It’s the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the oldest known celebration of the end of slavery in the US. Meanwhile, a couple of days ago a white man walked into a historic Black church and shot nine of its members, including several clergy. Meanwhile, Black women, men, girls, and boys are still being arrested, attacked, and killed on the flimsiest of pretenses. Meanwhile, that white killer got 200 miles away before he was arrested and now awaits his trial by law. Things are better after slavery, right? Right? Undoubtedly so, but who cares? Each of us gets one life and we get it now. And now… now is an abomination.
I was thinking today that people like to say how far we’ve come from the past, but what distresses me is how much it still shapes our present. This country’s wealth is still built on the invisibilized labor and sacrifice of people who look a certain way*, people who are systematically denied the privileges offered to others, whether that denial comes from a police chokehold or a subpar education because you couldn’t afford to live in a better area because you couldn’t make enough money because you couldn’t get a better job because you didn’t have a good enough education because your parents couldn’t afford to live in a good area… (and education is not the only factor here). Too many Americans still do not know days without fear of violence and subsequent lack of recourse. When I think of the best anyone can hope for from life, the two things I wish for everyone on this planet, they come down to this: freedom from want, and the reasonable expectation that one’s efforts can lead to achieving one’s goals. Most everyone on the earth experiences some obstacles to these, but for some people, these obstacles are stacked — criss-crossed, double-stacked — in a way that is barely comprehensible except to those who’ve experienced it. And this is, has always been for me, ever since I was a very young child, the wrongest wrong I can imagine.
I call myself a person of color, a woman of color, and this identification gives me strength and community. But in the past couple of days I have been thinking again on the miserable limitations of this identification. I don’t know what it’s like to be Black in this world. I hear my friends’ stories, I read their words, but there is no substitute for that deep embodied knowledge, the making-instinctive of certain kinds of flinch. There are things that I understand more readily because I have lived with a white majority’s reactions to me, my family. There are things I am slower to disbelieve, because the other day, in a university town in northern California, someone rolled down his car window next to a member of my family and called out, “ching chong ching chong.” One doesn’t go through life as an outsider without a certain familiarity with ignorance, malice, undeserved hate. One shrugs it off, often, and perhaps one willfully insists upon seeing these as isolated incidents, but we know they are not. They are not. They are the foundation of this country that so many of us call our only home, no matter how much some others may wish we would go back where we came from. There are things that most people of color know, that many queer people know, that disabled people know. But we don’t all know them to the same degree. I’m worried about discrimination and perhaps humiliation; Black friends (and other friends of color, depending) need to worry about wrongful injury and death. It isn’t the same thing at all, except that it is, except that it isn’t.
I don’t really have anything else to say here, except that I still believe that speaking and writing are important. Silence (both forced and voluntary) helped build these problems; it will not tear them down. I have been taking a self-defense class and one of the things I’m learning is that, when faced with a threat, one doesn’t just hit and kick, one also yells. It amazes me how hard I find that, the should-be-straightforward yelling of NO! STOP! GET AWAY! It’s one of the first things we know how to do, straight out of our mothers’ bodies, and yet somehow as we grow older, we lose that. It takes practice to get it back.
And so I practice.
My friend Nikki and I got together yesterday for a calligraphy session. I lettered the top half; she did the bottom.
*I hate to use this clunky phrase but let’s be clear, depending on the situation, we are not only talking about Black Americans here.