In the morning, each and every morning, I wake to a crushingly heavy burden that nearly pins me to my sheets. As I struggle to rise, this burden takes shape, and it feels like a thousand-pound vest, strapped too tightly to my body – simultaneously weighing me down and suffocating me.
What must it be like to wake, swing your legs out of bed and stand, only feeling the weight of your own body? What must it be like to take full, deep breaths and move through your day unencumbered? I’ll never know because before my feet hit the floor, my chest tightens and I’ve taken on the weight—the weight of the racist world we live in.
I take it on, in part, because I am a Black woman. A Black woman who has been eyed with suspicion in the sunglass department, and watched by security in the hotel lobby. Because I am a Black woman who has been given the shitty table by the restroom and the terrible service at the cheese counter. Because I am a Black woman who has been disregarded, on sight, at industry conferences and talked down to by strangers in elevators. And because I am a Black woman who has been subjected to verbal insults, and a single violent incident in which a glass bottle was thrown at me from a moving car as I walked down the street—the driver yelling his intention to do me harm.
Yes, I experience racism directly as a Black woman, but I suffer the true terrifying force and reach of racism most acutely as it harms the people I love.
I am married to a Black man, and I have two Black sons. My husband, Darren, handsome and fit, with flecks of gray woven in his short hair and tidy beard. Graham, my 20-year-old, 6’7” and slim, with his dreads pulled off his face in a high pony-tail to reveal his soft, brown eyes. And Oliver, just 7 years old, with his still-plump, sweet face and gravity-defying curls. The three people I love most in the world are Black males, and really, I feel the staggering weight of racism because of them.
I fear for their physical and emotional safety as they face the suspicion, discrimination, harassment, and violence our society serves up to Black males. I think about the toll on their psyches, as they are looked upon in the way in which they are looked upon, and spoken to in the way in which they are spoken to. I think about the damage to Darren’s and Graham’s bodies, as stress-hormones flood their systems during everyday activities that they know are fraught with opportunity for racial profiling and, the related, tragic outcomes. Just driving across town, walking through the neighborhood, dropping by a friend’s house—these innocuous, ordinary moments can change in an instant. And they do, especially for Black men and boys, and it happens every day.
I am sad, afraid, angry. So sad, so afraid, so fucking angry. But I try not to shrink from all the ugliness—the horrific individual aggressions, the repugnant systemic injustices. I recognize them and call them by their proper names so that they don’t slip quietly into our unconscious minds and become something we get used to. But I admit there are times when I am overwhelmed by the news cycle. When I can’t read one more account of a Black man being murdered by police because it is impossible not to think about losing Darren and Graham to racially-motivated police violence. When I can’t watch one more video of a Black boy being dragged out of his chair by his teacher and demeaned in front of his classmates because it is impossible not to think of Oliver’s tender spirit being crushed by racial hostility. When I just . . . can’t.
Sometimes, I want to look at beautiful photos and let my mind play with the idea of getting away from all of it. Literally, just fly away with my husband and sons. In fact, I have a folder in the little drawer of my bedside table. It’s full of pages torn from travel magazines and newspapers of places that appeal to me. These clippings run the gamut—there are articles about exquisite guided-experiences in South America, rankings of the best swimming pools at family resorts in Hawaii, photos of chic Tokyo apartments available for short-term rental. A lot of places interest me, the popular and the exotic. But the ones that captivate me most are the tiny, quiet, romantic spots.
Places like Pedraza, a small, medieval village in Spain. Pedraza has an annual tradition of turning off all of the village’s lights on two summer nights. On those nights, the village is lit solely with candlelight. Imagine. I try to imagine going to this little town. I try to imagine walking through the hushed, candle lit streets, whispering (surely one would whisper, right?) about how lovely it is there. How magical.
Pedraza is not a place for a solo trip, nor a place to visit with girlfriends. This is a place to share with someone you love. To walk, hand-in-hand, and to pause and lean into each other for a lingering kiss. To be immersed, together, in the romance of it all. And here is where it falls apart for me.
To be immersed in an experience, you have to be wholly present in that experience. You have to be able to allow all the uniquely gorgeous sensations of the locale to wash over you – the yeasty smell of fresh focaccia bread from the corner bakery, the gentle warmth of the sunlight as it filters through the high clouds that move across the bluest sky you have ever seen. To be present, you have to have an almost childlike-openness to wonder and surprise, and be able to free your mind of expectation and judgment.
But Darren, the Black man I love, does not have that luxury. He cannot be in this moment without thinking about the next as he wanders through small out-of-the-way towns and strolls dim, foreign streets. He cannot fully relax and be present because he has to be mindful, watchful, alert. He has to be ready for, well, everything that may rain down upon him as a Black man moving through the world. The caustic suspicion, the insults, the violence.
And when Darren tenses with unwelcome apprehension—at the cafe, in the open-air market, on an isolated stretch of beach—and his energy and focus are drawn away from me, away from our family, I am acutely aware of our burden of worry and watchfulness. We have to try to keep ourselves safe from the multipronged dangers of racism. Dangers that can be anywhere, that can show up anytime. Were we fine at noon in a capital’s crowded central plaza? Perhaps. But are we now at risk, at dusk, in a little town two hours outside the city? We don’t know. And because we don’t know, we have to think about it, talk about. The magic and the wonder buckle and give way under the unrelenting pressure of our worries. Under the weight of our burden.
I still pour over beautiful pictures of little villages and resort towns. I guess I can’t quite resist the fantasy that there is a place where my family would feel a freeing sense of safety, and have moments of peace, moments of lightness. But I know there is no such place.
Far-away city or our own neighborhood street—I know the risk to the Black man and boys I love is not about where they are. It is not even about who they are. It is about who they are seen to be—the perverse distortion of them through the racist lens in which they are viewed. A racist view that puts their minds, bodies, and lives at real risk. Each and every day.
And so, tonight, when they are home safe and well, my spirit will be buoyed, I will take a deep breath, and I will feel the glorious blessing of my family. And tomorrow morning, like every morning, I will take on the crushing weight of the racist world.
Photo credit: Getty Images