People carrying candles gather for a memorial walk in honor of Ahmaud Arbery, who was shot and killed while jogging near his home in Brunswick, Georgia.

Ahmaud Arbery's father, Marcus Arbery, bottom center, joins a a memorial walk and candlelight vigil for Ahmaud at the Satilla Shores development, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. Arbery's son was shot and killed last year while running in a neighborhood outside the port city.

Mitchell S. Jackson was worried. It was May 2020, and he had just sent his agent the prologue of his latest novel. Jackson, a contributing writer for Esquire and author of two celebrated books, said to himself, “I really would love to do some journalism to keep my mind off of the anxiety of what my agent will say about my manuscript.”

Just then came an unexpected text from Ryan D’Agostino, editorial director of projects at Hearst Magazines, with an offer to write a story for Runner’s World about the case of Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man who was ambushed in February 2020 by three white men and shot and killed while out for a run near his home in Brunswick, Georgia.

Author and journalist Mitchell S. Jackson

Mitchell S. Jackson

“I was apprehensive at first,” Jackson told me. “I told them I wasn’t a real runner. That I wondered if I was the right writer for their publication.” He huddled on the phone with D’Agostino and Leah Flickinger, director of content creation for the Enthusiast Group at Hearst magazines, who conceived of the idea and was lead editor for the project. They convinced him he was right for it.

A scant three weeks later, after nonstop reporting and 10-to-14 hour writing days in his Harlem, New York, home during the height of the pandemic, Jackson produced “12 Minutes and a Life,” a stinging 5,900-word narrative about the short life and lynching of Arbery, whose only offenses were walking through a house under construction and running while black. “It consumed me,” Jackson said.

The piece won tandem awards: a National Magazine Award and a Pulitzer Prize, both for feature writing. It’s a singular achievement for “a deeply affecting account of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery,” the Pulitzer board said, “that combined vivid writing, thorough reporting and personal experience to shed light on systemic racism in America.”

Sourcing both traditional and personal

Jackson hoovered information from a wide range of sources. Interviews with Arbery’s family, friends, football coach, and girlfriend produced a multi-layered personal portrait. Aided by a veteran beat reporter in Georgia, he was able to study police and coroner reports. He pored over months of news stories. He spent hours watching and rewatching a New York Times Visual Investigation of the murder and other videos on social media to study raw material that allowed him to craft a precise, chilling account of the killing.

The story alternates between sections depicting between Ahmaud’s life and a tick-tock of the killing. In addition, Jackson wove in perspective from his own life as a Black man who, like Arbery, had been caught with a gun (and in Jackson’s case, with drugs as well) in his early 20s. Arbery got probation; Jackson did 16 months in an Oregon prison.

Jackson went on to earn degrees in writing and speech communication from Portland State University, and then a master’s degree in creative writing from New York University. His debut novel, “The Residue Years,” won a Whiting Award and the Ernest J. Gaines Prize for Literary Excellence. His second book is an acclaimed memoir, “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family,” He is the recipient of numerous other prizes and fellowships and his work has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Harper’s Magazine, the Paris Review and The New York Times Book Review, among many other publications.

Jackson, who previously taught creative writing at the University of Chicago, joins Arizona State University this fall as a distinguished professor of English.

Nieman Storyboard interviewed Jackson about the culture and evolution of language, braided structure, and why he put himself in the narrative. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity, and is followed by an annotation of the story.

I detected three voices in “12 Minutes and a Life” that makes it such an original: traditional journalistic style, forensic presentation and Black English. Am I correct?
That’s an accurate read of what I’m trying to do voice-wise: a kind of standard reportage, and then I’m always trying to press on the language and let people know that I’m inside of this thing trying to shape these sentences. The other thing was trying to figure out who this young person was, and a kind of intimacy, almost like a memoir, but I also didn’t want to overtake the story so I wanted really small sections of that.

Language is important to me, and when I say that, I mostly mean the language of my people. It’s like James Baldwin said in “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?: Any use of language is a political decision. I try to ground what I write in the language of my people, of the place I call home, for it to represent my values and my experience. I grew up in a depressed neighborhood. I grew up with uncles who were pimps and hustlers. I had friends who were gang members or drug dealers, and award-winning basketball players, and sometimes both or all the aforementioned. As I got to be older — I’m talking about graduate school — I met writers. I went to NYU and met future Pulitzer winners, and scholars and writers. I taught at Columbia, University of Chicago.

So all that is part of me and the language is reflective of my experience. It feels very natural to me. I can hear my uncles talking. I can hear my friends talking on the page. It’s really an amalgamation of all of those influences.

I guess the larger question would be who owns cultural language?
I would say the young people who treat it so malleable, who are always inventing new language, new ideas, who don’t just accept what’s given to them. I guess there was a time when it came out of the jazz era. But most recently, you find a lot of that in hip hop, or in Black culture, which has been cut off from the power and privilege accrued from speaking what people in power deem “proper” English. What they make from that oppression is a form of resistance.

Did you have to negotiate with the editors of Runner’s World about this language? Was there any pushback at all?
I had already worked with Ryan (d’Agostino). Leah Flickinger was the lead editor, and Ryan was always available to talk through ideas. He’s really protective of my voice. And I was fortunate that Leah is the kind of editor who nurtured what I tried to do on the sentence level. It also helps to have so much already published in the world, which is evidence of what you’ll get from me, what my philosophies and politics are on the page. I don’t think someone would even come to me to write something if they were expecting something else.

Do you consider audience when you’re making choices about the language you use?
I think you have to, but I try not to let them dictate the decisions. If I’m asking a rhetorical question, I do consider who am I asking this to? So when I was asking who’s a runner, what do they look like, I knew I would be asking that of a predominantly white audience because in my community, there aren’t a lot of runners. When I was growing up, I didn’t see anybody jogging.

So I know that asking certain questions is pointing them towards a certain audience. I’d rather use a language that feels more native to me, and have them either wonder about it or have to look it up, than to keep that language out of it.

Ultimately, my baseline reader is a young person, like a 20-year-old version of myself, who’s observant and thoughtful and intellectually curious, who has done a little reading, but maybe is not the most well-read person in the world. I’m always writing for them. I also really want my uncles (who are, by the way, the most interesting story tellers I’ve ever been around) to read it, and even though they’re not readers, I want them to hear themselves.

Do you worry you might lose some readers because of your language choices?
Absolutely. I think that my voice is a really particular experience. And either you like this thing that I do, or you don’t, and I’m okay with that. I don’t want to temper it. It’s not that I want to be inaccessible, but I want to be authentic.

