violence

The overwhelming sound of silence

“Did you see it???? The video?” My husband asked, in a voice that conveyed both shock and disbelief. Without having to ask which video, I instinctively knew that he was referring to the video of the police killing of Alton Sterling.

I nodded slowly. I saw it first thing this morning as I looked at Facebook on my iPhone.

What I didn’t share with him was that, after watching it, I proceeded to cry silently in the bathroom for several minutes. Silent tears of anger and of rage. Silent tears of hopelessness. Silent tears of shame for feeling shocked and numb and scared--all at the same time.

And silence is what strikes me most as I reflect on this latest news from Baton Rouge.

Alton Sterling is the 558th person to be killed by police this year. He is the 135th black person to be killed. There are so many names and faces that I often have trouble keeping track of all of them. It’s easy to tune out if I want to. Another day passes and another black person is killed. Every 28 hours. It is an ongoing, seemingly endless cycle.

Police shooting of unarmed, black person. Outrage and cries for justice. Justice never comes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sometimes the deaths hit me like a ton of bricks and I find myself not sleeping well. My mind races for days and I’m afraid that I cannot walk down the street without fearing for my safety from those who are supposed to protect it. Other days, I feel numb and they just strike me as yet another headline in a barrage of information I receive as I scroll through my social media feeds. It is the latter that feels the most unsettling to me. The inner silence I experience when everything in my brain screams that I should be outraged but my soul is too weary to feel anything other than a lack of surprise and indifference. 

Silence.

Just like my tears went unheard this morning, it is clear that so too do Black people’s collective cries for justice. Society is so comfortable, so very content with black bodies being abused, beaten and killed in the public eye that it seems like yelling “Black Lives Matter” until we are hoarse does absolutely no good. We rant. We rage. We roar. Even though we remain unheard and change does not come, we continue to shout. But the response is only silence.

Silence.

Like my tears and our collective cries, there is silence on the part of most of the white people that I know. And while that in itself is also not surprising, sometimes I experience that silence, in particular, as deafening.

Silent white people are on my Facebook feed--some of whom I’ve known for several decades. The same people white people who use Facebook to comment on literally everything and everything from their dog’s latest grooming appointment to what they’ve purchased at Walmart to what they are eating for dinner. Somehow they seem unable or unwilling to use their platform to let me know that they even remotely care about my life or the lives of the people who look like me. Silent white people--some of whom are my family members. Silent white people-- many of whom I know are in interracial relationships and raising black and brown children.  They remain silent about Trump, silent about race and racism, silent about what is clearly an epidemic in this country.

Silence.

My office is silent today, too. Silent because there are many people who are out of the office but also because the few people of color with whom I work and with whom I would normally find community and comfort during a time like this are all traveling. This kind of silence is especially painful. My professional career for the last 14 years has consisted of navigating my black womanhood in predominately white settings. That has lead to years of stress and anxiety. And in the midst of global anti-blackness and a war on black people in this country, connection with other black people and other people of color, today of all days, feels not like a luxury but a necessity. In the silence, I am reminded how often much I crave interactions with those who look like me and that our joy is a radical form of self-care and an integral part of our emotional emancipation. Since we can’t seem to be free physically, we can at least be free in our minds. But since I’m the “only” in the office at this moment, I don’t get to feel connected or feel black joy or feel emotionally free today. I just feel silent, only accompanied by the thoughts racing in my mind.

Silence.

Silence fills my ears, my heart, my mind and soul.

Until today, I’d never really thought of silence as having a sound. But as it turns out, it does. According to science, silence is actually noisy. In silence, our brains create noise to fill it and that activity can manifest in sounds like ringing, humming, buzzing, even resulting in hallucinations and psychosis—imagining things that aren’t there.

So since my mind is creating much noise to fill in the silence today, I’m going to voluntarily imagine some things that aren’t real but that I wish to will into existence.

I’m imagining that Alton Sterling is at home with his children and his family. The same goes for the other 135 black people killed this year by police and for all the victims of police violence.

