Every time I pass a Black person on the street now, the encounter is charged with meaning. I look in their eyes and I feel myself saying things they cannot hear, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know, I didn’t look hard enough, I didn’t want to see, It’s too horrible, I don’t know what to do, Please don’t hate me, I’m sorry,” and sometimes they look at me back and all I hear is silence.
Three marches and a vigil, movies about race with my teenage daughter, podcasts, readings, newspaper articles. It took one man dying in a global pandemic for me to open up and see. Slavery did not end — it mutated into different forms. As an Equal Justice Initiative speaker said after a Juneteenth march, “Oppression didn’t end, it just rhymed,” finding other brutally creative expressions — aggression, repression, suppression, dispossession.
Mostly it’s white women who take pictures of my kids and me with our protest signs, but one time riding the Metro, a Black woman asked if she could snap one of the boys, who were holding onto the poles with their “Silence is Violence” and “End Police Brutality” signs. “You’re so cute,” she said as she held them in her phone’s eye, and “Thank you for your support,” and I felt like maybe this is going to work. This is a beginning.
I tell my African-American neighbor when she walks by one evening that I finally understand why she told people not to call the police on the kids loitering around the smoke shop because teens of color are usually targeted, and it becomes a way to round them up. Or why it would make sense to legalize marijuana and sex work because criminalizing them gives more reasons to lock people up when all they’re doing is trying to live, to cope.
Last week we were walking home from the grocery store, and I heard someone yelling. I turned around to see a Black man running towards us, holding something bright blue. He thrust it towards us, and I said, “Oh, thank you!” and to my son, “Mark, you forgot your umbrella!”
The man’s eyes are like those of a 9-year-old boy’s, and I say something trying to figure out what to do next, and he says, “I was panhandling outside the store,” and that was all I needed, so I fish around in my wallet and hand him a 5 dollar bill, and I look into his eyes, trying to erase everything I’d learned before and see him for him, and I say, “Thank you for your time,” and he takes it, looking down and says, “God bless you all,” and I feel dirty, like a Tammany Hall mayor, to live in a world where a grown man can tell you God bless you because you gave him a 5 dollar bill.
And I feel sick about my privilege, and I think I have to give away everything I own to make it better but even this would never make it right, and then I start to see how many people don’t feel this way, don’t feel this way at all, and in fact, feel the opposite, and I want to hide from this mess, to run away so I won’t be crushed by the massiveness of this hate, this despair, this rage, this disaster.
To be a child again, to go back to when I didn’t see any of this, before I noticed how some people were treated like animals, before I felt the dread, before I knew I was part of it, before I saw how it gouged deep canyons into our society, gorges so tall and steep, so rough and craggy you don’t dare to try to climb out.
But I cannot go back. I cannot curl up into a ball and roll back to a place where everything is smooth and soft. I must not let myself. It will never feel okay to be okay with this. And it’s okay not to feel okay. Humans are not meant to feel constant comfort and ease — we are meant to feel anguish and joy, grief and elation, struggle and triumph. We are not meant to collapse like roly-polies into little balls, winding into little gulleys until the scary guys go away.
“Black Lives Matter, huh?” an African-American man says to 6-year-old Diana, who is holding her hand-made sign as we all wait for the Metro shuttle bus in a patch of grass on Connecticut Avenue. Diana looks at him with her pug nose and brown eyes and nods.
He tells us he was at a Juneteenth march that morning, and I tell him about ours, and I feel weird about it because I feel so white and new, and on the bus, we realize he is good friends with my son’s middle school coach, and that his kids graduated from my daughters’ high school.
He mentions that he lives near the zoo, but on the other side of Rock Creek Park, which he said divides D.C. from rich and poor, white and Black, good schools and “bad” schools, and I say, I know. He went to the zoo so many times when he was little that he says he doesn’t want to go anymore — he’s all zoo-ed out, and I laugh and it feels good to laugh with him, and he tells us how he hears the lions roaring every morning, and how he wonders “if those bad boys will get out one day,” and I used to be afraid of lions escaping the zoo and jumping through my window too.
One time a few years ago I served jury duty with a group of Black and white people from all different neighborhoods over the city. By the end of the week and a half, we felt like a band of oddball cousins, eating lunch together, sharing boxes of doughnuts, and lending each other Metro cards. We cut each other slack when some of us were late, we knew each other’s quirks — Chelsea was addicted to chapstick, Rebecca packed avocado sandwiches, and Mattie stayed awake with Hot Tamales because she had quit coffee. We weren’t allowed to talk about the case, so we talked about everything else — how yellow dye #5 is made with toxic waste, whether selfies make noses look 30% wider, and why not to drink tequila in tattoo parlors.
I want to be in the room together. Not on opposite sides of the court. American life makes it so easy to separate. Thank you God for jury duty, post offices, public schools, protests, and city buses. Please help me find more ways to sit across a table and laugh about tattoos on butts and lions roaring in the morning. I want to be riding the same bus — not walking past each other on the street, exchanging cash, or looking at one another from opposite sides of the gorge.
Seek out people of color to learn from — yoga teachers, writers, academics, film-makers, meditation teachers. Don’t fall into easy grooves, limiting my circles to people who sound like me, think like me, look like me, and grew up with the same advantages as me. Remember how reaching out a hand feels better than sitting on it. Be brave, be kind, and know that you are capable of holding big terrible beautiful things.
This week I watched the documentary 13th with my 16-year-old daughter Virginia. I highly recommend this powerful film about how America has come to have 25% of the world’s prisoners even though it only makes up 5% of the global population. The title refers to the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that slavery is outlawed “except as the punishment for crime.” It’s now showing for free on Netflix and YouTube.