Living While Black – Even after the publication of Between the World and Me

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Several years ago, in 2016, after Philando Castile was murdered by police in St. Paul, Minnesota, I wrote an essay further inspired by Between the World and Me by Ta- Nehisi Coates. It was so raw, real, revealing too much of my gut that I opted not to put it here, out into the world. After George Floyd’s murder – ALSO in St. Paul – on this year’s Memorial Day, I’ve changed my mind:

When I read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates earlier this year, I didn’t write my thoughts about the book. No particular reason, I let it marinate and just didn’t write about it. He wrote the book as a letter to his son trying to help both of them process the murders of unarmed blacks at the hands of white police officers (and a so-called neighborhood watchman) in recent years and the subsequent acquittals of the officers and that said “watchman”. Last week after dealing with two murders by two cops in two different cities – one Southern, the other Midwestern – one and two days respectively, after the freaking Fourth of July, I pulled out my copy of the book and reread it again to recapture my thoughts. Maybe I didn’t think I would need to pen my reflections since the killing would probably just keep on going anyway.

And sure enough after I read it, more names have been added to the list of blacks killed by mostly white police officers since the book was published in 2015. It is a short and powerful book. Winner of the National Book Award. More than that, it provided the words we’ve been trying to pull together with these ongoing murders. It didn’t solve it, but he gave us words. Most of the time, they help everything. My thoughts on his book simply lead me to my own words.

(Since I don’t often curse in my posts, here’s a disclaimer: If profanity bothers you, don’t bother to read my post today.)

After addressing the Michael Brown situation, the one moment where Coates ‘s son seemed to have lost hope in the system and began to question the value our black lives in this country, Coates brought up the situation of a young man, Prince Jones, an unarmed Howard University senior, murdered in Prince George’s County, Maryland by a county police office back in 2000. The cop in that case, just as in Michael Brown’s, was also acquitted. I was floored by: 1) the fact that I had missed that news (without the advent of the vast social media we have now, perhaps it’s not so surprising), and 2) the fact that it happened. And I’m still floored. Same thing. Black guy minding his business, cop executes him, leaves the scene, and gets off with some administrative pay, desk duty, and his own bed to sleep in each night. As in many cases, he too left behind those to grieve his victim: a mother, children, friends, and host of other family members. Oh, now this cop was black, but still…

When will any of this shit stop?

The aforementioned Fourth of July date is actually a significant point. Alton Serling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana was doing his thing, selling his CDs on the street, something they said he normally did. The convenience store owner of the spot where he was selling his wares liked the guy. Had no problems with him. Never had. Then the cops get a call about a robbery. They see the black guy, take him down, and kill him. It’s on video. Then up near Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philando Castile is riding along in the car with his girlfriend and her four-year old daughter. The cafeteria manager of a Montessori school and his family had just gone grocery shopping. Cop sees the car, stops them, and claims they have a busted taillight. This guy asks Mr. Castile for his license and registration, the basic stuff. He even lets the officer know he’s a licensed gun carrier and that his gun is in the car. Mr. Castile BEGINS to comply with the officer’s request to retrieve the paperwork and my God, he gets shot in the arm. Four times! His girlfriend calmly records the incident. Incensed and frightened as she had to be, her aplomb is extraordinary. I watched that video, listening to her, listening to her child wailing in the background BEFORE she gets to the point to calm down her mother and I eventually wept for hours. So, what else were these men doing?

Nothing. Not a goddamned thing other than being free.

Just being fucking free! The day after the Fourth of July and we’re still questioning just what it really means for us. I mean black people. Yes, I’m praying for my country and I’m praying for this world, but Lord knows I am praying hard for my people. Every day we’re reminded that we’re minorities. Not just in terms of quantity, but also in significance.

