John Doe 1991
John Doe 1991 has slightly crooked teeth. He has full lips, the type of lips you imagine lilting up on the side in a crooked smile over those crooked teeth. John Doe 1991 has wide-set, almond shaped eyes. They look kind. But these aren’t really his teeth or his eyes or his mouth. John Doe 1991 is dead. He has been for over twenty years.
The picture that I’m looking at right now, was cobbled together by someone else. Someone was staring at John Doe 1991’s face, at his lifeless eyes. Someone was looking beyond his wounds and his decomposition and trying to find a living mouth to match the one that was slack on the morgue slab. Someone was staring at John Doe 1991 and was trying to imagine what he would look like with life in those eyes, with a hint of a smile on those lips, with some color in those cheeks. Someone was trying to help John Doe 1991 find his people.
A year and a half ago, I was sitting in a café with my boyfriend at the time. We were in that awkward, strained part of the relationship, where the shadows are in the corner but you pretend that you can’t see them. We make small talk, but we don’t talk about the important things. I’m black, he’s white. My world is on fire, he finds his proximity to the flames uncomfortable. But at breakfast we are both pretending to be the same — carefree, young, well-off Seattleites.
In the corner of my eye I see an older black man who has taken a seat near the door. He doesn’t belong here. He sees me and as I continue to make meaningless conversation he shuffles over to me and takes a seat at the table next to mine.
“How are you doing today?” he asks. The entire dining room is silent. A group of happy jovial white people sitting two tables down is suddenly uncomfortably listening.
“Fine” I answer, “How are you?”
“I’m alright,” he says with a smile, “I didn’t expect to see you in here. I thought I’d say hi.”
I know what he’s saying, I don’t belong here either — we have that in common.
“I just walked over from the hospital,” he explains, “I have cancer.”
He’s not trying to elicit any response from me. He’s just explaining why he’s here.
We don’t get far into conversation before the café manager shows up. She doesn’t want him here. I’m afraid that she’s going to kick him out but instead she says, “Why don’t you come over here and I’ll get you a cup of coffee.”
He doesn’t want coffee, I can tell. He wants to talk, but he nods in agreement, then tips his head to me before walking over to get a cup of coffee. “Sorry about that,” she mouths to me.
“You handled that well,” one of the white men two tables down says. He thinks I’m one of them.
About a half hour later the old man is back. This time he enters through the side door and sits right next to me. “I know you’ll talk to me,” he says, and he’s right.
I see the manager making a beeline towards us, her face is set in a way that says that she won’t offer him coffee this time. She’s done her good deed for the day.
“Do you want me to buy you a sandwich?” I ask.
“Yeah,” his face brightens.
“Come on, let’s get out of here.”
My date looks at me with concern, “Do you want me to go with?”
“No,” I answer, and I mean it.
We walked to the corner store and the moment we enter, the owners start to tell him that he can’t be here, “I’m buying for him,” I explain and they reluctantly shut their mouths.
“I don’t got any people here,” he explains, “But they’re coming, my people are coming later today. They’re gonna visit me before I go back in the hospital. Can I get some snacks for the kids?”
“Get whatever you want,” I say, “Get some food for your people.”
“You got people here?” he asks.
“I’ve got my brother and sister and my two kids,” I answer.
“That white boy you’re with,” he asks, “He know how great you are?”
We buy about $20 worth of food and snacks and head out. My boyfriend is standing outside of the store looking scared. The old man sees him and nods a greeting.
“Let me ask y’all something, that “soul food” they have at that café, is it bullshit?” the old man asks.
“Yeah, pretty bullshit,” I answer and my date chuckles.
The old man shook his head with a smile, “I thought so.”
He says his goodbyes and walks across the street.
“I was worried,” my date says, “It was really generous of you to do this.”
I look at him and realize that I don’t have any people here too.
Today I’m looking at John Doe 1991 and I’m wondering where his people are. I’m trying to think if there’s anything I can do to help him find them, he’s been waiting for 24 years. To be black in America you don’t have a country, you don’t have a town, you don’t have a police force, you don’t have an education system, you don’t have a future — all you have is your people. If you lose your people you lose your life. You will lose it to the system, you will lose it to the streets, you will lose it to somebody else’s people. When you don’t have people, everyone else looks at you with pity, disgust, fear. They wonder what you must have done to be so adrift, but they don’t realize how easy it is for a black person to lose their people, how they are being snatched away one by one every day. “Why do you always sit together at the lunch table?” they ask.
I’m trying to paint a picture of John Doe 1991. I’m not a very good artist but I try. I’m trying to paint a more loving picture than the composite of other people meant to represent a dead body. I’m trying to imagine what his people would want to see. Somewhere John Doe 1991 lost his people. He died without them.
Thinking of John Doe 1991 is how I remember the old man at the café for the first time in over a year. I’m racking my brain and I can’t remember his name. I am so mad at myself for forgetting. When the cancer claims him, who will call his people?
There are protests right now, remembering the killing of Mike Brown one year ago. At these protests another 18 year old boy was shot by police. A friend of Mike Brown’s.
“Mike Brown was a thug and his friend fired at police,” my neighbors say. These are the same people who claim that we are all one, that the only race is the human race. These are not my people. They don’t understand our sadness, they don’t feel our pain. This is their world, they are at home everywhere except in our streets. They don’t need people, they have everything else. The most wretched of them will be mourned, will be missed, will be avenged — each one.
But we all understand that for a moment, Mike Brown lost his people, and it cost him his life. Because his people weren’t there, it was his body versus the rest of the world. “He was like an animal,” my neighbors say, “He had to be killed.”
The anger and sadness for the loss of Mike Brown is anger and sadness not only for him, but all of our people that we have lost. When John Doe 1991 was killed it was easier to be lost to your people, not your body — that’s just as easily lost today — but your very identity. If you found yourself in a strange town and wound up dead, your people would never know. The internet has made it easier for us to know how many of our people are missing. 1.5 million black men, 64 thousand black women — all have people looking for them. That frightens the others, that we have the capacity to be angry for each and every one of our people.
But every black person has people. Every black person deserves to be mourned, deserves to be missed, deserves to be marched for . Even John Doe 1991 has people somewhere, and they wonder where he’s gone.