What do you think the awards, especially the Pulitzer Prize, that recognizes your story and language choices, says about the progress and evolution of journalism?
I don’t consider myself a historian of journalism. But I do think the things that I’m concerned with on the page — about bringing certain language to the page, about bringing certain syntax to the page, about making sure that I’m writing about people that I care about and identify with — all of those things are political choices.

The Pulitzers were an insider’s game for many years. One place to really look about where they’re changing in terms of people of color is in the prizes awarded to poetry. Natalie Diaz, a Native American poet, won this year. I have two friends that have: Gregory Pardlo and Tyehimba Jess. I think all of those things say that the Pulitzer is at least taking our experience, our language, seriously.

Your writing is so distinctive. Who are your literary influences?
I came to writing really late. James Baldwin was the first influence I can think of; John Edgar Wideman might be the biggest. Toni Morrison. I also think about Junot Diaz and the way that he uses Spanish, and even though I’m not speaking a foreign language, I take cues from the way he incorporates Spanish. Toni Cade Bambara. And Grace Paley. I really love what she does with sentences. She has this this quote: “Two ears, one for literature, one for home, are useful for writers.” I think it’s like high-low diction, but she says it better, like there’s an ear for the page and then an ear for home.

The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Jackson’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu or the individual gray boxes throughout the text, or at the top of your mobile device.

 

Ahmaud Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, kneels before Arbery's grave in Waynesboro, Georgia

Wanda Cooper-Jones kneels before the grave of her son, Ahmaud Arbery, at the New Springfield Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Ga., on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, to mark the one year anniversary of Ahmaud Arbery's death in Brunswick, Ga. White men armed with guns pursued and killed Arbery, who is Black, as he ran through their neighborhood.

Twelve Minutes and a Life

Ahmaud Arbery went out for a jog and was gunned down in the street. How running fails Black America
Imagine young Ahmaud “Maud” Arbery, a junior varsity scatback turned undersized varsity linebacker on a practice field of the Brunswick High Pirates. The head coach has divided the squad into offense and defense and has his offense running the plays of their next opponent. The coach, as is his habit, has been taunting his defense. “Y’all ain’t ready,” he says. “You can’t stop us,” he says. “What y’all gone do?” The next play, Maud, all 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds of him, bursts between blockers and—BOOM!—lays a hit that makes the sound of cars crashing, that echoes across the field and into the stands, that just might reach the locker room. From all the moments of Ahmaud Arbery’s life, why did you choose to open your story with this vivid scene? Because Maud loved football. I think it was the defining passion of his life. When I learned the story offhand about how he was in the drills and how much heart he had, I thought that was a really good way to say who he was. As I say in the piece, he didn’t consider himself a runner, so I couldn’t lead with Maud out running. I wanted to show who he was. It also presaged the confrontation with the McMichaels. It’s a feat that teenage Maud also intends as a message to his coaches, his teammates, and all else that ain’t hitherto hipped: Don’t test my heart. Some of those teammates smash their fist to their mouth and oooh. Others slap one another’s pads and point. An assistant coach winces and runs to the aid of the tackled teammate. And the head coach, well, he trumpets his whistle. “Why’d you hit him like that?” he hollers. “Save that for Friday. Let’s see you do that on Friday.”

That Friday, in Glynn County Stadium (one of the largest high school stadiums in all of gridiron-loving Georgia) the Pirates, clad in their home white jerseys with blue and gold trim, huddle in the locker room. Maud, who wears high shoulder pads, a 2×4 face mask, and number 21 in honor of his brother, Buck, and his idol, famed NFL safety Sean Taylor, swaggers into the center of his teammates and begins the chant he’s christened into a pre-game ritual.

“Y’all ready!” he shouts.

“Hell yeah!” they shout.

“Y’all ready!” he shouts.

“Hell yeah!” they shout.

“Y’all ain’t ready?!” he shouts.

“Sheeeeeit!” they shout.

This entire opening is such a powerful and precise reconstruction of events from Maud’s past. How do you know for certain this is what happened?  I consider this creative nonfiction, where you use the tools of fiction to tell a true story. I definitely asked several sources about what happened, but in the way that creative nonfiction would do it rather than the way a traditional news journalist would do it. I think the thing that the creative nonfiction writer can do is get inside the head, the emotions, of their subjects. Because Maud was dead, I had to imagine. But I’d also heard his friends talking about how much heart he had. And I had to do these drills as a freshman football player myself. l talked to the coaches who saw it, so to me it’s very much accurate to what that experience feels like, and to what happened. But I did go back and double-check, and this has all been fact-checked. What were your sources? The two main sources for this one were Akeem who was Maud’s best friend,  who was also on the football team, and his coach, Jason.

 

To applause that could be thunder, the team stampedes out of the fog-filled mouth of a blow-up tunnel onto the field. The school band plays the fight song and cheerleaders shake pom-poms from a row in front of the band. There’s a raucous sea of blue and gold in the stands, including plenty of Maud’s people. Game time, the opposing team calls the play that Maud put the fierce kaput on in practice, and beneath a metal-halide glare that’s also a gauntlet, Maud barrels towards the running back and—BOOM!—lays a hit that sounds like trucks colliding. It’s a noise that resounds across the field and into the stands, that just might ring all over Brunswick. The fans send up a roar but Maud trots to the sidelines almost insouciant. Jason Vaughn, an assistant coach who also coached Maud on JV, grabs him by his face mask. “Now that’s how you hit,” he says, tamping astonishment that a boy his size could hit that hard. The descriptive quality of this scene— “beneath a metal-halide glare that’s also a gauntlet,” is so vivid and poetic? How do you conjure such imagery? I looked up the stadium. I saw what kind of lights were there, so I knew that they would be blaring late at night. I do know that any kind of big game for high school, when that’s all you have in a town, it’s the biggest sport going. And again, this is me also thinking: I played high school sports, I was an All-City basketball player. So all of these things are coming to bear. And I know how big football is. So it’s thousands of people there to see this. To me, some of the kids, it’s the highlight of their life.

But that’s young Maud, undersized in the physical sense, super-sized in heart.

