Lezley McSpadden is not here to bullshit you.
McSpadden is the mother of Missouri teen Mike Brown, who was gunned down in August of 2014 by police officer Darren Wilson, and whose death arguably sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. In her new book "Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil: The Life, Legacy, and Love of my Son Michael Brown," she has written about her own life, her experiences mothering the boy she affectionately calls "Mike Mike," and her recovery in the aftermath of the highly publicized, racially-charged death of her son.
This story could have been an apology, wrapped tightly in the code of black respectability politics. That is, McSpadden could have presented her readers with a sanitized version of herself, as a way of trying to appease critics and racists who almost instantly characterized Brown as a thug. Instead, her story feels like an invitation to sit and learn. But first, McSpadden wants to let you know that she's not about to lie here in a book, or anywhere else.
"I don't tell lies because I can't keep up with them," she writes in the book's introduction. "Your word is what you still got when you don't have any money. That's why if I give you my word, say I'm going to do something, or tell you I got you, then I'm ten toes down. Anybody who knows me for real knows that. Feel me?"
The book was written with help from St. Louis native and writer Lyah Beth LeFlore. LeFlore is obviously great at her job—helping to craft a narrative out of McSpadden's words while allowing her subject to speak—because the voice here feels purely, genuinely like McSpadden's: A reader can imagine hearing her tell it while sitting with her in her kitchen, where she cooks to find peace and order.
In the book, she talks about being raised by her mother, about her struggle to get her education and a good job, even after giving birth to her Mike Mike at the age of 16. She shares black girl moments, like the feeling of having her hair freshly pressed or dancing at a party to Mary J. Blige. McSpadden also shares things that aren't even our business—like her volatile relationship with Brown's father and the hustler father of two of her other children. She tells us about the abortion she had and the abortions she wanted.
If there is anywhere in the book where McSpadden does seem a bit on the offense, it is understandably connected to her son.
"Never mind what you've heard or think you know about Michael Brown, or about me, for that matter. You don't know about Mike Mike. You don't know about me. Now, you might know something, some snippet, some half a moment in time, but you don't know my son's life and what it meant, and an 18-second video doesn't tell you anything about 18 years," she writes.
Her son, she says, was born out of love to two parents who both wanted him and into an extended family who loved and supported him. Her son was quiet and thoughtful. He only got in fights, she says, when other people messed with him—maybe because he was such a big kid and an easy target.
She says that the area of Missouri in which they lived could be rough, and she worried often about keeping Mike out of gangs and in school. One of her son's final triumphs, as a matter of fact, was his last minute scramble to graduate after the school alerted McSpadden that her son had been turning in a lackluster performance. Brown graduating was especially important to McSpadden because she never graduated herself.
McSpadden writes about the moments out in that Ferguson summer heat, where she begged officers to see her son's body, and about what happened after. In the aftermath of her son's death, her low tolerance for bullshit chafes against the public image that lawyers think she must put forth as they fight to see justice for Brown's death. She has little patience for a letter from then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, sent after his department declined to prosecute Brown's death. And she talks about having to put on a united front with Brown's father, Michael Brown, Sr.—the two hadn't been together for years by the time Brown was killed and McSpadden had remarried.
She talks openly about the anger she felt about her son's death: "I'm not going to lie; I've been wanting to get mad and just go fuck the world up, because my son being killed has messed my whole life up. No way should my son have left here before me," she writes.
But she says she has found healing and salvation in therapy, and in the mothers of other dead children. When you are black and a woman and have your life ripped open by institutional racism, you enter a kind of sisterhood. McSpadden writes that she found that in women like Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, and Valerie Bell, the mother of Sean Bell. The book has a written forward by Myrlie Evers-William, the wife of Medgar Evers.
Some advice from Fulton: "You have to focus on when he was smiling. You have to focus on his first day of school, and you have to focus on Christmas Day and things like that. The happier times. Put a picture up when he was happy. And you have to focus on those. Just don't focus on the death, because that's going to eat away at you."
McSpadden says she was inspired when she was invited to Baltimore last year for Prince's "Rally 4 Peace" concert. She met Beyoncé backstage and Beyoncé's mother, Tina, pushed her to continue her work against police brutality, and told her to check out the work that Mothers Against Drunk Driving has done. That eventually led to her starting the Michael O.D. Brown We Love Our Sons and Daughters Foundation.
"I wanted to use my voice to bring together a rainbow of mothers from all races and backgrounds who had either lost a child to street violence, gun violence, excessive police force, or just untimely death due to illnesses," she writes. "I saw services for counseling, programs for our surviving kids, physical activities so that we could keep our bodies and minds occupied."
McSpadden says that despite everything, she is determined to keep going.
"After Mike Mike died I believed we would have justice," she writes. "The system has failed my son. It has failed me and it has failed all of us. But, now, I know that I can't wait for anybody else to make change. I must make change, myself, that will be Mike Mike's legacy; that will be his justice. That's the truth of it."