The knock on the door came at about noon. I’d woken up feeling unwell that morning and had called the hospital where I work to say I wasn’t coming in. I was on the phone with my sister and just when the door knocked she was telling me that she’d heard a body had been found hanging in a local park. That was strange.
I opened the door and saw the police chief of our town, Bladenboro in North Carolina, standing there. “I need you to come with me to identify a body,” Chris Hunt said. That put me into a tail-spin. What was it he wanted? Who did I have to identify?
I got into my car and followed him to a trailer park about a quarter of a mile from my house. It’s an exposed, lonely place, with a line of eight children’s swing sets in the center of several trailer homes that have mostly white occupants.
As we pulled up, I was directed to an ambulance parked on the grass. Just as I was coming up to it, I saw a police officer wrapping up the yellow crime-scene tape that had been put around one of the swing sets, as though as to say job done. That was really odd, I remember thinking at the time – I’ve seen lots of crime scenes over the years and they always leave the tape up, to preserve the integrity of the site, for days if not weeks.
I stepped up into the ambulance and stood over a black body bag. My 17-year-old son, Lennon, was inside.
I unzipped the bag down to his waist. I was in shock, despair, but I wanted to see what had happened to him. I wanted to know why my son was here, in this desolate place, lying dead in a body bag. As I stepped back out of the vehicle, I spoke out loud and clear. “Whoever did this,” I said, “they took him down, because he didn’t do this to himself.”
That was on 29 August. Four days later, the police chief came to see me again. He sat down and said they’d reached a conclusion in the investigation. They’d found no evidence of foul play, he said, and he mentioned the “S”-word: “suicide”.
I couldn’t accept that then, and I still cannot now. For those four days, the police didn’t once come to my house, they didn’t look inside Lennon’s room – they still haven’t to this day. They didn’t ask to see his cell phone so they could track his calls, they didn’t ask me what clothes he was wearing the night before he died. Until my family, with the help of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP, presented the police with a long list of our concerns, they didn’t even inquire about the fact that Lennon was found with a pair of white sneakers on his feet that he didn’t own and were two sizes too small for him.
My son – a black teenager who had the world going for him, who was looking forward to playing in a big football game with his high-school team that same night – was found hanging from a swing set in the middle of a white trailer park. And within hours the police had decided it was suicide.
It doesn’t look like that to me. We don’t know what happened to my son three months ago, and suicide is still possible. But there are so many unanswered questions that I can’t help but ask:
Was he killed? Was my son lynched?
It’s hard to think that in 2014, with a black man in the White House, such a thing could have happened in the United States. I remember as a very young child, growing up in Bladenboro there was a sign in the window of the grocery store: WHITES ONLY, it said. But as I got older and went to school I was raised to think of myself as an equal, who could do anything alongside anybody.
I taught Lennon to think just the same way – not of race, but to be proud of himself and everything he did. He was a great kid. He had a passion for life, for football, he respected all his teachers and his neighbors. He was big for his age, but compassionate – a gentle giant.
I knew things were dangerous for him. After Trayvon Martin, 17 and black just like Lennon, was shot by his neighbor in Florida in 2012, that terrified me. Every time Lennon left the house I was scared. Take your cellphone with you, I would say to him. Let me know where you’re at. “Oh, mom, nothing bad is going to happen,” he would say, but it didn’t stop me from worrying.
There were things locally that also made me anxious. Lennon was in a relationship with a white woman over the road. That didn’t bother me in itself, but the fact that she was quite a bit older than him did. I didn’t like that, and I told her that.
I knew my son. His demeanor would have changed if he had been depressed. His routine would have been different, I would have noticed something was wrong.
The place Lennon died also suggests to me he didn’t end his life voluntarily there. Lennon was a very shy boy. If he were going to do something like that, he wouldn’t do it in such an exposed space, hanging from a swing set in plain view of all those trailer homes.
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