You’re sitting in a drab airport terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare, surrounded by dozens of white travelers. Pay these faces no mind. This is a scenario you’re used to; a feeling of isolation you resent, but one you’ve accepted as normal. Focus instead on the 60-something-year-old Black woman searching for a seat some rows ahead of you. Her body is wrapped in a large, colorful scarf, and her loose, gray curls bob gently as she sits. You notice the way she instantly scans the room, as if situating herself in the rarity of her skin. This is a routine you share.
You watch as the kind-faced woman takes out her phone and begins to scroll. You assume it’s the news, maybe social media. A long minute passes, and you see her lift a hand to her face, colored with shock. She haphazardly drops the phone to her lap, shakes her head repeatedly and begins to cry. You watch her keenly as she swings back and forth, looking unsure of what to do. The room starts to shrink. You hear that voice in your head again. Look away. This woman doesn’t need your prying eyes. Try not to listen to it.
You think you know why she’s crying. You can read it in her body language – it’s in her aura, in the crinkling of her eyes and nose. You cried too just 15 minutes before. You believe she’s just seen the news of Alton Sterling, the man of 37 from Baton Rouge who was gunned down by the police in front of a convenience store for selling bootleg CDs.
The story is growing, though it’s not yet on the televisions projecting CNN loudly from the corners of the room. You wonder if she’s seen the video – Alton, face-down on the ground, peaceful, hands bound, shot twice in the back, with the full weight of two officers still on his body. You wonder how anyone can see this as anything but a public execution. You wonder how long it will be before the video haunts your dreams.
The woman looks up suddenly and meets your gaze, as if she’d felt your empathy reaching across the room. It catches you by surprise. Don’t look away; you’re committed now. Maybe she needs you. Maybe you need her. Either way, it’s just the two of you.
You give her a nervous smile, the sort that vocalizes pain more than pleasure. She smiles back and offers a nod. The nod that’s always been more than a nod. It’s cultural communication. Black telepathy. It holds the weight of a history shared, a present barely survived, and a future uncertain. You see in the woman’s eyes the likeness of your 92-year-old grandmother, Lula Mae Williams, out in West Harlem. You fight the urge to cry again, pushing back the tears that creep from your throat. Just close your eyes. Imagine Grandma Williams whispering to you over a plate of collard greens, mac and cheese, and honey ham. Let go of that weight, child. Let me share this burden with you. We will not make it alone.
You give her a nervous smile, the sort that vocalizes pain more than pleasure. She smiles back and offers a nod. The nod that’s always been more than a nod. It’s cultural communication. Black telepathy.
Fifteen minutes pass, and you’re still waiting for your flight to Washington, DC to board. A group of Black youth enter the terminal. You can’t help but notice how calm they are – quiet, almost sullen. Like the woman, the children’s energy adds weight to the room. Have they heard the news? You assume they have, and you wonder what that does to a crowd like theirs. They are a youth group, presumably middle schoolers or new high schoolers. You read the front of their hoodies: Baltimore, the city where Freddie Gray was struck a fatal blow, then tossed like loose change, unfastened, into the back of a police van. Baltimore, the streets that helped birth a new renaissance of consciousness.
You continue watching. The children’s interactions are more interesting than the boring book in your lap about sales and business consulting, an assignment from your boss. Your job isn’t capturing your attention like it used to – few things do anymore, that is, except for the crying woman and the children from Baltimore and all these broken Black bodies in the streets. You had told your partner before you left, It feels like the tides are shifting, referring to yourself.
After a few minutes, the children’s youth wins out. They bring themselves to laughter, sharing hip-hop music, elementary hand games and turkey sandwiches. You take it all in, transfixed. When was the last time you smiled like that? Don’t answer the question; you already know the answer. Still, you find solace in their levity.
The group’s leader, a young woman, slouches in her chair in a corner nearby. She looks tired, reminds you of yourself. She never moves. She doesn’t show much emotion either. She just sits quietly and watches as her students pass the time.
* * *
The next day, you’ll be in Washington, DC for the first time on a business trip for nonprofit consulting. It will be the seventh day of July, 2016. You’ll finish a breakfast of coffee, yogurt, fruit and oats with Laurie, your manager, at a nearby café off L Street. You are prepping for a three-hour presentation later that afternoon for an organization focused on childhood hunger. Laurie asks you how you feel. Shit. The question seems like a trap, not because her intent is crooked, but because you can’t imagine mustering a response so soon after learning about Alton in that dull airport terminal. It’s been less than 24 hours.
