshot: Boyz N The Hood

Twenty years ago, my life changed forever. When I woke up on July 16, 2000, I never could have predicted how different my life would be by midnight. But it was. And I was. And still am, if I’m being honest. As I was scrolling my social media feeds this morning, I noticed that my son’s godfather posted a tweet that said, “there are certain things in life you will never get over, but there is nothing in life that you can’t get through.”

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Nothing could be more accurate.


On July 12, 1991, (a little more than 29 years ago) Boyz N The Hood was released to theaters nationwide. The movie was and is a game changer. While there may be other movies that are more “real,” so to speak, what Boyz N The Hood did was show the heart of south central Los Angeles. We cared about Ricky and Tre, and even Doughboy (Ricky’s brother) who was never quite a villain but never quite a character you rooted for either. When Ricky was killed, we all cried. I still cry. Ricky’s death cut down a shot at a better life, a chance to make it out of circumstances intended to trap, if they let you live at all.

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In one of the film’s most iconic scenes, the day after Doughboy exacted revenge on the rivals who killed Rick, and as he sits in a moment of vulnerability on Tre’s porch, he utters the famous words and societal indictment, “either they don’t know, don’t show or don’t care about what’s going on in the hood.” As he walks away from Tre and as an emotional saxophone blares in the background, the subtitles inform us that Doughboy buried Ricky the next day, and that two weeks later, he too was murdered. To drive the point home, Doughboy fades into the ether as he walks across the street, disappearing into the South Central mist that’s claimed the lives of so many young, Black men.

Tre watches Doughboy walk away from his porch after letting him know that though Ricky is gone, Dough will always have a brother. Obviously, that promise would be short lived. The saxophone’s tone changes slightly—it’s as hopeful as it can be given the circumstances—as we are informed that in the fall, Tre would head to Morehouse College, in Atlanta, Ga., and that Brandy, his girlfriend, would be right across the street at Spelman College. It’s supposed to be a glimmer of light in the darkness of the day’s events. At least that way, while we’re all still in tears, we can feel a little better knowing that Tre (and Brandy) got out.

And they both did...and didn’t.

Presumably it’s October in whatever year it’s supposed to be. They’d just taken the SATs, preparing to send out college applications, etc. They’re kids, probably all 17. Maybe Doughboy is a year or two older, but still teenagers, still kids. Tre just watched his best friend die. And then one of his other closest friends, even if some distance occurs for various reasons, also dies. His entire world is different. He has to make it through his senior year of high school and then the rest of his life reliving what I can only imagine is the most traumatic moments of his life over and over. Because you never forget it. You don’t stop seeing it. It changes you. Watching death happen in real time isn’t something you just get over, you get through it. Eventually, over time. Boyz N The Hood wasn’t a movie that had time to delve into the hell I’m sure Tre (and Brandy) had to go through. Maybe where they live they’ve become desensitized to the violence, but it’s always different when it hits home. Always. The pain more sincere. More visceral. More forever. Senseless violence against one person almost never stops there. That violence persists in the form of memories and nightmares; the living experience it over and over.

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That is a trauma Tre had to carry with him as a 17-year-old, while still trying to make it to graduation, while still trying to be the best version of himself, while still trying to find a reason to go outside and be. In the scenes we don’t see, I hope Tre was able to talk to somebody—his parents were supremely active in his life and concerned about his well-being so I presume they did whatever they could to help him through those moments, but you’re never the same.

Trust me, I know.


For me, July 16th started out like most days. I had just turned 21 and it was the summer between my junior and senior years of college—at Morehouse, coincidentally—and I remember hanging around my apartment for most of the day, running errands here and there. On July 24th, I was heading to the University of Maryland, College Park, for a month-long math immersion program in preparation for my impending entry into a doctoral program in economics that following year after graduation. I had a full-time job so I did most of my running around on weekends. I made plans for that evening, with my cousin (A), to go see Scary Movie, at the Magic Johnson’s Theater at Greenbriar Mall. We must have gone to a 9:45 p.m. showing. My cousin lived with my Grandmother in Adamsville, about 5-7 minutes from my apartment, also on the westside of Atlanta. From my Grandmother’s house, Greenbriar is maybe 10 minutes.

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We went to see the movie, and neither of us liked it very much, but what stands out most about that night, until about 11:45 p.m., is that we spent a lot of time talking about religion and our upbringing in church and how that shaped our views on so many things. I remember it being a very in-depth conversation. We left Greenbriar at around 11:30 p.m. and got back to my grandmother’s house at around 11:45 p.m. My Grandmother has a split driveway; I parked on the right side of the split because my other cousin’s car, a cousin I’ll call T, was parked on the left side, which sloped downwards towards the basement level of the house. A fortuitous decision, it turns out.

There were also two entrances to my Grandmother’s house. The street-level entrance and the basement level entrance, both facing the street. Directly next to the basement-entry door, to the left was a rarely used carport. At 11:45 p.m., it’s dark and shadowy; there’s a flood-light that faces the street providing all of what seemed like the light needed. Instead of going into the street-level entrance, A and I walked towards the basement. As we got to the door and opened it, T was just leaving. For context, my cousins A and T are siblings; they have a younger sibling J. A and J, at the time, lived at the house with their mother and my Grandmother.

