Teenage friends Antoine Bell, Xavian Perry-Dean and Kerr-Dulea Neil (left to right) were all killed within a four-month period. Photo courtesy of Monterica Sade Neil.

Just hours after my 17-year-old brother was shot and killed, I scrolled across a picture of his dead body on Facebook.

Kerr-Dulea Neil was lying on his back on the basketball court behind Frayser Elementary School, surrounded by five paramedics. Two were trying to revive him as three others looked on.

My best friend had called to tell me my little brother was dead. I was in Chattanooga, drinking LaCroix and eating from a charcuterie board at an end-of-semester party for graduating seniors in a beautiful apartment. My 24th birthday was two days behind me, and I was graduating from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in two weeks.

I’d seen countless Facebook photos of lifeless bodies lying on streets and sidewalks of Memphis, captured at a distance. The person who takes the picture might name an intersection and write, “Check on y’all folks. They done found a body over here.”

I left the party to check Facebook. Outside, classmates I rode to the party with walked ahead of me. When I saw the photo, I couldn’t move. By the time my classmates realized I wasn’t behind them, they were at least a block away.

Monterica Sade Neil and Kerr-Dulea Neil, above, had a strong sister-brother bond. Photo courtesy of Neil.

The photo was taken on April 22, 2016. That summer, I saw too much death in photos on Facebook. On TV, I saw too many loved ones in tears. Too many faces of victims — teenagers, grown folks, children. Killed at parties, on Beale Street, at home, in traffic, at gas stations and restaurants.

Halfway through the summer, I stopped watching the news. That year, a record 228 lives were lost to homicide in Memphis, 200 or 87.7% of them black, 21 of them under age 18.

The numbers have since declined, partly due to a change in how homicides are counted. Still, Kerr-Dulea’s friends and friends of friends have been killed, one after another after another.

There are plenty of theories as to why this is happening — that it’s a societal issue, stemming from structural racism, poverty, failing schools, unresolved traumas, the stigma surrounding therapy in the black community. Some even try to blame the victims.

I don’t have the answers, but I know these victims are more than numbers or case studies. I see these boys and men beyond what people on the news see. I grew up with and around them. I know how poverty, abuse, and the absence of healthy choices can lead to feelings of powerlessness — that you have no way out, no way up.

What you can get, though, far too easily, is a gun.

And consider this: What will happen to the children who witness all of this violence and death? What paths will they take, or what paths will take them?

In the months leading up to Kerr-Dulea’s death, his friends were killed. First Xavian Perry, 15, during a robbery in December 2015 in Raleigh; then a month later, Antoine Bell, 17, was shot to death in an ambush in Raleigh; then Kerr-Dulea a few months after that.

After news of my brother’s death spread, another friend, Brandon Webber, wrote a song for him. Singing, “Fly high, Kerr-Dulea,” Brandon encourages Kerr-Dulea’s spirit to soar, to ascend, to take flight without want or worry.

Three years later, death claimed him, too, in Frayser. On June 12, 2019, Brandon, 21, was shot 16 times by U.S. Marshals who were trying to arrest him on felony warrants. Allegedly, he rammed their car several times before jumping out of a vehicle with a weapon. Those who knew and loved Brandon filled the streets, their outrage captured by TV cameras. He died in his family’s front yard.

‘You really love me, huh?’

My family lived in North Memphis before we moved to Frayser in 2006. I was excited about the move, but my best friend wondered why my grandmother didn’t choose a four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom home in a neighborhood with less gang activity. I had no idea there were gangs in Frayser.

When Monterica Sade Neil’s family moved into a four-bedroom home in Frayser in 2006, she had no idea there were gangs in the area. Photo courtesy of Neil.

Kerr-Dulea (pronounced Kerr-do-lay) attended Frayser Elementary School, and I, six years older, was next door at Frayser High. We’d walk to school together on cool spring mornings with our jackets zipped all the way up.

My hand would be on his head, craning it this way and that way. I’d tell him, “Always be aware of your surroundings.” I never thought anyone was after us. I just thought it would be wise to learn early on to be watchful.

Grandmama raised four of us. I grew up alongside two of my brothers, both younger, and a cousin. We didn’t see families like ours on TV.