Laurie is a slender mother of four with kind eyes and dirty-blonde hair that hangs in a bell-shaped bob. She is a brilliant mind, a calm, steady force. She’s unlike those other consultants you’ve met – the outward types, boisterous almost to a fault. They’re slick with words, but you never entirely trust their resolve. Laurie’s relaxed and focused demeanor, though, has always given you the impression that she genuinely cares.
Your instinct is to tell her that you’re angry. Fight it. Don’t speak the truth. There’s too much nuance there. Don’t admit that the apathy that radiates from even the kindest, most thoughtful white folks makes you recoil. Don’t confess that you feel alone in a small company that claims it value relationships. Don’t concede that even with your “light-skinned” complexion and professional dress, white people still cross the street as you near; white women still clutch their purses and hug the walls as you pass, creating as much distance as they can between themselves and your towering, frightening frame. And that’s with all your privilege.
She won’t understand that you’ve been angry for so long that you hardly notice it anymore. That to let it in – to sincerely feel anger – you have to go someplace dark, someplace that leaves a mark. She won’t understand that last year’s wounds are still sensitive to the touch. Someday, the anger will again boil over, but for now, all you feel is sadness, jadedness. You’re tired, and not just emotionally. As you sit here eating breakfast, you feel anxious given the futility of her seemingly harmless question. You feel the fatigue in your shoulders like knots. The exhaustion is physical, like the heaviness of a body swollen with excess fluid. A dull, lingering discomfort.
“There just isn’t enough time to feel it all,” you tell her. “Sometimes, I wish I didn’t have to.”
Laurie well knows she can’t truly comprehend your experience, and she spares you the guilt-laden instinct to try. Thank you. Instead, she affirms that she’s around to support, and she grants you the opportunity to skip out on the afternoon session. You are grateful – it’s the first time anyone’s recognized your people’s grief as physical – but you decline. You’ve worked too hard not to participate. Besides, it never gets easier; you’re used to living with the dichotomy of worldly expectation and Black pain.
It won’t be until an hour later after your delivery prep work is done, that you begin to feel the vibrations in your pocket. You try not to jump to fateful conclusions. As you wrap up breakfast and gather yourself to leave back for the hotel, you feel your phone repeatedly go off. Already on edge, you grow worried. You cut the conversation short, excuse yourself and head back to the hotel just two blocks away. You decide to wait until you’re in the privacy of your room before you look at your phone. Hard as you try, it’s impossible not to assume the worst, and you fear others seeing you react. The airport yesterday was just the latest affirmation that you don’t always have the luxury of choosing where and how to grieve. These things happen so often you’ve had to learn the art of grieving in public. Just hold on. Take the extra few steps. Don’t let anyone else be a witness to your pain today.
In the hotel room, you drop the brown leather briefcase your mother gave you for your birthday all those years ago and quickly pull out your phone. You see messages from your friends and partner in Chicago and listen to the voicemails from your mom and sisters in Minneapolis. Courtney, Jessica, Charlotte, Krystal, Amelia, Gary, Kyle, Chris – they are concerned for you, wonder if you’ve heard the latest news. “Oh my God, are you alright?,” they ask, urgently. “It happened again.”
You assume they’re only now hearing the news of Alton Sterling. Maybe news travels faster in airports? But you’re wrong. It did happen again.
You sit on your too-large hotel room bed and read about a man named Philando Castile, killed the night before, sometime after your arrival in Washington. He is from the Twin Cities, in your home state of Minnesota. Philando was driving a car with his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, and her four-year-old daughter when he was pulled over in Falcon Heights, Minnesota – a suburb of St. Paul. Philando tells the officer about the legal firearm in his possession, and reaches for his license, as the officer had instructed. The officer, apparently afraid, subsequently shot at the 32-year-old man seven times while he was still buckled in the driver’s seat. Like with Alton, there’s a video. Don’t watch it. You know you can only take so much more.
You watch it anyway. You feel resentment, and you want to pile on the pain, though you’re only harming yourself. The video chokes you of your breath. It captures the shooting’s immediate aftermath, recorded by Philando’s girlfriend who later testified that she recorded because she, too, feared for her life. Philando is slouched over, moaning, eyes teetering on consciousness, blood spreading down one side of his body. He is still alive, but the life escapes him before your eyes – unable to speak, unable to move as if temporarily trapped in his fading mind. The girlfriend’s four-year-old daughter, silent, witnesses the whole scene from the back seat.
