The African American Daydream
I stand with my people, alongside our allies and advocates, in hopes that there will be justice for Ahmaud Arbery. We have hope that there will be justice for Breonna Taylor. We have hope that for the next death, the killers will pay. Since writing this a week ago, we add hope that the murder of George Floyd will not be paved over. We aren’t naive enough to hope for the complete cessation of our killing. We hope for justice. We grow all too familiar with the feeling of enraged disappointment.
What if we taught children that all people are equal, regardless of skin color, at the same time we taught them the alphabet and the importance of washing their hands? Growing up in a system that is inherently racist, I observe the importance of learning about others who don’t look like you and of celebrating differences instead of trying to act like they don’t exist. What if we don’t just talk about slavery in history classes, but have units on Black culture and achievements throughout history? What if the system didn’t so easily feed kids into the racist funnel? What if Black people weren’t seen as a threat? What if Black people could breathe without dying?
I wonder about these things at night when I can’t sleep. My mind jumps between my future wedding, how many kids I want, in what order I can hope for, and then, like a daydream curdling to nightmare, I wonder if I’ll be able to handle the weight of a Black mother’s constant worry. Will I be able to endure holding my breath every time the phone rings, every time my child breaks curfew? To not have kids is to give them what they want: less Black faces in the population. Oh, but to have Black children must be the heaviest, most confusing joy. To raise them and see them grow and succeed, to worry constantly of their breath—no wonder so many Black people are Christians. No wonder so many seek God. We don’t have the privilege of guaranteed breath.
How does one walk on eggshells, maintain their confident stride, and simultaneously check if they look “angry” or “threatening”? How do you teach your child that they have to be comfortable in their skin, but aware that their skin is a flashing alarm in society? How can they learn to be so many things, to see so many things at once besides by experience? Experiences
I’m sure every parent wishes never came, but is grateful for nonetheless—
that first “off” comment by your non-Black friend (you’ve been friends for years, they didn’t mean it, but your relationship is never quite the same)—the first notice of being watched (whether it be in a supermarket or school hallway)—the first time a person crosses to the other side of the street to avoid you—and on and on the list of being Black in America firsts goes. How do Black parents stand it?
I think it must be heartbreaking, to see the inevitable come to fruition. I think I’d want to protect my Black child, but how to do this best is no longer clear. If they live in the shadows, they could die. If they know and see everything, they could die. If they are walking down the street or entering their own home, they could die. The rules are no longer in our favor. There are no rules to follow, they don’t exist. Even if they follow the nonexistent rules, put their hands where all can see them, they could die. Yes, especially then. Since they are processed as a threat by mere existence, they could die. This death isn’t natural, it is an intentional, seeking, and murderous death. This death isn’t peaceful or sudden—no, not to us. My people see this death coming. We live in anticipation. Every breath shouts resistance.
As the pandemic rages and Black murder remains fact, I find myself more attuned to breath, more aware of how people occupy space. Are they too close? Should I cross the street? I find intrusive thoughts about my safety are the norm. My cells cry danger. My mind commands breathe. I wonder if this is what it is like to be privileged in a pre-pandemic society. I wonder if this is how others view my people. Perhaps how a policeman feels, always on high alert, attuned to what they have been taught to process as threat. (As teaching is an ongoing and everyday system and spans far beyond the classroom.) Perhaps this is how someone feels when they accidentally, but instinctively, hold their bag a little closer to their torso. Are they too close? Should I cross the street? Their cells cry danger. Their mind commands breathe. But Black breath seems to be more dense. Even though all physics lessons tell us that things fall at the same speed regardless of their weight, I can’t wrap my mind around the concept. It always seems that Black breath falls first. It always seems that Black death's lost girth. How slim the odds we have no choice in taking.
Do you wish for your Black child to have more White friends—to cushion up their bicycle seat lives from the wriggling of the uncomfortable ass that is America? Or do you wish for them to have more Black friends? To love their skin color, hair texture, body type, voice volume. To love being Black without learning how to love being Black. Either way they will be met by a wriggling, sweaty America.
Surely to stay sane in all of this, we must seek strength that is not our own. Humans weren’t made to carry such a burden, the cautious burden of Black existence, and so we find strength and faith in God. How else do you sleep at night without faith in God’s hand, in His plan? How else can you explain the perseverance of your race? Its survival in a society that sees them as disposable, refuses to keep them alive, refuses to fight for them at all? When your next breath isn’t guaranteed, how else can you explain your survival and thriving as anything other than a blessing?
I sit at night as sleep escapes me and wonder if White people ever feel blessed to be alive. I wonder if they ever sigh at night, happy to make it another day, happy that their relatives and friends and loved ones can say the same. I wonder if they praise God because their breaths aren’t coveted. I wonder if they feel blessed that no one is waiting around a corner for them, that drawing attention to self is a choice, that being labeled angry or happy or sad is a choice. I see expressions of style and tanning and dancing and I see choices being made on social media. I see that persecution for White death is never optional, it is ingrained in the system. They are believed without question. I see these people, these non-Black bodies, choose how they want to be perceived, and I wonder if they lie awake at night and count it as a blessing. Do they think about their future marriages and kids, sigh with small, content smiles and drift off to sleep? Do their daydreams ever curdle into nightmares?
Gabrielle Tanksley is a senior at Brown University. She is passionate about languages, culture, and intersecting art forms. Gabrielle is pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. This is her debut creative nonfiction publication.