I thought as I grew up, that my experiences with race would be different from what my parents grew up with.
I was raised by parents who tried daily to prepare me for life as an independent adult. They taught me how to balance a checkbook and how to compare prices. They taught me how to check my oil (although I always just go to a professional mechanic to do it), how to fill up my gas tank, and how to read the instrument panel in my car. They taught me how to express my opinions clearly and honestly. They taught me how to use a dictionary (the ongoing parent-child discussion: “How do you spell _________?” “Get the dictionary and look it up.”). They taught me how to drive, how to tie almost anything, how to buy anything I needed, basically how to take care of myself so that I could enter the world of adulthood as smoothly as possible.
Now that I am in my 44th year on this big blue ball called Earth, I'm faced with the realization that there is one thing my parents did not prepare me for. As I watch, hear, and experience the protests happening all over our country in recent months, and feel a growing swell of anxiety rise up inside of me, I realize that the one thing my parents did not prepare me for was how to live as a Black woman in an America that has returned to its pre-Civil Rights Movement self. I never imagined the day would come when I’d have to actually worry about being attacked or lynched for being Black. I actually thought that all of those pictures I saw in history books of life before and during the Civil Rights Movement — the images of protesters sitting at the counter at Woolworth’s whites-only counter as food and drinks were dumped on them; Ruby Bridges being escorted into school; high schoolers in Little Rock being escorted into school; Black men swinging from trees after being lynched by white mobs; Emmett Till’s beaten and swollen body in a casket*, the massacre and destruction of Black Wall Street — I thought these images were history, in the past, things I’d never have to worry about or experience because the Civil Rights activists of the 1960s had already fought so hard to ensure a better future for future generations. Obviously, I was wrong.
When COVID-19 hit the United States and each state’s governor issued stay home orders to keep the public safe, I thought two things would happen: there wouldn’t be any school shootings and Black people would not be murdered while living their lives. I thought we would be safe because we weren’t able to congregate in public spaces. Concerts and festivals were canceled. We had to resort to grocery delivery or pickup and new shopping hours for senior citizens. There was a sudden run on face masks for personal use; home crafters started sewing and selling them online. Hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, tissue, toilet paper, diapers, and baby wipes were sold out with no idea when any of them would be available. I figured with all of these precautions and safety measures in place, the most dangerous thing would be the virus, not other people. I was only partially wrong. March 2020 was the first month without a school shooting in eighteen years, which was great! Unfortunately, we lost Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Riah Milton, Dominique “Rem’mie” Fells, and several others during this COVID-19 lockdown, so we weren’t able to go a month, 30 single days, without the senseless murder of a Black person.
When I was a little girl, my parents gave me The Talk — the speech all Black parents have with their children about living in America while Black. It’s a speech that every generation must give, and a lesson every generation must learn if we want to continue to live as members of American society**. I learned, at the age of 6, that I was different from everyone else around me, and that there were people in this world who hated me although they did not know me. I learned that the color of my skin would cause immediate judgment, even before I opened my mouth or batted an eye. I learned that no matter how nice I was, how friendly, how approachable, how big my smile, I would not be considered equal to others all because of the color of my skin, because we lived in a country that had enslaved my ancestors, and created laws and erected monuments to men meant to keep our race subservient and “in our place”, crushed by the boot known as White Supremacy. That’s a tough lesson to learn at such a young age, but it is a lesson Black parents tell Black children, every generation, every day.
I thought as I grew up, that my experiences with race would be different from what my parents grew up with. They grew up during the Civil Rights Movement (both born in 1949) and watched as Jim Crow was struck down and destroyed, witnesses to the end of segregation. I figured that my life would be less turbulent, less dramatic, probably pretty boring, and I’d probably have to deal with the occasional microaggression, but for the most part, as a member of Generation X, I’d live the rest of my life with a few more freedoms than the Blacks of the Boomer and the Greatest Generations. The lessons I forgot about were (1) racism did not end just because the Civil Rights Movement ended desegregation and Jim Crow, and (2) I was still walking around in a Black body.