Escalating violence

Even after the second murder, more happened the following night in Dallas. During a peaceful march to protest the latest events, five police officers were killed by a sniper. A black man who’d told the police during negotiations he wanted to kill white officers in protest against the actions of rogue cops. Needless to say, these events sharply escalated into an unforeseen realm. Shooting him didn’t work since he seemed to be armed with body armor and he continued to fire rounds and shoot officers at execution-style range. By then the cops got tired of talking. They introduced their latest weapon to the world: A bomb robot. A detonator. A new tactical item in the hands of an urban police department to take someone out and it’s just what they used to end the battle. A bomb robot. Jesus. And so this is where we are. It’s going back and forth and it’s time to stop. My head is swimming and right now, I’m worn out.

My father is a retired police captain. A black man who fought hard against the legal system back in the 1970s to rightfully earn his promotions in this former capital of the Confederacy, Richmond, Virginia. Since he retired, the city has seen six black police chiefs – a strong sense of pride is there from me for him and the others in that legal battle with him – and several black mayors (even before he retired), a black governor, and on a national scale, a black President of the United States.

Now, there is no progress in these promotions and positions if we can’t step out of our front doors daily without wondering if and when we’ll be stopped by a cop for any reason and shot for the sheer fucking sport of it all. It’s modern day lynching. The “our hearts are with the family” rhetoric isn’t enough. The vigils aren’t enough. Justice is needed, but it ain’t happening. There’s no accountability.

Who are being hired for these openings in police departments across the country? Folks who take the job just to get a gun and believe they can just shoot at anything and anybody and get away with it? Can they be vetted? Would it help? Nakia Jones, a black woman, police officer in Cleveland spoke passionately about the oath police take to protect and to serve. Who’s coming in through these academies without meaning it? This is scary. We are taught to believe they’ll protect us. We’re taught to respect them because they’re respecting our lives by protecting it. As a policeman’s daughter, I will still respect them. My family will still respect them. But I hate now knowing that I will also now question their integrity.

Years ago, early in our relationship, my husband told me of a time during his college days when he got into a scuffle that landed him in the D.C. lockup. His experience included brutality at the hands of the police while there. Being a policeman’s daughter, I had a hard time – when he told me – processing that something like that would happen in the late 20th century. But it did. And here we are in the 21st century, it’s still going on and getting profoundly worse. Needless to say, my Pollyanna ass has been schooled.

I was once pulled over in Maryland – Prince George’s County, as a matter of fact – for a tiny car infraction by a white police officer. A few years back. That was the first time a policeman ever scared the shit out of me. He was just so goddamned nasty. But, what did I do? “Yassuh”, “nosuh”, “thankyousuh”. Now – I will tell you, had a black officer pulled me over or even if this cop were much more pleasant and respectful, I would have said the same thing. Perhaps it’s the Southern thing. It’s how I address them. BUT in this case, that was of respect AND a sense of fear. If I blinked the wrong way, I felt he would have determined some reason to haul me in. He was just that fucking nasty. Instinct, man, pure fucking instinct. I promptly paid the fine online and left the matter behind me. I didn’t want to see him again nor a Maryland courtroom.

And during a press conference at the trauma center in Dallas, the gentleman, who treated the police and civilians wounded during the protests – the one with the bomb robot – there, was a black medical doctor. He STILL, with all his education and credentials, has to check himself when he is around the police, he said. He knows he won’t be seen as a man, that his credentials wouldn’t be considered; that he’s just seen as a black man. That insignificant minority. This is the culture we have. This is the culture were in. This is a part of my people’s culture and it’s a dammed shame.
Moving forward?

Getting back to Coates: He asked, “How do I live in this black body?” I’ll take it step further – how do we live in this black body? I’m a black woman. The murder of Sandra Bland reminded us that Death at the hands of the police sees Black. Man or woman? Not the issue.

How do we live in this black body? Coates was asking that to his son. I must ask that of my own son! I must ask it of my daughter too. I ask it of my husband and I must ask it of myself.

When I saw my son after these murders, believe you me, I held on to that young man like he was the little kid in my arms once more. For a good long time.

In addition to thinking that one answer to that question is that we continue to fight for justice against these crimes, I’m still trying to figure out the others. Doesn’t the U.S. Constitution apply to us all? Isn’t everybody entitled to a fair trial? Cops being acquitted after murdering the unarmed leave that question out there. And so does the officer doing the shooting as a means of operating as the judge, jury, and executioner in one fell swoop. I’m still trying to figure it out.

