Blackness, at least for me, is something that is only felt in moments. The moment when I’m with friends, rapping along to Kendrick, and they look at me nervously when an n-word is dropped. The moment when my boss lies about my accomplishments to parents who might be nervous about a black man teaching their child. The moment when a woman crosses the street when she notices me walking behind her. The moment when I see red and blue lights in my rearview mirror, and am forced to wonder whether or not I’m going to make it home that night.
The thing about these moments, though, is that they last an eternity. Despite the fact that I was born little over two decades ago, I’ve grown older than the trees outside my bedroom window. I walk through the streets of Houston, Texas and Middletown, Connecticut and New York City, and I see Methuselahs shuffling down the avenues. People who felt a lifetime of these moments, and yet they carry their ancient bodies upright, towards their goals, and with a spring in their step that belies their years.
Those of us who live these moments don’t live as long as the rest of you, but I suppose that’s the cost of living all of this time between time. I sometimes wonder how many years my mother lived in the moment she was assumed to be a waiter at a law conference. I ask myself if Kai Kitchen might be eligible for retirement after being stopped three times in half an hour. And I know with certainty that Dr. Henry Louis Gates must have been centuries old when he was arrested outside his home.
Yet, I take strange solace in my advanced years, because I know I’m very lucky. I have an affinity for every step my soul has lost, because it wasn’t my soul that was lost. I wasn’t Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin or Eric Garner or Tanisha Anderson or Tamir Rice or Freddy Gray or Alton Sterling or Philando Castile or any of the innumerable names that received their final moments of felt Blackness at the end of a gun, baton, or chokehold. These moments are the most deeply felt, for they radiate outward, aging each black person who hears about them until even the children have wrinkles and cannot walk unassisted.
It seems as if the nation itself aged a decade this week. Police in Dallas have been added to the body count of this year’s racially-motivated killings, and my heart goes out to them and their families. I am starting to see, for the first time, white people age rapidly before my eyes. I see how it scares them to see their skin prune and their bones grow frail as they impotently stare at screens large and small, unable to process the depths of either their sadness or the world’s cruelty.
It is in these moments that I beseech all humans to carry some understanding for one another. A small understanding must be undertaken by my aged brothers and sisters: that turnabout is not fair play when it comes to murder. A much larger one, however, is asked of this new crop of octogenarians who need to know that this is how some of us feel all the time.
Consider how your hair would gray if the authorities had not apprehended this sniper. Picture the petulant churning of your insides if this happened again tomorrow. Feel the soft release of each of your teeth, coming out one by one, if you felt that this realistically could happen to you.
It won’t, of course, or probably won’t, because a one or two gunmen is not the same as a portion of the entire American law enforcement community, but I would ask you to engage in another thought experiment. What if the world, by choice or by ignorance, didn’t see you aging? Each day you grew weaker and more tired, but no one noticed. And each time you lay your aching frame down to rest, you were besieged by an army of puerile children asking why you had grown bitter and resentful toward a world that had little consideration for your altered state. This too would age you, and before long, you would wonder just how many years you had left in you.
Blacks have been America’s Picture of Dorian Gray since the beginning. We have been kidnapped and enslaved and segregated and redlined and beaten and denied and diseased and lynched with the approval, if not the performance, of the United States government, so that whites may remain young and vibrant. How many years, only counting the ones on a calendar, have been collectively lost on a plantation or in a jail cell or in a segregated neighborhood (explicit or implicit)? How many lives were ended or never even started due to the ideological poison of racism in America?
I was thinking about all of this today when I went to secure a location for a film I’m working on, because life goes on whether we want it to or not. The young white man behind the counter noticed I was perturbed and asked me if I was alright. He offered me some water, and I thought “one of the good ones” while laughing inwardly. He asked me if he could get me anything else, and my mind drifted to reparations and the 40 acres and a mule denied over a hundred years before I was born. I almost said time; I wanted all of that time back. I want my people to age gracefully, at the same rate he did, unaware of those eternal moments of indignity, pain, and ultimately stillness that plagued their lives. I almost said this aloud, but before I knew it, he was gone, and the moment had passed.