Once, We Were (Not) Troy Davis And Then We Were Something Else


Life is the one disaster that is also a miracle. Or perhaps life is the one miracle that is also a disaster.

I have a nephew who is sixteen. I was in the delivery room when he was born. He was covered in dark, sticky matter but he was perfect. Most days, it feels like my nephew was born just the other day. We call him the baby even though his voice is deep and he has a learner’s permit and opinions and a “girlfriend.” My niece is fourteen months old. When she was born, I marveled at how tiny she was. When she was hungry in her first few months, she would try and shove her entire fist in her mouth, demanding satisfaction from her fingers. Each time she realized there was no milk in her hand, she’d throw her arms over her head, open her gummy mouth and scream like holy hell. We shouted, Release the Kraken! It never got old.

That feels like yesterday too. My niece is walking now. She has words. Soon she will have even more words. I will blink and she too will be driving and texting and having opinions but we’ll still call her the baby because for the adults in her life, those years will have been an all too brief moment we’re trying to hold on to.

When you reach a certain age and you’re faced with the idea of a child, you start to think about the kind of world you want that child to grow up in and what you need to do to make that world possible. I was raised by parents who did their damnedest to make the world perfect for me. They couldn’t, of course, but they tried. I would want nothing less for my niece and nephew, for a child of my own.


The best, most idealistic parts of me would like to believe in a world where everyone has equal opportunity and access to adequate nutrition and healthcare, where people are loved they way they want to be loved and allowed to love those they want to love, where women are free to make the decisions as they see fit for their bodies, where execution is a cruel and unusual punishment, where all the wrongs with which we are faced are somehow made right.

It should not be too much to want everything, absolutely everything.


For a good part of my life, I was staunchly apolitical. I aggressively avoided taking a stand on much of anything and worked hard to articulate my disinterest. During my twenties, taking a stand felt complicated and overwhelming. This is not to say I was ignorant of all the trouble in the world. I knew a lot about it and that, in part, was why I wanted to avoid getting involved. I had enough going on. Anything else would have been too much. I don’t know when I started to care about the world beyond my place in it but I did.


I love the slouch of the word slacktivism—the practice of trying to effect social change through small, often seemingly ineffectual gestures on social media platforms and elsewhere. Sometimes I judge slacktivism. Sometimes I am a slacktivist. I am only one person and I’m a writer so all I have are words, small gestures I can offer up.


I teach, among other things, new media theory and writing. My students and I talk about how we are inundated by a glut of information we consume everywhere, all the time. There’s always something to click on, something to read, something demanding our attention. Some theorists speculate that this information glut is making us dumber. It is more likely that this information glut is making us number. Because we know so much, because we see so much, it becomes harder and harder to care, to think, to feel, to truly connect.

There is a shooting in Norway. A troubled but popular singer dies. The U.S. economy implodes. Unemployment rises.  Economies in other countries collapse. The earth cracks open on an island and then in another country and another country and another country. Floods wash away an entire town. A dictator is overthrown and another and another and another. A terrorist is assassinated. A dictator goes into hiding. He is found. He is killed. Everywhere, the earth is dry and when it rains, it is never enough. Children are starving. Their parents are starving. Women and their bodies and their right to make choices about their bodies are increasingly under attack. A starlet who never had a chance continues to spiral out of control. Real housewives act messy all over the place. A celebrity who is famous for being famous for making a sex tape gets married on television. Less than three months later, she divorces her made for television husband. An innovator dies and his life is bared for examination. A teenage girl’s sex tape goes viral and worse yet, people watch. Politicians start their campaigns and race each other to the bottom. The world moves at such a bewildering pace these days. Everything demands our attention. There is hardly time to breathe. Or think. Or feel.

I want to care about all of it, the atrocious and the admirable and the awesome and the absurd. I don’t want to feel numb.


On some points, I feel everything. I am vehemently opposed to the death penalty. This is where I make my stand. Knowing we live in a country where too many state governments are willing to execute prisoners is a bitter truth and the taste of it sickens me. I can watch surgical procedures on the Discovery Channel where someone’s viscera is splayed open as a surgeon digs in their abdominal cavity. I can watch violence in movies or on television shows. I have a strong constitution. If, however, there’s an execution scene in a movie or on TV, I can hardly bear to watch. Even in these fictive moments, I am so disturbed by the obscenity of death as punishment that I need to look away. More than I’d like to admit, I break all the way down and cry. The mere idea of a life held in that terrible balance is overwhelming.


Ambient intimacy is the connectedness we feel when we participate in social networks. Like many people these days, I get a lot of my news and online social interaction from Twitter. When a touchstone cultural event takes place, it is comforting to be surrounded by the chatter of friends and strangers voicing a response, sharing how they are affected. It is comforting to be part of that intimate community, to be reminded—we are alone but we are not.

