Friend: “Hey! It’s been a long time. What’s going on with you?”
I had a nightmare that shattered my confidence and exposed the pulsing wounds underneath. It went like this: My husband, Kevin, and I push our daughter, Halaina, in her stroller through a crosswalk. The sun has not yet reached its peak, but it leaves tingling kisses on our skin just the same. We are on our way to get coffee and pastries for our breakfast-picnic in the park.
A grey truck stopped behind the painted lines of the crosswalk casts its shadow over us, turning the sky deathly black. It revs its engine as we approach. Hate ripples the air and I instinctively jump in front of the stroller. There is a melding of bodies and grey and bloodcurdling sounds. Searing pain rips apart my body. I cough up rubber and gasoline as I roll onto my knees and push the stroller away, unsure of where to go except from where I came.
Gravel and dirt dig into my thighs and the palms of my hands. I hear heavy footsteps stalking me and see panic etched across Halaina’s face. She reaches up for me and I fumble the seatbelt as my eyes blur and my face crumbles and all I can think to do is rip her out of the stroller before it’s too late. I pull her to my chest and run, but I fall. My blood screams for me to fight, but I lie there, ready to die. Halaina looks to me for salvation, gasping “Mama,” but it’s as if there is no choice.
The world is against me.
The presidential administration has begun and CNN is featuring an ongoing story about incidences of hate crimes across the country. A trans woman’s car was defaced with a swastika. Contorting white faces shout at brown ones to go back to their countries or die. Every day I leave work, I expect to find nigger sprayed in vile lettering across my garage door when I return home.
Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed that the black community should meet physical force with soul force. My soul aches. And my back. My bones and my head too.
I leave the blinds open at night to let the moonlight rest on my face. It reminds me of doors that lead to places away from the yawning abyss on the other side. I wake up in the darkness each morning, excited that I have lived but downtrodden just the same. I pray and read my devotional in the walk-in closet. Ill-fitting sundresses and my grandfather’s flannel coat brush the back of my head. I smell Old Spice and Tide, then mumble Hebrews and John. Amen. I give myself 10 more minutes before getting ready for work. I read the news on my phone. When I’m finished, I put away the headlines shouting at me that I don’t matter. I forget that I just prayed to God.
Death flicks its thumb at my sister, crushed between twisted metal at a stoplight. Its skeletal fingers trace their way down my mother’s spine, rendering her temporarily immobile yet permanently robbing her of height. It is a sleight of hand, a misdirect of what is to come. Months later, my grandfather oozes tar from his side, lying yellow-eyed in his hospital bed. Then he’s gone.
I am triumphant that I have escaped Death’s caress yet plagues feast upon the soft insides of my mind. Should I keep wearing my Afro to work? Will I get in trouble? If I stall on the road, will someone stop to help? People probably think I’m the nanny. Did I get all the knots out of Halaina’s hair? Just another black mother not doing her job. Why did that man look at me like that? What if the police pull me over? Are my taillights working?… These thoughts don’t stop! They come at me when I am washing dishes, pushing upward through the drains until they burble toward the water’s surface and release with a greasy burp. How high do I have to climb to supersede my blackness? Please God, not another conversation about my hair. Am I too loud? Was I too blunt? Should I apologize? But why do I have to apologize? Am I undermining blackness? If I don’t volunteer for that project, am I being lazy? Am I being rude? Am I really being antisocial? I don’t identify with anyone here.
Why can’t I stop thinking like this?
It was easy planning our road trip to visit my family in California last year. It hinged on a simple instruction. “Head west.” We made allowances for detours to see Biosphere 2 in Arizona, my uncle serving a life sentence in prison, and Roswell. I was eager to indulge in Americana, to travel in a car brimming with luggage and our then-infant daughter sleeping in the backseat. We’d be like those ruddy-faced white folks I’ve seen on vintage postcards. We’d be the epitome of Norman Rockwell’s creations as we sat at rest stops shaped like teepees and UFOs. We were going to be an American family.
When we plan a trip to visit Kevin’s family in Virginia, he sees the worry on my face. “Heading east? I…I don’t know about that, babe.” What I know is that the Deep South cuts through both of us. “Heading east? What’s the safest route for us?” I think of people who use the word miscegenation and still hold onto segregation in their shop windows and doors and hang it from willow trees. I think about our car sitting by the side of the road, tires flat, engine hissing steam, and people just driving by, not caring because we are not their America.
Reverend King also implored that we not fall into distrust of all white people because, ya know, not all white people are bad and some are actually fighting for us. I fight against racial conditioning that keeps me poised for the moment Kevin will slip up and reveal himself an imposter. I fight against loneliness when I’m standing on a street corner and spy a white man staring too hard at me as he cruises past in his car. I fight isolation when my white neighbor stands in his darkened garage as I pass by, never responding to the nod of my head or wave of my hand. I fight the pangs of anarchy roiling in my stomach when this country’s president doesn’t condemn the actions of white supremacists, when hatemongers sprout like poisonous mushrooms that can’t be suppressed.
My mind once shaped words carefully and when I spoke them, they were glinting weapons in their accuracy. Now my eyes are sharp, my mouth sewed shut. I take more breaks at work to walk around the block and tell myself not to cry. Sometimes I let the mask slip off and live in the disappointment, but I still keep my mouth shut. I keep the grumbles to myself, the history lessons, the ways in which my reality is different from everyone else’s. “But isn’t that how we effect change?” Yes. That’s also how I end up dead with loosies in my hand, my back broken and head bashed in, and flesh burnt.
I have a daughter, you know. She could end up dead too, which means I let my soul ache. And my back. My bones and my head too.
What’s up with me? Me? I cannot pour out my fear in character limits to text you of the bounty weighing on my head. So—
Me: “I’m good. Work’s busy. You?”
by DW McKinney
DW McKinney is a former biologist and ethnographer now listening to her inner storyteller. She proofreads legislation for the State of Texas when she is not working on her memoir. She writes about blackness, parenting, and the awkwardness of the human experience. Her nonfiction has appeared in Mothers Always Write. A memoir essay is forthcoming in TAYO Literary Magazine. Visit her at www.forlangston.com, where she celebrates Otherness.