I did not know Janese Talton-Jackson on a personal level. There’s a chance I might have seen her before. And a lesser chance I might have spoken to her. But if I did either, I don’t remember.
But after news of her death began to circulate on Facebook on Friday afternoon, and more and more people spoke of her, I learned that there weren’t many degrees of separation between us. Practically none, actually.
She left behind three children. Twin girls and a 1-year-old son. The father of her daughters is the son of my mom’s best friend, Ms. Debbie. She also lived in a house owned by Ms. Debbie—a house right next door to my dad’s house. They’re separated by two driveways and a line of hedges. My dad was devastated by the news. And if that’s not enough of a connection already, Janese’s brother happens to be Pennsylvania state Rep. Ed Gainey, a man I’ve known for 25 years.
I first became acquainted with Ed through basketball. When my dad would take the 9-year-old me to the courts behind Peabody High School to work on my game, Ed was one of the older teens and early-20-somethings who’d often be there, too. Some days, after I was done drilling, my dad would play with them and I’d watch them play. Then, as I got older and better, I’d play with them too. Today Ed is a popular politician and a friend. And now, as of early Friday morning, brother to a murdered sister: a woman shot and killed in the street by a man because she said no.
According to the police report, Janese was at Cliff’s Bar, located in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood. As the bar neared closing, she was approached by Charles Anthony McKinney, who apparently was interested in her. The interest wasn’t reciprocated, and she left. McKinney allegedly followed her outside, was rebuffed again and then shot her in the chest. She was declared dead at the scene. She was 29.
As I write this, my 2-month-old daughter is 10 feet away in one of her bassinets, fussing. I’ve had to pause from writing twice in the last half hour to check on her. To see if she’s making noise because she’s hungry or cold or hot or wet. But, as I suspected, it’s none of the above. She just wants to be played with, and she’s fussing because she’s bored. So I oblige, stopping every 15 minutes or so to pick her up and make faces at her.
While doing this a moment ago, I noticed that she takes up much more space in her bassinet than she did even a month ago. She will, eventually, outgrow it completely. And then she will learn to walk. And then, years from now, she will leave the house on her own. She will have friends. She will learn to drive. She will go out. And there will be men she is not interested in who will be interested in her. Some might catcall from cars and corners. Some might grab her arm or her waist at the bar. Some might buy her a drink. Some might approach her on the street.
Some of these advances will be ignored or unacknowledged. Some met with kind but deliberate body language to convey her lack of interest. And some will even be met with actual words—her actually saying some form of “I’m not interested” out of her actual mouth.
But while she can control how she responds to the approach and how she communicates her lack of interest, she cannot control the response to her response. She will have no idea if the guy she says no to will cuss her out. Or spit in her face. (Which happened to my wife before.) Or follow her five blocks to her apartment. (Which has happened to a friend before.) Or follow her outside the bar, ask again, get rejected again and kill her. Which happened to Janese Talton-Jackson.
That the world is a specifically dangerous one for women and girls isn’t some grand epiphany I just recently had in having a daughter. I’ve read (and written) enough about it, and I’ve seen enough news about it. I’ve also heard enough first- and second- and third-person stories from friends, girlfriends, cousins and homegirls who have either had this type of violence happen to them or know someone who did. I’ve even watched comedy skits about it.
In one of his HBO specials, Louis C.K. jokes that a woman agreeing to go on a date with a man is literally insane. Because, he continues, we (men) are the No. 1 threat to women’s lives. (Men’s biggest threat? Heart disease.) But the continued existence of our species depends on men approaching women, and women eventually saying, “Yes, I will agree to meet you somewhere of your choosing while alone and at night. Even though, statistically, you’re my No. 1 threat.” Which, he also jokes, is like a man having to date nothing but half-bears/half-lions and hoping that nothing bad happens.
But having a daughter (and a wife) introduces another element to my relationship to this danger. Not empathy—that already existed—but fear. Of course, not every boy and man interested in my daughter will express this interest or respond to her disinterest aggressively, disrespectfully or violently. The vast majority will not. But there is no way of removing those who will from her interactions, no way of avoiding them completely, and that scares the f—k out of me. As I’m sure it scares the f—k out of my wife. And as I’m sure it scares the f—k out of the women who also happened to be at Cliff’s Bar that night.
Janese Talton-Jackson is dead because a man was interested in her. And then killed her when that interest wasn’t reciprocated. But she could have been any woman he happened to be interested in that night. The only thing separating her from the women who made it home alive Friday is chance. Sheer luck.
And this, again, is f—king scary. Not just because of how frequently this happens, but also because I know there will be people—men and women—who will hear about this murder and will immediately think, “Well, she must have said something disrespectful” or “She didn’t have to embarrass him by saying no. Just give him a fake number” or “How was she dressed?” or “What was she even doing out that late in Homewood?” As if this—men responding to disinterest with violence—weren’t epidemic. As if any of this were her fault. And as if “What could she have done to prevent this?” matters at all, and “What can and should men do to stop men from doing this?”—which, ultimately, is the only relevant question here—doesn’t.
I did not know this young woman. But I know several people well who knew her well. None of that really matters, though. Who she knew, who knew her; how she could have been my sister, my daughter, my friend, my wife—those are red herrings. What matters is that she existed. She was alive. She was somebody. And now she’s gone, because she said no.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.