In the days leading to Troy Davis’s execution, my Twitter feed was buzzing with frenetic energy as we tried to make sense of a man likely to be put to death despite reasonable doubt. The rage I saw expressed wasn’t sloppy or lacking in shape. It was perfectly focused and tempered with genuine sorrow and empathy and confusion. Mostly, we were asking why.

In those moments as we waited alone but together to hear about the fate of Troy Davis, the small gestures we offered one another were enough.


I do not know if Troy Davis murdered Mark MacPhail. I do not need to know. My opposition to the death penalty is not about guilt or innocence. No one deserves to be killed by their government, even when they behave in reprehensible ways, even when their life is a vulgar offense, even when they lack the compassion and humanity to respect the lives of others. More than that, our justice system is too flawed for death to be a punitive option. Prison sentences can be reversed when justice is miscarried. The death penalty cannot.


Another man was executed the same day as Troy Davis. His execution did not receive the same amount of attention because there was no reasonable doubt. Lawrence Brewer was one of the men who murdered James Byrd, dragged that poor man along an asphalt road from the back of a pick up truck. James Byrd suffered. We know that and the knowledge makes the repulsive crime, somehow, worse. I remember when it happened, how the naked brutality of Byrd’s death stopped me cold. The year was 1998, not 1938 and we could hardly tell the difference. It was nearly impossible to believe such a crime, and even worse, a racially motivated crime, could happen in the United States. Or maybe what truly chilled me is that it wasn’t impossible to believe. Maybe I needed to believe the crime impossible so I didn’t have to consider the alternative.

Lawrence Brewer, by all accounts, was breathtakingly shameless; he was not repentant. He confessed to his crime and continued confessing while he was incarcerated. The day before he died, Brewer said he would do it again.

James Byrd’s family lobbied for Brewer’s sentence to be commuted. I believe they call that amazing grace. The contrast between an unrepentant murderer and a victim’s family, able to forgive, is stark. I ached, knowing there was such compassion in the world.  Under similar circumstances, I’d like to believe I would be as compassionate but I don’t know. Forgiveness is not among my virtues.

I did not want to see Brewer executed either. I mourned his death. I mourned the death of the other three men also executed in September 2011—Steven Woods, Derrick Mason, and Manuel Valle. I mourned Christopher Johnson who was executed on October 20th, even though there were questions about his mental competence, even though there were extenuating circumstances the jury in his trial was never privy to. More than three thousand people currently sit on death row, waiting, wondering if they will be spared, wondering if they will be executed, and then waiting longer still. Are we going to think and talk passionately about them? Will we have enough heart left to fight for mourn them the way we mourned Troy Davis or will we finally be numb?


The fairly closed circle of a Twitter feed can be deceptive. Depending on your “friends,” it is easy to assume we’re all of the same mind. On the day Troy Davis died, most of my friends were sharing their outrage and sorrow. We felt helpless. We were helpless. Some of my Twitter friends were doing what they normally do on Twitter—talking about popular culture and the mundane moments of their lives. I made peppy references to nonsense television alongside trying to articulate my anger and frustration because it helped; it was a balm.

Some people said, “How dare you talk about anything but Troy Davis?” When you feel something as hard and deep as people did that week, it’s difficult to fathom that everyone around you isn’t feeling the same way, with the same intensity. Sometimes, these virtual, intimate conversations make it seem like you are either with us or against us. There is little room for nuance or a complex range of perspectives in the proverbial heat of the moment. On the eve of Troy Davis’s death, for some, there was no room for anything else. All we had was words and with so little, using those words for anything but the most urgent matter, perhaps felt like a waste. Maybe, though, some of us were already a little numb.


Fiction can be stranger than fact but there are days when fact is stranger or more frightening than fiction. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985. The dystopian novel speaks to a near future where some women are forced to serve wealthy and powerful families who are infertile in a time when The Republic of Gilead suffers from declining birth rates. These servile women are renamed Of and the name of the men they serve. They have few rights. They are forced into sexual servitude and should they get pregnant, they are forced to surrender their children to the masters they serve. The book addresses all manner of issues but at its most powerful, it is a commentary on the rights of women and reproductive freedom and the dangers of a totalitarian society.

In October of this year, Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, a modern retelling of The Scarlet Letter, was released. The novel is also set in a dystopian near future where criminals are genetically dyed according to the nature of their crimes. Again, infertility, borne of a venereal disease scourge, is a global problem. Women have few rights. The government is theocratic and totalitarian. Abortion is illegal. Reproductive freedom does not exist. When the protagonist, Hannah Payne, is caught after receiving an illegal abortion, she refuses to reveal the name of the man, a famous preacher, who impregnated her. She is sentenced to a month in prison where her every move is broadcast on national television, followed by sixteen years with her skin dyed red. The novel shows how she is persecuted for her personal choice to abort her fetus and, how ultimately, she finds freedom.