I’m imagining that instead of being bombarded with stories and images of unarmed, black people being killed by police I’m bombarded with stories and images unabashed, unapologetic black joy.  

I’m envisioning all the amazing, innovative and revolutionary contributions that we black people make to the world and that we are thriving in our homes, communities, families, schools, churches, workplaces--any place else we are and wish to be.

 I’m imagining that the silent white people I know will find it no longer acceptable to be silent about the fact that black lives matter. That they will find their voices to boldly proclaim that racism is a shameful part of our country that needs to be eradicated at personal, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels and that they will work toward it.

 I’m envisioning that everyday I will have connection and community with other black people and that together we embrace all of our resilience in the face of pain and laugh till our faces hurt, share stories and cry tears of joy.

 I’m imagining a world in which all black people can be free.

Finally, I’m not imagining, but instead speaking into existence that the sounds of silence around black lives will no longer be heard as silence. That instead they become the roaring, deafening sounds of action, justice and love.

Ode to the Unnamed Black Girl in the South Carolina Classroom

*This piece was inspired by the final courtroom monologue given by Matthew McConaughey's character from the movie "A Time to Kill."

I want to tell you a story.

I'm going to ask you to close your eyes while I tell you this story.

I want you to listen to me.

I want you to listen to yourselves.

This is a story about a teenage girl sitting in class one afternoon in the fall at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. She is Black. I want you to picture this teenage girl. You don’t her name. You can't see her face. But you can imagine she’s like many teenage girls these days. Sitting in class, she may be daydreaming about hanging out with her friends. Maybe she's thinking about who she will message via Snapchat later that afternoon. She could be mentally reciting lyrics to her favorite song or thinking about what she wants to be when she grows up.

The School Resource Officer is called into her classroom. He begins to yell violently at her.

She’s sitting still when suddenly he races up to her chair. He grabs her. He wraps an arm around her neck then viciously pulls her from her leg violently causing her to jerk up out of her seat. The desk overturns. She lands on her back with the desk on top of her--body splayed out in the air, tangled in a mess of limbs and chair legs. He drags her several inches across the classroom floor, using both hands to pull her by an arm and a leg.  He makes his way, still dragging her like a wild animal attacking its prey, to the front of the classroom. He has turned her over onto her stomach and is leaning into her back and grabbing her arms to pull them behind her. He outweighs her by several tens of pounds.

Looking at it you cannot help but hot tears come to your eyes. The image is accompanied by very painful memories. This is the kind of position that some sexual assault victims know very well, many of whom have been attacked from behind.  In a single, swift instance their sense of agency and control is stolen from them by someone bigger and more powerful. Its a singular moment that changes their lives forever. 

It looks and feels like the girl is being violated. She is being violated.

Violated in front of her peers and teacher. Violated in front of an entire country who will later witness it on the news and through social media.

Stunned, no one can bring themselves to stop it.

He pulls hard on her arms and they look like they are going to come off. He handcuffs her. Her fellow classmates stare on in silence. Risking arrest, one brave classmate decides to record it. It is like a scene out of the TV show "Oz" or one out of "Lock Up Raw" or something out of a prison movie. But this is not fiction or a documentary. This is happening, on an ordinary day, to an ordinary Black girl in her high school classroom in the American South.

Can you see her?

Her scared, abused, beaten and damaged teenage body. Violated by a school police officer. Humiliated in front of her peers. By an adult sworn to protect students. Left to be arrested and deal with the media frenzy that is about to ensue. 

Who knows what kind of trauma this will cause? Who knows the impact it will have in the future? She will likely never feel safe in school again. If she hadn't already been, she most assuredly will fear the police from this moment on. She may even fear men for the rest of her life. In just under a minute, her teenage innocence and sense of safety have been stolen from her-forever.

Can you see her? 

I want you to picture that teenage girl. 

Now imagine she's white.

Confessions on Baltimore

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15   www.Occupy.com

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15   www.Occupy.com

I confess that I can’t quite remember what day the uprising began.

