How do you make your life’s cruelest experience work for you — and perhaps for the world?
First, you have to face it.
It was more than a month after George Floyd’s killing before my friend Pamela Ferrell could bring herself to retrieve a fading letter from the back of a little-used closet. She knew the decades-old message from her late grandmother, stuffed in a plastic bag between yellowed newspaper clippings, would transport her back to 1975, when a Providence, R.I., police officer shot her in the face. Ferrell was 15. Floyd’s horrific slaying — like every controversial police killing Ferrell has heard about since — revived a jumble of emotions that she wanted to ignore. But weeks later, Ferrell — a D.C. salon owner and nationally recognized natural-hair advocate — wanted her Nana’s voice in her ear. She wanted to read the words this sweet soul had used to implore her not to let the shooting turn her toward hate.
When Ferrell described the incident to me, I understood Nana’s concern.
On that balmy May night, Ferrell and three friends — all of them Black — had just returned from a birthday party on the other side of Providence. Laughing with the windows down in a car belonging to one of the two young men seated up front, Ferrell was eating Cheetos with a girlfriend in the back seat when two White undercover officers pulled up in an unmarked car. Their guns raised and cocked, the officers ran up, one on each side of the car, and wordlessly shoved their revolvers against the young men’s temples.
What happened next differed completely from the description in the next day’s Providence Journal-Bulletin, headlined “Police revolver wounds two girls in struggle.” The article falsely reported that a car chase and a tussle led to one of the officers discharging his weapon. In fact, as Ferrell testified in a 1980 Superior Court civil trial in which she won a $50,000 settlement from the city of Providence, one officer — “who was breathing hard like a crazy person, teeth clenched, like someone having a seizure,” she recalls — inadvertently fired his weapon while jerking open the driver-side door.
The officers, who said they’d suspected Ferrell’s male friends of involvement in an assault and robbery (neither was charged), were never disciplined. After shooting her, Ferrell says, the officer opened the back door, leaned in and gently rubbed her arm. Clearly stunned that he’d wounded a 4-foot-10, 83-pound schoolgirl, he said simply, “I shot you.” The next hours were a blur: the boys being handcuffed, Ferrell’s girlfriend, whose shoulder was injured by the bullet that passed through her seatmate’s mouth, sobbing, EMS technicians “trying to make me lay down, though I was choking on my blood,” Ferrell recalls. Her mother was visiting Boston, so it was Nana who stood vigil in the emergency room, terrified that the bullet that had blown away her granddaughter’s front teeth would shatter her loving spirit.
“You do not have to tell me what you’ve been thru. I saw you in the hospital,” Nana — aka Louise Ferrell, owner of a popular Providence soul food restaurant — wrote to Ferrell in the letter. One day, Nana assured her, justice would be served — though “not in this old wicked world” because vengeance was God’s, not hers. “Not only will [He] set things right for you, but for all that have suffered wrongly. … God is not partial. … He don’t look at color or nation. But at the heart. Hate … might turn you away from God. Don’t let that happen.”
Ferrell took Nana’s admonition to heart. Despising the police would mean that the racism that she believes inspired the officer to point a cocked gun at a kid’s head had won. “I never want to feel what that officer — whose face was so full of hate — felt,” Ferrell, 61, says now. “Then [hatred] gets your soul. I won’t give it that.”
Refusing to loathe the officers whose actions could have resulted in an appallingly early death and that caused her to endure more than $35,000 in dental and reconstructive surgery felt necessary. But now, she says, exposing the institutions that protected the two officers — who had been infamous for riding around Ferrell’s neighborhood and “grabbing any boy they saw,” — feels just as vital. “There is a system in place that lies — a system that tells [only] the police’s story,” Ferrell says. In the decades before cellphone cameras began recording proof of some officers’ culpability, that system “supported that [false] story. The lie became the story of what really happened.” Even today, she says, “that’s an important piece. The victim’s story is never the first story, or the story that [initially] gets the attention — especially if the victim dies.
“I survived,” Ferrell says. “Someone who doesn’t survive doesn’t get to tell their story.”
Some of us are haunted by untold narratives. I’d known Ferrell for decades before I mentioned to her my beloved big brother who didn’t live to tell his story — which finally spurred her to tell me hers. We’d become friends in 1991 after I interviewed her about the gorgeous hairstyles she created for the dreamlike indie movie “Daughters of the Dust” (the first feature-length film by an African American woman released theatrically). Decades later, we were discussing a controversial police slaying — I can’t recall which — when I told her about Darrell’s 1977 killing, and how little sense the police report made to my family.