These novels are the dark imaginings of impossible futures. And yet. In many states, the Personhood Movement is gaining traction. In Mississippi, a Personhood Amendment is up for vote on November 8. As Irin Carmon writes in Salon, “By its own logic, the initiative would almost certainly ban common forms of birth control like the IUD and the morning-after pill, call into question the legality of the common birth-control pill, and even open the door to investigating women who have suffered miscarriages.”

It is terrifying to realize that a woman’s body remains subject to legislation, even in this day and age. Women are not equal because our bodies remain part of the public discourse. It is fascinating that the personhood movement is so obsessed with a fertilized egg, while absolving the fertilizing seed of any responsibility. Why doesn’t this movement propose legislation to regulate ejaculate? What is semen if not the potential for human life? The rules are always different for women.

The theocratically driven personhood movement, in a country founded on the principle of separating church and state, wants to bestow personhood on a fetus. As many opponents note, this movement is simply a new attack on abortion and one, if unchecked, that will threaten women’s reproductive rights in many states. Even more terrifying than the existence of such movements is the potential for where it may lead and the ways in which the female body will be regulated. It is not a stretch to envision a future where once a woman becomes impregnated she must be cloistered by the state until she reaches full term, for the safety of the unborn child. The distance from a legislative bill to the back alley is far shorter than you might believe. The distance from a legislative bill to a dystopic future is even shorter still.


I have a hard time with the word miscarriage. The word assigns blame and burden to women when something unknowable and often unbearable happens to their bodies. To miscarry is to fail, to mistakenly carry. The blame for miscarriage is consistently placed on the woman who has somehow failed her responsibility as a woman, as a mother. In more than one state, legislators not only want to push anti-abortion legislation and assign rights to biological cells, they also want to intrude on the oft-painful intimacy of pregnancy loss. One of the more insidious elements of the personhood movement is the way it exploits the idea that women are somehow responsible when their bodies fail. The movement has no compassion, no ability to measure or appreciate grief.

Justice can be miscarried. When a man or woman has been executed, justice has been miscarried. When nonviolent protestors are attacked by armed police and doused with teargas in a country that loves to point fingers at human rights violations in other parts of the world, justice has been miscarried. When a woman loses her fetus or unborn child, let us be clear, that’s something else entirely.


The death penalty is legal in Mississippi. Personhood, it seems, has limits.


Across the Internet in September, many people declared, “I am Troy Davis.” Supporters carried signs and wore t-shirts bearing these words. People on Twitter and Facebook typed those four words into their web browsers and electronic devices. I respected the small gesture, the battle cry, that offering of solidarity but we were not Troy Davis. We are not Troy Davis. Saying it a hundred thousand times could not ever make it so. Troy Davis spent half his life on death row, spent that half life knowing he was on a slow, agonizing march to an unrelenting end. Troy Davis spent his last hours in his prison cell, alone, hoping for a reprieve that would never come. Then he was strapped to a gurney and he was killed while we expressed our righteous outrage from the comfort of our homes, using our expensive electronics and our high speed Internet access. We were safe. We were alive. Most of us are lucky enough that we could never be Troy Davis.


It only took twenty-three words for the Supreme Court to deny Troy Davis’s desperate final appeal to stay his execution. When the order was released I downloaded the PDF and stared at it for a long time because the announcement, the language used, was so anemic, such a slip of nothing holding the fate of a man’s life. This too was impossible to make sense of.

Troy Davis chose one hundred fifty four words as his final statement but they could be easily summarized in three—I am innocent.


Language is at once exhilarating and impossible. We have innumerable words and phrases but all too often, they don’t fully represent what they should. They allude or approximate meaning but rarely do they begin to encompass the depth of experience.

When we share our opinions on what’s happening in the world, we’re doing the best we can with the inadequate language at our disposal. That’s why we want to say, “We are Troy Davis.” These words are the best way we have of saying we are outraged, we are heartbroken, we wish for a better world for Troy Davis, for all of us. These words, though, are not enough. We are not Troy Davis. We never were.

We do the best we can but we tend to fall short. After 82 years, the FBI has finally begun the process of expanding their definition of rape, which, like miscarriage, is another one of those desperately inadequate words. The previous definition was, “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” That definition was anemic, a slip of nothing that could not possibly explain the experience of sexual violence. The new definition, the one that’s better, defines rape as, “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” The new definition more closely approximates the experience of rape, but it’s not the right definition. No such definition exists. Language could not possibly carry the necessary weight to explain the experience.