Time stops. You find yourself standing in front of the room’s big curtain-glass window, looking out on the busy city, bodies dodging each other in the morning-hour intersections. This is the second time in 24 hours that you’ve watched the shooting of a Black man on social media. Every glance through Facebook might deliver yet another viral video or photo of a Black body shot or choked or beaten. Like Mike Brown’s dead body lying face-down for eight hours in the 80° Missouri heat. Or Laquan McDonald, shot 16 times on the streets of Chicago, each bullet lodged wafting a small puff of smoke from the boy’s still body. Or Sandra Bland stopped and abused by police for a minor traffic violation, later found dead in her cell. Walter Scott, shot eight times in the back while running in the other direction. Eric Garner choked to death after being tackled by four police officers for selling loose-leaf cigarettes outside of a convenience store in Staten Island. His cry, “I can’t breathe,” flips a switch in you that can never be switched back. Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, killed in seconds on a Cleveland playground for playing with his toy gun. Eric Harris shot in the back by a 73-year-old officer in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “I’m losing my breath,” Harris yells. “Fuck your breath!,” an officer responds. A rare moment of American honesty. Fuck your breath.
The bitter defeat in it all is that the frequency of these killings has expedited your grief.
The bitter defeat in it all is that the frequency of these killings has expedited your grief. No, that’s not the right word. The deaths have piled up the grief – one after another – so that each gets buried beneath the next. One of these days, you expect the pressure to collapse inward like a house of cards. As you told Laurie not more than an hour ago, there just isn’t enough time to feel it all.
This trip is the first of many to your country’s capital, and all you can think about is how little you feel a part of it. You feel the tears coming. Wait, slow down. Don’t let it all in at once.
It’s too late. Your lungs heave for air, and your knees buckle beneath your slender frame, suddenly feeling double its mass. You collapse to the floor, seated in a fetal position, and feel neither strength nor will to get back up. You lay your head against the bed and continue to look out of the large window to the street. You’ve never felt it so difficult to breathe before. Perhaps this is the emotional collapse you have so long feared?
Forget it. Take it in, all of it. There’s no denying this; there’s no shorting it. It is and always will be a part of you. The only unknown is who will be next. Fuck your breath.
Another Black man killed, this time only miles from your childhood home in Minneapolis, minutes from the evergreen corners where you rode your bike to Lake Harriet to swim. Those wide boulevards where you walked your dog, studied, played basketball.
And where are the children from Baltimore today? The ones you saw at the airport. Are they back home? Are they among their friends? Are they finally broken? Has their time come to linger perpetually in pain, to feel the full burden of their being? Or will they find some way to smile still? To laugh and play hand games?
Two hours will pass before you bargain the strength to rise to your feet. You wipe clean your puffy, bloodshot eyes, and prepare once more for your afternoon of business. You feel anywhere but present. On the way, you ask yourself again and again, Are you safe? Were you ever safe?
You’ll recall the words of your dear friend, Kyle, from a year past, following the death of Eric Garner. “The other day, I was outside of my house, and I saw an injured bird pinched in the windshield wipers of a car parked on the street,” he said. “I wanted to help it out. But I froze because I was scared it might look like I was trying to break into the car. I got insecure that a neighbor would see me and assume wrong, or that a cop car would drive down the street and catch me.” You noticed his choice of words. “Catch me,” he said, as if aiding a helpless creature was a crime for a Black boy.
“I kept telling myself that I might not make it out alive, that I could be shot and killed for trying to help out a bird.” He paused for a moment, and we inhaled the gravity of the thought.
“It was a bird, man. A fucking bird.”
* * *
“Flight UA 3969 from Chicago O’Hare Airport to Washington, DC Reagan Airport will begin boarding in 10 minutes” announces the clerk with energetic eyes from behind the gate booth, “I repeat, 10 minutes.”
You scan the crowded airport terminal a second time, and begin to reassess the white faces all around you. You forgot they’ve been here all along. You notice the youth group as they prepare their bags for boarding. You see the older Black woman in the colorful scarf who still glances your way on occasion. In their presence, you feel safe, blanketed by warm, jaded energy. The rest of the terminal, though, feels cold. You feel like the minority that you are, and your smile and posture fades. You’re empowered by the silent vibrations of a people but disheartened by its loss on the rest of the room. You, the woman and the children grapple with what others cannot see, much less feel. It’s as if you live in separate worlds. You don’t know what they’re thinking, the many white faces surrounding you. Perhaps they hurt, too, like your white mother. All you know is that you’ve stopped waiting for them to make any of these feelings known.
