Why, As A Black Woman, I Finally Decided To Take To The Streets

There is something poignant about holding space, making people acknowledge you.

T o my knowledge, no one in my family has ever marched before — for anything. They tend to swallow injustice the way old people swallow castor oil — hell-bent on surviving the experience, believing they’ve done enough to ward off the bigger ailments that could haunt them. Over large Sunday dinners and holiday gatherings, recollections of our history during the Civil Rights Movement were notably absent.

I am a fifth-generation South Carolinian, so my elders’ silence on the matter was daunting to me, but now that I’m older I understand. Their silence was a knee-jerk reaction to the persistence of racial and political discrimination that has occurred for over 100 years — ever since the freed slaves in our area began to vote and hold land. During Reconstruction, white Southerners attempted to re-establish political and economic dominance through violence and intimidation, by burning down our homes, and whipping people so brutally that they were thought to be dead.

The silence of my elders meant: If they could whip you and cut off the ears of your children for such a private act as voting, what would they do for a making a large visible statement of unity and defiance, like marching?

I am from the state of the Walter Scott Shooting, the Emanuel Nine Massacre, and the Spring Valley High Incident. This is the state that still gives media coverage to the updates on the whereabouts of the Confederate flag that they took off the statehouse. My significant other resides in the town where Elijah Pontoon was subjected to an illegal cavity search in broad daylight.

They tend to swallow injustice the way old people swallow castor oil — hell-bent on surviving the experience, believing they’ve done enough to ward off the bigger ailments that could haunt them.

There is a push in South Carolina to keep the events of the past year from defining us, but they are part of us all the same — the trauma and fear reside in us, the anxiety of our neurological gymnastics predicated on muscle memory.

Such trauma and fear reside in me, despite the fact that I do all the “right” things — the things my family taught me to do. Yet, I toss and turn at night, wondering if what I do makes a difference. I vote. I ask the hard questions. I’ve tried highlighting the struggle and bringing awareness with a hashtag. I’ve spent my writing career focusing on Black excellence and Black history. At times I’ve covered stories I wouldn’t make a dime on because there was a need, and I wasn’t sure that someone else would cover the story if I didn’t. I’d write hoping that readers will understand something about us, about humanity at large. My portfolio is a collection of attempts to show American readers that my history is their history too.

Every night when I watch the news, I come, again and again, to the heart-searing realization that perhaps what I do isn’t enough. Social media activism is part of the movement, but I wonder if by relegating my discontent to the internet, I’d been limiting the parameters of my civil discontent. I spend a lot of time exploring my proximity to history, but also to the future, to change. I sit, grounded in place, sifting over the events of my tumultuous relationship with the region that created me, but at times despises me for all that I am — young, gifted, Black, educated.

My friend who lives around the corner from that now-infamous convenience store in Baton Rouge, is all of those things, too. We’ve hustled together as freelance writers, trying to make money from our words, trading sentiment through a computer screen, wondering how much our words will fetch.

Now we wonder what our lives are worth.

Education was supposed to be my path to my modern manumission papers, an incentive for me to be industrious and compliant. Newsflash: It wasn’t. I graduated from an Ivy League college, and I won’t pretend my education doesn’t help — that it hasn’t opened doors — but those slips of paper with my credentials on them should not be conflated with freedom. It is freedom on lease, chronically up for renewal, unsatisfying in its inability to protect me and make me whole. After I got a bachelor’s, I was told in order to advance as an artist, I needed a master’s. I got that, and now they’re telling me that in order to teach, I would be a better candidate if I had a PhD.

The idea that my education could keep me out of harm’s way was proven false before I ever got my degree, when I was held at gunpoint by a white woman while picking apples with my father during my sophomore year. For years I treated that interaction as an isolated incident, the way I initially treated the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, until the deaths began to blur together and the body count got so high I couldn’t look away any longer.

I sit, grounded in place, sifting over the events of my tumultuous relationship with the region that created me, but at times despises me for all that I am — young, gifted, Black, educated.

I am now awake. My tipping point was the murder of Philando Castile. The shooting of Charles Kinsey, the therapist pierced by a bullet lying flat on his back with his hands up, cemented my resolve.

I realized that, without knowing it, I’ve been viewing my life and my activism through the veil of Black respectability — as insidious as it is divisive. It often gave me the illusion of action, of progress. When the referendum came out recommending police wear body cameras and then local police departments went out and purchased said equipment, I let out a sigh. Finally, tangible action. Little did I know it was a faux resolution — reports of injustice at the hands of the judicial system persisted, and the body cameras on the people meant to protect us were often either dislodged or switched off.

Now, the veil of Black respectability is gone — and I am haunted by a question I thought I’d answered: What is my role in the larger landscape of physical activism? It’s a question I’ve been pondering for over a decade.