One of our local news anchors shared a story about a young black woman stopped by a local white police officer the day after Mr. Castile’s murder. She’s the daughter of a friend of his – the news anchor. The poor girl was reduced to tears even before he got to her car. This officer was extremely sympathetic, kind, and supportive. It was what she needed. It was the news we needed that day. What has happened to the frustration of seeing that flashing blue light behind you stem from the mere inconvenience of being stopped? What about the indignation you feel by being delayed getting where you have to go, for facing the fine you’ll have to pay along with the possibility of your insurance premium going up, and for dealing with the hassle and bustle of nerves for an upcoming trip to the judge to fight the ticket and asking for driving school? Man, that’s all gone now. It’s been replaced with the shame of having to fear for your life now if you get pulled over.

This shit is the new hanging tree and I’m tired. We black folks are tired.

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THIS is why Colin Kaepernick took a knee!

But – even after all the protests about that, the real matter at hand didn’t end. The murders at the hands of police continued. The list of names continued: Atatiana Jefferson (shot by police in her own home who walked in unexpectedly, without a warrant nor warning, while she was playing video games with her nephew – it was to be a wellness check since her front door was still inadvertently left open in the wee hours of the night), Breonna Taylor (a nurse, who’d been on the front lines of her local hospital helping COVID-19 patients, shot by police who went to the wrong house – hers – for a drug bust), Botham Jean (a young man sitting in his own apartment eating ice cream and shot by a white woman police officer who claimed she thought she was walking into her own home and that he was sitting in what she thought was her apartment – some things you just can’t make up no matter how hard you may try), and Ahmaud Arbury (who was murdered by a former policeman, who thought he was a robber, and took it upon himself to shoot the man in the back as he was simply fucking doing his jog in the former policeman’s neighborhood – nah, I’m not putting the murderers’ names here), and I grit my teeth together knowing there are more names that I’m missing here as I reach George Floyd.

Once America witnessed his murder, police brutality couldn’t be ignored. The sound of that man calling out to his deceased mother broke me more than I would have imagined. The officer thankfully has been charged. So can the brutality against our black bodies, as well as our minds and souls, stop right here now? Can we stop living in fear of ones who are sworn to protect and to serve my community, my neighbors, my family, me? I’m tired, man. I didn’t realize just how so until these past few years actually. We matter. My black brothers and sisters matter. Black Lives Matter. Period.

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8 thoughts on “Living While Black – Even after the publication of Between the World and Me

  1. Tonya, I was feeling blah today … Then I read this article. And I felt the energy pour back in. You express on different levels what I think and feel. I am sharing “Living While Black” with as many people as I can. Brilliant. Honest. Raw. Thank you!

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    1. Hi Nick!!! So awesome to hear from you! Thank you! I guess my head and heart couldn’t hold it in any longer. I hope you’re doing well 🙂

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  2. I read your post earlier this afternoon and have been thinking about it ever since. I can feel the frustration and weariness in your writing.

    We here in Canada have been hearing stories about white protesters vandalizing and destroying black neighbourhoods. Is this true? Are some people using the protests as a cover to destroy certain neighbourhoods?

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    1. Thanks for reading and reaching out. I greatly appreciate it. Yes, its true. There’s video footage, from some areas around the country and here in my hometown, of some white individuals taking part in the protests escalating them into destruction of businesses. In my hometown, many black protesters and some whites had also shared during live video they witnessed the acts of white individuals starting a fire and striking businesses, especially some frequented mostly by the black community. The vandalizing of longtime black-owned businesses in once a predominantly black community has also caused us tremendous grief.

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  3. Great job Tonya. I can sympathize with your need for colorful language at a time such as this. If not now when? I enjoyed the way you took us from the past to the present to the future with many perhaps realizing that we still have much to do. Keep writing, and expressing your feelings. I will support you in anyway I can. (Elizabeth your friend and mother in-law)

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