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Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 1:04pm Time-stamped security footage from an adjacent home shows Maud, who’s out for a run in Brunswick’s Satilla Shores subdivision, wandering up a sunny patch of narrow road and stopping on the spotty lawn of a sand-colored under-construction bungalow addressed 220 Satilla Drive. There’s a red portable toilet in the front yard. The garage is wide open. Here you dramatically digress from the past — Maud’s high school football career — to the criminal actions that left him dead, using a time-and-date stamp as a device. How did you decide on this structure? When I wrote my prologue about the Watts revolt of 1965. That happened because of a traffic stop. I had written a long section about that traffic stop, but it stopped the narrative direction of the story. So I broke up stuff into pieces, and told my story inside of it. So I already had the story within a story structure in my head, and when I found the timeline of Maud, I realized I could just apply the same structure I had been working with all of these weeks. There were things I knew I wanted to include as sections. l knew I wanted to talk about the history of running. I had watched the video of Maud being arrested (for gun possession). If you talk about audience, that was one thing that I thought: racist or negative people would try to bring it up to defame Maud, that somehow meant that he was deserving or that we shouldn’t be as empathetic. Well, I have been arrested. I had a gun, and I’m alive. And so I’m trying to head off a critique of Ahmaud, but share something about myself. I used to study with a guy named Gordon Lish. He used to tell us that your wound is your bow — the thing that has harmed you the most is the thing that will make you strongest on the page, that to reveal the things you’re not proud of can accrue you power. I wanted to imbue what happened to Arbery with that same kind of power, to use it as a shield against attacks on his humanity. Did you outline the story? I don’t outline.

Ahmaud, dressed in light-colored low-top Nikes, a white t-shirt, and khaki cargo shorts, loafs on the lawn for a moment before drifting into the building. The security camera records him inside the home, a brightened skeleton of beams and plywood and stacks of sheetrock and piping and wire. There are boxes of materials scattered about and a small forklift pushed in a corner. Maud doesn’t touch any of those things. He looks around, gazes beyond the frame of the camera toward the river behind the house. How did you get access to the security footage? That is in a New York Times piece. But it’s online if you search it as well. Did you spend a lot of time watching the video? Absolutely. I’m looking at the guy’s features, because we don’t know who it is. And some people said it looked like Maud. I’m like, it don’t look like Maud to me, and trying to find out what was in (the house under construction) and what it might have looked like, construction stuff, was something missing. I watched that so many times and slowed it down and paused it. Maybe he wonders what the home will look like when it’s finished. Maybe he conjures an image of a family who could afford to live in a place so close to water.

Maud ain’t the first person to wander onto the site. Its security cameras have recorded others including a white couple one evening and a pair of white boys one day. On four occasions, it also recorded what appears to be the same person: a slim young Black man with wild natural hair and tattoos on his shoulders and arms, a dude, that by my eye, don’t resemble Maud. Let me add that the homeowner will confirm that nothing was stolen or damaged during any of the visits. Why did you choose to address the reader directly with the phrase, “Let me add.”? I like the second person because it works like the first person, but then it also implicates the reader in a way that first person doesn’t. But I think you can approximate that by speaking directly in these meta moments, and directly addressing the reader. They know you’re there, and they know that you know that they’re there and that you’re speaking to them, and that you have some preconceived notions about them, just like they have about you and the subject that they’re reading. I’m always trying to figure out how I can engage the reader on a deeper level — how I implicate them, can make them an accomplice in what they read, trying to close the empathy and experience gaps.

Meanwhile, a coveralled neighbor spies Maud roaming the site and calls 9-1-1. “There’s a guy in the house right now,” he reports. “It’s a house under construction. 219 or 220 Satilla Drive.” The man waits near the corner of Jones Road and Satilla Drive. “I just need to know what he’s doing wrong,” says the dispatcher. What was the source for the dispatcher’s dialogue and the account of Maud’s murder contained in the 12 minutes sections? I watched a lot of video. I interviewed the beat reporter for the newspaper from Ahmaud’s town — Larry Hobbs of the Brunswick News. He sent me original documents, like the police report and the coroner’s report. I obviously talked to a lot of Ahmaud’s friends and family. I watched a New York Times video piece that showed the timeline of Ahmaud’s attack. That’s how I knew about the 12 minutes and was able to transcribe the phone calls from the neighbors and stuff. I looked at a lot of pictures of the area of the home that Ahmaud went into. His attack was being reported widely in the news, so there were a lot of secondary sources available. “He’s been caught on the camera a bunch before. It’s kind of an ongoing thing out here,” says the caller. It’s a statement of which he can’t be sure, though he does get right Maud’s physical description: “Black guy, white t-shirt.” Why did you choose to tell portions of the story in present tense? Those are the moments of the chasing and the murder, and I wanted people to be present to experience it as it was happening, like you would be watching a video. Past tense didn’t have the same urgency.

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To fathom what it meant for Maud to be out for a run in Glynn County, you need to know a thing or two about the pastime of recreational running. Before the 1960s, the idea of jogging for almost everybody save serious athletes was this: Now why would I do that? But in 1962, legendary track coach and Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman visited New Zealand and met with fellow coach Arthur Lydiard who’d developed a cross-country training program. Bowerman returned to the States excited by what he’d seen. He launched a similar program in Eugene (home of his alma mater and employer, the University of Oregon), wrote a pamphlet on the subject in 1966, and the next year, published a co-written book titled Jogging: A Medically-Approved Physical Fitness Program for all Ages Prepared by a Heart Specialist and a Famous Track Coach. That book became a bestseller and kickstarted jogging as an American pastime. Why was this history lesson important? It connected me to the story, because I’m from Oregon. Everything I write is about home in some way. So that was really important. Also, because of the stark whiteness of running and how it just seems so unbelievable that he would be out for a run and this happened to him. The more that I started to research running and where it came from, it just seemed it was absolutely necessary for me to talk about the kind of racist — I don’t even know if racist is the right diction, so I’ll say the elitist roots of running.

 

JOGGING, BY AND LARGE, REMAINS A SPORT AND PASTIME PITCHED TO PRIVILEGED WHITES.

Let me acknowledge that I am one of the rarest of Americans, one otherwise known as a Black Oregonian. As such, I feel compelled to share a truth about my home state: It’s white. I’m talking banned-Blacks-in-its-state-constitution white. At the time that Bowerman was inspiring Eugene residents to trot miles around their neighborhoods in sweatpants and running shoes, Eugene was a stark 97 percent white. One could argue that the overwhelming whiteness of jogging today may be, in part, a product of Eugene’s demographics. But if we’re keeping it 100, the monolithic character of running can be credited to the ways in which it’s been marketed and to the systemic forces that have placed it somewhere on a continuum between impractical extravagance and unaffordable hazard for scores of people who ain’t white.

Matter of truth, around the time Bowerman visited New Zealand and published a bestselling book, millions of Blacks were living in the Jim Crow South; by 1968, Blacks diaspora-wide had mourned the assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr. And by the late ’60s and beyond, the Blacks of the Great Migration were redlined into ever more depressed sections of northern and western cities, areas where the streets were less and less safe to walk, much less run. Forces aplenty discouraged Blacks from reaping the manifold benefits of jogging. And though the demographics of runners have become more diverse over the last 50 years, jogging, by and large, remains a sport and pastime pitched to privileged whites.