I was a freshman in college when Hurricane Katrina happened, and it was the first time that I was aware of wide-scale racial injustice. I sat glued to CNN for days. My father challenged me to think in the macro instead of the micro, to see the system as something that could be changed from the inside. I swallowed my anger and buried my sadness in an attempt to see if he was right. I was told to comply with the system, and that with an education and accolades I could create the change I wanted to see. My family constantly deterred me from participating in any sort of activism; I was the daughter of the only independent African-American greengrocer in Spartanburg, South Carolina — perhaps in the entire upstate. In my father’s eyes, my existence was a political statement.

When I finished graduate school I announced that I wanted to become a war correspondent, to ask the questions no one else dared to, to find the human element in wreckage — to try to make people care.

My father’s dying wish was that I fix the things I could, on this side of the Atlantic. He was gone before the murder of Michael Brown, and the many that followed after. I’ve wondered what he would think of this world on fire, in need of restorative justice.

Now it feels like the war is at my front door and my body is on the front lines in my home country, whether I’m sitting at my desk, driving in my car, or taking up space on the street. I’ve realized that our current system was built on the skeleton of slavery, the new rules creating Jim Crow 2.0.

When Dallas police used a robot to place a bomb near Micah Johnson, executing him and foregoing due process, spheres were merged, bringing the “war on terror” across the water. Protection was good enough for my father, but I’ve decided that representation is better for me. Maybe we need both.

I’m sorry, Daddy, but the system is broken, and I’m done trying to buy into the fledgling half-hearted attempts at fairness. I’ve got to try something different.

My father made what he could out of this world. Now it’s my turn.

Last month, on a Friday afternoon, I’m drowning in edits but I just wanna walk away from my desk, from everything that ties me down. I’m weary of not acknowledging the pain that I know is there but continually deny that I feel — the constant, chronic toothache that threatens to make me lose my mind, but isn’t visible to those who walk past me. I wonder if there will ever be a time when this country will unconditionally love African-Americans back, instead of simply consuming our blackness for personal gain.

When Black Lives Matter started taking to the streets after the death of Michael Brown, a number of people in my peer group began asking the question “Why march? What change does it bring?” We’ve sat around, debating the relevance of armchair activism, intellectualizing the struggle and race relations the way we were taught to in college, carefully picking apart arguments the way coroners examine bodies. Methodical, objective, making our personal frustrations null-and-void. All I’ve ever seen of protests, rallies, and marches were what wound up on TV or Facebook.

In my recent frustration, I began to ask myself, “Why shouldn’t I march?”

I used to think that perhaps physical activism was antiquated, that this form of protest couldn’t be as effective as doing the work in the sphere of the internet. And the thought of potential confrontation with the cops made me queasy — but life, with its violence, red tape, and bureaucratic bullshit was making me uneasy, too.

I wondered, as an able-bodied person, was my hesitance to protest part of a larger pervasive attitude about what it meant to be a “good” person of color? I’m outspoken on social media, but when it meant showing up for my community, being present, was my absence — my physical silence — complicity?

My maternal grandmother had a saying: The quieter you are, the more you can hear, and in turn, understand.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I read about a peace rally being held in the next town over, Greenville. At the urging of my running partner, CW, I decided to push away from my desk, turn off the TV, and go see what was happening for ourselves.

My intention was to listen, to document without agenda the raw unfiltered urgency of a people, my people. It would be me, my camera, a pen, some paper, and the street. I would be there to record the poetics of a movement.

I’m outspoken on social media, but when it meant showing up for my community, being present, was my absence — my physical silence — complicity?

“I’m going to the peace rally with Prentiss,” I tell my mother. I emphasize the word peace so she won’t worry, but I am careful to make sure that the sentence comes out of my mouth solid enough that she understands that my mind is made up. She decides to come with us — she was in elementary school during the Civil Rights Movement, and in some small way she realizes that Black Respectability has kept her bound too.

I did one last Google search before I left home. I typed “Why march?” and in the results I found Civil Rights leader A. Philip Randolph’s speech from 1942, “Why Should We March”?

“A community is democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess . . . By fighting for their rights now, American Negroes are helping to make America a moral and spiritual arsenal of democracy. Their fight against the poll tax, against lynch law, segregation, and Jim Crow, their fight for economic, political, and social equality, thus becomes part of the global war for freedom.”

Marching, as I would find out, is all about physicality — holding space, being present in my body and all that it stands for. At best it is uncomfortable, at worst it is dangerous. But I was already uncomfortable in this country; I’m deemed dangerous because I am Black and can hold a pen. So I joined the collective consciousness of a people screaming for accountability out of love for our country, demanding that it does better by all of us.