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As T was leaving, we dapped each other up and hugged, and he asked why I hadn’t called him in a few days. I told him my bad, a joke since we talked pretty frequently, and I told him I’d call him tomorrow. I told him “you know I love you, bruh” and he hugged his mother and sister and walked out the door. I started to make my way towards the steps, maybe 10 feet from the door and all I hear is “DON’T HIT ME, FOLK!” I turned around and looked out the door and all I see is T going down, standing next to his open car door. To this day, I do not remember the sound of the gunshot. But there he was, shot, laying on my grandmother’s driveway, a bullet through the heart. It was 11:47 p.m. Whoever did it must have been hiding in the shadows of the carport. They did what they came to do; then they were gone.

The next few minutes were a blur of activity. If you remember the scene from Menace II Society where Kaine is shot and Stacey is holding him, trying to revive him, with blood everywhere. That was our life. My cousin A took off running down the street. My Grandmother prayed. T’s mother just held him. The paramedics who eventually showed up told me that he died instantly. The official record and news said he died on July 17, but he never made it to midnight. That has always frustrated me because they gave him more time than he had. More time than we had with him.

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T was gone. At my Grandmother’s house, in my Grandmother’s driveway. I always wondered, and still wonder to this day, had I decided to park behind his car, would I still be here? Would A still be here? Whoever killed him planned on killing somebody that night. I’ve never been able to shake that.


That night lives on in my memory. Constantly. Even twenty years later. But what also lives there is how much of a mess I was. In the immediate blur of everything I don’t know that I processed what happened. I had to make the phone calls to folks in the family to let them know what happened. And then the police showed up. And then lots of other people showed up. I had just lost my cousin, somebody I loved dearly and somebody very close to me and it didn’t sink in. Eventually, in a moment where nobody asked me anything and everybody else was being tended to, I lost it. I broke down and cried. And cried tears I didn’t even know I owned. I don’t think I got home until 7 or 8 that morning.

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The funeral was that Friday and then I was leaving for Maryland that Sunday. I couldn’t wait to leave. I needed space. I needed to be away from Atlanta, and from home, and from reminders of what I’d seen and how much it hurt me and everybody. I got to Maryland for the summer program and stuffed it. I don’t think I told anybody in the program what happened to me until near the end of the program. A mere five weeks after a tragedy that changed me forever, I sat in a room with people I’d just met and re-lived a moment I wouldn’t wish on anybody.

And I was not looking forward to getting back to school. My friends love me. In that sense, it was both a gift and a curse. I vividly remember my friends wanting to be there for me but I had no idea what that looked like. At times I felt suffocated by all of the compassion and love; their love kept reminding me of what I’d been through and I was trying to forget. And I had a senior year of college to get through.

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I remember one time being in one of my boys rooms chillin’. I have to point out here that I did really appreciate all of my friends’ support, but I didn’t even know what I needed. While watching videos, some song came on and I just lost it. I had a full break-down in his dorm room. That happened several times at the oddest moments. Out to eat, at a party with friends. At work. I probably needed to go see somebody because I thought I was okay. In my mind I’d dealt with it by not pretending it didn’t happen or that I didn’t see it. I tried to stay focused and was fairly successful, but I was different. I knew it. I wasn’t angry, I was actually more positive. I felt like I was supposed to have died or at least I’d convinced myself of this, so I was playing with house money and on borrowed time. If I had any money who knows what I would have done, but I was broke so I was just more intent on hanging with the homies and enjoying life. But I had nightmares. I can still see it as vividly right now as it was twenty years ago. I pushed through but I needed help that I never went out to get.

My whole senior year I had minor breakdowns, some publicly, most privately. And even for years after. The processing never quite came. Until a terrible day in 2011, it stood, and still largely does stand, as the worst day of my life. The feelings associated with it are still present. I’m better; I got through it and have managed to live a life even with the memories and the pain but I’ve never gotten over it. I’m not sure I ever will. It’s a presence I drag with me everywhere that has helped shape who I am and my perspective on things. And I know I’m not the only person who has gone through tragedy; tragedy is a common visitor for a great many people. But when I see Boyz N The Hood, and see Tre standing there, a day after a day he’ll never forget, I’m reminded about the journey he has in front of him to get through something that he’ll never get over. Tragedy changes you, and only time will tell if it is for better or worse.

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I can’t even completely say I got through it. I was explaining to my wife what happened and I felt myself starting to cry. I felt the raw emotions start to bubble up and I didn’t expect that. I guess I’m still processing. It’s been 20 years; I miss my cousin and I don’t even really remember who I was before that night or how others saw me, I just remember who I’ve been since. That’s what Tre’s life probably looked like. That’s what happens when your life changes forever. That’s what happens when you have to “get through.”

Twenty years ago, my life changed forever.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.

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DISCUSSION

straightoutofpangaea
The Thugnificent Pangaean

Thanks for writing this.

By the time I had the emotional intelligence to express past trauma, past recovery from trauma, and handling conflict efficiently, I was giving my teenage son the rules to life.

I pray you find closure, and the continued courage to explain that journey.