Peoples, I invite you to ask yourself, just what is a runner’s world? Ask yourself who deserves to run? Who has the right? Ask who’s a runner? What’s their so-called race? Their gender? Their class? Ask yourself where do they live, where do they run? Where can’t they live and run? Ask what are the sanctions for asserting their right to live and run—shit—to exist in the world. Ask why? Ask why? Ask why? These are penetrating questions for runners. Why did you pepper the readers with them and repeat “Ask why?” three times at the end of the paragraph? Some of those questions came straight from Leah. She was asking me to consider why this was a story for Runner’s World. At first I thought I had to answer them in the form of a more conventional nut graf, but then I talked to Ryan and he helped me realize that I could build from Leah’s questions. So that paragraph came from Leah’s prompting, and then musing with Ryan on how I could build from Leah’s questions. Why did you repeat that question three times? I love the rule of threes. I teach a lecture on voice and I’m always talking about patterns and the rule of threes — creating the pattern and breaking the pattern. When you make something into a three, it gives it an almost biblical resonance. And so I thought that was a really important time for me to kind of impress that upon the reader. Could you define the rule of threes? It’s omne trium perfectum, the Latin. Everything that comes in threes is perfect. How did you learn that? I don’t think anyone taught it to me. Some things that I do naturally, I will then try to find out the name for this thing that I’m doing. In my lecture on voice, every time I would find a new term, whether I was doing it or not, I would just incorporate it. When I started to learn about the rule of threes, and how present it is in all of our culture — like first, second, and third acts of a story; the three little pigs; the Three Musketeers;  Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness; I came, I saw, I conquered, etc. — I recognized its importance and began to consciously implement it in my writing.

Ahmaud Arbery, by all accounts, loved to run but didn’t call himself a runner. That is a shortcoming of the culture of running. That Maud’s jogging made him the target of hegemonic white forces is a certain failure of America. Check the books—slave passes, vagrancy laws, Harvard’s Skip Gates arrested outside his own crib—Blacks ain’t never owned the same freedom of movement as whites. What was your goal for the story? The goal was to honor Ahmaud Arbery, and to show people who he was and how he lived. But in order to do that, I had to contextualize Ahmaud’s life. And because he is a Black man, and a black man living in the South, it’s impossible to do that without talking about racism. This is, by extension, a stinging indictment of the running community. Why did you feel it necessary to lay it on the readers of Runner’s World? I think some people have the privilege of living our lives, and doing the things that we love to do and never have to think about. Some of us don’t have to think about the roots of it, and how much inequality is built into it. It was really striking to me that this guy was out for a run and this happened to him. So I wonder if I can make some runners really begin to question their privilege to just go out and run through any neighborhood. I hope that the reader took this to heart and did some soul searching and some thinking about how they could address their personal privilege. To me it’s a part of being an anti-racist. As Ibram X. Kendi argues, you can’t just not be racist. If you’re white and/or privileged and passive, you’re part of the problem, part of why these things will keep happening.  Racism or what Isabel Wilkerson (who also won a Pulitzer for feature writing) terms  “caste” is a central subject of my work.  It just so happened that this time it was connected to  running.

…………………………………………………

Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 1:08pm Maud strolls out the house and in just a few steps, begins to jog. He’s unaware of the witness who called 9-1-1, a man still surveilling him. “He’s running right now. There he goes right now,” says the witness to dispatch. “Okay, what is he doing?” says the dispatcher. “He’s running down the street,” says the man. The footage shows Maud jogging past the Satilla Drive home of Gregory and Travis McMichael—a father and son. Gregory McMichael, an ex-cop stripped of his power to arrest for failure to attend use-of-force training, notices Maud passing his house and deems him suspicious. “Travis, the guy is running down the street,” he hollers. “Let’s go.” For reasons the McMichaels must now account for in court (both have been indicted on nine counts, including felony murder and aggravated assault), they arm themselves—the son with a Remington 870 shotgun and the father with a .357 Magnum—and hop in a white Ford pickup truck.

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The Golden Isles lie along Georgia’s Atlantic coast between Savannah and Jacksonville, Florida. The region encompasses the barrier islands of St. Simons, Sea Island, Little St. Simons, and Jekyll, as well as the mainland cities of Darien and Brunswick. Satilla Shores, part of the Golden Isles, is an unincorporated neighborhood of upper- and middle-class families; of blue- and white-collar retirees; of seasonal vacation-home owners and lifelong denizens; of fresh transplants. The small neighborhood features narrow roads canopied by moss-draped live oaks, tall Southern Pines, and crepe myrtle; and one- and two-story homes with landscaped lawns and driveways parked with late-model vehicles and boats. Homes on one side of Satilla Drive—the neighborhood’s main street—boast as a backyard amenity, the sediment-colored Little Satilla River, replete with its miles-wide spartina salt marshes. What a wonderfully detailed picture you paint of this landscape. Given the pandemic, you couldn’t go there, so how did you gather such precise, lyrical details? That again was a lot of reading about the place, a lot of Google Images. I need to give credit to Larry Hobbs, the reporter at the Brunswick News. He’s a lifelong denizen of that area. He was telling me what kinds of trees were there. I could see them on Google Images, but I didn’t know what they were. I had to ask him about the Satilla River, what color is it, and is it a different color in this time of year. I had to talk to someone who was from there.

 

Maud’s family home in Brunswick, the one where he lived at the time he was murdered, is a mere two miles from Satilla Shores, but in meaningful ways, it’s almost another country. The median household income for all of Glynn County is $51,000; in Brunswick that figure is $26,000. The poverty rate of what young Black residents call “The Wick” is a staggering 38 percent.

THAT MAUD’S JOGGING MADE HIM THE TARGET OF HEGEMONIC WHITE FORCES IS A FAILURE OF AMERICA.

“The Wick” is where Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was born on May 8, 1994. He was the third beloved child of Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery Sr. Their working-class family included his older brother Marcus “Buck” Jr. and sister Jasmine. The family called Ahmaud “Quez,” a shortened version of his middle name, while his friends called him Maud. Maud had a slight gap in his front teeth and dark skin forever burnished by hours outside. He and his stair-step siblings attended Altama Elementary School. Around that time, Maud met his best friend Akeem “Keem” Baker, a fellow resident of the Leeswood Circle apartment complex. Keem, who in those days was a chubby introvert, recalls Maud being one of the popular kids in the neighborhood, someone he won over by bringing him snacks. The “sandlock brothers” were soon inseparable: sitting together on the bus ride to school, scouting the neighborhood in search of basketball rims, playing a football game called “Hot Ball” or a basketball-shooting game they christened “Curb Ball.” What are stair-step siblings and sandlock brothers? Stair-step siblings are siblings born very close to each other, but not twins. A sandlock brother is someone you’ve known since you were playing in a sandbox. We call it sandbox brothers on the west coast where I’m from, but they call it sandlock brothers in Georgia.