On our televisions, there were no gorgeous, drug-addicted mothers who gifted nicknames that fit folks like handmade crowns. No angry uncles with goofy laughter and sparkling gold teeth. No beautiful, freckle-faced grandmothers carrying the weight of having raised a son and daughter who left school early and found hiding places in bad habits.

On our televisions, there were no gorgeous, drug-addicted mothers who gifted nicknames that fit folks like handmade crowns

When Kerr-Dulea died, no one in my family had the heart to tell me he was gone. He and I were close in a way I could never replicate with others.

I was often misunderstood. My family seemed to think I wanted to talk about hurt feelings way too much. Not Kerr-Dulea, though. He always listened.

Everyone else thought I was much too fragile. I’d withdraw, quietly, into myself after witnessing physical or emotional violence in our home. I was sad and confused, and I think others in my family were, too. They just seemed to get into more trouble.

Kerr-Dulea adored me for my sensitivity. He didn’t always let on, but he shared in it, too.

He asked me once, “Why you always smilin’ when you see me?” I didn’t understand because I thought it was obvious. He said, “You really love me, huh?”

Monterica Sade Neil said Kerr-Dulea once asked her, “Why you always smilin’ when you see me?” Photo courtesy of Neil.

He seemed to feel he didn’t deserve my love. When it came to robbing, breaking and entering, and carjacking, according to him, he was worse than the most notorious man we knew, our uncle.

I smiled and said, “You’re the only one here who’s always been nice to me.” I never asked him to define “worse.” I never actually wanted to know.

Even as a small child, my brother went after what he wanted. When he was about 4 and living with my grandmama’s sister, she woke one night to find Kerr-Dulea on the kitchen floor with a loaf of bread, ham, cheese, mayo, a butter knife and a Coca-Cola at his feet. He was eating a sandwich.

More than anything, as a little boy, he enjoyed leaping from high places. I think falling was his favorite thing to do. Maybe it was flying to him. Maybe it was neither. Maybe he just had the ability to be fine with the physical consequences.

When I watched him play, I saw how unbothered he was by the knobby bumps that would form on his forehead, the skinned knees and elbows. I, however, felt everything.

Whenever he fell, my knees went weak, and I thought I’d faint. I’d reach out for him, but he always recovered before I could help. I thought it would always be that way.

What happens to a 13-year-old?

Kerr-Dulea ran away from home at 13, and for months after that, he was nearly impossible to reach. He’d call, but from a blocked number. I was away at college when I found out he’d left home, and I desperately wanted to know what happened.

What happens to a 13-year-old that’s so terrible he’d rather drink himself dizzy during the day and sleep in vacant homes at night instead of eating breakfast in his own kitchen and sleeping in his own bed? No one seemed to know the answer.

He was locked up at the John S. Wilder Youth Development Center in Somerville three times. Between my studies at college I wrote letters, hoping to bring him around to the idea of waiting for the things he wanted in life and finding the right way to get them.

Being patient felt too much like settling, though, to him. He couldn’t see himself ever living without a wad of cash in his pockets or hidden somewhere.

I felt like my brother was choosing self-destruction, and my words were the only power I had in helping him choose otherwise.

Now, I understand he was running away even before he was 13. At 11, he’d spend nights beneath our carport inhaling marijuana smoke. At the time, I never questioned what he might have been trying to lift himself above.

He returned home from Wilder the first time in January 2013, taller, with a broader chest and longer hair. But his mind hadn’t changed about who he wanted to be. At least not for long anyway.

He wasn’t able to find a legitimate part-time job after school. A friend he’d made at Wilder was related to the manager at a Burger King not too far from where we lived. He interviewed but was never hired, and I think he took this rejection to mean, “No, not you. Not ever.” Instead of, “Not here, but try somewhere else.”

He went back to doing what he always did, what he felt he was good at, and he never stopped. Robbing, breaking and entering, carjacking.

Eventually, he joined Fast Cash, a local gang. During the summer of 2014, one of Kerr-Dulea’s friends tattooed “cash” and “crime” on his forearms.

I’d often hear him say in person or online, “Stacks and homicide,” like it was a rallying cry. As time went on, the rallying cry changed to, “A whole lot of rape, robbery and murder goin’ on.”

Always waiting, always watching

Because Kerr-Dulea never stopped taking what didn’t belong to him, he was never at peace. I didn’t realize how bad it was until he began to refuse to walk home after nightfall.