We arrive in downtown Greenville, and congregate in the shadow of Liberty Bridge, unsure of our next move as people gathered in the amphitheater. We bake in the Carolina sun, Black people and white people talking amongst ourselves, as reporters asked questions of those who decided to be show up. Children suck on firecracker popsicles, leftovers from the 4th of July celebration, while parents voice to cameramen that they’re out of patience, sleepless, fretting over the world their children will inherit, with its complex ecosystem of violence, and fractured ideologies grasping at hateful rhetoric in a desire to make themselves whole.

Notably, there wasn’t a single media person of color on the scene. The news anchors, the camerawomen, reporters, and photographers were all white. The homogeny of the press made me sad, and perhaps a little anxious — what were they were telling the people at home, their microphones the only connection to a world that many would consider to be too dangerous to step out into?

I wonder if they understood that one adjective could be the difference of being seen as a movement or a mob in the minds of viewers during their rapid fire, minute-to-minute coverage. “Excited” versus “agitated.” “Tense” instead of “controlled.”

I joined the collective consciousness of a people screaming for accountability out of love for our country, demanding that it does better by all of us.

They called the hymns of defiance simply “songs.” One cameraperson, unsure of what the gesture meant, flagged down a protestor to ask what her fist, mahogany skin pressed high into the Carolina sky, meant.

People combat the main news coverage with their own counter narratives, broadcasting via Facebook Live, giving the world a glimpse of what they thought changing the world looked like. “This is for all y’all that can’t be out here,” a woman with red hair in a black tank top pointed at her phone, trying to describe the scene to her audience.

There is no fear here, and as we walk along Main Street, there are chants of “This is what democracy looks like” along with “Hands up don’t shoot” and the ever in rotation “Black lives matter/We all bleed the same.” The slap of our feet against the pavement is the physical manifestation of the principles of social equality.

We have a police escort. There is no riot gear. It seems that they are aware that threats of arrest can no longer be counted on to frighten Black people who are sure of their rights. Police cruisers divert traffic, aiding us in our desire to take up space without apology, to be recognized, in all our hurt, anguish, and hope.

We march past restaurants where dinner goes for $100 or more a plate, and Black people are historically allowed to cook the food but not manage the floor. Black workers who cannot leave their posts get as close to the front door of their workplaces as they can without fear of being reprimanded, watching history walk by.

Younger white people standing on the sidewalk record the event on their iPhones, for posterity, perhaps.

Standing in the shadow of the court house, lobbying for support for the civil treatment of Black bodies, another protester in a light blue shirt implores us to reflect on where we were as a people, how we have evolved and the work remains to be done. He highlights the hard won progress of our ancestors through their use of sit-ins, and pray-ins, despite the hostile stares from onlookers, unmoored by the perceived threats to the Southern way of life.

Black workers who cannot leave their posts get as close to the front door of their workplaces as they can without fear of being reprimanded, watching history walk by.

With that the protest path has come full circle, and ends as it began, in the shadow of Liberty Bridge. Demonstrators move towards their cars, so that they can prepare to do it all again tomorrow.

On our drive home, the sky released its tension with bolts of lightning and driving rain, which wipes away all traces of our footprints. Later that night my tears would fall almost as fast as the rain. Sunburned and sore, lying under the comforter in my mama’s house, my movements punctuated by the crackle of thunder, I spent the night tossing and turning, my body threatening to collapse from the compounded weight of sleeplessness and confusion about what I could contribute to a world that’s in desperate need of understanding.

The march, at its core, was uneventful — no arrests, no injuries, no physical conflict from onlookers or police. I say that not minimize the event, but to highlight a point — there are hundreds, if not thousands of peaceful demonstrations going on all over the country, highlighting visibility, searching for a contemporary expression of justice, filling in the gaps behind the media tropes and the fallen brethren. In taking to the street I realize there is a messier, more nuanced, more complex narrative that gets lost in the sound bites and the desire for hot takes.

It took several days to digest what I saw, what I experienced. The protestors I walked beside, young, colorful, and full of the light, commanding attention and demanding respect, sought to spread an ideology that demanded an end to what seems to be inevitable violence, in a world that constantly demands we, Black people, explain our existence.

I don’t have all of the answers, in fact I have precious few, but I learned that there is something poignant about holding space, making people acknowledge you, interrupting their everyday routine in a mass showing of solidarity and community.

I’m going to keep using my body — as an individual, and as part of a community. I pledge to keep protesting, and to keep showing up, big, Black, and proud — please don’t forget the proud — where I’m not expected, writing the things that sometimes people would rather not see. Because visibility matters. It’s my way of saying “I see you,” and knowing that I am, because we are.

I can find some solace in that.

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