Language was inadequate to explain the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Troy Davis’s execution to continue. The application was denied but that’s not what the decision really said. The decision really said, “We are going to allow you to die.” Language is inadequate to explain the quiet horror of the personhood movement just as I’m sure the movement’s supporters find language inadequate to explain why they so vigorously defend the so-called sanctity of life, why they are willing to go to such lengths. Time and again, language fails us. And yet. We persist.

Across the country, around the world, the Occupy movement continues to grow. People from all walks of life are trying to use language to express their frustration, their loss of faith and hope, the betrayal they feel in the systems that were supposed to better serve us. They write impassioned notes telling intimate stories; they try to find the words to say hear me, see me, feel me, to say I am here. As part of the 99%, we are not alone. In general assemblies in cities across America, members of the occupy movement use language to try and create a better way of making decisions that affect all of us. They refuse to surrender to the futility of language.

Other people are writing notes too in which they try to explain that they are different, that they might struggle but they don’t feel betrayed, that they work hard, that they deprive themselves, that they pay taxes, that they do well for themselves, that they are proud. They call themselves the 53%. It has been said that math is the perfect language but percentages show us that such is not necessarily the case. What these members of the 53% are really trying to say, what language fails to express, is that they are as terrified as the rest of us. They are terrified of the uncomfortable truth that they are just like the rest of us, at the mercy of corporations whose practices go unchecked, one crisis away from succumbing to the failure of the system.

Vulnerability is uncomfortable. We’re all using words, in some way, as shelter.


Occupy is another interesting word—to occupy is to engage the attention or energies of or to take up a place or extent in space, to take hold or possession of.

Right now, the Occupy movement is engaging our attention and energies. In July, Anders Brevik and Amy Winehouse occupied our attention. During the spring, we were invested in Egypt. Our thoughts were also with a young girl in Cleveland, Texas. The world is a mess and every day it gets messier. Every day there is a new desperately urgent matter demanding our attention, our sorrow, our outrage. We do not know what will engage our energies in the days and months to come but there will be something. There is always something.


We have long abandoned the age of innocence. We cannot be free from guilt or sin through being unacquainted with evil. We rarely lack worldly experience or sophistication. We do not suffer from a lack of knowledge. We are not Troy Davis. We are not innocent. Perhaps we never were.


And then, we must occupy ourselves with our lives. We work and we have families and we have lovers and children or the idea of children that we hold in our hearts or that slip through our fingers. We have petty concerns and serious problems and complex histories. Somehow, we need to create room within ourselves for these things too. How do we find the time to care? How do we make the time to care? How do we remember what happened last month and four months ago and last year and ten years ago? How do we keep from going numb?

Language is not enough to allow us to hold on things. Once, we were (not) Troy Davis. Now, his name could hardly find our lips. We may not be yet numb but we don’t allow our hearts and minds to linger or, perhaps, we are not allowed to let our hearts and minds linger because there is so much of everything, everywhere, all the time.


I had the Occupy Writers website open in my web browser for several days. My information was entered into the form but I hesitated to click, “Submit.”  I hesitated to show my support in that small way.

There are times I feel like if you don’t perform your beliefs, people assume you don’t have them. Participation in social networking nearly demands some demonstration of conviction when we’re faced with these culturally significant events. I blog and tweet and can be found on Facebook but there are times when I want to hold the strength of my convictions privately. Do I only stand with the Occupy movement if I use the proper hashtags or if I sign my name to a petition? Do I only stand with the Occupy movement, or otherwise demonstrate the “right politics” if say the right things and care about the right things? I think about these questions quite a bit.

Eventually, I did submit my name and now I’m waiting for it to be added to the list not only because I do believe, in my own way, in the ideals of the movement and support the efforts of those who occupy, but because sometimes, small gestures do matter.


This is all connected. In Kate Zambreno’s searing, brilliant novel Green Girl, the protagonist Ruth’s roommate Agnes, is pregnant. After her abortion, Agnes says, “I felt so—violated. Like some horrible creature had invaded my body. I needed to get it out. I would have reached inside and torn it out if I could. My body threatening to distort beyond all recognition,” and later, Agnes continues, “My body some public, disgusting domain. Waddling around like some gross aberration. People feeling like they can touch my stomach. People giving up their seats to me on the bus. It’s like, fuck off. I don’t want that. I want to be me, me, this self-contained thing.”

At our basest, we all want to be these self-contained things, but at our best, we also want to be part of something beyond ourselves. We want to take a stand and make that stand known. We want to find the right words to adequately express what we mean, what we believe, what we feel. That’s why we reach out to each other in the ways we do. That’s why we say we are Troy Davis, despite the crushing futility of that small gesture. We are desperately trying to hold off the terror of numbness even though we are occupied by things that threaten to distort us beyond all recognition.

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, and Hunger forthcoming in 2017. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. Roxane was the founding Essays Editor and is a current Advisory Board member for The Rumpus. You can find her at roxanegay.com. More from this author →