She was not killed by a police officer while running away. She was not killed by black-on-black crime. She did not die in a school shooting. She was not powerless—she was strong — but not strong enough to stop America from opening its ferocious mouth and sucking her into its unyielding belly, swallowing her whole.
America would not spit her out. It devoured her whole and would not give her back to us. We tried our damnedest. We tugged at her legs. We begged and pleaded. We prayed like a motherfucker but America refused.
Mecenia Dials is dead.
Mecenia Dials is dead because she was a black woman in America.
Once upon a time in America, there was a tiny little girl named Mecenia Dials. She was born on October 11, 1974, which was, as I often reminded her, four days later than the greatest birthday on earth. In spite of her unfortunate birthday, Macie was born with the unique ability to make herself happy. Even as she grew up in Hartsville, S.C., with parents who struggled with drug addiction, anyone who has ever been blessed with the gift of her presence can’t remember her without a smile on her face. I once heard Macie say a phrase once, that I have stolen as one of my life’s mantras.
“You have the responsibility to be happy.”
Macie did not say that to me because Macie was not my friend. She was a friend of my youngest sister and eventually became a member of my extended family. She was always around…Until she wasn’t.
Because attending college was not financially feasible for Macie, she took a “good job” in our hometown after high school. When I would return home for summers, spring break and Christmas, Macie would visit my sister and we would talk about how much our small town had changed.
Crack did it.
People who listen to Biggie songs and read about the crack epidemic from a distance cannot understand the effects of crack cocaine. From a distance, it is easy to see how this unnatural disaster destroyed black communities. But anyone lived in a poor black neighborhood in the 1990s can will tell you something else about crack cocaine:
Crack cocaine is a beautiful monster.
From afar, it is easy to see the violence, incarceration and crime. But those whose knowledge of the leviathan of crack cocaine doesn’t come from songs about the Jay-Z’s inability to “stop the hustle” or Nino Brown’s dreams of a new jack city can tell you that the allure of this particular beast didn’t just manifest itself with addiction, violence and disproportionately harsh prison sentences.
Crack was a hallucinogen that gave hope to the hopeless. It created an entire economy for an impoverished population that America had already crushed in its unforgiving jaws. It afforded temporary financial stability for street-savvy boys who had been trampled upon by the apathy of the American education system. It offered a modicum of respect to those who had been disrespected. There were only two ways to escape—outrun it or be devoured.
Macie tried to outrun it...until she didn’t.
Three years after graduating high school, Macie was working that “good job” that she would later tell me paid her less than $25,000. Macie’s boyfriend, a small-time drug dealer who didn’t own a boat, a plane or an international cartel, presented a business proposition that would benefit them both. One trip, he insisted, could change their lives. He tried to convince Macie that police officers wouldn’t notice a woman traveling by herself but Macie wasn’t dumb.
She knew the danger. She knew the devastating effects of crack cocaine. She had lived it her entire life. Macie also knew what her life would look like raising two children—a 6-year-old and a 3-month-old newborn on a job that didn’t provide a living wage. She had noticed that there were no black senior-level people at her job. Macie knew she was black. Still Macie said no…
Until she didn’t.
Eventually, Macie took a trip to Miami, Fla., and returned to Florence, S.C., on an Amtrak train with less than $10,000 worth of pure cocaine.
“I remember sitting on that train and something told me: ‘Get rid of that stuff” but I ended up going to sleep,” Macie would later explain. When I woke up, I was already at the Amtrak station in Florence.”
When the Amtrak train pulled into a station, Macie noticed that there were more police officers than usual.
They were waiting for her.
Macie wasn’t dumb. She knew that politicians had recently passed harsher drug sentences for crack cocaine that disproportionately affected black defendants. But, luckily, Macie wasn’t smuggling crack. She was carrying powder cocaine—white people’s drug of choice.
But Macie was black.
Prosecutors offered her a plea deal, which she was inclined to take. All she had to do was plead guilty to a lesser charge of possession of crack cocaine with intent to distribute, acknowledge that she had not received a promise of a lighter sentence (even though she had) and she would receive a 7-year sentence of probation.
It seemed fair. After all, Macie had never been convicted of a crime. Plus, she couldn’t imagine her children growing up without a mother. But when Macie’s scheduled court date came around, someone called in a bomb threat to the county court building, delaying Macie’s hearing. It happened again the next day. Concerned that she was going to lose her job after she had called in sick two days in a row, Macie went to work on the third day after her lawyer informed her that the court docket was probably too backed up to hear her case.
“I was so dumb,” Macie would later tell me in a letter. “I was more worried about losing that sorry-ass job than going to the penitentiary.”
And just like that, America opened wide and bared its teeth.
On September 24, 1997, two weeks before her unfortunate birthday, a Florence County, S.C., circuit court judge sentenced 22-year-old Mecenia Dials to a mandatory 25 years in prison for “Trafficking in Crack Cocaine.” And because, in South Carolina, trafficking in cocaine is considered a “violent offense,” she would not be eligible for parole until she served 85 percent of her sentence.
Macie would spend the next 21 years in prison.
She did not complain once.
After she was incarcerated, I became obsessed with Macie’s harsh sentence. I’ve told it every chance I got the opportunity for more than 20 years. I begged her lawyer to send me her files, to no avail. She became my pen-pal for two decades. When people noted that the War on Drugs targeted black communities, I wrote about Macie. I juxtaposed her predicament with Paul Manafort’s light sentence. When people discounted the effects of systemic racism by regurgitating the white fairy tale of black people “playing the victim” or using the “race card,” I clapped back with Macie’s story.
In November 2018, Macie was released from prison at the age of 44 years old. She took advantage of every opportunity for education and self-improvement while she was incarcerated and found a job and—despite her initial struggles to find healthcare, she began rebuilding her life.
Even though the South Carolina Department of Corrections probably doesn’t conduct a lot of preventative cancer screenings and formerly incarcerated people don’t have a lot of extra money for preventative health screenings, Macie wasn’t worried. She had free healthcare for 21 years, so she was sure she was healthy.
By the time Macie discovered she had colon cancer, it was too late to stop it before it reached her brain.
At first, she did not tell anyone. After all, she had a responsibility to be happy. Even when she was put into hospice care, she did not stop smiling. My mother would not stop praying. Macie did not feel sorry for herself.
On Wednesday, June 17, at 3:15 a.m. 45-year-old Mecenia Dials stopped being a black life.
America is a beautiful monster.
People who become infuriated at those who kneel during songs by Francis Scott Key or get angry at the removal of Confederate statues cannot understand the effects of the monster of systemic racism. From a distance, it is easy to blame Macie’s tragedy on drugs, education, dope-dealing boyfriends or just bad choices.
Macie is not the only person who America has wrapped its tentacles around and slowly choked the life out of them. This is not even a tale about victimhood or systemic racism. It is just a thing that happened in a place that markets itself as the freest, richest, proudest country on planet earth that offers liberty and justice for all.
America is a motherfucking liar.
And Macie is proof.
Mecenia Dials was an unarmed woman who was shot in the back by America. This country strangled her to death. It knelt on her neck and would not let her off the ground. But she will not be forgotten. I refuse.
Her black life mattered…
Until it didn’t.