Posted on June 5, 2020

Trying to Convince Myself I’ll Be OK: Thoughts from a Young Black Man

Caleb Gayle, The Guardian, June 5, 2020

I spent last weekend thinking about what makes me different from Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. I was trying to convince myself that “I’ll be OK” – that under similar circumstances, I would experience a different outcome. How much larger of a smile do I need to stretch across my face when I walk through whiter neighborhoods? How much more polite can I be to a police officer who only sees the darkness of my skin? These are the questions that have wrestled control of my mind.

I spent the weekend asking myself what I can do to avoid becoming another name flashing across the news ticker as the latest black person killed for essentially just trying to live. But I always stop myself from fully answering that question because I know the answer is nothing.

A year ago, I received a diploma with fancy letters that read “Harvard”. But I know an Ivy League education won’t protect me. Christian Cooper also went to Harvard, but that didn’t save him from the daily difficulties of being black in America – even harmlessly birding in a “progressive” city proved to be potentially dangerous for a black man. At least he walked away physically unharmed, but can he live? Can I really live in America?

I often watch jealously as my white counterparts live fully and abundantly here, going into stores, driving around, wandering in most any neighborhood they want with no assumptions made about their character based on their skin. I watch them live without fear.

Over the last week I’ve been inundated with texts, calls, emails from white friends and other non-black allies. I envy how my white friends get to opt into cultural and racial sainthood by sending the now-customary text. I appreciate every text, but wish that I could be the one to send the text – opting into tragedy for a moment to mourn and pay respects, then opting right back out. But I can’t. I have to continuously process these tragedies – dissecting why this one or that one couldn’t be me, why my outcome would be different. I don’t come up with anything.

This weekend marked the 99th anniversary of a race massacre which destroyed a thriving “black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma, my home town. Not far from Tulsa is Red Bird, a small historically all-black town my mom would visit as a home health nurse. I thought about an investment company in Red Bird owned and run by black families in the early 1900s that advertised on brochures: “A Message to the Colored man. Do you want a home in the Great Southwest – the Beautiful Indian Territory? In a town populated by intelligent, self-reliant colored people?”

Momentarily, I gained some comfort from that sentiment. But as soon as the past-inspired hope began to swell, I came back to the current moment where black people in that part of Tulsa, once teeming with opportunity for black life, are just dealing with what it feels like to just survive – a baby born today in one of the most predominantly black zip codes in Tulsa can expect life to be 10.7 years shorter than their white counterparts. They’re not living either, they’re barely surviving.

Unlike the brave black journalists of the late 1800s and early 1900s who fondly wrote of a black promised land in present-day Oklahoma where black families could retreat, I have no place to offer my people where we can, as they wrote, “Come out of the wilderness from among these lawless lynchers and breathe the free air.” I cannot in accordance with good journalistic ethics or even in service of the truth, write fondly of a place where Minneapolis residents can escape to live abundantly. I can only tell you how we might survive in it.

Surviving means questioning every day – but especially days like the ones over the past few weeks – whether I want to bring black children into this world only to contend with the same world whose arc seems to not bend toward justice. Surviving means possibly having those children one day only to have “the talk” with them. Except this talk won’t be just about what happens when they get pulled over. No, this talk will include warnings of what could happen to them if, among other things, they jog, they play with a replica Airsoft gun, they sleep at night in their homes, they grab their wallets, they get a traffic ticket.

We may no longer be valued as 3/5 of a person the way enslaved blacks were, but the events of these past weeks remind black people that we’re not valuable enough to live abundantly. We can only hope to get by – to survive.

There is no escape to a promised land. There’s only clearly yelling at America that no matter how much she may ignore us or tell us that our protest is neither civil nor peaceful, our lives, separate and apart from anyone else’s, matter and we want to live here.