Black struggles continue after headlines fade
News of Ahmaud Arbery’s death had overwhelmed me from my dining room table on May 7.
He had died months earlier in February. But his name, the number one trending hashtag on Twitter that day, circulated alongside portraits of the 25 year old from an earlier date — his deep, dark skin shining in all of them, coupled with a bright, white grin — and the video of the same man falling to his death at the hands of white vigilantes.
His photo haunted me. Every time I looked at his portraits, I saw my brother Kalen, 19, who was still sleeping soundly upstairs.
They had a similar smile. One that I saw on my brother Kalen’s face more times than I could count after cracking a joke or watching an episode of “Martin” with him. And their skin complexion, though not exactly the same, shined in a similar way.
I never knew Ahmaud, but he felt so familiar to me.
The streets Ahmaud died on were his own. He was only a short jog from his home when he was shot dead in the road. Hunted for sport like an animal.
I thought about all the times my brother would leave home for a short walk around the neighborhood. Never once did I think that the possibility of him going on a walk could turn into him not coming home until I watched Arbery fall to the ground in that video.
That could’ve been Kalen, I thought to myself.
My phone was covered in warm tears before I decided to turn it off completely.
I stared out the window directly across from me and watched people walk by through the sheer curtains.
Do they carry the same worries that I do? Do they live in fear knowing that someone could shoot them dead in the street for no reason other than a mere assumption?
I rose from the wooden chair. I felt physically heavy, like something was laying on my shoulders.
I made my way up the stairs to Kalen’s room. He was still asleep after working a double at his job the night before.
I sat on the side of his bed and leaned down to hold him. He awoke almost immediately after I touched him. He was groggy and clearly annoyed that I was in his room.
“What’s wrong?” he said.
Silent tears rolled down my cheeks. I didn’t answer him. But I didn’t let go, either.
18 days later, the world woke up with George Floyd’s death.
I didn’t want to see it.
But in a way, I already had.
It was the topic of every conversation and all that filled the news cycle.
Everyone was talking about George Floyd.
It took me three days to watch the video, but it had frequently circulated on social media. Twitter. Instagram. Facebook. The autoplay feature would start the video, but I’d try to quickly scroll away or close the app.
On that fourth day, I caved and finally mustered some courage to watch it: A Black man pressed against the pavement struggled to breathe, his neck pinned down by the knee of the police officer.
I watched Floyd beg and plead for his life. He died in a matter of minutes.
I cried for days mourning the death of a man I didn’t even know.
I’ve seen and heard about Black death so many times in my life that I almost became desensitized. But the way I cried over this man I didn’t even know made me think otherwise.
I didn’t have to know him. As I watched Floyd laying on the ground, I mourned and cried for him like he was any of the Black men I loved so dearly in my life.
Maybe it was the way he died. Maybe it was the way the cop stared at the cameras and seemed to have no regard for human life. Maybe it was how Floyd screamed for his mother as he took his last breaths.
People who complained about the protests this summer frustrated me.
Why are they so angry? They’d ask. Why are they looting and rioting? As if Walmart products and property were more important than Black lives taken every day.
If they thought these protests were bad now, what do they think will happen if the officer gets off scot-free like so many before him?
The world woke up when Floyd died. No matter how you felt about the protests, the way Floyd died was undeniable. A white police officer kneeled on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and didn’t even flinch at the cries of onlookers for him to stop.
But instead of using this wake up call to enact real change, people used it as a contest to prove who was the most ‘woke’ or down with the movement. Institutions made minor exterior changes — new mascots, company names and training.
Three months after Floyd’s death, 288 people were killed by the police, and 59 of them were Black.
The reality is that much hasn’t changed since Floyd was killed. The system allows these deaths to continue. Yet people are distracted by performative actions that give us the illusion of progress.
Floyd’s death is no longer in the headlines. But Black people are still living in his reality.
Kaia agreed to tell me her story, but I don’t think she knew she was telling mine as well.
“What was your first impression of Bexley?” I said.
I was talking to Kaia Woodford and her family for a story I was working on about the Black experience. I watched Kaia speak through my iPhone screen propped up by a roll of paper towels, the usual setup of my virtual interviews while reporting for the Columbus Dispatch.
How she described her hometown felt all too familiar. The Columbus suburb was littered with homes both massive and elegant, and luxury cars were parked up and down the streets.
And the families who lived in these homes? They were white.
Kaia’s family was one of a handful of Black families in Bexley, Ohio. Growing up around white faces made her resent her own.
“I didn’t, for a time, want to be Black,” she said. “I hated that I was different. I just wanted to be like everyone else.”
She grew up surrounded by white faces. She was tired of feeling like she wasn’t one of them.
Throughout our conversation, Kaia told me about her life as the lone Black girl in many social situations.
