Slain student, a taunted outsider, was fighting hard to grow up
on September 13, 2009
For friends and family, it wasn’t hard to see that Desiree Davis was going through a time of transformation.
The changes, loved ones recall, began to move in a couple of years ago like thunderheads off the gulf in her former hometown of New Orleans: A jolt of hair dye, dark black first, then streaks of bleached blonde. A new tattoo, placed boldly on her neck. Then this summer came the big one: a driver’s license, finally, and a used car to get her across Oakland.
These flashes in the 17-year-old’s life story might have seemed routine to some of her classmates and coworkers, but they were powerful to those close to her. Desiree, a Hurricane Katrina survivor who was born blind in one eye, had struggled her entire life with a sense of shyness that took hold as she moved from town to town, never shaking the feeling of being an outsider.
After a lifetime of braving bullies who sought her out wherever she went, she was making her family members happy by developing confidence and a style of her own—even if that style did carry an air of danger. In even small gestures, they say, there were signs that Desiree would triumph over her those who ignored and tormented her.
“They gave her a real hard time her whole life,” said her mother, Dru Ann Davis, in an interview at her home this weekend. “Despite that, she knew what she wanted and she would go after it, ever since she was little.”
Desiree, the granddaughter of legendary jazz trumpeter Howard McGhee and the daughter of acclaimed saxophonist Jesse Davis, never got to fulfill her quest for independence and belonging. She died in a Labor Day shooting at 54th and Gaskill Streets in Northwest Oakland, becoming the city’s 77th homicide victim of 2009.
This weekend, as the city’s homicide toll climbed to 79, family members blamed Desiree’s death on a violent youth culture that attracted the Oakland Technical High School student and ultimately led to death. David McGhee, her uncle, said the teen was a casualty of a society in which people develop a sense of pride by pulling gun triggers, sometimes over small differences of opinion or appearance.
“She’s an innocent victim of that phenomenon,” said McGhee, 57, who only recently helped Desiree learn to drive, despite her fears that the blind eye would stop her.
At the small central Oakland apartment that Desiree shared with her mother and 19-year-old sister, family members gathered on Friday to share stories of her life, and their recollections show that Oakland isn’t the first place the teen encountered hostility. Her mother, Dru Ann Davis, who raised Desiree and her older sister alone in New Orleans after separating from her husband, said the girl braved taunts for years because she looked different from other students.
She was a pretty girl. Slender like her mother—not as curvaceous as her older sister—but womanly enough that in recent years she began to draw the glances of older men. Yet her prosthetic eye, which sometimes looked astray, wasn’t the only thing that made her a target. She also took heat for her family’s diverse lineage.
Her maternal grandfather, Howard McGhee, was born in Oklahoma to African American and Native American parents of Cree origin, and grew up to marry a fair-skinned German-American raised in the Bay Area.
Santa Cruz area resident Howard “Boots” McGhee, Desiree’s maternal uncle, says the interracial marriage created conflict that plagued the couple for years, both with their families and in their communities, even in the relatively tolerant jazz scene of the 1940s.
“She was bold enough to hook up and go to black clubs with a black man,” McGhee said of his mother. “She was hated by the black women who were angry she was taking their men, and she was hated by the black men.”
Similarly, Desiree and her sister never won acceptance from many of her peers in New Orleans, where white people often treated the girls with mistrust and many African-Americans saw them as part of another race, family members said. The girls lived in a modest town home in the Garden District—known for its art galleries and historic plantation houses—where their mother, an artist, ran an interior design and sewing business. Yet it was only a short walk to blocks of threadbare homes where families struggled with poverty, drug use and violence.
Inhabiting both worlds was never easy, and Taiisha, Desiree’s sister, often found herself in the role of defending her younger sibling.
“They made fun of our hair, they made fun of her eye, they made fun of the way we spoke,” said Taiisha, 19. “They made fun of everything, and we didn’t get along with a lot of people.”
All that alienation caused Desiree to turn inward and seek out fellow misfits, Taiisha said, a tendency that would persist when she moved with her family to California after Hurricane Katrina. Despite her mother’s advice, she took on the mannerisms of Hip Hop heroes like Lil’ Wayne, developed a distaste for authority, and learned to slang like kids from New Orleans’ tougher wards.
“She would just start hanging out with the wrong people and running the streets with these little girls and boys that were out there,” Taiisha said. “They didn’t care about her, but she didn’t know that.”
It was a shell she never shed, her family says, even after Hurricane Katrina sent her family out to California. Her recent tattoo, her mother said, was a fleur de lis, an old symbol of monarchy that over the centuries came to signify the neglected, flood-ravaged city the family left behind. For Desiree, it was a fitting mark of toughness, individuality, and the place that shaped who she was.
“She was definitely a New Orleans girl,” said her mother. “Some people just called her ‘New Orleans.’”
Yet in private, family members said, Desiree remained a vulnerable girl who feared violence, wrote poetry on her computer and in notebooks, and sang alone in her room—gifts she never had a chance to cultivate. She enjoyed the company of adults who looked past her rough front and saw creativity and a strong work ethic, and although she was sometimes indifferent toward school, she worked part-time jobs to earn pocket money.
“She was tough and volatile, but determined,” said David McGhee, who was touched by Desiree’s quest to earn a driver’s license despite her blind eye and at least one failed test.
At his home on Saturday, David McGhee looked at an e-mail of appreciation that Desiree sent him after she got the license. He noted how the prose was neat, clean and properly punctuated, free from the online shorthand preferred by many in her age group.
“She always sent thank you notes,” he said.
In recent months, Desiree was gaining a stronger interest in school and pondering a career in veterinary medicine. But all of her ambition, mixed with her tendency to run with rebels, might have set the stage for the shooting that prevented her from fulfilling her dreams.
Just like New Orleans, family members said, Oakland has a youth culture in which small marks of distinction can draw envy, often with deadly consequences. During the summer, for example, some of Desiree’s classmates attacked her in downtown Oakland while she was on her way to an A.T.M. machine, taking her purse and I.D. card.
Taiisha and Dru Ann now think they know why her attackers mistook her for a rich person: Among other things, they say, Desiree was carrying a new cell phone she’d bought with savings from her job.
“We don’t have much of anything,” said Davis, who has struggled financially since Hurricane Katrina. “We still haven’t recovered from New Orleans. We have a place, but we’re still homeless.”
Whether the people who mugged Desiree had anything to do with her slaying remains a mystery, and other details of Desiree’s last day remain nebulous as well. The teen often went out on her own without telling anyone. Nobody in the family knows exactly why she went to Northwest Oakland to attend the Labor Day party where she died, or whether she knew the 23-year-old who suffered non-fatal gunshot wounds.
Her mother, sister and uncle rushed to the site of the shooting after a phone call from friends, only to find Desiree beneath a sheet while police—perhaps trying to protect evidence or mistaking them for bystanders—tried to keep them at a distance from the scene. The girl’s friends have been reticent to tell the family what happened, and homicide investigators have shared little information about what took place.
“Nobody told me anything,” Desiree’s mother said. “Nobody came here, called me, nothing.”
What family members are painfully sure of, however, is that on the day of the shooting, Desiree was just beginning to overcome the misperceptions that have haunted her family for generations. Her uncle David remembers how she was beginning to look at him differently, even holding onto gazes sometimes, confidently using the eye that wandered just slightly.
“I think she was slowly overcoming the taunts she’d taken as a child,” said David McGhee. “She was getting strong.”
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