There is much literature written about the experience of existing as a black person in the midst of this violence, notably Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. When I first read that book, I remember feeling frustrated at the hopelessness I saw within it, Coates’s inability to tell even his own son that the situation for black people in this country would improve. The longer I am alive, the more I understand.
Another resonance that has crossed my mind is Spike Lee’s 1989 “Do The Right Thing,” whose climactic murder almost exactly resembles what took place a few days ago. Again, that film was released before I was born. Similarly, Coates’s book itself was an homage to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, an intergenerational commentary on race relations in this country published in 1963. And before that, there were of course the lynchings of blacks by the KKK, redlining, and slavery; all of this is not to mention what Native Americans endured in the founding of this country, or what so many other people have suffered here.
I have been thinking today of how, throughout this quarantine, many white people have experienced for the first time what non-white peoples have experienced for generations. That includes me. For instance, many people throughout the globe have experienced a fundamental fear of leaving their homes, for the possibility of contracting the virus through external contact. For various reasons, that fear is not dominant with me, but instead I have experienced amorphous fears of control, of manipulation; will I be judged if I voice opinions that deviate from scientific orthodoxy? Will I lose things, things like friends or vocation? What will happen if I attempt to gather with others in public? Will I be jailed?
I bring all this up to suggest that, for people like me, the scintilla of the past few months can be used as a window onto the longer-standing experience of so many others. The fear of leaving one’s home, and in some cases, not even a sensation of safety there. Ditto the inability to do things like walk alone at night, a limitation shared by so many women, queer people, etc. And also the more ambiguous fear that, when voicing these feelings to others, one will be labeled as either weak or crazy, as not-quite-right; one will be gaslit, so one shuts up.
As many have said, the sensation is tiring. I look at many friends of color who’ve always seemed to hold an exhaustion about them, or depression, and there is a growing understanding for me. Traditional binaries like “victim” versus “agent” fall away, as they are ignorant of the emotional realities in which people exist, realities which are always valanced with history, geography, and politics.
I am not writing this to pose any sort of solution for these dynamics, and I am not writing it to recommend anything to the reader. If you would like to educate yourself on some of these issues, the above books and movies have been instrumental for me, but I also think you can see with your eyes, in present day, the same reality that I can see. And if anything, what I feel confident in is that the perpetuation of that reality must stop; these feelings—these feelings of being controlled, gaslit, called crazy; of being fundamentally unsafe in one’s skin, in one’s world—they cannot be allowed to persist as normal. They are not normal. They are the continually spiking signifier that something is very, very wrong.
With love, as always,