Tonight I read as part of the Big Words, Etc. series. It was my first time participating. The night’s theme was “expectations.” Here’s what I read:
In her Ramadan journal, my friend Serena blogged about the silence of my sadness in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I am both: sad and silent. I haven’t cried, haven’t rallied, haven’t ranted. Haven’t done any of the things I usually do in these moments.
And that’s part of my silence, isn’t it? That I can say, “any of the things I usually do,” that I have ached through enough of these moments that I actually have an expected pattern of response.
I can come here and do things I can maybe be expected to do — wear a hoodie, wear a picture of this fallen boy on my shirt. I can come here and say the thing I can maybe be expected to say — “I am Trayvon Martin.” — or I can say what is actually true: I am not Trayvon Martin. I am more likely to be Eleanor Bumpers, or Yvonne Smallwood, or Marissa Alexander. I’m more likely to be one of the almost 65,000 African American women none of us have ever heard of who currently make up 40% of the FBI’s National Center for Missing Persons list.
After the acquittal of Sean Bell’s murderers, I went online, [came to this blog] to pick and poke at my sorrow and anger. It helped and didn’t help. I needed the time and space to vent, to grieve, but shouting into the void is never more than a temporary salve. I wanted something to do — wanted to see that something I could do — would mean I wouldn’t have to go to another march for another unarmed black man. And here we are. Again.
I can maybe be expected to say I’m angry, hurt, disgusted terrified, disheartened, sickened, devastated, lost … And those things are all true, but what is more true is that I’m tired. To the marrow of my bones. Tired of this reality, tired of being expected to make change when I didn’t make the problem in the first damn place. Tired. Beat, as James Baldwin wrote, to my socks.
I started writing four different pieces to get ready for tonight. One of them was, I hope, funny. One of them was a piece of the memoir I’m working on. One was a revision of a story I wrote last fall. One was about my hair and all the things I think and feel when people ask to touch it.
But then that verdict came down and all my words were gone.
I spent this past weekend in Rhode Island with women who love me, who asked nothing of me, who hugged me, who made me laugh, who brought me back to myself … at least a little. But, as of 1:00 this morning, I still had nothing written, still had no idea how to pull any coherent thought from the swirling mass of defeated, painful anger that’s been choking me the last ten days.
Of course, the only thing to do about a writing block is to write. So I am standing here with these disjointed and rambling thoughts that cling only to the through lines of my pain and my increasing inability to comprehend how it is that I live here, in this place where every day I am reminded in large and small ways how little my life means to the wider society, how vehemently I am unwanted.
Does that sound harsh? If so, I wonder what other message you think I should take from incident after incident after incident. From acquittal after acquittal after acquittal. In my head, there’s a voice saying that for every 5,000 Medgars, there’s only one Byron De La Beckwith … and it took three decades to bring him to justice. And that voice is followed by Zack de la Rocha’s reminding me: “Three million gone … ‘Cause you know they’re counting backward to zero.”
It’s not just this case, of course. But it is just this case, too. This was the case that had to go the right way, that no jury could possibly see in a way different than the way I see it. This was so clear, so obvious, so irrefutable. Until it wasn’t, and except that I’m not actually that naive … except that I obviously am.
It’s not just this case. Of course. Because it isn’t just the senseless killings. It’s the slow drumbeat of dread, distrust, and distaste, of dehumanization, disenfranchisement, and dismissal, that make it possible for there to be so many senseless killings answered by so little outrage. It’s living for seven years in the same apartment in Cobble Hill and having my neighbors walk a little faster and clutch their bags a little tighter as I followed them up the stairs to the front door of our building. It’s every cab that has never stopped for me. It’s the landlord who didn’t want to show me his apartment when he realized that the woman who’d “sounded white” on the phone was really me. It’s listening to the surgeon at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope talk down to my Harvard-educated aunt as he explained why sterilizing me was the best care option even though he had no idea what had brought me into his ER. It’s a million intentional denials and erasures, a million casual and unconscious cuts.
At almost 51, I was alive but much too young for many Civil Rights milestones. The marches, the police dogs, the freedom rides, the fire hoses, the lynchings, the assassinations. All were real in my childhood. My parents were quiet activists. The news came into our house over dinner every night. Not the worst bits, not the ugliest, the kids-are-too-young-to-hear-this bits. But enough awareness seeped in that I wouldn’t join the Girl Scouts because I refused to be called a Brownie.
Nothing that is happening now is new or news to me. But my inability to breathe, to think, to access my response in a productive way — my impotence — frustrates me.
Maybe I’m not ready, yet, to break my silence completely. Maybe I’m still too angry, still too sad. Maybe I’m just afraid to open the well of pain that I’m always and always plastering over, afraid of the thick sludge that will boil up and out. But then I hear de la Rocha’s voice on another lyric, “Anger is a gift.” And I believe that, want to harness it, still want something to do — still want to believe that something I can do — could mean there won’t be another march for another unarmed black man. And getting to that place seems to require the fully unpacked expression of my anger. And what happens when that door is opened?