|image courtesy of Google|
It’s Sunday morning. I am sitting on the porch. Writing. Thinking. Meditating on this thing called “race.” All is quiet except for the birds chirping in the background. I like to think that I am a social activist of some sort. I like to think that through writing and teaching that I am making the world a better place. I think about the nuances of oppression and privilege because I’m sandwiched between the layers of these divergent worlds.
It’s been an intense thought-provoking last few weeks. I’ve had seven days of learning and sharing with other social justice activists and educators, so I’ve been playing with this thing called “race” trying to make sense out of something that has no biological basis but has serious social consequences. Race can be the difference between life and death. My brain feels like it’s been pulling double shifts. I am experiencing RBF (racial battle fatigue). But in order for me to process my learning, I must sit and try to make sense out of it.
I am involved in a group on Facebook and we discuss race. One of the members is a strong advocate for doing away with racial labels. He refuses to identify himself or anyone else by racial terms like “Black” or “white.” His mission is to transform conversations about race and eliminate inequality and discrimination by finding alternative terms for racial categories; I’m not there. I don’t know how we change a “thing” without naming the thing—in this case race. It is the foundation of inequality in this country and around the world. I don’t have an issue with race. Is it really a bad thing or our reaction to it?
On Friday, I am sitting in the Stony Island Arts Bank waiting to hear Samaria Rice, mother of Tamir Rice. Tamir was 12 when he was killed within two seconds of police officer Timothy Loehmann arriving on the scene. Tamir was playing with a pellet gun under a gazebo in Cleveland. I have no idea what Samaria is going to speak about. I just know that I want to hear whatever it is she has to say. I learn that Samaria is here to talk about her plans for the gazebo. Cleveland wanted to destroy it, but Samara fought to save it. With the help of Theaster Gates and others, the gazebo currently has a home in Chicago. The conversation tonight is on how best to use this object of terror to bring about healing.
Samaria is a short, stout woman with a quiet voice and an easy smile. I sit on the edge of my chair and lean in to hear her even though she wears a mike. I soak in every word despite sometimes getting tripped up on the grammar. My respectability politics hover as the misuse of words pop like gum—an annoying habit I detest—in my ears. I hear my sister correcting my grammar as a child, and white people marveling at my use of “ask” instead of “ax”. I fight to hear HER. I’m trapped between the layers of race and class.She is Tamir’s mother. And she is me. We are one and the same to White America. But that’s really not my problem is it? That’s what I remind myself of and it works to silence the voice of judgment and close the gap.
I sit in awe of this woman who fights in the midst of mourning. I think of her and so many others who have no time to grieve. They are too busy fighting for their loved ones dignity; for justice; for some semblance of peace. The story of the gazebo reminds of Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, another mother who had no time to grieve the loss of her only child. The state of Mississippi tried to make Mamie bury her son in Mississippi, so she had to sneak her son’s body out of the state. She had an open casket funeral so the world could see what his killers had done to her son. She dedicated her life to fighting for justice.
I sit wonder what it’s like to be in this club that you never signed up for—parents of murdered children. An audience member asks Samaria how she finds joy these days, and she smiles. She says being a mother and a grandmother brings her joy. Keeping Tamir’s memory alive brings her joy. I sit and think about her other children: her daughter who was there when Tamir was shot. Her other son. How do they live in the shadow of a brother who is larger in death than he was in life?
As I sit, my mind is flooded with images of domestic terrorism inflicted for no other reason than the color of their skin—the many ways Black bodies are mutilated and murdered by this thing—called race. I think about the horror of racism in America, and I think of the many ways that we die. My nephew is 20. He has a beautiful smile and an easy-going personality. He also has tattoos and it a source of tension between us. The more I talk to him about tattoos, the more he is determined to continue to mark up his body. But the truth is tatted or not, he is a young Black male and he cannot move through the world freely. So, I’m working to stop trying to make him more “respectable” by society’s standards by forcing him into a uniform of conformity. For Black folks, death doesn’t have to come with a big bang. We can be killed softly--mentally and spiritually. We can become zombies and not even know that we have died.
On Saturday, I go to the Steppenwolf Theater to see Pass Over, a play about the lives of two young Black men. The audience is predominantly white. The N-word is heavily peppered throughout. It is a wounded animal screeching in my ears. Though I don’t use the N-word, I hear it used by Black people all the time. And I think that if it is used at all, that’s the only place it should be. Uttered in the presence of non Blacks makes me queasy.
The play is an ode to the Black Lives Matter movement. The two characters, Moses and Fitch are homeless and spend their days on the street scouring for food and dreaming of ways to get off the block. Every day they take turns reciting what they’d do if they escaped: what they’d eat, drink and so on. But it’s a dead end for them. They live under the threat of violence every day. Gun violence at the hands of someone with internalized hatred who looks just like them and state sanctioned violence at the hands of the police.
I think back over the week. I think of Samaria Rice. I think of Passover. I think of the study that came out stating that Black girls are perceived as less innocent starting at age 5. I think about my niece and her friend who are physicians, and them sharing their racist sexist experiences in the field of medicine. Ever since she was a little girl, my niece said she wanted to be a doctor. She never said she wanted to be a female doctor or a Black doctor. She just wanted to be a doctor, and she did what she set out to do. But there are always those who just can’t wrap their mind around the fact that this young Black woman is a medical doctor. She’s the nurse, the housekeeper, the tech even though her white coat has her name with M. D. after it.
How do we deconstruct the social construct of race when it looms so large in our lives? It is a deity. We worship at the altar of race. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about being Black, but I move through the world as a Black woman and something envitably happens to remind me of the realness of race.
I love us. And too often I am frightened. And I am angry. There are days when I don’t know what to think say or do because of the state of race relations in this country. I wonder if things will ever get better. This week I am exhausted from so much thinking about race. Sometimes I don’t want to fight. I want to take the weight of race off my shoulders. I want to put my head down and pretend that I don’t see what I see. But I can’t do that. I have six great nieces and nephews. The future is for them, and they deserve the best that life has to offer. And so I flip through my phone and I look at their pictures, and I watch their videos and I renew my commitment to fight for them. I am hopeful that the realness of race that I feel becomes unreal for them.