This past weekend we were camping. Out of cell range, up in the woods, away-from-it-all camping. And on July 3rd, just after the sun started to sink low behind the mountain, some shots rang out up the road. We chalked it up to some early 4th of July rabble rousing. Our boys were scared out of their wits but they were already tucked in the tent and maybe it wasn’t a gun after all. Maybe it was just some fireworks. Jason and I exchanged a look as we attempted to comfort them and assure them they were safe.
Then there were several more shots and we decided that we better get in the tent as well so the boys wouldn’t be afraid. There were maybe ten shots in all, several in quick succession, and we never figured out who shot them or what came of it. Was it just early 4th festivities? Almost certainly. But as we slipped into our sleeping bags and each tucked a boy under our arm, I remembered the words of a good friend of mine who told me once when I asked her if she liked camping:
“Nope. Black people don’t camp.”
Black people don’t camp. When I pressed her further, she shook her head and said, “No way. Anything could happen out there. That is too far away from the eyes of other people and there’s no telling what could happen. Good things never happen to Black people when we’re in the woods. You’re not going to find us trekking off there of our own volition. Not in a million years.”
A generalization, of course, and I know some Black folks who do in fact camp (though admittedly not many) but I now think of her words nearly every time I pitch our tent or search for kindling on the forest floor. Black people don’t camp. It grieved me to hear it then but the reality of what she was implying came close last Sunday night. I stretched out in my sleeping bag, watching the boys finally fall asleep, and realized that the mild unease I felt in that moment would be utter terror if my skin was Black.
To Watch or Not to Watch
Two more Black men died this week. Alton Sterling and Philando Castille. Shot by police officers and both executions were caught on camera. The videos are horrific. Graphic. They will suck the air right out of you. My immediate thought when I came across the first one in my feed, the one of Alton Sterling, was I can’t. I can’t bear it. I cannot watch it. I won’t.
But my next thought was: I have to.
We don’t watch the news in our house. We listen to about 20 minutes on the radio in the morning while we make breakfast but we skip the TV in order to protect ourselves from the numbing and the despair and the sating of boredom that comes with endless news cycles. But I think we have to watch these videos. Not because we wish to be voyeuristic or entertained or pulled in by the sensationalism of it all but because we are part of this. We are part of what made those officers pull the trigger and I must bear witness to the things of which I am culpable. I don’t get a free pass because it’s too hard to watch.
A few months ago Jason and I were in the drugstore together. We were standing in the check-out line at the front of the store when a women came in, clearly under the influence of something. She pushed her way behind the registers and started pulling bottles of hard liquor off the shelves. She knocked stuff over and was mildly combative when the checkers tried to stop her. Not much happened. The store clerks called 911, the woman wandered out of the store at some point and everyone relaxed.
As we walked home afterwards Jason and I wondered about what a police officer would do with a person like that and talked about the fear that would come with such a job. Being a police officer must be terribly frightening at times. We both agreed that we wouldn’t want to do it and gave thanks for our much safer work-from-home day jobs.
It’s possible for me to say that and say that things have to change. I can respect our nation’s police force and fight for change. I can acknowledge the life-threatening aspect of policing in this country and say that enough is enough.
Longer, Not Shorter
Because instead of growing shorter, the list is growing longer. In our so-called post-racial life here in America, instead of finding more and more spaces where they are safe, Black folks are finding fewer and fewer. The list of don’ts is expanding instead of shrinking.
Black people don’t camp.
Black people don’t talk to White women.
Black people don’t ride BART.
Black people don’t walk home with soda and skittles.
Black people don’t walk around in Wal-Mart.
Black people don’t play on playgrounds.
Black people don’t stand on sidewalks.
Black people don’t ask for help.
And now we must add to the list, Black people don’t stand outside convenience stores and Black people don’t reach for their wallet when requested.
What Can We Do?
Honestly, friends, I’m not sure I know. What can I, a 30-something woman with absolutely no political power or pull, no friends in high places, no sway or swagger or influence, do in the face of this? What can you do? In reality, probably not much. And that feels so disheartening. Why even bother?
But I took a walk yesterday afternoon and watched as a half dozen Black kids ran around playing tag in the grass at the park behind our house and I felt inside of me the clutch of fear that would be mine if they were my kids. And I thought of Glennon Melton‘s words that “there is no such thing as other people’s children.” Those are my kids. And whether or not I, as an individual, can enact lasting change shouldn’t stop me from trying.
There are things that we can do, however meager they may seem.
We can sign this petition.
Or this one.
We can contact our representatives.
We can check our bias. Take the test on the left.
We can grieve.
We can study history.
We can acknowledge our rightful place in the story.
We can study our culture.
We can tell better stories.
We can read and watch and listen to better stories.
We can learn about the racial disparities in our schools.
We can join Campaign Zero.
We can pray.
We can watch the videos and bear witness to what we’ve done. Protest, organize a sit-in, tweet like mad, fight with everything we’ve got. We can each be one drop in what will hopefully become a mighty rushing river that rolls down in never-ending streams.