Korey Wise Represents So Much More in When They See Us
Vilissa K. Thompson, LMSW
Content notes: trauma, systemic racism, mass incarceration
When They See Us has become the must-see series of 2019. A four-part dramatic miniseries on Netflix directed by Ava DuVernay, its debut struck a chord with many of us in the Black community, including myself.
I was too young to remember the outrage about the convictions of the Central Park 5 – Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam – but I do remember reports surrounding the exoneration of these men. It was not until this series that I learned of the whole story, and the impact on each life involved.
I was not sure what to expect upon watching the series, but before Part 1 ended, I was in tears. To see five young boys’ lives take such a heart-wrenching trajectory due to a corrupted system was beyond comprehensible. However, this is the case for many of our children, who are subjected to gross racial discrimination for simply being young and of color, which has always been villainized in this country. Their stories reflect those we know in our communities, who have been wrongly accused and convicted, and later, traumatized and having to rebuild lives that were so unfairly taken from them.
While watching the series, the story of Korey Wise immediately jumped out at me for many reasons. Korey’s story was the hardest to watch. Jharrel Jerome, the actor who portrayed Korey, brought us an unforgettable depiction that tugged so deeply at our emotions. The depth of the pain and trauma experienced by Korey was triggering; I cannot imagine the young Black boys I know enduring and surviving such an experience. The storytelling of Korey showed us the brutality of the criminal system through the eyes of a child who grew up to become a man behind bars. So much of Korey’s carefreeness and innocence were snatched from him; a common occurrence for our Black children in this country who cannot or are not allowed to be children worth protecting.
Korey’s presence hit me profoundly when I noticed the subtle inklings of him possibly having a disability. I believe that as a disabled person, we have a “signal” of people who are like us – disabled. My signal went off about Korey from the way he spoke and his ability to understand what was happening to him throughout the horrendous process of interrogation, trial, conviction, and being a juvenile in an adult prison.
After the series, I learned that my senses were correct – Korey is disabled. According to Distractify, he has a learning disability and is hard of hearing (HoH). This reveal created a new crack in my heart when I considered how our Black disabled children are pushed in the criminal system and become the forgotten ones. In her book, The Pedagogy of Pathologization: Dis/abled Girls of Color in the School-prison Nexus, Dr. Subini Annamma explains how race and disability creates an overlooked phenomena regarding the incarceration of disabled young people of color:
…specific additional identities intersecting with race make children of color more susceptible to criminalization, including dis/ability and gender. … Dis/abled children compromise 12 to 14 percent of the public school population; this number skyrockets from 33 to 40 percent in juvenile incarceration … Moreover, dis/abled students of color are much more likely to be imprisoned; dis/abled Black students are four times more likely than dis/abled white students to be educated in a juvenile incarceration setting.
Knowing these realities as an activist and social worker developed a deep yearning within me for others to realize that there are countless Koreys in our juvenile and adult systems. Korey embodied a reality that some may want to ignore; our Black disabled youth experience incarceration and the traumas to follow at greater rates than their white disabled counterparts. Korey’s story matters because he represents members in our community who are forgotten and dismissed when disability is present. Understanding the intersections of race and disability within the mass incarceration and school-to-prison-pipeline systems is pivotal to fighting for abolishment and the healing many need who have been affected.
The storytelling was done with a great deal of care and sensitivity, which is something we rarely see in media of disabled characters. Ava DuVernay is a genius at her craft as a director and it is not the first time her body of work has displayed disabled people and characters in humanizing ways that I wish her colleagues in film and television would take note of. The recent documentary ROLL WITH ME and Aunt Vi’s storyline in season 3 of Queen Sugar are examples of Ava’s work where disabled people and/or characters are given the power to be human and have dignity in the way their stories are portrayed. With so many depictions that get the disabled experience wrong, it is refreshing to see someone get it right, and care deeply about it in their body of work.
The respect for disability and our stories is not just seen within the artistry of the film, but also through the actor. Jharrel Jerome had this to say about the love he has for the real-life Korey Wise and how he inspired him: “I’m just building so much love for him and so much love for who he is. He’s inspiring me every day so I owe it to him. I owe it to him to show the world that he can inspire people and that his story is about strength and power and might over all that brutality, over all the sadness and the anger and resentment that we feel. It was a story of his battle that he won.”
In seeing Korey through the many press photographs shared since the release of the series, I hope Korey knows that he has inspired me too. I write this with the hope that Korey understands that he is seen within his community, and we so ardently support him for sharing his truth with the world. You are loved, respected, and protected by us, Korey. We got you – always.
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Vilissa Thompson: A macro-minded social worker from South Carolina. Ramp Your Voice! is her organization where she discusses the issues that matters to her as a Black disabled woman, including intersectionality, racism, politics, and why she unapologetically makes good trouble.