In the year 2000, when I was 19, Alfred “Abuka” Sanders was murdered by police in South Minneapolis on Chicago Avenue. The main thing that lingers for me about him is that he had the prettiest singing voice — golden and preserved like amber within my heart, a mixture of Teddy Pendergrass’ grit and Luther Vandross’ tenderness. When he sang, he looked like he was getting lost inside himself.
Abuka was a big, solid, tall brother and had super-deep, rich, purple-brown-black skin and these little miraculous dreads sprouting out of his head — a signature hairstyle worn by many young Black folks of my generation seeking to be “conscious,” the 90s equivalent of being “woke.”
Abuka and I were learning about Black consciousness and spirituality with a group of intergenerational and diasporic Black people: studying, remembering, and seeking to know more about our Blackness and African ancestry. He was gracious and humble, socially vulnerable, and mentally wounded in his Black existence.
One fall day, at the beginning of the new millennium, during a mental health spiral, he was shot down by Minneapolis police in his driveway.
Over the years I would chant the names in protest of the deaths of countless Black people who would meet the same fate as Abuka: Amadou, Trayvon, Amir, Sandra, Breonna, Ahmad, Jamar, Eric, Philando, George. Names that loom in my chest with love and ancestral reverence. Names that sound like the roll call of family members at any family gathering, with an uncle who always makes the best greens, and an aunt who slides you money and listens to your relationship troubles, and a big brother who sings from someplace deep inside himself as he blesses the family meal.
George Floyd was murdered by cops, five blocks and 20 years away from where Abuka was gunned down. Their lives are more than their deaths. They were existential unfurlings on this planet. Abuka’s murder was local and almost private compared to the hyper-public documentation of Floyd’s death by suffocation, available for all to see on demand. Since 2020, everywhere I have traveled I see murals of George Floyd, who was murdered four blocks from my house, and whose life only became known to me after he was dead.
In his death, I still don’t know him. I know his face and the symbol of it. I don’t know what his favorite foods were, or if he liked to listen to soul classics while he drove around town. When George Floyd was killed, I thought of Abuka and his velvety voice. I think of Abuka every time a Black person is murdered by police.
I became an activist and an abolitionist when he became an ancestor.
Give Policing to Grandmothers
When I originally wrote the poem “Can We Please Give the Police Departments to the Grandmothers?” (now a storybook, illustrated by Kristen Uroda), it was in response to the testimony that Darren Wilson gave for his murder of a Ferguson teenager, Michael Brown, after an altercation over stolen cigarillos. Wilson said he himself “felt like a five-year- old holding onto Hulk Hogan” while he attempted to restrain Brown. Pictures of Brown show a young man, whose face is a mix of stoic teenager and vigilant teddy bear, with high cheekbones and a steady gaze — made an ancestor before he could be a grown man.
I thought of what would have been different if Michael Brown had encountered someone of earned authority in his life, positioned in love within the community. Someone who wouldn’t arrest or jail him, but acknowledge his soul and give him love and resources.
Someone like an elder who knew the ’hood.
I have been inspired by elder women, grandmas, wise women, crones, and queer elders. I also am very conscious that elder women in our communities — particularly our BIPOC and marginalized — are in need of healing, support, rest, and care for themselves. How many of us have witnessed our healers and community caregivers burn out or fall apart? How many of us are that person? These sweet beings deserve to receive care and sweetness in return.
This year the Pillsbury House + Theatre, a community beacon that is blocks away from the places where Abuka and George both transitioned, threw a block party inspired by my book. There was roller-skating, healing circles hosted by artist elder Amoke Kubat, yummy tacos and popsicles, school supplies and books given away for free. Children on stilts danced while the learned wisdom of their grandmothers was shared alongside Stevie Wonder singing, “You can feel it all over, you can feel it all over, people.”
I literally sobbed at the beauty, hope, and possibility I felt in this stretch of land that has held such loss. It felt like a living, healing blueprint for what is possible in our world, if we dream it.
Can we please give the police departments to the grandmothers? Give them the salaries and the pensions and the city vehicles, but make them a fleet of vintage Corvettes, Jaguars and Cadillacs, with white leather interior. Diamond in the back, sunroof top and digging the scene with the gangsta lean. Let the cars be badass!
If you up to mischief, they will pick you up swiftly in their sweet ride and look at you until you catch shame and look down at your lap. She asks you if you are hungry and you say “yes” and of course you are. She got a crown of dreadlocks and on the dashboard you see brown faces like yours, shea buttered and loved up. And there are no precincts. Just love temples, that got spaces to meditate and eat delicious food.