I feel like I should be able to remember. After all, it happened in the city I was born and raised in. But all that I can seem to remember from that time is that one day I looked up from my laptop and Baltimore was burning.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I had left home off and on over the years for different reasons. Undergraduate studies in New York. Graduate studies in Washington, DC. Doctoral studies in Florida. But I’d always chosen to come back.

Over time, like any native child, I developed a love-hate relationship with the city of my birth. I loved it for random reasons like the peach cake I used to eat from the Woodlea Bakery and steamed crabs in the summer. I loved it for the strange way that, no matter where in the world I was, I could always tell people from Baltimore by their accent and by the way they pronounced the word water as “wudder” and sink as “zinc.”

I loved it for its simplicity- that its people were overwhelmingly humble and low key. Having moved to Washington, DC for grad school and struggling with the intense networking and industry town culture that exists there, I came to appreciate that Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. I loved that I always knew that when someone in Baltimore asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. With your one answer, they were likely to be able to sum up your whole life story-who you are, what neighborhood you are from and what tribe you belong to.

I loved it for giving me hot, August nights during which I cheered on the Orioles with my grandfather. One of my favorite childhood memories remains listening to baseball on the radio with him- sitting outside on the porch of my grandparents’ house and hearing the roar of the crowd at Memorial Stadium just a few blocks away.

Baltimore is etched in my DNA. It is a part of my cellular memory. My mind and body vividly remember every street I grew up on and where my family members lived. Green Meadow Parkway, Ashland Avenue, Westview Road. I loved Baltimore and it would always be home.

 

I must confess, too, that while I loved it immensely, I also hated it for its simplicity.

I hated how segregated the city was. While it could give you a sense of community, being from Baltimore also meant that often you lived among people who were exactly like you- never really venturing outside of your racial, ethnic, class or religious bubble.

I went to Catholic high school in Baltimore with other girls who had gone to Catholic school their whole lives and whose families all worshipped at the same churches for decades. They went to school with other Catholic girls whom they’d known since they were toddlers. Many of them didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Catholic. If they did, they certainly weren’t the norm. Coming from public school and starting a new school in 9th grade, trying to make friends with girls who’d been friends with each other forever and who all lived in the same neighborhood was not easy. I hated the feeling of being different, of coming from a non-traditional and non-Catholic family. A huge no-no in the Catholic Church (and one that I probably shouldn’t ever admit publicly), sometimes I used to take communion (never having actually received the sacrament in a First Holy Communion ceremony with a priest) with all the other girls just so I could fit in. Baltimore could be a lonely place if you didn’t have a community or a network to call your own. I spent many years as both a teenager and adult trying to find my community and the right “fit.”

Long after high school, when I’d come back to the city for the last time and had gotten married, I hated how everyone thought it was so strange that my husband and I were an intercultural couple- Black American and Colombian. I hated that every detail of our relationship was subject to scrutiny by those who’d never ventured outside of the bubble. That anywhere we went, people almost always asked what language we spoke at home and couldn’t believe that a Black woman could speak fluent Spanish or that a native Colombian could speak fluent English. I hated that we could go to New York on weekends and be anonymous but, in my own hometown, curiosity, ignorance and exoticism marked how others saw our relationship.

 

Most of all, I confess that I hated how dramatically I saw the city deteriorate before my eyes.

After finishing my undergraduate studies, I came back to Baltimore as a teacher through Teach for America. I confess that it was not a voluntary decision. I had marked Baltimore as number 10 out of a total of 13 choices for site placements. When the placement letter arrived, I cried and refused to go back home. I wanted to move to New York or LA. I wanted a new start in another city. A place with which I didn’t have such a tenuous relationship. I did not want to go back home. It was my mother who convinced me that it would be good for me to come home, to be closer to my family and to really learn about the inequality that existed in my own hometown.