As I listened to her, I felt my eyes start to sting with tears.
Bexley and Sylvania seemed like the same neighborhood 150 miles apart.
Like Kaia, I walked into the doors of Sylvania High School as one of the only Black people. I stuck out like a sore thumb in my classes, in the halls, in my extracurriculars and the lunchroom.
I remember feeling so alone because no one around me could identify with what I was feeling. Being alone is more than a physical state. It can become a state of mind. I used to be so angry with my dark brown skin. I wished it wasn’t there, so maybe that feeling would disappear with it.
That feeling didn’t go away. Not right away, at least.
Kaia and I have both had similar journeys in accepting our Blackness. In college, we got connected with other Black students and started building a community while also becoming comfortable with who we were.
In Bexley, Kaia and a few friends were working to create radical change within their community. They organized protests and met regularly with their mayor. After the death of George Floyd, she was dedicated to doing something about it.
Though I wasn’t in the city, I knew how much the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor had shaken the city of Columbus.
The city has seen its own tragedies with the death of 13-year-old Tyre King and 23-year-old Henry Green, two Black individuals killed by officers in the Columbus Division of Police a few years prior. The death of Floyd seemed to be the boiling point once Columbus became one of the hot spots for protest across the nation.
Listening to her talk about the work she was doing in the community warmed my heart, but I also felt a sense of inadequacy about myself.
I sat in my sunroom in my pajamas, reporting on the protests that Kaia marched in while ‘TRUMP 2020’ signs littered my own neighborhood.
There were bright blue skies and few clouds in the air on our way to Ann Arbor. Living on the state line my whole life, the ‘Welcome to Michigan’ sign provided little excitement.
It was finally the weekend, something I had been longing for after an exhausting work week. The protests in Columbus hadn’t let up even a little bit, and I watched and reported on them from miles away.
I sipped on my Java Chip Frappe, or what Benny would call “a milkshake.” It had been months since I’ve seen him. We’ve always kept in touch, but when going to separate colleges, there’s only so much you can do.
“So girl, what’s been up? How’s this job? I hear you’re making bank, bitch,” Benny said.
My first inclination was to lie. To just smile and nod and claim everything was OK. But for some reason, I couldn’t lie to my oldest friend. He would’ve called me out on it anyway. He can read me like a book, and I him.
“I don’t know, dude. The whole George Floyd situation has been weighing on me. It’s been hard to even enjoy it,” I said.
He didn’t say anything but he took a moment to give me a look, prodding me to tell him more.
I was hesitant to tell him what was on my mind. Not because I didn’t trust him, but I had spent the past couple weeks after George Floyd had died explaining the Black struggle to white people.
I’d tell them about the times I was followed around the grocery store and asked to open my purse even though there was no store product inside.
I’d tell them about the time where a grown man looked at my face and called me the N-word, solely because I cut him off in traffic.
And I’d tell them about how I drive around the streets of my own neighborhood with extra caution in fear that I’d be stopped by police and never make it back to my destination.
I was tired of re-living my pain just for the sake of others to be educated on my existence.
But Benny was different. Since middle school he’s seen first hand my experiences as a Black girl at our white school. He didn’t want a recap of the past, he wanted now.
“I’m tired of watching Black people die for no reason and being expected to function as normal afterward,” I told him. “This man just died, and the whole world watched him die, and y’all still expect me to work?”
Benny turned down the music. Dua Lipa could wait.
“I just don’t get this shit of people posting on their stories and thinking they’ve solved all the world’s problems,” he said.
He was right. We talked about the people we went to high school with who had made racist remarks in the past and had regularly used the N-word in their day-to-day vocabulary. I don’t know which was worse: Knowing more people like this than I could count on one hand or the fact that these were the same people posting their stance with the Black community on social media.
It wasn’t just these people either. It was the people who could say with confidence that George Floyd shouldn’t have died but refused to condemn the system that continues to kill others like him. But sure, Becky. Your little black tile on Instagram did a lot.
Their performative allyship wasn’t really something I felt I could get past. Other people who I once called friends couldn’t take a stance on the lives of people who looked like me. It kept me up at night. But it also taught me to keep that ‘friend’ title reserved for certain people like Benny.
“I don’t want to be one of those people,” he said. His tone became very serious. “I’m not about that. I’m always here for you.”
I put my milkshake in the cup holder and squeezed his hand. Benny had gone to protests and donated to bail funds to do his part after George Floyd died. But in my eyes, allyship doesn’t have a monetary or social value. It’s a way of life. It’s a mindset.
Allyship is being there when times get tough. And calling people out when they’ve said or done something racist or potentially harmful. It’s listening to someone’s story or struggle and not making it about you.
It’s seeing that my life has value without your life losing any.