How could my wonderful, honest, hilarious brother — who was employed, whom I’d never known to steal anything, and who had no criminal record — have been shot after trying to steal a truck? The vehicle’s White owner, who lived near Darrell’s neighborhood, claimed that he’d stepped outside to investigate when he saw my brother trying to get into his truck. He said Darrell was trembling and asked him whether he could take him home. Telling my brother to wait, the man said he would call the police to take him home. Convinced my brother was on drugs, the man told police that he was “holding” a man who was trying to steal his truck.
The two officers who arrived reported finding a Black man across the street in a gully, barefoot and wearing an aluminum cooking pot on his head while clutching a tire in one hand and a broken bottle top in the other. The police report said that a witness described Darrell being crouched “like a native hunter” while chanting something unintelligible before standing and saying to no one in particular, “Take me higher.” The report then said Darrell shouted, “I’m going to kill you,” and charged at one of the officers with a chain, a brick, a plastic baseball bat and a three-foot length of pipe. The police pumped one .357 magnum bullet into my brother’s chest and another into his left thigh. He died within minutes.
Not surprisingly, Ferrell completely dismissed the police department’s bizarre narrative. Not having her history, I wrestled with it for years before accepting that I’ll never know what happened in that ditch. My family had assumed that Darrell — who’d never displayed signs of mental illness — must have been high or intoxicated. But when his autopsy report revealed no drugs or alcohol in his system, I tried to reconcile my smart, sane brother wearing a pot as a hat and attacking armed officers with an assortment of items I’d never expect to find in a gully in a well-to-do neighborhood — items that would be difficult to hold, let alone throw, at once. It didn’t help to learn that the day after the shooting, one of the officers hit and kicked a handcuffed Latino suspect before shooting up the man’s car. (The officer was sentenced to three years’ probation for violating the man’s civil rights.) Within the next decade, both officers would be kicked off the force — one for assaulting a suspect, the other after molesting his preteenage babysitter. How could we not question such men’s version of events? How can I accept their version today, after having viewed enough cellphone recordings of unwarranted police slayings to know better?
Without recorded proof, could any police report have described, or the world believed, the extraordinary malice evident in George Floyd’s death?
Decades-old stories like Ferrell’s and mine provide perspective to today’s ongoing turmoil over police brutality. They help to explain historic frustration in communities of color over policing and how bedeviled residents are by the ghosts of past abuses. Despite my hope that raising awareness about Darrell’s killing might prevent similar tragedies, it was 12 years before I could bring myself to write a word about it — and each one I produced was excruciating. So I’m not surprised that it took Ferrell more than 30 years to mention her shooting to me. Struck by her beauty, I’d barely noticed the hairline upper lip scar that it had bequeathed her.
Revisiting your life’s most painful moment can be agonizing — and not just for you. After the shooting, Ferrell noticed that everyone — her parents, other relatives, her friends — avoided mentioning it. Contrary to the notion fostered by demands for justice by a handful of victims’ relatives, most people “go silent after these incidents — even family members,” says Ferrell. I know from experience that such silences often result from the helplessness felt by victims and their families who see little or no official interest in their side of the story. In the five years that Ferrell’s shooting was investigated, tried in court and covered by the media, not a single journalist contacted her or her family for their version of the event.
The boldness displayed by Floyd’s killer as he ignored his victim’s pleas and literally shut off his voice stirred something in Ferrell. After decades of suppressing the incident, she sees speaking up about it as “an important part of ending this process of terrorizing our communities.” Having survived her shooting means “I have to speak up for those who couldn’t tell their stories before video cameras and phones,” she says. “I have to speak up."
Speaking up is easier for some than for others. “It was bad for the police department that I was a good girl from a good family,” says Ferrell, who at 15 was a churchgoing honor student at a prestigious college preparatory high school. She was more likely to be believed than friends she knew who were poor, promiscuous or dabbled in drugs — as if a perfect image is needed for a human being to be listened to. The system that often emphasizes police brutality victims’ character flaws or all-too-human behavior implies that “they had it coming. [They say] he ran, he scared me,” she says. The fictitious story in the newspaper about her own shooting made her realize “they can say you did anything. And that becomes the truth.”
Even worse was her fear that her nightmare wasn’t over. After her family filed suit, the officers involved in her attack twice waited outside her home in an unmarked car and slowly followed her as she ran errands. After the second time, Ferrell never left the house alone.
The stylish freshman who sewed most of her clothes because she was too tiny for regular sizes had dreamed of attending the Rhode Island School of Design. But after the shooting, “college, classes, all of that seemed trivial to me,” Ferrell recalls. She entered her sophomore year with a bandaged face and a subdued spirit. The following summer, Ferrell’s parents sent her to Washington, D.C., to visit an uncle. In the “Chocolate City,” the teenager saw a dizzying array of Black humanity — sales clerks, business executives, cabdrivers, librarians — and enough Black police officers to feel that a blue uniform wasn’t necessarily a terrible thing. The teenager whose family had integrated an all-white Providence neighborhood and endured neighbors shouting the n-word at her from their windows finally felt she could relax. “All I could think of was, ‘I got two years to go [in high school], then I’m getting out of [Providence],’ ” she says. After graduation, “I was on the train the next week.”