At last, you board the plane. You are among the first to sit. You lay back your leaden head and watch as Baltimore’s youth board the flight, one by one. You look each young man and woman in the eyes with a piercing intention as they pass, and many accept your gaze. The young boy, with his iPod and pretzels. The girl behind him, long braids draping her back and a backpack across her stomach. And the tall young woman trailing her, whose temperament is quiet, sturdy, like yours. She’s singing something. Listen closely. It’s a gospel melody. She sings it calmly beneath her voice, and you listen keenly as she passes.
Somewhere in the suburbs of St. Paul, Philando leaves his job at J.J. Hill Montessori School and picks up his girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter for dinner. He does not know the day will outlive him.
* * *
It’s late when you arrive back in Chicago, and the summer air is crisp. The therapeutic piece you wrote on the plane yesterday about Alton Sterling has gone viral. Already you had to revise it, adding Philando’s name to the list of fallen bodies. You’re uncomfortable with the attention you’re receiving on the backs of your fallen brothers; you just wanted a place to vent. It seems others may have found comfort in your words, though. The idea is ironic, but you understand. For a long time now, writing has been your sanctuary. The only other sanctuary is the one you’re approaching. Home. It’s been a long two days in DC, perhaps the two longest days of your life. You’re just happy to be back to your partner, Courtney, and Franklin, your pup.
Your world is scented of all things earthly and natural. Courtney’s hair, her plants, the oils that cook your food and maintain your bodies. Your home is composed of the rhythmic cadences of jazz, hip-hop and soul music. And podcasts, the gentle orations of men and women who crack open your world to possibilities never before conceived.
Your mornings are saturated with westward sunlight and hot cups of Scandinavian coffee or Ugandan black tea with almond milk and honey. Courtney is the epicenter of this world. You revel in the sweet musk of her body, and the elegance with which she carries her womanhood. She is most beautiful when she makes home in her skin, embraces the depth of her scars. She has many, like you. Some of them you share.
When you enter the front door, you’re reminded of the pleasures this part of your world possesses. Instantly, you’re greeted by Franklin, who buries his head into your legs, tail wagging with remembrance. The house is warm, both in temperature and light, and it smells of brown rice and lemon. Take it all in; this place is different. It is safe.
You remove your briefcase and your shoes in the hallway and quickly join Courtney on the couch. She’s reading. You lean over for a kiss and feel the heat of her face. She is the same hue as you, though the careful eye will see the difference in your tones. Hers is brighter, like caramel, glistening in oils of jojoba and coconut. Yours is warmer, like chocolate infused with milk. You ask her about her day, wondering if maybe she’ll find something but the painful and apparent to speak on.
“It was tough,” she said. “Quiet.”
You quickly surrender to your body’s urgency for horizontality and sprawl next to her on the couch. As you rest your head on her lap, her fingers begin delicately finding their way through the tight, thinning curls on your head. Content, you close your eyes and try to refuel your depleted body with the comforts of asylum. For a while, no words are spoken; none are needed. All is implied, and she knows you’re not yet ready to answer questions about your trip.
But the tone changes and you sense it. You nudge your head in her direction, acknowledging her weight; as if to say, what’s wrong? She’s learned to break apart the silence in your voice.
“Our love is so fragile,” she says. Her pain is visceral. You sit up and look into her eyes.
“What do you mean?” you reply. Once again your instinct is venomous in its self-direction. You can feel a history of self-consciousness begin to repeat itself. You question yourself for any wrong-doing. Nothing comes to mind.
She breathes deeply and stutters over her words. “Sometimes when you leave, I wonder if you’ll ever come home. I’m afraid you’ll be killed.”
“Sometimes when you leave, I wonder if you’ll ever come home. I’m afraid you’ll be killed.”
You look into her eyes, welling with tears, and refuse to tell her everything will be all right. You no longer recognize this as your truth. Instead, you sit up, and you embrace her. As the room quiets, you begin to hum a gospel melody calmly beneath your breath.
Listen closely. These are the sounds of a genocide.