After a year, I ended up teaching Spanish at Gilmor Elementary School in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The same neighborhood, where 15 years later, Freddie Gray would be killed. The same neighborhood that made worldwide news during the uprising for its disproportionately high level of boarded up homes. It was described in various ways by the media. Food desert. Crime ridden. Impoverished. This was the location where the HBO show The Wire was filmed. I worked day and night with other tireless educators to try to do everything we could to try to improve the life chances for students in that neighborhood. We endured neighborhood shootings, school lockdowns and played de facto therapists to kids with drug addicted parents. We taught Saturday school, bought books and supplies paid from our own paltry salaries, meals for children whose parents couldn’t raise them, kept deodorant and toothbrushes in our classrooms and taught kids how to use them. We did anything we could to try to save them from the streets and a system that was sure to abandon them. It did not work. But like the memories of the streets in Baltimore I was raised on, the names of those kids are etched in my heart and soul. Deja, Shakeisha, Albert, Demon, Anthony. I could never forget those kids and their faces as long as I live.

After three years in the classroom in Baltimore City Public Schools, I was tired. It was time to go. I loved the kids but the ridiculously hard work, the bumbling administrators that ran the school and the systemic inefficiencies pushed me to my breaking point. Upon coming home from school after a 12-hour day, I often slept on the living room couch; too tired to make my way to my bed. I had been given Xanax to calm my anxiety after my first year of teaching and I believed that I would have been headed for a nervous breakdown if I made a career out of teaching. I left Gilmor and moved to DC for graduate school and didn’t look back. While I would later come home to work in Baltimore in other jobs related to advocacy and social services for marginalized populations, I couldn’t give my heart and soul to them the way I did in those years at Gilmor. I was hardened and forever changed. My heart was irreparably broken. My city no longer looked the same to me.

 

I confess, prior to the uprising, I had often thought about the city burning down.

I wondered if burning it down to the ground was the only way to fix it. To raze it, tear up all of its pain and suffering from the root and rebuild anew on top of the cement and ashes. 

I moved away from Baltimore for the last time in 2013. My life and career had taken me in a different direction, to a new location and, I will confess, that I was glad for it. I didn’t think I could ever live there again.

In 2015, while living in my new city, I looked up from my laptop at the TV and I realized that Baltimore was burning.

I watched with tears as CNN showed my hometown erupt into flames, tears and pain with Freddie Gray serving as the spark. I watched people demand justice for the mysterious death of a young Black man in police custody. But I also knew that this uprising, this rebellion, was the result of decades of blight, corrupt government, the marginalization and disenfranchisement of the poor and gentrification come back to haunt us all. It turned Baltimore upside down. I worried myself sick about my grandparents, my mother-in-law and friends who were still living there and caught in the crosshairs.

I confess, that while I yearned to go home, I didn’t. I was paralyzed. It was too painful. I had a dissertation draft deadline to finish if I wanted to graduate on time. It served as a convenient reason not to go. Baltimore was stomping on my heart, yet again, and I just couldn’t bear it. I wasn’t nearly strong enough to endure this kind of heartbreak for a second time.

Instead, I posted about it on social media. I ranted. I raved. I talked about it in very intellectual terms with colleagues who were interested. I felt numb and ached all at once. I thought about my time in Sandtown-Winchester a lot and about the kids I’d taught all those many years ago. I wondered if any of them had been impacted by the violence.

I’ve been back to Baltimore a few times since then. Thanksgiving with my grandparents, dinner with my mother-in-law, a random trip passing through here and there. But it still feels near impossible for me to fully go home. It will never be the same. Remembering what the city once was and seeing what it now is reminds me of the crazy and painful push-pull relationship that I have always had with the city of my birth.

 

I confess that like so many of the complicated relationships we have as adults, I still simultaneously love Baltimore and hate it for the heartbreak it’s bestowed upon me.  No matter how hard I try, it is still inextricably linked to my DNA. And somehow, even though it aches to love it, because of all the pleasure (and the pain) it’s given me over the course of my lifetime, I just can’t seem to shake it loose.