In a tremendous act of courage, 17-year-old Milan Bolden- Morris chose to attend her prom wearing a custom gown emblazoned with the photos of Trayvon Martin and others whose deaths gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trayvon, who was Milan’s age when he was killed, didn’t live to see his senior prom.
But it’s his face you see staring from the elegant gown, which includes photos of 15 African-Americans killed in police-involved shootings, including Michael Brown and Tamir Rice.
This dress is powerful because it underscores what I see daily – that it is still dangerous to be black in America.
During prom season, most parents are worried about their teenagers drinking or staying out too late. Parents of black children have another worry: Will my child be shot by a police officer?
Just last week near Dallas, an officer fatally shot a black 15- year-old boy who was a passenger in a car driving away.
Jordan Edwards had gotten into the car with four other teens to leave a house party as police were arriving to investigate a complaint of underage drinking.
The teens committed no crime. Reports said there was no alcohol in the car and no evidence that the teens had been drinking. Yet Jordan, a high school freshman, is now dead from a rifle shot to his head.
In my work, I see it constantly – police overreacting from a deep-seated premise that black people are inherently dangerous. Making matters worse, the court system reinforces this notion by giving officers a pass, even when innocent black children are gunned down by someone who has sworn to protect them and all citizens.
That’s why Milan’s prom dress resonates. Stunning in its own right, it makes a compelling statement about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. No wonder photos have spread like wildfire on social media and made national news.
“Yes I’m black. Yes I’m 17. Yes GOD is using me to convey a message that’s bigger than me,” she wrote on Instagram, sharing a photo taken as she prepared to wear the dress to a high school prom in Pahokee, Florida, in April.
Her gown is a beautiful but stark reminder of lives tragically snuffed out due to racism. The faces on it are young, vibrant and alive. Each carries a story that we cannot afford to forget.
It’s now been five years since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain while walking in a gated community, after doing nothing more threatening than buying candy at a convenience store.
As with so many others, his was an unnecessary and senseless death predicated on a persistent, prevailing and perilous mindset that views black people as menacing. It’s rooted in our history as a slave nation and it has never gone away.
But seeing a young person like Milan demonstrate the fortitude to take a stand gives me hope for the future – for us all.
Finding a path forward won’t be easy.
Milan’s black-and-white dress symbolizes the steep challenges we face. There are still two Americas, and with it two standards of policing – one for white people and one for people of color. This America devalues black life and discounts the humanity of black children.
It’s 2017, and this pernicious attitude from a bygone era needs to change. Every child deserves to dress up for prom, buy candy at a convenience store, or go to a house party. without being shot regardless of the color of their skin.
That’s not too much to ask, and it’s the least we owe our children.