He was paranoid, always waiting, always watching. Even at home.

He spent every waking moment in our home with a revolver in his waistband or on a nearby table, and he’d turn off the lights to look out of the blinds at night. Revolver in hand.

Kerr-Dulea always went after what he wanted but was never at peace, according to his sister, who provided this photo.

I never tried to reach him in any of those moments. When he was incarcerated, I believed words were a way out. In those moments though, I watched silently and prayed that whoever may have been looking for him never showed up.

It was rumored that what happened on the playground of Frayser Elementary was a revenge killing for an alleged robbery he had committed.

Kerr-Dulea’s 15th birthday came during his second stay at Wilder. I thought about what I knew of our family’s history and how the 15th year seemed to always come with a defining moment.

It’s when we usually directly or indirectly decided which burden we wanted to take hold of and never lay down. It’s where we dropped out of school or had babies for the first time. It’s when anxiety or depression began to cradle us in its arms and we had the tendency to find its embrace agreeable.

Before his final release from Wilder in January 2016, he talked to his friend Antoine, another member of Fast Cash, and didn’t know it would be the last time they would speak.

Antoine warned him, “Mane, please get robbin’ folks off yo’ mind.” Antione was murdered just weeks after that conversation.

Chaos and childhood

When I think about my brother’s final moments on the playground at Frayser Elementary on a Friday evening, I think about the children who must have been present.

I wonder if children’s laughter and the sound of small, running feet quieted the impending doom on a loop inside his head. I wonder if he felt safe there, the innocence of the playground a refuge and recourse. If he did, I wonder how children might have felt about the playground after he died there.

Kerr-Dulea’s sister wonders whether he felt safe at the Frayser playground where he died. Photo courtesy of Monterica Sade Neil.

A few days after Kerr-Dulea was killed on that playground, a community party — though it was called a rally against youth violence — was held there. News vans were parked at the bottom of the hill behind the school. Music blared from speakers behind a DJ’s booth, and, to my surprise, there were children everywhere. Playing basketball, running, sliding, laughing. In line with their parents for grilled hot dogs. Jumping and tumbling inside the bouncy house. Barefoot or in their socks waiting for their chance to fly without wings and land safely. I watched them and ached for their glee.

As I stood over the stain of Kerr-Dulea’s blood on the concrete that day, I told myself that it didn’t matter what kind of festivities they held there. The playground would always be a crime scene.

For a while, so would every playground. For months after he’d been buried, whenever I saw a playground at an elementary school, my eyes widened. My heart swelled. I cried without tears.

At the rally, I kicked off my shoes and helped my 3-year-old nephew untie his. We stood in line for the bouncy house. I wanted to float with him. Watch his eyes light up and witness laughter spill across his face like it too could stain and maybe stay there forever.

Just as we were next to climb inside, shouting and cursing came from the other side of the school. After two of my family members ran toward the chaos, I grabbed my nephew and our shoes and ran with them.

One of my brothers had gotten into a fight with someone with whom Kerr-Dulea hadn’t gotten along. I hadn’t even known there were police at the party, but by the time I’d tied my nephew’s shoes again, the crowd of friends and family trying to stop the fight had been pepper-sprayed. Everyone ran.

As the car I was in pulled out of the parking lot, I turned to see if any of the children had run. They hadn’t. They were still playing. Here, it seems chaos and childhood have a tendency to be juxtaposed.

It’s been four years since Kerr-Dulea was killed, since the community party, and I wonder where those children are now. Are any of them at 12, 13 or 15 trying desperately to lift themselves above what’s weighing them down? Are they hopeful about their futures? Have they stopped dreaming?

When I think about my 17-year-old brother’s final moments on the playground of Frayser Elementary, I wonder why I never asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up.

Monterica Sade Neil earned her Master of Fine Arts degree from Louisiana State University. She was a 2018 Tin House Scholar. Her work has appeared in Forward: 21st Century Flash Fiction and Catapult Magazine. She is working on a memoir.

This story is brought to you by MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, a nonprofit newsroom focused on poverty, power and policy in Memphis. Support independent journalism by making a tax-deductible donation today. MLK50 is also supported by the Surdna Foundation, the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund at Borealis Philanthropy, Southern Documentary Project at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, the American Journalism Project, the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, and Community Change.

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