At last year's Essence Festival, mothers and grandmothers filed into the Convention Center, holding portraits of children they'd lost tightly to their chests. They came to "A Mother's Prayer Vigil: Love, Loss and Life" to grieve collectively and to honor the men and women they raised whose lives were tragically cut short by gun violence.
It was a powerful, memorable moment from the 2013 festival, and as ESSENCE remains committed to issues of gun violence in our communities, we'll host another gathering for mothers at this year's festival on Sunday, July 6.
Deputy managing editor Dawnie Walton explains why ESSENCE will continue to provide this space for grieving mothers.
Essence Festival: Last year's photos of mother's holding portraits of their sons was incredibly moving. What was that moment like on the ground?
Dawnie Walton: The mothers who joined us at the prayer vigil were extraordinarily generous with their time and with their heartbreaking personal stories. In our portrait sessions and interviews, we wanted to give each mother a special moment to remember the child (in some cases, children) she'd lost to bullets—not just remember them as symbols of a devastating problem that is affecting our communities, but as unique individuals with talents and dreams and love to share. The strength and pride these mothers exuded while talking with our reporters and posing for our photographer was incredible to witness, and Essence and the City of New Orleans were so thankful to them for gathering together in this powerful Essence Festival moment. It was an emotional morning that we wanted to treat with great sensitivity and respect, and we were so awed and grateful to these women for sharing their private grief in a public forum, in order to illuminate the epidemic of gun violence.
EF: Why did Essence decide to host another prayer vigil this year?
DW: Gun violence, unfortunately, is not an issue that has disappeared, but it IS an issue to which ESSENCE and the City of New Orleans remain dedicated. It's important that we keep serving our community, giving our readers a voice and drawing attention to national travesties. It's also important to ESSENCE that we give back to our amazing host city, New Orleans—Mayor Mitch Landrieu and his incredible team, through their NOLA for Life organization, have prioritized innovative strategies to reduce the murder rate, and we are proud to stand with them as partners in this important aspect of our Festival programming.
EF: How have the high-profile cases of recent memory — Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride — shaped Essence Fest's approach to providing a space for mourning mothers?
DW: When the George Zimmerman verdict came in that Saturday night, ESSENCE's social media accounts were immediately flooded with messages from mothers—all of them expressing fear for their children, confusion over what to do next, and the desire to take a stand. As Black mothers, we understand the fear that comes with sending our boys out into the world every day. And so when Sybrina Fulton mourns, or when Lucia McBath mourns, we mourn with them in a way that no one else can understand. Moments like this are what inspired our #HeIsNotASuspect social media campaign, as well as much of our Empowerment programming. And in the case of Renisha McBride—of course, when we see her face, we see our daughters, our sisters, our best friends, ourselves. We see all the young Black lives that are not valued in the way they should be. With our mission of supporting Black women, it's imperative that ESSENCE give voice to these emotions and offer a place of healing and communion for mothers.
EF: Why should festival attendees — whether they've lost a child or not — attend this prayer vigil?
DW: You may not lost a child—you may not have children at all—but everyone has had a mother, and knows the sacrifices and selfless love they pour into us. At our prayer vigil, we come together to support and uplift these special women, who need it more than ever.
EF: What do you hope people come away with after leaving the vigil?
DW: I hope people come away moved to action—to mentor a young man, to write their congressmen or sign a petition demanding stricter gun legislation, even simply to send a Tweet in support. But I also hope they come away inspired by what they've seen, the ways in which we can come together and say, "Never forget"—then take that feeling back into their own communities.