On April 20th, woven in-between the breaking news of Derek Chauvin’s conviction in the murder of George Floyd, TikToks of 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant made their way onto our Instagram feeds. Her face was now precious enough to be turned into shareable graphic art and her life was important enough to be the subject of thoughtful prose on Twitter.
It’s a rare, extraordinary occasion when girls who look like Ma’Khia become the centre of our attention. After a few clicks, I was brought to my knees with grief when I discovered that I was seeing Ma’Khia Bryant because she had been killed by Columbus Police Officer Nicholas Reardon.
I read that she had a passion for lipgloss, bright coloured Crocs, and pranks. She was young, Black, and fat. When her face appeared on my social media timelines, I saw myself along with every Black girl I’ve ever loved in her laid baby hairs and smile.
See, I’ve been a fat Black girl with a bad attitude since I was a child. To be clear, I wasn’t just your standard fat baby. Everyone loves a fat baby. I was a fat baby, toddler, teenager, and now adult.
Growing up in Columbus, Ohio in the US, I celebrated the fullness of my midwestern-born body in the reflection of my mother’s thighs that I used to hold onto when she danced with my twin sister and I to our favourite song, “The Double Dutch Bus” by Frankie Smith.
I saw myself, along with every Black girl I’ve ever loved, in Ma’Khia’s laid baby hairs and smile.
As I grew up, I was confronted with the limits of my abundant preteen body after a Limited Too catalogue arrived at my house. Limited Too was the clothing brand for girls when I was kid. I was obsessed with the cute little pink polos, blue jean skorts, and camis with the built in bras that everyone in my school seemed to have before me. I flipped through the catalogue to select the clothes I was going to beg my grandmother to buy me. And with the sweetness that only my granny could deliver, she informed me that Limited Too didn’t carry my size. My granny opened her beloved JCPenny catalogue, flipped to the “Women’s” section and told me to pick out something for school from her catalogue instead. As you can imagine, there weren’t any bell bottom jeans or t-shirts with “Angel” printed across the chest in this part of the catalogue.
I quickly learned what I could and couldn’t do as a “bigger” child. I balanced the art of staying in a child’s place while also being hyper aware of the things I was “too big” to do anymore. I was learning how to shrink myself to be worthy of just enough care and protection from adults. And when they failed to offer me the type of tenderness we should give to all children, I was expected to do it for myself.
Ma’Khia Bryant was a child who spoke like a child, and thought like a child. But from the moment that police officer fired into a crowd of adults to murder her, I watched as our world refused to understand her as a child.
Even after a year of heightened protest to demand that the police stop executing Black people and passing it off as public safety, I’m amazed that our communities still have a hard time expanding this universal demand to include all Black people. Even a Black girl who did something as common as carry a self-defence weapon to protect herself. She was a child, on her own, in the foster care system. The world taught her to fend for herself and then killed her for it.
At 31 years old, I still see myself in the life of Ma’Khia. Because make no mistake, under this white supremacist delusion made possible by capitalism and grotesque anti-Blackness, we are all vulnerable. We can’t pick and choose which Black lives deserve protection and which don’t. If we aren’t fighting for all of us, we aren’t fighting for any of us.
The New York Times recently reported in great detail how the police, the State of Ohio and the broken foster care system as a whole failed Ma’Khia Bryant. But these are not the only failures. We fail Black girls like Ma’Khia in life and in death when we refuse to centre their humanity and right to live full lives. We fail Black girls like Ma’Khia when we refuse to show tenderness to all children. And most importantly, we fail Black girls like Ma’Khia when we refuse to interrogate the ways we carry out harm on our own bodies and the bodies of Black folks we don’t see as a perfect vessel for care and protection.
Individuals carry out countless offences against fat Black bodies on a daily basis and it’s killing all of us slowly but surely. It’s devastating that the final offense was Ma’Khia Bryant being killed by the police.
The biggest and Blackest of us are being targeted and killed. Therefore, we must center the voices of the biggest and Blackest if you intend to see the other side of liberation.
Ma’Khia’s knife and foster care profile shouldn’t reduce how much we fight for or care about Ma’Khia’s life. If anything, it should increase our concern for how vulnerable and helpless and unprotected she must have felt. We shouldn’t need to know all of the details to know she didn’t deserve to be gunned down by police and then blamed for her own death.
Ma’Khia should still be here. She deserved to be here and be loved well, simply because she was born. She deserved to age with resources to make her life easier, despite her circumstances. Ma’Khia, like all of us, deserved to be treated with tenderness in a world where she wouldn’t have felt the need to protect herself because she was already made safe. Ma’Khia deserved to feel safe. So many systems failed to make that her reality.
Ma’Khia Bryant, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Erica Garner were all viewed as big Black people when their lives were stolen by the state. The biggest and Blackest of us are being targeted and killed. Therefore, we must centre the voices and organising strategies of the biggest and Blackest if you intend see the other side of liberation. We will never get there if we don’t eradicate anti-Blackness and fatphobia.
We must listen to the teachings of Sonya Renee Taylor who proclaims “The Body is Not an Apology,” but is deserving of love and tenderness right now, as it is. If we can love ourselves in our bodies that carry all of identities and complex lived experiences beyond meaningless scales of value, then maybe we can love other bodies just as fiercely. If we stop making apologies for our bodies, our Blackness, and how we’ve had to fight to survive the ever present myth of white supremacy, then maybe we can extend that same type of understanding all Black people but especially our Ma’Khias.
We all should be students of the Fat Futures Collective to explore the complexity of fatness in hopes of moving the needs of bigger bodies from the margins of our radical imagination to the centre. I welcome us to listen to independent philosopher Tassiana Willis who makes their theories on the state’s subjection of fat darker skinned femmes accessible to the masses through their Instagram @ChubbyGoddess. And we must commune in the artistry and everyday living of fat Black artists like Jazmine “Da K.O.S.” Walker, Dom The Furious, Juh, and Kezia Harrell. These artists show us that liberation isn’t always a struggle. Specifically, the fat Black artist shows us that we are entitled to liberation and it can be actualised through a paintbrush, a twerk, a story, a self portrait, or rest. And if that is true for us, it can certainly be true for you too.
Everything about Ma’Khia’s story points to this Black child not being cared for abundantly well and not trusting the care that she was receiving. If we truly believe that Ma’Khia Bryant should still be here, we must examine our own anti-Black fatphobia and ask ourselves how we plan to care for all fat Black bodies. Only then will we truly start to build the world we desire, free from oppression and violence. And don’t we all deserve to be free?
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