In Washington, Ferrell studied marketing at the University of the District of Columbia while designing clothes for private clients. She also braided people’s hair, a talent she’d developed in Providence as a way to meet cute guys. A year later, Ferrell left college. Her love of creating gorgeous braided styles wasn’t just becoming a lucrative profession. Like sewing, it was a balm for her soul that helped her think less about her painful past. Her creativity, she says, “saved me.”
Yet it can be difficult, allowing trauma to give birth to something positive and enlarging. To the deeply hurt, cliches about turning lemons into lemonade feel insulting. Finding purpose and even joy in the wake of devastation could seem to justify the horror you endured. But life goes on. Embracing the alchemy that shifts tragedy to meaning can lift us out of misery. When people used to remind Ferrell that if the bullet’s trajectory had been slightly different, she could have been killed, she’d shrug and say, “Yeah. And if it had traveled just a bit the other way, it would have missed me.”
“My life is what it is,” Ferrell says, because of those few inches.
Ferrell filled the space between those inches with family — husband Taalib-Din, son AbuBakr, 19, and daughter Aminah, 16 — and advocacy. She had no idea that getting fired from a job she loved in 1978 would inspire a lifelong passion for securing people’s right to wear natural hairstyles in the workplace. When her boss at a Washington fabric store suggested she get rid of her intricate braided style because it “wasn’t appropriate” for his upscale clientele — despite many of his well-heeled customers gushing over it — Ferrell retreated to the employee lounge and cried. She emerged knowing two things: She wasn’t about to dismantle a beautiful ‘do she’d spent eight hours creating, and no one should ever lose a job for wearing a clean, attractive hairstyle because someone found it threatening. Her resolution: “To braid so many heads that this won’t happen again.”no
Two years later, Ferrell opened Cornrows & Co., her upscale Northwest salon. Her conviction that “no one should have to change something as basic to them as their natural hair” has helped her change grooming policies prohibiting braids, locks and twists in the U.S. Army, the Navy, American Airlines, the Smithsonian, the D.C. police department, both Hyatt and Marriott hotels, and other companies. Although she has used lawsuits, Ferrell’s favorite method of coaxing companies to revise outdated codes is presenting photos of attractive natural hairdos that meet their existing grooming standards. “Once they see these beautiful styles, I don’t have to fight.” Ferrell cited the 14th Amendment to help change laws in 42 states that required hair braiders to earn cosmetology licenses despite the fact that cosmetology schools almost never teach braiding skills. “Forcing someone to do a year of training at a school that can’t teach them what they want to do makes no sense,” she says.
A few years ago, Ferrell ran into the White store manager who years ago fired her for her hairstyle. “I’m sorry about what happened,” he told her. “But I want to tell you I’ve been watching you. And I’m proud of you.”
These days, Ferrell is proud of herself for the scrapbook she’s creating from the court papers, newspaper clippings and handwritten musings she’d hidden away after the shooting. I was stunned when she told me she’d stored her painful memorabilia in one of those clear, zippered plastic bags in which comforters are sold — precisely the kind of container I chose decades ago to hold precious photos, newspapers, documents and artifacts of Darrell’s. Like her, I concealed these relics, packing them into a drawer I avoided for 20 years before facing them. “Moving this stuff from the back of the upstairs closet … may not sound like much,” Ferrell says, “but it means I’m no longer afraid to look at it. … I don’t feel like that 15-year-old girl, who was so vulnerable and helpless.” Talking about the past “is like a healing.” As such, she says, “I don’t want to talk about it with hate. I can’t even say I hate that police officer who shot me. … In a strange way, I would like to know how he feels today.”
I couldn’t agree more when Ferrell says hating the police would waste precious energy — and would result in despising decent cops who regard every citizen as worthy of protection and support. “Not all police officers are bad,” Ferrell explains. “Saying, ‘I hate police,’ is like someone saying they hate Black people. … But too many departments allow rogue cops to stay … sometimes even going after the good officers. How do we change the system to get those bad people out of there? And to prevent them hiring the bad people who become police officers so they can bully the people they’re paid to serve?”
Forty-five years after her shooting, the sight of a White police officer still gives Ferrell a jolt. But “I’m not bitter,” she insists. “There have been White people in my life whom I’ve loved,” people who had nothing to do with “the policemen who lied, the chief of police who supported them, those in the system that failed me.”
In other words, Nana was right.
“Wicked doesn’t come in one color,” Ferrell says. “And I will not allow it to take more from me than it has already taken.”
Donna Britt, a former Washington Post columnist, is the author of “Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving.”