For a few days now, I’ve been trying to assemble my words into a coherent narrative to help make sense of the last few days. I still have nothing entirely complete (and certainly nothing profound). I have shards of thoughts — bits and pieces of emotions and ideas that rise to the surface and then recede. I’ve tried to grab a few of them to share here. Be gentle.
“We feel powerless.”
Something I’ve known for a long time (but never completely verbalized) finally cemented itself in my mind this past week. To be African-American in this country is to feel — and often to actually be — nearly powerless. In a recent piece Michael Eric Dyson summed up this feeling:
Day in and day out, we feel powerless to make our black lives matter. We feel powerless to make you believe that our black lives should matter. We feel powerless to keep you from killing black people in front of their loved ones. We feel powerless to keep you from shooting hate inside our muscles with well-choreographed white rage.
This powerlessness is nothing new. Throughout history, be it through police shootings, lynch mobs, the chain gang or the chains of slavery, black bodies have always been subject to the fear, anger and disgust of white people.
At all times we know that our achievements live under the ominous cloud of white supremacy. That despite our best efforts to build strong families, strong communities, viable businesses and stable wealth, when the rain comes — and the rain always comes — our works, our livelihoods, indeed our lives are at risk of being washed away. No umbrella has ever protected us, no amount of prayer or patience or respectability has spared us. There has only ever been the flood.
Since Thursday morning, I have felt nothing but exhaustion. I have been physically exhausted in a way that I’m not usually accustomed to feeling after hearing and seeing stories like the ones we’ve seen. Usually — because for black people, this cycle of pain and loss is common and regular — I cycle through a set of emotions. Shock and disbelief, then rage, and then a long and drawn out hopelessness. It’s by no means an easy cycle, but it’s something I’m prepared for, something I understand and something I am able to let happen.
But this time, there’s been no cycle. Just an overwhelming wave of exhaustion accompanied by not much else.
I don’t know why this time has been different. Maybe it’s the fact that these murders happened so quickly, one after another, and perhaps I wasn’t fully through my cycle of emotions before having to witness a second execution in as many days. Or maybe it’s something deeper.
Maybe this exhaustion is just the pent up weariness of my soul. A weariness that comes from the knowledge that a cell phone in your hand will always look like a gun. That your body can always transform into that of a demon. That you are always reaching for a weapon. And that when the ringing of gun shots finally dissipates and another body lies baking in the sun, your appeals for dignity and humanity will fall on deaf ears.
“I want my daddy”
My father called me yesterday on his drive back home from work. We spent more than an hour talking about everything that had just happened; from Baton Rouge, to Falcon Heights to Dallas. In our own way (my father and I are not too great at sharing our feelings) we shared our frustration and anger. We shared our fears for what might happen next. At the moment I needed it most, I had my father’s voice in my ear.
It was therapy, in a way, to connect with my dad. But it was bittersweet therapy.
Cameron Starling will never talk to his father again. He’ll never have his dad there to help him pick a college, or argue about basketball or to teach him how to drive. I’ve watched the press conference for Alton Sterling over and over and over, and the sounds of his son sobbing and calling for his father will stay with me for a long time. I hope they stay with all of us.
For many black people there is a sense of fear and uncertainty that comes with any and every interaction with the law. A fear that any sudden movement or misstep may introduce a disproportionate and lethal reaction. Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote:
Black people are not above calling the police—but often we do so fully understanding that we are introducing an element that is unaccountable to us. We introduce the police into our communities, the way you might introduce a predator into the food chain.
Yesterday I downloaded an app that lets me livestream video from my phone to the internet with the click of a button. I figured that if I ever found myself in the shoes of Diamond Reynolds or Alton Sterling I’d want the “protection” of knowing that my assaulter’s words wouldn’t be the only ones to tell the story of what happened.
It was my attempt to cope with the uncertainty of being being black in this country. An effort to secure just a whiff of power in the face of an unaccountable and deadly force.
“You never know.”
Last thanksgiving I found a gun under the passenger seat of my uncle’s car. I remember sliding into the seat and feeling something hit the heel of my foot. I looked down and saw the black and silver molding of a handgun. It shocked me in the moment, and I must’ve stared at it longer than I realized because my uncle turned to me and sort of pointed with his eyes. “You never know,” he said.
Like my uncle, Philando Castile was a licensed gun owner simply exercising his constitutional right.
I texted my mom earlier today about the incident. I urged her to reach out to my uncle and tell him to make sure his gun was properly secured and that all his papers were in order. I could already see him being pulled over, the officer approaching his window and asking for his registration. I could see my uncle reaching in the direction of the glove compartment at the same moment the officer’s eye spotted the gun under the passenger seat…
You never know.