The Life and Death Of Seven Bridges
By Imani Barbarin
CW: Self Harm, Suicide, Bullying, Abuse
For a while, I couldn’t think of what to say about the suicide of young Seven Bridges. In the days after hearing of his death, I couldn’t quite pinpoint the feeling I was experiencing. I knew I was sad, I was crying frequently in my office, but there was something else, something beyond sadness, it was both dread and relief. Dread, because Seven’s experience was remarkably similar to my own, and I had nearly followed the same path. And relief, which I am ashamed to say because I had had the opportunity to get out of those dark thoughts.
On January 23, 2019, it was reported that ten-year-old Seven Bridges took his own life after being severely bullied by fellow students and treated differently by school staff once his parents advocated on his behalf. The mixture ableism and racism he experienced proved too much to bear. His parents would often find him crying uncontrollably in bed and would do their best to comfort him with the thought he would be changing schools soon, but still Seven died.
Upon his death spreading across social media, many people who use colostomy bags shared pictures of themselves wearing them under the hashtag #BagsOutForSeven. Many felt a sense of hope in the representation it was created, but felt like something was missing. Seven Bridges wasn’t just disabled, he was also Black. To speak just about his disability undermines our ability to see the complete picture of his existence, including the joy, the pain, and challenges.
Often in disability circles, disabled Black people, Indigenous people and others of color are tone policed when the topic if race comes up. There seems to be this desire to maintain the part line of “we’re all marginalized, so why does it matter.” It matters—it did so very much in Seven Bridges’ life. I’ve heard people lament the fact that he was bullied over his colostomy bag, but not that he was choked and called racial slurs.
When you’re Black and disabled, you’re often in between two separate marginalized populations that, whether consciously or unconsciously, only marginalize you further. It can be hard to come to the realization that no matter where you go, there are pieces to you that no one will understand and won’t seek to. Your experiences aren’t felt by a majority of the disabled community as a Black person and you’re disability isn’t understood by those in the Black community. You’re always hiding a piece of yourself no matter who’s around you. This is how ableism and racism is inextricably linked.
The isolation begins to set in. By the very nature of disability, isolation and loneliness is a way of life for many, but for Black disabled people it can be especially rough. A welcome relief can be looking to the media representations of disabled people, but even doing so can reflect the whiteness of disability. While many people have encouraged more realistic depiction of disabled people, they remain stereotypical and neglect to even include actually disabled people—and a majority of those depictions are of white people. For example, I was recently featured in a AJPlus video where I, a Black woman, talked about a need for more disabled representation and the video featured only white disabled actors).
And, while I would like to say that the people who taught me representation matters—my people—Black people, were better at telling the story of disability in our community, I would be lying. The big secret is that Black-led productions, organizations and brands are even less likely to include disabled people in their messaging. This is quite an impressive feat considering Black people, Black women in particular, are the most likely to develop disability as we age. Even as we confront the presence of medical racism, the unconscionably high rate at which Black women die or experience injury during childbirth, and police brutality, the voices of disabled Black people are slow to be included in the conversation.
The unavoidable truth about disability is that you become used to the idea of those close to you dying before their time due to neglect, poverty, or lack of access, but I still haven’t been able to move past Seven’s death. I didn’t know this kid at all, but I understand the world in which he lived. How cruel it can be and how it can convince you that you are alone. Wherever you turn, you feel like you have a part of who you are is called into question and no matter how people try to comfort you, you know that wherever you go, this will be a part of daily life.
Like Seven, I can remember entire afternoons in my bedroom spent crying because I couldn’t deal with another day out in the world performing for whomever wouldn’t get my race or understand my disability. I can remember finding and hoarding my own instruments of torture to feel the pain that people couldn’t see. Should any one catch me, I had an excuse that played upon Black people’s fear of mental illness and the harsh parameters by which we are judged, stereotyped, and see one another for seeking help. “Black people don’t go to therapy, they don’t go to recovery. If you send me, my reputation will never recover. What will you tell people?” It probably shouldn’t have worked, but I was never sent away, never forced to go to therapy or treatment.
It was at my second breakdown in college that I started going to therapy regularly. Even then, it wasn’t until I went to a conference specifically for Black disabled people that I felt the tightness in my chest—that I never quite could name—begin to relax. I could barely focus on what was being said. I kept my head down in my notepad the entire time to keep from crying. It was the first time I had seen that many Black disabled people in the same place. They told stories like mine and had skin just as deep brown. That moment mattered so much to who I am today.
This is why I cry for Seven; he never had a moment where he felt like was accepted completely. So many of us are hanging on a cliff’s edge by our fingers and manage to survive after seeing and finding our people.
Seven’s death is waking up people who want to ignore the harsh realities of being Black and disabled. We need the opportunity to be able to tell our truths no matter how hard they are to hear, or how unaligned they seem from your mission of equality. There is nuance to privilege and if you ignore you have any, you risk lives.
I don’t want to say Seven’s life and death are a lesson. I don’t want to minimize the significance of his humanity. He was a ten-year-old child being abused at school. His mother and father tucked him in at night, they cried with him, they advocated for him. He was supposed to go to a new school next year and his parents hoped for the best. I really wish just hope was enough.
Whenever I fell during physical therapy as a kid, my mom would say the same thing. “You have five minutes to cry, and then we get back to work.” I can’t say that I’m done crying quite yet, but the time has long passed to get to work. We need to create space for disabled Black, Indigenous and people of color to feel like they’re not alone in all the intersections we inhabit. That work is lifesaving and it’s time we get to it.
Imani Barbarin is a writer and communications professional who founded the website CrutchesAndSpice.com she talks all things at the intersection of disability, race and gender.