In those days, Maud’s brother, Buck, just three years older, was a hovering protector. Buck also introduced Maud to the sport he grew to love. It happened during the 2002 BCS National Championship game. Buck’s favorite player at the time was Sean Taylor, and despite the Ohio Buckeyes upsetting Taylor’s Miami Hurricanes, he became Maud’s favorite player too. The next year Maud began playing peewee football, ultralight beaming as a running back and linebacker.

Maud also began playing tackle football with Buck’s friends, boys who were two and three years older or more. During an early neighborhood contest, one of those friends tackled Maud so hard that Buck thought his brother was injured and moved to defend him. Before he did, Maud sprang to his feet and shook it off. “I knew then he was tough,” says Buck. “That he was going to be able to take care of himself.”

FORCES APLENTY DISCOURAGED BLACKS FROM REAPING THE MANIFOLD BENEFITS OF JOGGING.

Around that time, Maud’s parents gifted his sister a Yorkshire terrier she named Flav. Maud might’ve been hard-nosed on the field, but he spent hours frolicking with Flav outside and helping his sister with caretaking duties. Their bond was such that Flav would sleep at the foot of Maud’s bed when Jasmine was gone. How did you able to gain such insight into Maud and his family’s inner life? That was just their generosity. Reporters do this all the time, but I was really adamant and open to them about who I was, what my goals were, what my background was: I’m another black man. I’ve lost friends to murder. I’m not trying to sensationalize this. I was really upfront about that. And once I had the confidence or trust of one person in his inner circle, that was helpful. I would talk to one family member or friend, they would tell me a story and mention another family member or friend. And I would say, ‘Would you connect me to this person?’

The family moved to a small white house on Brunswick’s Boykin Ridge Drive when Maud was in middle school, and in the new place Maud continued to share a room with his brother. “I was a neat freak,” says Buck. “But Maud would have his shoes scattered everywhere. Have his t-shirts where his boxers go. His polos with his socks.”

In high school Maud got a job working at McDonald’s, to keep some scratch in his pocket, but also to help his mother, who often worked two jobs. By then Maud had experienced a first-crush transformation, had adopted some of his brother’s tidiness, had become fashion conscious. He favored slim jeans and bright-colored polo shirts and rugbys, and kept his hair shorn low with a sharp hairline. Some days Keem—he was the first with transpo—would swoop Maud, wheel to the Golden Isles YMCA, and play basketball and/or work out for six or seven hours straight, jaunt across to street to Glynn Place Mall for the fries and wings combo at America Deli, and head right back for hours more of playing/training. Or else they’d roll as long as their gas needle allowed with Lil Wayne or Lil’ Boosie or Webbie or Gucci Mane (Maud’s favorite artists) cranking from the speakers. “Why “transpo?” That’s really a nod to home. That’s what my mother used to call a car. 

Brunswick High JV coach Jason Vaughn met Maud his sophomore year when a fellow coach promised him a tough linebacker for his squad. When Maud, always-ever slim and undersized, walked out, Vaughn was quick to doubt him. “Are you forreal?” he said. “What’s this little guy gone do?” He soon had his answer. Team workouts often included a drill called Oklahoma where two players would stand three to five yards apart and go heads up like. Keem remembers Maud excelling at the drill, not from cock-diesel strength, but because “he was fearless on that field.”

Maud tore his ACL and meniscus in a game sophomore year. A less dedicated player might’ve given up, but he completed an arduous rehab. He reinjured his leg the following summer and committed again to a tough rehabilitation. “Our parents used to tell us, if you start something, don’t quit,” says his sister, Jasmine. Maud wore a leg brace during junior year, which hampered him and no doubt limited his prospects of playing in college. Still, the fact that he played at all is further proof of strong character. This was South Georgia football, and Maud played in a league that included a number of future pros as well as a game against Valdosta High School, the winningest high school football team in all the land. I am so impressed with the way you paint a vivid, loving portrait of this special young man, and then switch to the horror of February 23. Was it difficult emotionally to write? It was very difficult to watch it, but by the time I started to write it became about the story: What’s the best order? What do the sentences look like? What’s the sound? And this is the same material that I covered in both of my books so not foreign to me; it  just happens that Maud’s case was very high profile. I wrote about friends being murdered and my aunt being murdered so  I know how to write about this, which is not to say I’m anesthetized to it.  It’s still a very emotional experience. But once you set it down, then you’re a writer. So you cope with craft? Yes indeed.

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Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 1:10pm The McMichaels, both strapped, tear off after Maud in their pickup, stalk him down Burford Road, another narrow street shaded by lush oaks, pines, and magnolias. From his front yard, William “Roddie” Bryan, sees his neighbors hounding Maud, and for reasons he’ll have to answer for in court (he’s been indicted on nine counts, including felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment), jumps in his pickup and joins them. The McMichaels race ahead of Maud and try to cut him off, but Maud doubles back—maybe recalling all the times he’s eluded a would-be tackler—only to find himself facing down Bryan’s pickup. Bryan tries to block Maud, but he skirts the truck, and huffs around a bend onto Holmes Road. The elder McMichael, Gregory, climbs from the cab to the bed of his son’s truck, the one with a Confederate flag on its toolbox, armed with his .357. They track Maud as he sprints down Holmes Road. You’re the author of an award-winning first novel, “The Residue Years.” What novelistic tools and skills did you bring from that to “12 Seconds and a Life?” Scene-making. Imagery, like the tears running into the black eye strips, what it sounds like to run into a locker room with your cleats on in a concrete floor. I also think being able to push the language — not just settling for something because it’s  accurate, but also chasing acoustic resonances and repetition. A prose stylist uses repetition and recursion in a way that I think maybe a journalist doesn’t. I like long block paragraphs, where I can just make music. And even if that music comes out of facts, I still feel like I can move stuff around. Give me long enough with a paragraph, I can turn it into some music.

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Maud played in the ballyhooed Florida-Georgia War of the Border All-Star game after his senior season but didn’t land a football scholarship. After graduating, he enrolled in South Georgia Technical College (SGTC), in Americus, and set his sights on becoming an electrician.

Like Maud, I was a passionate high school athlete (my sport was hoop) who was not recruited to a major college program. And like Maud, I attended a small school (mine a community college) in my home state. Both Maud and I witnessed friends reap scholarships, float off to towns or cities elsewhere, and continue playing the sports we loved. Maud quit SGTC after a year and returned to Brunswick and his mother’s home. I, too, quit my first community college. But unlike Maud, I didn’t have to return to my mother’s apartment because I already lived there. James “J.T.” Trimmings, another one of Maud’s day-one homeboys, believes homesickness was the root cause of Maud’s premature return from college. But I suspect that Maud also doubled back because his life as an athlete was over and disappointment can grind on even the toughest of us.

