first person

This Juneteenth

I want to feel the peace that white people have enjoyed at my expense.

Photo: Gallery Stock
Photo: Gallery Stock
Photo: Gallery Stock

A few days ago, I got a call from a friend in distress. I heard the breath expel from her lungs as she blurted into the phone, “I just can’t take it anymore.”

She was calling me from the park. While she made sure her 2-year-old didn’t eat leaves, she updated me on her efforts to get an academic institution — the same one that had commissioned her for a creative project to promote “diversity” — to release a statement in support of Black lives. They had expressed little interest in the concept, instead placing the burden on her to write it on their behalf, for free. What began as a simple request has now gone into mediation, putting her alone, and at odds, with a board of old white bureaucrats.

“They made me into the angry Black woman — again,” she said, her daughter squealing for the leaves over a distant siren.

This is an all-too-familiar narrative that I and many people who look like me have been weathering our entire lives. It’s been particularly pronounced the past two weeks. Since George Floyd’s death, I’ve had more conversations with my Black friends than I can count where we’ve collectively rejoiced at the global response against anti-Blackness. But we’re also recoiling in horror at what it means to witness the global awakening of white people.

I am prepared for disappointment. I’ve been prepared for it my entire life.

But what I was not prepared for was what actually happened: the phone calls. The emails. The guilt-ridden confessions from people I hadn’t spoken to in years who all of a sudden decided to “check in,” when what they really wanted was for me to confirm that they were “one of the good ones.” The dozens of asks from people wanting me to educate them on racism, despite the fact that the essay that led them to contact me is about the trauma of shouldering feelings of white guilt.

Everywhere I turn, I’m being forced to engage with people who are just now acknowledging that racism is a problem. Two weeks ago, if I had attempted to convey my frustration over a racist argument, I would have been met with a pair of rolling eyes and a half-hearted “I’m sorry that happened to you.” Now, I’m watching the same people who once punished me for talking about racism discuss it with reckless abandon. But instead of being relieved, I’m seething with resentment.

Almost overnight, my lived experience has become fodder for white people’s long overdue reckoning with themselves — which only came about with the death of George Floyd. Not Sandra Bland. Not Breonna Taylor. Not Tony McDade. Not even with Eric Garner, whose last words were immortalized before George Floyd repeated them. I’m still expected to bear witness and guide people along this journey like a Magical Negro who exists solely for the spiritual development of white protagonists, who continue to center themselves in the pain that they’ve caused. Except now, I’m old enough to know that there’s nothing noble about it, and I’m not sure how much more I can handle.

Even after white people decided to care about racism, too many of them still find it easier to put the burden of a better world on the people who have been fighting for it since we first realized that this one wasn’t made for us. White people get to be mediocre, while Black people get to be martyrs. And still, they demand more.

This isn’t who I am. I am an artist. I am an author. And yet, I know that being a writer of color means being a dozen other things as well: an activist, a teacher, a philosopher, an academic, a political commentator whenever something race-related happens — and a nobody when nothing does. Meanwhile, the high-school canon is full of racist white men who spent their lives having affairs and getting drunk. This is the discrepancy I want to correct and fight against moving forward. I want to get drunk and write stories about alternate realities and time machines, too.

Year after year since Trayvon Martin’s murder launched Black Lives Matter, I have felt myself becoming more and more beaten down by the time-honored practice of white peers devaluing what I have to say. As a Black woman, I take inventory of the cynicism, anger, and pain that I’ve accumulated in place of the peace that my white constituents enjoy at my expense. I think about the people we’ve lost along the way, and worse — I think about the sacrifices to come. I don’t want to be one of them, and I don’t want my friends to be either.

“This is what they do to us,” I said back to my friend on the phone. “As long as we’re fighting for the right to exist, as long as we’re explaining what racism is, we’re not happy. We’re not present. We’re not the people we should be. This is how they kill us.”

Of course, as we all know, that’s not the only way.

Oluwatoyin Salau, a Black Lives Matter protester, was found dead in Tallahassee, where I grew up and went to college. During my time at Florida State University, I remember thinking that George W. Bush was the worst it could get (file that under “the folly of youth”). Now I think of Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, just six days after Malcolm X’s birthday. I think of the conditions necessary to create a leader like him, and how much — and how little — has actually changed since the ’60s. I think of the other young people — Tamir Rice, 12; Salau, 19; Ahmaud Arbery, 25; Rayshard Brooks, 27; Riah Milton, 25; along with too many others to name — martyrs now, because they were stolen in their youth. Even while we talk about the loss of Black lives, we continue to lose more.

Those of us left behind mourn them while we try to survive. We cry on the phone about the guilt we feel in stepping back from projects that humiliate us, even while the energy we pour into them makes us question our value as artists and leaders. The sacrificial demand of Black time and energy eats up our best and brightest voices, then spits them out for the greater good.

While expressing all of this to my friend, I tried to tell myself to resist the temptation to weigh in on a conversation that’s been reducing me to tears since I was a child. And my response is that if I don’t say something, not enough people will. I tell myself that carving out hours of the time that is meant for my family, for my life, for my joy, is better spent on repeating myself, yet again, to people who didn’t listen the first hundred times.

“Anyway,” my friend said with a deep sigh, over more children squealing in the background, fighting over leaves, twigs, and dirt. “What are you doing for Juneteenth?”

This year, I’m proposing a new tradition for my friends and myself. I want us to sit and meditate for a few minutes on what our lives would look like if we didn’t have to talk about or consider racism every single day. I want us to imagine what our families would look like if we didn’t have to cater to the intellectual laziness in which the countless conversations we’ve had about race with white people have always resided. I want us to imagine a life where we speak about race on our terms, in a way that feels empowering instead of exhausting. I want us to imagine ourselves as happy old women surrounded by grandchildren we can’t keep up with — trying to keep the leaves out of their mouths. And I want us to put ourselves first, while everyone else is just beginning to catch up.

If that’s not the freedom Black people fought and died for in the Civil War, the freedom that Black people have been fighting and dying for since 1619 — then I don’t want it.

This Juneteenth