May 26, 2020
I hesitated to share this post. It feels cheesy. It feels like my words don’t match my heart or my rage. And then I heard that another Black man was killed.
At least four Black lives taken by police made the national news during the month of May and we’re trending up from the 235 last year.
Ahmaud Arbery- jogging down the street
Breona Taylor- asleep in her bed
Sean Reed- on the street where I lived as a high schooler
And now, George Floyd- on the other side of the town I live in
I may not have the right words just yet, but for now, they are all I have.
I spent the summer after my first year of college in Virginia Beach. I lived just three blocks from the ocean. It wasn’t glamorous. I worked at Wendy’s most days, but the access to the water was wonderful. One of the most memorable moments of the summer was swimming in the ocean for the first time. Yes, I was in college before I swam in the ocean for the first time. Friends told me that I’d spend hours washing the sand out of my afro, but the way the waves carried my body made it worthwhile. As they came in, I would jump as high as I could, they would catch me, and then carry me back to shore with the strength of their tide. It was exhilarating. All of the laughter left my entire body weak.
Have you ever experienced that? The kind of laugh where you can’t stop yourself? It’s joyous and miserable. You want to stop- except maybe you don’t, but you couldn’t stop even if you wanted to? That’s what happened to me in the ocean that day. I was laughing so hard that I went from being carried by the waves to being knocked down by them. They began to come in faster and faster and I had less time to recover before the next waves came in. Soon I was sitting on the ocean floor barely able to stand and my laughter quickly turned to fear. I’ve visited the ocean and encountered other types of waves since that summer in Virginia.
News that the coronavirus was taking a greater toll on Black folks hit like a wave. Not the kind that carries me and not the kind that knocks me down. It was more like the wave that makes its way to the shore, packing a punch as a warning not to wade too far in. It was a constant, unwelcome companion. I’ve had the luxury of maintaining social distance- I can work from home, order groceries for delivery, and access other practices that minimize my prospects of getting sick. I know that my experience is not the norm for most Black folks. We are overrepresented in low income, high contact less celebrated essential worker roles. This is especially true for Black mothers who are disproportionately low income, head of household.
As if government’s willingness to reopen the economy at the expense of Black lives wasn't flagrant enough, consecutive weeks of live footage of Black death has left the month of May feeling like a tidal wave threatening to crush some of us.
These stories rode in like the waves that knocked me down during my first visit to the ocean. I have felt afraid and disoriented with no time to recover before the next one came in. Headlines usually use the adjective, “unarmed” to make the victim ‘respectable’, palatable, a reasonable object of human (read White) compassion. Respectability is subjective and relies on the pathology of one person (or group) to humanize another. I understand that it is a historic tool for survival, but it is problematic. And the fact is, police have proven time and time again that neither being unarmed nor being respectable is reason enough to dignify Black life.
It’s times like these that make working in higher education especially hard. We do a great job of facilitating discussions, healing circles, panels, campaigns, and programming, but we do a terrible job of making space for the full humanity of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of color) people in general- students, faculty, and especially staff. The thrill of stepping onto a campus to make change and seeing quick wins are exhilarating, but the waves rise up with force:
- Your race is salient when we want to check the box for our diversity audit.
- Your race matters when we need someone to handle a student of color who’s been the victim of a racial incident (and maybe if we want a mammy to nurse the White student involved).
- Your race is meaningful only when the institution says it’s meaningful.
Your race becomes a bargaining chip.
Higher education’s expectation of professionals of color to regard our racial identities as inconsequential to daily life or interactions until those identities can be leveraged in service to the institution is insufferable. I’ve been grateful that I only have to endure sporadic Zoom calls where people are silent about the prevalence of Black death all around us. It’s better than a full work week in the office.
I didn’t know Ahmaud, Breona, Sean, or George. I didn’t have to know them to grieve their stolen lives. All of the waves in the ocean are connected to one another. They don’t just exist in proximity to each other, but they are interwoven. Their stories are part of an archive of state-sanctioned Black death that is way too big and getting bigger by the month. These are not just historical realities. They are ever-present ones that video footage, degrees, good jobs, code switching abilities, and all the White friends in the world can’t save us from. To be Black in America is to be disposable.
Close the economy. It’s for the good of vulnerable populations.
Open the economy. It’s just Black people.
Ahmaud Arbery…. Why didn’t he just do what he was told.
Breona Taylor…. So much for valuing essential workers…
George Floyd….. Since when did forgery warrant a death sentence? I thought that was a white collar crime.
Today I’m sitting on the ocean floor and I know I'm not alone. Countless other people are protesting, contacting the 3rd precinct, and praying, walking, sleeping, mourning in their own ways. They aren't the only ones down here with me. God is here too and we'll all be here for however long it takes. I’m not hopeless and I’m not helpless, but I am mad as hell.
The waves will drive me back to my feet eventually. They will remind me of the joy and hope that can be found in their tide through the stories of ancestors, brothers, sisters, and siblings.
But it won't be today.