The year after he graduated, Maud was arrested for carrying a gun and sentenced to five years of probation, which he violated by shoplifting. A few years after I graduated high school, I was arrested with drugs and a gun and spent 16 months in a state prison. Why did you insert yourself into the narrative here, revealing the similarities between yours and Maud’s life? To show that I identify with him. I also did it to show what were the possibilities for Maud. I get arrested, earlier than him. I go to prison; Maud didn’t go to prison. I had a gun. And here I am now, a tenured professor, and Maud is dead. That’s showing how you cut off a person’s possibilities before they even get a chance to realize the best of themselves. That hurt me. I know friends who had that happen to them. And I know how fortunate I am that the police didn’t shoot me when they pulled me over. I’m saying this to the reader, but it’s also me identifying with Maud in a way that I don’t think another writer who hadn’t had that experience could. One of the great disappointments of my life was not getting a Division One scholarship when most of my friends who played basketball were Division One basketball players. So to not only not get a scholarship, but to have to stay home, not only to have to stay home, but to do so in your mother’s apartment — those were all really traumatic experiences for me. Having talked to Maud’s family, I realized how much him not getting a scholarship to play football really set him on a path toward disappointment.

Maud—dear God, whhhyyy?—is dead, and I, by grace, am a writer-professor hurtling toward middle age. So that really seems to explain why this next paragraph, “Maud–dear God, whhhyy?” is this impassioned cry from your heart. Yes, exactly.

If Maud nursed thoughts of re-enrolling in SGTC, that idea lost appeal once he met his first serious girlfriend in 2013. Shenice Johnson first saw Maud when he strolled into McDonald’s one day and convinced the manager to give him his old job back. The pair, both shy, were soon google-eyeing each other on their shifts. It’s a little unclear who made the first move. Keem says Maud talked for weeks about the beautiful girl at his job, and how he was nervous about approaching her, that is, until Keem hyped him. “Man, you Maud,” he said. “Just walk up to her and introduce yourself.” Per Shenice’s story, their five-plus year relationship began when she offered the handsome boy on her job a free McFlurry.

Their first date, Maud swooped her in the gold Camry (“The Cam”) that his mother had bought him and that J.T. says he treated like a Mercedes. Decked in a white-collared shirt and sparkling Air Force 1s, he treated Shenice to a seafood feast and opened doors and pulled out her chair and paid the full bill without hesitance. “When I was with him, I didn’t have to worry about anything,” she says, a smile in her voice. On the couple’s first Valentine’s Day, Maud drove all the way to Savannah, bought Shenice a Build-A-Bear he named Quez, and delivered it to her along with a gold heart-shaped promise ring. Did you take notes or use an audio recorder for your interviews? Both. .

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Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 1:14pm Cell phone footage captures Maud on Holmes Road, bolting away from Bryan’s pickup but toward the McMichael’s white pickup. Bryan, about this time, pulls out his cell phone and starts to film. Meanwhile, Gregory McMichael calls 9-1-1. “Uh, I’m out here at Satilla Shores,” he tells dispatch. “There’s a Black male running down the street.” The dispatcher asks where. “I don’t know what street we’re on,” he says. “Stop right there. Dammit. Stop!” the tape records him yelling at Maud.

Maud, fleeing now for no less than six minutes, runs toward a red-faced Travis McMichael who stands inside the door of his truck with his shotgun aimed, toward Gregory McMichael perched in the truck bed with his gun in hand, runs into what must feel like a trap, but perhaps feels like another time his courage has been tested. Maud zags one way and the other. He darts around the right side of the truck and crosses in front of the hood. Travis McMichael heads him off at the nose of the truck and shoots Maud in no more than a heartbeat. The blast cracks over Bryan’s cell footage. “Travis!” screams Gregory McMichael and he drops his phone in the truck bed. In this and other places of the 12 minutes sections, you make some suppositions about Maud’s reactions on Holmes Road that February afternoon. What gave you the confidence to write them? I felt like I understood him to the degree that you can understand someone by talking to the people that are close to them. It wasn’t necessarily confidence. They felt necessary. If you want to know this guy, here it is.

The buckshot blast hits Maud in the chest, puncturing his right lung, ribs, and sternum. And yet somehow, he wrestles with Travis McMichael for the shotgun, and yet somehow, he manages to punch at him. Gregory watches for a moment from his roost. Meanwhile, Bryan continues to film. Travis fires his shotgun again, a blast that occurs outside the view of Bryan’s phone, but sends a spray of dust billowing into the frame. Maud, an island of blood now staining his white t-shirt, continues to tussle with Travis McMichael, fighting now for what he must know is his life. In the midst of the scuffle, Travis McMichael blasts Maud again point blank, piercing him in his upper chest. Maud whiffs a weak swing, staggers a couple of steps, and falls face down near the traffic stripes. Travis, shotgun in hand, backs away, watches Maud collapse, and makes not the slightest effort to tend him. His father, still clutching his revolver, runs to where Maud lies facedown, blood leaking out of his wounds. What was your source for the precise nature of Maud’s wounds? The coroner’s report.

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Maud jogged alone on the day he was killed. No one can know for sure the route he took before reaching Satilla Shores, but he’d set off from his home, which means there’s a strong chance that on his run he encountered homes flying a Confederate flag or a Gadsden flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”), homes tacked with No Trespassing signs. To reach Satilla Shores from Boykin Ridge, he would’ve also had to cross US Route 17, a highway that for years served as a de facto county border between the area’s Blacks and whites.

Maud had been running for years, but the origin of his practice lacks consensus. According to his sister, Jasmine, who was once an avid runner, sometime in 2017 Maud asked her how many miles a day she ran and soon after, began doing it himself. She says it was natural for her brother since he loved the outdoors and “wanted a release.” Akeem agrees that Maud used running as a kind of therapy, but thinks his main motivation was staying fit after football. This theory would locate the timing of when he began running to a few years before 2017. Why was it important to track Maud’s running history? I wanted to know how much of a runner he was and when he started? It’s an unusual practice for a young man to keep running outside of sports. Most people I know who jog do it because the coach is making you run laps, but he was different in that way. Also, obviously I was writing it for Runner’s World. And I just I felt like I needed to know where this came from for him.

