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Where I Come From

Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?

Some lives matter more than others. For a few months, the life of Phylicia Barnes mattered more than most.

Barnes, a 16-year-old from North Carolina, came to Baltimore to visit relatives on her father’s side of the family, family she didn’t know very well until her mother encouraged her to connect with them on Facebook. She was last seen in her half sister’s apartment on the afternoon of Dec. 28, 2010, then never again until her body was found floating on the Susquehanna River, 40 miles north of the city. Police ruled the death a homicide but have not yet released details of how they suspect she was killed.

Local response to the Barnes case has been huge. Baltimore City Police conducted interviews with approximately 25 people and looked into more than 70 tips as the young woman’s image appeared on billboards around the city. In April, hundreds of law enforcement officials and volunteers scoured Patapsco Valley State Park in Baltimore County for any sign of her. The disappearance brought together Baltimore Police, Maryland State Police, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and the FBI. And eventually, local media coverage was amplified by national outlets, including CNN, ABC News, and NBC’s Today show.

Barnes’ death is tragic and bewildering for its apparent randomness, but considering how infrequently the fate of crime victims who are not white, famous, or both breaks through to the headlines, the biggest story here is arguably how her family and friends and the strangers they inspired made one black girl’s life matter.

Part of it was sheer tenacity. Barnes’ parents are not together, and neither lives in Maryland, but each worked tirelessly. Her father vowed to turn the city upside down to find her, working with a local chapter of the Guardian Angels, communicating with police about developments in the case, and leading vigils in Baltimore to keep their daughter’s memory alive.

As her parents stoked public interest, it helped that the story struck so many larger, deeper themes. First, Barnes was beautiful. The picture you saw most often, an arms-length self-portrait in which she looks up at you without a hint of guile, was affecting. She was also young—only 16—and smart. Many news accounts used “honor student” like it was her first name. Together, the details awaken some of our deepest fears about urban life: a by-all-accounts innocent out-of-towner falls prey to a dark, dangerous city.

Half a dozen detectives searched for Barnes full time, and two U.S. representatives asked the public for help. Few cases attract this kind of attention. A police spokesperson called this “Baltimore’s Natalee Holloway case,” a reference to the young woman from Alabama whose disappearance in Aruba made international headlines. This case was never that big, but it was bigger than most, including one that began 10 months before Barnes disappeared. On Feb. 21, 2010, my cousin Cherice Ragins went missing. When we were young, she was such a beautiful little girl, but the intervening years were hard on her. My family worried about the hours she kept, the bags under her eyes, the people she hung out with. At 26, she had long since lost her shine. Today, we still don’t know where she is, but have always suspected the worst.

I never knew Phylicia Barnes, but several weeks after she disappeared, I found out that she is a relative too—though a very distant one, the second cousin of my half brother Derrick. In a way, as with her own half sister, she found me through Facebook too as I read updates about her in Derrick’s posts.

I’d been thinking for a while about why Phylicia struck such a chord with so many people when a high school classmate of mine said something that made it much clearer. I’m having a birthday party in a few weeks. The invitation features a picture of President Obama and the First Lady dancing at a ball—not tiptoeing awkwardly to avoid making a scene but really throwing down. The photographer catches the president in the middle of a swinging turn, but the real center of attention is Michelle Obama, who looks dead at the camera, satisfied that at that moment there is no one in the room, and perhaps no one in the world, who is more beautiful and confident than she is. The camera and my classmate, Keina, seemed to agree.

“You know why black women love Michelle Obama?” Keina asked, staring down at the picture. “Because we look at her and go, ‘That could be us! Ahhhh!’” She literally squealed with pride.

A lot of black people looked at Phylicia Barnes and thought, That could be me, my sister, my friend—who knows, a distant cousin. This type of racial solidarity is not uncommon. It helped that she was beautiful, and young, and smart, but it’s still remarkable that, people who saw a bit of themselves in Barnes pushed public support of her investigation beyond racial lines and one big step closer to parity.

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