The Black Life in Question
I try to be eloquent with these things.
As a writer and someone who has spent their entire life loving and obsessing over the written word, eloquence is something of a point. But I have reached for eloquence for too long. I have searched for the perfect turn of phrase, the right antidote, or quip to perfectly distill this moment into a palatable and incredibly witty bite-sized chunk that will somehow solve everything while being nuanced and moving and liberating.
There is no such phrase or antidote or quip. There is just a prevailing and widening sense of helplessness, as I turn to my blank screen, stretch my fingers, and think- what is the point of all this?
As I write this, it has been one hundred and seventeen days since Breonna Taylor was killed in her home. And as time crawls by, her murderers remain free and her name enters rarified digital space, a meme so widely used it has become rote. On Instagram, a white girl pouts prettily on a beach and says “today would be a good day to arrest breona taylor’s murderers! :)” She has over fifty thousand likes. No one mentions how she’s misspelled Breonna’s name.
Watching the world react to the newest injustice leaves me feeling like Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors, or more aptly, Happy Death Day’s Tree Gelbman. In her time loop, she is stalked by a murderous psychopath, and every day, no matter how she tries to change it, ends with her death. Which is to say, every day since Breonna, since Oluwatoyin Salau, since George Floyd, Philando Castille, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, feels like death.
I am so, so tired of black death.
I have been black my entire life and though it has not been a particularly long life, it has been long enough for my blackness to be seen as a threat, a boon, a talking point, an invisibility cloak, a political statement, a joke. I am too light and too dark. I am well-spoken and inarticulate. I am too much. I am not enough. In every instance, in every case, however, I am. Alive, human.
But that too is in contention.
To assert that Black Lives Matter is to implicitly acknowledge the opposite. This is fine and necessary because it is the point of our protest; we say Black Lives Matter because historically, systemically, and in the present moment- they don’t. But as a black woman, who has always been black and alive and human, to say Black Lives Matter feels like a tiny violation, a small violence.
“Of course I matter,” I think. “I have always mattered,” I fume. “What foolishness it is, that the world needs to be reminded, needs to be coerced into agreement,” I rage. The politicization of our bodies is nothing new, but it is a special kind of hell, I think, to assert that you are a human being and for someone to retort: are you sure?
This is not going to be a galvanizing speech in which I urge you to take up arms and fight against our oppressors. Those speeches exist and are better than whatever this will be. This isn’t an impassioned plea to be seen by those who’d rather I didn’t exist. Those also exist, to varying levels of effectiveness and cringe. It will always be funny to me (a dark, ironic humor) how often our movements, our struggles, our calls to arms center the very oppressors we hope to lay low. This, too, I suppose, is by design. After all, who needs to hear us more than those who close their ears and pretend? When one asks another to stop shooting, the other is usually holding the gun.
But still. One cannot enter a #BLM tag on social media without also seeing Trump, white supremacists, Fox News. The dichotomy — Black Lives Matter. No, They Don’t — deepens. The pendulum swings.
No. This isn’t about you at all. It is entirely a selfish thing. I write, first and foremost, to understand. Words have always been how I make sense of the world and I have this prevailing idea that if I write enough, if I throw enough words at this feeling, it will crystalize, make sense, go away.
So the truth is this: I am no revolutionary. I will never lead a march or a protest, I will never be an organizer or a leader in the movement, I will never be a symbol for this cause. When my hypothetical future children ask me what I did during this moment, I will tell them that I stayed home and drank lots of water. I’ll tell them I did several face masks and read books that made me happy, took my breath away, pushed me to write more and more often. I’ll tell them that I journaled often, and they’ll know it’s because their mother is at her best when she’s processed the complexities of life on paper and they’ll know that must mean that she felt very many complex things. I’ll tell them that I signed many petitions and donated to as many funds that I could. I might add that I felt guilty for not doing more.
I write this because writing anything else feels like a transgression. Silliness feels illicit and I write about many silly things. I have tried several times in the last few months and I always come back to the chasm of helplessness, the refrain of “why, why, why?” To demand life in one hand and to fear the enjoyment of it in the other is a conundrum I do not feel worthy of. Breonna Taylor will never see her 27th birthday. Who am I in the face of that stark truth?
I think I hoped for absolution at the end of this, or at the very least an easy way to move forward. A perverse desire to pat myself on the back lingers. “I have written a thing!” the voice crows, “I have done the work!” But I’ve done nothing, really, and it is a truth that shames me as much as it angers me. “I shouldn’t have to do anything!” that same voice declares. It is the voice of a petulant child. It is how I feel anyway.
As these protests stretch on, as the petitions pile, as the world slides deeper into her chaos, I know this shame and this anger will not disappear but metastasize. I fear that it will leave something ugly in its wake. And I write this to acknowledge that fear and to push it into the light. My voice matters, even if no one will hear it. My life matters, even if half the world thinks it does not.
I don’t know how to end this except to say, I am human. I am alive. I am.
In spite of everything.