Maud would run in a white t-shirt and khaki shorts. He’d run shirtless in basketball shorts. He’d run in a tank top and basketball shoes. Or as Keem sums it, “He could run in anything.” Sometimes Maud would persuade his boy J.T. who “doesn’t like running all like that,” and a couple of other homeboys to ride out to the North Glynn Country Recreational Complex and run miles around the park’s freshwater lake. Other times, when Keem was home from college, he and Maud would cruise to one end of the Sidney Lanier Bridge—the longest spanning bridge in all of Georgia—do some warm-up stretching and run back and forth across it, a distance of just under three miles. The pair would keep a steady pace. “But sometimes he’d push me,” Akeem says.

There’s no evidence of Maud training for 10Ks or full or half marathons or obsessing over his miles or PR times. And yet it’s obvious that he was a young man who loved to run and who by all accounts was a gifted runner. It’s also clear to me that the same forces that transformed running from a fledgling pastime in my white-ass home state into a billion-dollar global industry also circumscribed a culture that was at best, unwelcoming, and at worse, restrictive to him.

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Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 1:15pm Per the police report, Gregory McMichael rolls Maud from prostrate to his back to check for a weapon. He checks despite the fact that Maud hasn’t brandished or fired a gun during any part of his flight, not even when caught between two armed white men and what he couldn’t have known was an unarmed white man behind him. Glynn County police officers will arrive within seconds of the shooting, their sirens screaming along Satilla Drive. But before those squad cars reach the scene, Travis McMichael—per Bryan’s statement to investigators in May—will call Maud a “f*cking [n-word].”

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The bridge that Maud and Keem used to jog is named for 19th century poet and Confederate Sidney Lanier. It’s hard to imagine a Georgian with honorifics on par with Lanier. Not only is he the namesake of that bridge, there’s also the eponymous Lanier County in southern Georgia, and Lake Lanier, a reservoir in northern Georgia. Keem seems surprised when I mention Lanier’s Confederate ties, which makes me wonder how much Maud knew about the history of his home. Whether the young men were aware of Lanier’s hagiography or not (who stops to read the plaque on a bridge?) every single jog across that bridge was insult, an insidious means of humiliating them and their/our people. Yeah, the tiki-torch toting bald-face racists menace a spectacle. But what about the legions of bigoted invisible men and their myriad symbols?

Lanier died in 1881, which is to say near the end of Reconstruction and the outset of Jim Crow. In 1964, a few months after the Civil Rights Act ushered the de jure end to Jim Crow, a documentary film crew from National Educational Television (the precursor to PBS) profiled Brunswick because it was managing to integrate without the bloodshed that was occurring almost everywhere else in the South. “The Quiet Conflict” won numerous awards and was a key reason for Brunswick’s reputation as a “model southern city.” Where did you learn the history of Sidney Lanier and his dense presence in Maud’s town and elsewhere in Georgia. Why did you include it? He has an extensive hagiography. You can just Google him and find out all about him. It was crucial to talk about him because Akeem, who had jogged across that bridge with Maud, didn’t know anything about him. I thought how insidious and flagrant to have these monuments to Confederacy, slavery and oppression, and have Black people using them and being around them and not even knowing about it. It’s like an invisible monster.

ON FEBRUARY 23, 2020, A YOUNG MAN OUT FOR A RUN WAS LYNCHED IN GLYNN COUNTY, GEORGIA.

While Brunswick might not have equaled the bloodletting of its southern counterparts, its segregationists still put up stern resistance. In one example, the KKK was called in to threaten Blacks attempting to integrate a local bowling alley. In another, whites filled a public pool with dirt rather than let Black kids swim in it. Several residents have gone on record to proclaim their surprise at Maud’s slaying and to downplay the significance of race. And for those who would argue that the spirit of Sidney Lanier and the segregationists is bygone, or that the younger McMichael might not have said what Bryan claimed in his statement to police, recent evidence—including McMichael’s own social media posts cited by investigators—I submit, as another example, this Facebook post from Chris Putnam, a former high school classmate of Travis McMichael:

“I’m not going to be one of the classmates of Travis McMichael’s that sat here saying nothing. He was always the very definition of a racist gun-loving redneck, and we all knew something like this was going to happen one day. I remember plenty of people that were themselves very openly racist and joked about how ‘at least [they weren’t] Travis.’”

How did you find this post? It was on Facebook at the time that I did the reporting. He has since taken it down.

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The NAACP once defined lynching as a death in which 1) There was evidence that a person was killed 2) The death was illegal 3) A group of at least three actors participated in the killing. According to “Lynching in America,” a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, there were 4,084 southern-state lynchings between 1877 and 1950. Of the 594 reported in Georgia during that period—one of only four states yet to pass a law on hate crimes—three occurred in Glynn County.

Between 1920 and 1938, the NAACP New York headquarters flew a flag that announced “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday” to mark a murder that fit their criteria.

A boy was lynched today: for walking hooded down a street and refusing the command of an overzealous neighborhood watchman. A man was lynched today: for selling loosies outside a bodega. A teen was lynched today: for a disputed exchange of cigarillos. A child was lynched today: for holding a toy outside a rec center. A man was lynched today: for fleeing a traffic stop unarmed. For hawking CDs outside a convenience store. For announcing a legal gun and reaching for his license. A woman was lynched today: for sleeping. And yet another man was lynched today: for suspicion of passing a fake twenty. D-e-a-t-h! In Florida, New York, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina, Louisiana, Minnesota, Kentucky, and again in Minnesota. This litany of lynchings is so detailed and dispiriting. Yet it doesn’t include the names of those lynched. Can you tell me the thought process behind this passage? I’m writing this in the time of the BLM protests for George Floyd. So that is absolutely present. And of course, this is also around the time of Breonna Taylor. I wanted to include them because Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Maud were all of a piece in what was catalyzing for the Black Lives Matter movement last summer. You can’t really talk about them in context without talking about some of the other major cases, but I did not want any of them to overshadow Maud’s story, which is why they were unnamed. I also did it as speaking to the reader saying, ‘I don’t even have to say their names. You know who I’m talking about.’ It was me, setting the context for what had happened, but then also giving Maud his space for his rightful recognition.

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Sunday, February 23, 2020 | 1:16pm “Two subjects on Holmes Road. Shots fired. Male on ground, bleeding out,” radios an officer. Maud musters his last breath near the intersection of Holmes Road and Satilla Drive, a mere 300 yards from where, not 10 minutes prior, he wandered inside a construction site. The officers will cordon the scene and investigate. They will question the McMichaels—Gregory’s hands bloody from rolling Maud onto his back—and William Bryan. And in an act that is itself another violence, they will let all three go about their merry way as free men—for almost three months. How much revision was involved? My recollection is that the main structure stayed intact in terms of it being a story within a story. But we certainly did a lot of editing, shifting this, adding that, asking questions. The opening was the same and the closing was the same, which isn’t always the case with a magazine story.

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On February 23, 2020, a young man out for a run was lynched in Glynn County, Georgia.

