Words come easily for me. They always have. No matter what’s happening in my life, no matter how upset, furious, or forlorn I am, if I sit down in front of the computer or a sheet of blank paper, the words come. And there’s release in that flow of words, a siphoning off of pressure, of pent up emotion, that has comforted me since I was a young girl scribbling in my journal. This release of words makes gathering my thoughts possible. I can sharpen them into a point and then attack whatever’s ultimately upsetting me. Or I can turn them into a lullaby sweet enough to neutralize the chaos in my head and usher in blessed peace. But the last few weeks have been a struggle, y’all, and it’s been hard to find the words, to urge them out, to pin them to the page so I can start making some sense of everything that’s going on.
We watched another black man repeatedly tell police he couldn’t breathe right before he was murdered. This was after watching a black man out for an evening jog get brutally killed by white men who would have gone without punishment (and still might, ultimately) if not for sustained public outcry. Right after learning a black woman, sleeping in her own bed, was shot and killed in the middle of the night by police executing a faulty warrant. This is on top of a global pandemic that’s killing disproportionately more black people due to generations of purposefully poor healthcare infrastructure in our communities together with the racism inherent in the medical profession itself, as recently evidenced by a doctor (and elected official) asking in a public forum if black folks are getting infected at a higher rate because they just don’t wash their hands. Add to that a sprinkle of watching yet another privileged white woman call the cops on a man that had the audacity to bird watch while black in a public space. The hits just keep coming.
This last month has been trying as hell for us black folks. But, if we’re being real, it’s been a trying four centuries.
Being black in this country means constantly trying to square America’s promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with the horrors you experience in your daily life. You watch another black life taken in HD. The loss is sensationalized, and you can’t get away from it, leaving you feeling frustrated, furious, and helpless. You look at your children, and you wonder if things will ever get better, if they will know true equality in this so-called land of the free. Or will they still be learning the names of black men and women murdered by police and white vigilantes? Will they have to take to the streets, marching for justice that remains on the horizon, ever elusive? Will they be able to breathe? Or will the country keep a knee on their necks, slowly suffocating them as it has you?
As I poked at the stubborn words clustered in the back of my skull, trying to coax them out into the light where they could be of some use, I found myself wondering how we’re supposed to give our black children something we’ve never experienced ourselves: peace, freedom, true equality? What does that even feel like? What could it mean for their futures, their well being, if the color of their skin was no longer a liability? And how do we make sure it’s real, not the switcheroo that keeps being perpetrated on black communities from the end of the Civil War, to the crushing finale of Reconstruction, to the Civil Rights era? Two steps forward only to get shoved three steps back.
And yet, I feel hope. How can such a thing exist, in light of what’s happening? In light of what’s always happened?
There are folks marching in the streets, demanding change, accountability, and equal protection under the law. Not just the same tired lip service, but actual equality. An end to racist institutions. A true reckoning such as this country has never seen, not even when soldiers took up arms against their former fellow countrymen over the abolition of slavery.
This is different. I can feel it.
But that doesn’t mean a happy ending is waiting at the end of this nightmarish 400 year long fairy tale. It just means there’s more work to be done.
For those of us working in the advocacy and political space, the amplification of this moment feels like a resuscitation, smelling salts broken beneath our noses that get us even more focused on the path forward and the critical work ahead. We knew racism was the binding agent undergirding every aspect of American society, but it’s in sharper relief now, more visible and undeniable. Unaffected folks are suddenly seeing it — really seeing it — for the first time. Given the work I do, I find myself almost compelled to believe this will make some difference. I cup the flickering flame of hope in my hands, protecting it against high winds that would snuff it out for good.
In retrospect, maybe the words weren’t the stubborn part of this operation after all. Maybe it was me all along, burying myself into the work I find so important, the work I believe could deliver some of these sorely needed changes. Because my response to stress and turmoil has always been to keep busy, to run hard and fast, to collapse into bed at the end of the night, exhausted and unable to think of anything besides blessed sleep. Because the reality of what this country has been and currently is for black folks will crush us if we don’t keep moving, working, hustling, and pushing for change. To stop, even for a moment, is to risk obliteration beneath the weight of centuries of people, policies, and precedent, all working together to make sure anyone that looks like us never succeeds.
So I’m going to keep running in the direction of what I hope waits for us on the horizon. I’m going to keep taking this frustration, anger, sadness, and helplessness and turn it into something useful: words, actions, plans, policies. All the while, I’m going to keep Maya Angelou’s words at the front of my mind.
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
And I’m going to rise. We all are.