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I look at Breonna Taylor and see myself

Every day that Louisville fails to arrest those officers, they devalue my life and others like me

I can’t stop thinking about Breonna Taylor. Like her, I love well-coordinated outfits, saucy red lipstick and big hoop earrings. Her round, brown sugar face with her strong eyes dressed in lashes sticks in my mind, even as I try to tuck her image away, as if to close a jewelry box.

She had big dreams, her mama, Tamika Palmer, said. “Breonna had her head on straight.” Palmer used the common language of proud Black Southern mamas and aunties. That’s what my mama and aunties said about me, too.

On March 13, Taylor, an emergency medical technician, was shot to death in her apartment by Louisville, Kentucky, police executing a no-knock warrant as part of a drug investigation that allowed them to enter without warning or identifying themselves. Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, were awakened by a loud banging and Walker, a licensed gun owner, fired as the men forced their way inside. The cops responded with 10 shots, eight of which hit Taylor. No drugs were found.

Tamika Palmer, mother of Breonna Taylor, is seen during a vigil for her daughter on June 6 in Louisville, Kentucky.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Taylor lived an hour away from my hometown of Lexington, Kentucky, and looking through her timeline, her tweets could’ve been mine. She was “Staying Afloat!” according to her Twitter bio. In my 20s, as a first-generation college graduate, I, too, was just trying to stay afloat. Like Taylor, I was a Black girl trying to “stay true to herself regardless.” Black women in the South are taught to be modest. But Taylor, who called herself “PrettyN_Paidd” on Twitter, was having a tug of war with modesty, wanting to “brag so bad just one time but my humbleness won’t allow me … just ain’t me.”

And Taylor was trying to be cautious when it came to how she let men treat her or who she dealt with, which is important when you got “lil sisters and cousins looking up to ya.”

I’m the oldest of five children and I know my sisters and cousins look up to me. My youngest sister, Ebony, was born a year before Taylor. As I scanned the photos from Taylor’s apartment, two things in her bedroom reminded me of my other sister, Shay. The first was Taylor’s hot pink and black iron, because my sister loves a hard crease in her clothes. Second, were the aphorisms glittering in black and metallic gold letters on Taylor’s wall telling her to “pray more.” My sister has quotes throughout her house asking God to bless her home.

I’ve tried to set a good example for my sisters, but I wasn’t always cautious when it came to men, a necessary wisdom Taylor emphasized herself on Twitter. After college, I left Kentucky to move to New York City, and my first few years were tough. I was a freelancer in my mid-20s, making $10 an hour and struggling to get by. A friend from college would send me money when I was short.

“You helped me when I was down,” he would say over the phone, after confirming he had sent me money through Western Union.

But I felt terrible, because I was accepting drug money. He sold crack, the same drug my mama has been addicted to on and off since I was in elementary school. A drug so powerful it robbed me and my siblings of a childhood with her leading the family. One day when I was back visiting family in Kentucky, my friend picked me up and we drove to his apartment. As we reminisced about college, I opened his glove compartment and a gun stared back at me. We never talked about it. But I knew why he had it.

Protesters gather around a memorial for Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Unlike me, Taylor was clear earlier in life about dodging men with questionable backgrounds. And even though she was intentional in her choice to date “a law-abiding citizen,” it didn’t save her. Unnecessary deaths creep in our shadows, even when we walk a straight path. The cops still kick in our doors looking for drugs and kill us.

At 26, Taylor was coming to understand her worth and how radical it is to love your Black female self. “I ain’t better than nobody, but I am too good for certain s— period!” As I take in Taylor’s words, I think about some of my own sloppy life decisions and how it is true I’m not better than anyone else. But like Taylor, I still don’t deserve to die.

I’m one of a cohort of Black women trying to find their way in the world.

There are a lot of us who, in the words of poet Nikky Finney, “never had it made, but made it.” There’s the lawyer who was raised by her grandmother and now lives in Atlanta. The University of Kentucky economics graduate who decided to teach underprivileged children in New Orleans. The writer with a master’s degree in social work who planted her life in Kentucky. The only daughter who left Shelbyville to work for our first Black president.

We aren’t all the same, but we carry similar scars. Some of our mamas work as cashiers at Walmart, a newly defined essential job during COVID-19. One of our sisters collects food stamps, and that’s OK because she’s trying to make sure her kids have healthy meals, perfect spelling tests and clean sheets every night. These Black women from Kentucky learned to thrive in a racist world. And all of them, in Taylor’s words, are “a f—ing vibe.”

On Twitter, she emphasizes changing area codes from Michigan to Kentucky. I remember feeling a similar shift when I packed three suitcases, hopped on a Greyhound bus and headed to the Big Apple. I felt hopeful and strong, even though my grandmother tried to talk me out of it. “New York is too big for you,” she said in her last attempt to get me to stay.

I wonder, like Taylor did in a tweet on Feb. 19, what her life would’ve been like if she had never moved. “Where would I work? Would I have kids?”

I have that same thought. What would I be doing right now in some sister-life where I had stayed home? I know I would have joined my grandmother and mother who decided to march, even during a pandemic, on June 5, Taylor’s birthday, so “that they could get something done about those officers that killed her,” as my grandmother told me.

The ghosts of white supremacy haunt me as the months go by since the police killed Taylor and blew out her Black girl sparkle. Every day that Louisville fails to arrest those officers, they devalue my life and others like me.

She’s my sister, my niece and all the other Black girls who love their community and family. Breonna is me and I am her.

Liner Notes

If you liked this essay, you can take home a lot more great writing from Andscape by getting our new book, BlackTold, on sale now, wherever books are sold.

Jenisha Watts is The Undefeated’s general editor for culture. Her Twitter bio quotes the late Toni Cade Bambara: Don't leave the arena to the fools.