Then Black people started dying and #BlackLivesMatter was born. In 2013, a teenage boy named Trayvon Martin was murdered, his killer was acquitted, and three Black women created the movement Black Lives Matter as a response to a message that the acquittal sent loud and clear — that Black people do not matter and our lives have no value. Since 1619, Black lives have been treated as “less than” and insignificant. Since 1619, the Colonizers of lands belonging to the First Nations have worked tirelessly to keep Black and Brown bodies in a certain state of existence. It started with slavery and when that was destroyed, it became Segregation and Jim Crow. Monuments to leaders of the losing side of the Civil War were erected during Jim Crow to intimidate and strike fear in the Black community, a way to maintain fear in a population that was trying to recover from generations of slavery and make its way in a world that hated them. The Civil Rights Movement, along with cases like Loving v. Virginia and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, destroyed Segregation and Jim Crow. The culmination of all of that work was when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, thus confirming our constitutional rights as Americans and citizens of this country. All of these accomplishments for the rights of Black Americans should have resulted in full equality in American society. It didn’t. The protests that started after the murder of George Floyd, and spread throughout the world, proves that things have not changed for Blacks, not just in the United States but also in other countries where Black bodies are violated, abused, disrespected, and murdered.
As I watched Black Lives Matter marches grow in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s murder, and continue to surge as more Black men, women, and children were murdered, in many of those cases, by armed police after a confrontation, I felt broken. With each Black death, a part of my soul darkened. I felt the pain and anguish of those who spoke about the murdered, I felt the anger and frustration of the Black Lives Matter organizers as they spoke out against these senseless deaths. I sat in saddened silence as I watched news reports, showing the smiling faces of Black people I would probably never meet but felt connected to, these victims of hate. I saw the Black Lives Matter Movement as a new Civil Rights Movement, fighting again for Black people to be able to live their lives like all other people without being murdered. Black writers started listing the various activities that could get us shot: sleeping, buying candy, playing in a park, attending church, jogging/exercising, playing video games in or own home, selling CDs, shopping, and so on***. The more reports of Black murder by white people there were, the more I wondered when I would become a hashtag and a name shouted at a Black Lives Matter march. The way I currently live my life is not protection from racism and white supremacy: I have a college degree, I have a post-graduate degree, I have a full-time job, I pay my taxes, I have no criminal record, I don’t do drugs, my parents are college-educated, I live in a nice suburb, I’m an avid reader, I’m a mother/daughter/sister, I am friendly and a little shy.
My parents didn’t prepare me for what the United States has exploded into. They did not prepare me for living with an openly racist President who calls white supremacists “fine people” or who claims that by nicknaming CODIVD-19 the “Chinese flu” or “Kung flu” is not going to increase racism against Asians. They did not prepare me for seeing the killings of unarmed Black people on the nightly news. They did not prepare me for the ways in which white society would fetishize and weaponize my body because of racist beliefs about the anatomy of Black women. They did not teach me how to fight for the right to wear my hair in its natural state. I’m learning how to be Black in an America the history books told me didn’t exist anymore. They said that the Civil Rights Movement made things better for Black people. While I do believe the Civil Rights Movement did a lot to change the lives of Blacks, the events happening today show that the one thing that did not change was the existence of white supremacy. The racists may have gone underground, but they didn’t disappear, they didn’t suddenly see how wrong racism and white supremacy was. They just waited for the day they cold reemerge, stronger and louder and more violent.
I’m not prepared to be a hashtag. I’m not prepared for hundreds of Black people I don’t know to take to the streets demanding justice for my murder. My parents didn’t prepare me for being a victim of racists. That’s the one thing they didn’t prepare me for and I don’t think it was something they ever thought they would have to do. It’s up to me to be prepared, I have no other choice.
*I thought about attaching a link to the pictures of Emmett Till’s body, but chose to link to a picture of him before he was murdered.
**There are a lot of articles online about how parents are handling the current events of 2020 as a way to continue to have The Talk with their children — you can find the articles here, here, here, here, and here. A simple search can yield many, many more.
***Recently this list showed up on my Instagram feed. A lot of people reposted this list and I think it’s worth posting here as a contrast to the lists of activities Black people have not had the freedom to do peacefully.
This piece was originally published in Tara's blog A Phenomenal Woman.
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