His name was Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, called “Quez” by his beloveds and “Maud” by most others. And what I want you know about Maud is that he had a gift for impressions and a special knack for mimicking Martin Lawrence. What I want you to know about Maud is that he was fond of sweets and requested his mother’s fudge cake for the birthday parties he often shared with his big sister. What I want you to know about Maud is that he signed the cards he bought for his mother “Baby Boy.” What I want you to know about Maud is that he and his brother would don the helmets they used for go-carting and go heads-up on their trampoline, and that he never backed down from his big brother. What I want you to know about Maud is that he jammed his pinkie playing hoop in high school and instead of getting it treated like Jasmine advised, he let it heal on its own—forever crooked. What I want you know about Maud is that he didn’t like seeing his day-ones whining, that when they did, he’d chide, “Don’t cry about it, man. Do what you gotta do to handle your business.” What I want you to know about Maud is that Shenice told me he sometimes recorded their conversations so he could listen to her voice when they were apart. What you should know about Maud is that he adored his nephews Marcus III and Micah Arbery, that when they were colicky as babies, he’d take them for long walks in their stroller until they calmed. What you should know about Maud is that when a college friend asked Jasmine which parent she’d call first if ever in serious trouble, she said neither, that she’d call him. What I want you to know about Maud is that he was an avid connoisseur of the McChicken sandwich with cheese. What I want you know about Maud is that he and Keem were so close that the universe coerced each of them into breaking a foot on the same damn day in separate freak weight-room accidents, and that when they were getting treated in the trainer’s office, Maud joked about it. You should know that Maud dreamed of a career as an electrician and of owning a construction company. You should know that Maud gushed often of his desire to be a great husband and father. You should know that he told his boys that he wanted them all to buy a huge plot of land, build houses on it, and live in a gated community with their families. You should know that Maud never flew on a plane, but wanderlusted for trips to Jamaica, Japan, Africa. What you must know about Maud was that when Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan stalked and murdered him less than three months shy of his 26th birthday, he left behind his mother Wanda, his father Marcus Sr., his brother Buck, his sister Jasmine, his maternal grandmother Ella, his nephews, six uncles, 10 aunts, a host of cousins, all of whom are unimaginably, irrevocably, incontrovertibly poorer from his absence. This passage is amazing. Why did you use the relentless rhythm of “What I want you to know” and “What you should know” and “What you must know.”? I was using anaphora, beginning a sentence with the same word or phrase. When I hear anaphora, I think of the Bible: God, please give me strength. God, please give me peace. God, please give me love. Anaphora had biblical resonance to me, so I wanted that. I also use this concept called repetition and difference. I use it with pattern making. I’ll make a pattern, then I break it. So that’s what you get: What I want you to know, What you should know, What you must know. I wanted to move also from a place of what I want you to know, to what you should know, to what you must know. It’s more and more important for you to understand these particular facts about his life. How did you report and verify that information? A lot of those were anecdotes from his family, so it was easy to go back to the interview transcripts. A couple of those things I got from other sources. My favorite was the one about him being an avid connoisseur of the McChicken sandwich with cheese. That story came from his brother Buck. That was like one of the last stories I got, about how Maud loved them so much that he actually turned Buck on to eating them.

Ahmaud Marquez Arbery was more than a viral video. He was more than a hashtag or a name on a list of tragic victims. He was more than an article or an essay or posthumous profile. He was more than a headline or an op-ed or a news package or the news cycle. He was more than a retweet or shared post. He, doubtless, was more than our likes or emoji tears or hearts or praying hands. He was more than an R.I.P. t-shirt or placard. He was more than an autopsy or a transcript or a police report or a live-streamed hearing. He, for damn sure, was more than the latest reason for your liberal white friend’s ephemeral outrage. He was more than a rally or a march. He was more than a symbol, more than a movement, more than a cause. He. Was. Loved. Can you explain the last three words and punctuation of this passage? Before I started writing this piece, I just re-read Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon.” There is a scene towards the end of that novel where Pilate is mourning her daughter who just died and they’re at her funeral and she sings an old gospel tune. And then she says of her dead daughter, ‘And she was loved.’ That line was in my head. But then after I had it, well, how do I punctuate that? I’ll have a period in there and there and italics because I wanted to put more emphasis on that because to me, that was the most important thing, right? This young man was loved.

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Some of those loved ones got to see Maud play the last game of his senior season, a play-in [playoff] away game at Lakeside-Evans High School. In the locker room, the coach delivers a passionate pep talk, and Maud, accessorized in school-color blue high socks and a sparkling white wrist band, leads the team in the pre-game chant. “Y’all ain’t ready,” he shouts. “Sheeeeeeeeit!” they say, and ramble out of the locker room, cleats clattering against the concrete, and onto the field. Maud’s a team captain, so he swanks onto the 50-yard line to help call the coin toss. Why did you close the story this way? I close with that last game because, one, that was the love of the man’s life. I had started with the story of him in practice early on and the moment I started I knew I wanted a recursive closing. So I was asking questions which would allow me to write another football moment. There was some coverage of that last game, so it made it a little easier for me to retell it. It was also symbolic. The end of his football career was a watershed moment for him so that made it important. It just felt right.

 

Rare is an athlete that ends a season on a win. Maud, who’ll earn the team award for most tackles that season, blazes around the field stopping play after play, and still his Pirates commit four turnovers in the first half and trail by 20 points. But the team—hooray, hooray—mounts a second-half comeback, one no more promising than when Maud leaps to snatch an interception in the middle of the fourth, zags here, jukes there, and bursts down the field, wind whispering through his helmet, his lithe legs floating him across the 50, the 40, the 30, and oh so close but not into the end zone. The Pirates don’t score on the preceding drives. They lose the game and miss the playoffs for the first time in half a decade. While their opponents celebrate and fans mill out of the stands, Maud and some of his senior teammates, circle in the middle of the field. There they stand, hand in hand, grass stains in their tights, tears running into their eye-black strips. Boys who will soon be young men mourning a season-ending loss, boys in thrall of youth mourning the eternal end of their football seasons. Maud could use his gift for humor to lighten the mood, but this time, he concedes to the moment’s gravity. Yes, some will play on in college. Indeed, others will attend as students alone. And sure, some will forsake a campus altogether for work. But here’s the truth, a whole truth, so help me: Under that final gleam of Friday night lights, neither Maud nor any of his teammates can be sure of what lies ahead. And the last, haunting line? That last line was pointing us back to the beginning and the terrible tragedy that happened.

***

Chip Scanlan is an award-winning journalist and former faculty at The Poynter Institute. He lives and writes in St. Petersburg, Florida, and publishes Chip’s Writing Lessons, a newsletter of tips and inspiration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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