“I went to bed with five kids and woke up with four. That unexpected death hurts like hell. It’s a knot in your stomach and you want to throw up and can’t. You are out of space. You are not even here. You are walking but floating. You hear people but you don’t. You are gone. I prayed and prayed and prayed. I asked God to help me with this. It’s something that you are never ever prepared for. It was my flesh and blood.”
Donavin Deresha Donald was delivered and born at home. Donavin was supposed to arrive December 28 1990. Instead, he came November 28th. With Donavin being her fifth child, Ms. Shilent Thompson thought her contractions were only gas. However, not much time had passed before she quickly recognized that she was actually in labor. She knew she would not have time to get to the hospital. Her husband called an ambulance, but her beautiful baby boy rushed into this world before emergency personnel could arrive.
Donavin was a kid with a great sense of humor, funny, and the center of attention. He respected everybody. Ms. Thompson said of her son, “he died at 20 but lived like he was 60. He did things to harm himself, but he would never harm you. He did get in trouble with the law but it was never for drugs, murder, or stealing.”
One night in January 2011, Donavin received a phone call. He came into his mother’s room and asked for ten dollars to get into club Chalk Line. Not knowing they would be her final words, Ms. Thompson said to Donavin, “be careful out there. There is something about that Chalk Line that I don’t like.”
Donavin received the ten dollars, left his mothers room and went to Chalk Line. Within a few hours of leaving to the club, gunshots rang out at Ms. Thompson’s house. Ms. Thompson said that there were 28 bullets but Donavin was shot once. Six bullets were in his car; two bullets were in Ms. Thompson’s car. During the gunfire, Donavin ran to the side of the house. It is believed that he was trying to see if the side door was open. Typically, doors were not locked in the house. On this night, however, they were. Donavin jumped the fence in the backyard.
Doctors reported that Donavin was shot within close range. Ms. Thompson believes that he ran into perpetrator at the fenceline. Travis Donald, Donavin’s older brother, found Donavin in the backyard and carried him out front to the street. Donavin died at 20 years old, leaving a one-year-old daughter behind. Ms. Thompson stated, “it was his friends that did it.”
When parents raise their children, they pray and want the best for them – even when they are growing up in low income and crime-ridden areas. Mothers from these neighborhoods do not expect their children to commit crimes; rather, they raise them to notice what is happening around them and encourage them to chose another path.
Ms. Thompson spoke the same direction into Donavin saying, “ if Donavin was out there robbing people, killing people, selling drugs… I would say ‘the way you live is the way you die.’ I used to always think that way – until he died.” Donavin did not rob, kill, or steal – yet, he was killed anyway. Ms. Thompson went on to say, “I don’t want this to sound harsh, but other people’s kids do everything under the sun and they are still here [living]. I would have never thought in a million years that I would bury one of my sons and he didn’t live that type of life.” Donavin did not carry reason to take another person’s life and he did not appear to have enemies.
There are perceptions that black residents from low-income areas are inherently more criminal than other races. Scholars have contradicted this reasoning. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson explains in The New York Times article Death in Black and White, “People usually murder where they nest; they aim their rage at easy targets. It is not best understood as black-on-black crime; it is neighbor-to-neighbor carnage. If their neighbors were white, they’d get no exemption from the crime that plagues human beings that happen to be black. If you want interracial killing, you have to have interracial communities.” The shared poverty is the greatest contribution to the potential to commit crime – it is not the shared color of skin.
A report on The Racial and Wealth Divide in New Orleans states that families of color in New Orleans are six times more likely to live in poverty than white families. Poverty in the city is all too familiar to its residents, especially for black families. Sadly, routine murder within the city is also commonplace, particularly for black families.
For over ten years, husband and wife Bryan and Trenice McMillan have owned a full-service printing shop in New Orleans. Trenice said in a 2016 interview with CNN, “There are 7-year-olds who have been to more funerals than I’ve been to in my entire life. Death is normal. Living isn’t…” Her husband agreed with her, saying, “Sadly t-shirt shops and funeral homes are big business here. Every once in a while we’ll get a funeral for an old lady or old man who died of natural causes. But 70% of the time, it’s someone who has been murdered.”
Donavin’s mother, Ms. Thompson, echoed the same sentiment, “You used to hear people dying from sickness and illness. Everything now is a gunshot. You ain’t even got to be involved. You are in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
The Environment You Keep
Donavin was the youngest of three boys. He was very close to his eldest brother – their personalities were similar and they kept the same type of company. Travis, the middle son, tended to keep to himself and had a different set of friends from his brothers. With Donavin, Ms. Thompson recalls, “I used to say to him, ‘Why every time I come home, I have a yard full of people? Y’all don’t know what these people have done.’” She goes on to explain,
“At one time, they used my house for shoot’em up! We used to be ducking in the daytime. Bullets flying everywhere. Why? There is 30 houses on this street. Why was my house a target? It’s the environment you keep. But if I could change it and I take his [Donavin’s] place, I would. I would let him live because no mother should have to bury her child.”
Unfortunately, in addition to her son, Ms. Thompson recently lost her granddaughter, Shantrell Parker, to gun violence. She remembered trying to encourage her granddaughter from being connected to people that could harm her. This past July, Shantrell was shot in the head with her boyfriend. After being shot, both bodies were burned. Ms. Thompson said, “Just like with my granddaughter…right now, two families are hurting. They burned these children beyond recognition! That’s horrible. You have no heart to do that.”
Ms. Thompson has rallied for justice, participated in crime stoppers, and involved herself in as many aspects of stopping the violence as she could. She feels a higher minimum wage would help young men who might otherwise rob or kill for what may seem to some like very little money.
“When you got a job only making eight dollars, then you never go forward. Not for the ones that are a little thuggish. Raise it [wages] to 10 or 12 dollars to make them feel like they could do something with that. When you been to work for eight hours and you ain’t even made but $50, you ain’t thinking about going to work again.”
Nevertheless, the efforts to make a change seem like they do not work. It seems as if the killing will never stop – for her, it actually seems worse. Ms. Thompson says:
“Me personally, I ain’t with that Black Lives Matters. All lives matter to me. Black lives only matter when the police kill you or white man kill you. When a black person does it, it doesn’t matter. Everyone should be brought to justice because it was wrong. It shouldn’t matter because of the skin color. We are all human – we are all the same. At the end, all lives matter.”
Good days do come for people who have been through the storm and back. Ms. Thompson stays optimistic despite the loss of her son, despite the loss of her granddaughter, despite the hardships that poverty brings to her family and her community, and despite being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. “Through all this,” she explains, “God has me here for a reason. I am here to raise my grandkids. I am still here two years later with stage four lung cancer.”
She wants people to live the best life they can. She feels people should get away from the idea that murder makes your famous in New Orleans. In her eyes, she says, “Murder makes you a coward.” She adds, “What I’d like to say to the people is put the guns down. Killing somebody is not the answer.”
Ms. Thompson also speaks fondly of her son, Travis, who now lives in California. He has graduated at the top of his class from New York Film Academy and is producing films – one being a documentary called A Mother’s Cry. This documentary outlines his own mother’s experience along with other mothers who have lost their children to gun violence in New Orleans.
She says of Travis, “What he is doing is good, but he is going to be doing it forever. He is going to always know somebody that done lost they child to the system. You have to stay prayed up out here and just hope that it won’t be you that get the phone call.”
If you liked this piece, be sure to check out more articles by Nicole Nixon here.
Would you like to tell your story? Would you like to discuss strategies for change? Contact Nicole @ NOLA Leadership and Business – TheNolaLAB@gmail.com