What to Black People Is Safety?

In September of last year the increasingly devastating wild fire season in northern California brought apocalyptic orange and red skies to the Bay Area. I woke up one morning and looked out on a dark red glow to the sky, disoriented about the time of day. I thought the redness would shake, but as the day continued, the orange/red skies persisted, and our usually bright apartment, stayed dark throughout the day.

In an ongoing pandemic with the ever-present threat of fires and my roommate still in her home state, I felt particularly lonely and scared of the days we had been through and the days ahead. Planning for disasters alone reminds you of the limitations of a single individual. Mia, a mentor and friend, offered to call and talk to me in the midst of my panic, which I welcomed. She reminded me of the work of nature that turned our skies orange and red, but the thing she said to me that stayed with me long after we hung up the phone was that there is a difference for Black people in knowing that we are safe and feeling safe. One was a thought in moment, while the other cultivated an environment around you.

I’m not a stranger to how one feels in the wake of trauma. Trauma has dictated how I navigate the world around me. Even when I know that danger is no longer imminent, I cannot shake the feeling of what could be lurking around the corner. Studies have shown a sustained increase in cortisol levels in Black people, which relates to stress. We are constantly in fight or flight mode, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Even when I know that danger is no longer imminent, I cannot shake the feeling of what could be lurking around the corner.

Claudia Rankine in a 2015 piece for The New York Times quotes a friend who she asked what it was like to be the mother of a Black son. Her friend responds: “The condition of black life is one of mourning.” The strain of knowing that she or her son could be killed for simply being Black weighed heavily on her each day. A feeling that sat with her as she navigated her life. Christina Sharpe’s 2016 book In the Wake details what it means for Black people to live in the aftermath of chattel slavery and what it means for our lives to be inextricably bound to death and disposability. We are constantly met with the spectacle of Black death through media and the basic foundation of our nation. This nation itself is built on Black death and continues to try to move forward in the wake of it. There is no way to escape anti-Blackness when it is baked into the very foundations of the laws and protocols around us.

Our lives lived on the precipice of death have caused many of us to become the greatest visionaries of our own death. I was reminded of this on January 6 when large numbers of neo-Nazis and white supremacists stormed the Capitol in D.C. with the intent to kidnap and kill congressional leaders. It became clear that this was largely an issue for white America — it was mainly white people and white nationalist beliefs that led to the spectacle of domestic terrorism — and that white America needed to confront its cousins as a starting place for us moving forward in new directions. Yet, much of the commentary online started the same: Imagine if those were Black people at the Capitol… Commentary after commentary from non-Black people imagined the shooting and death of Black lives at the hands of the Capitol police. And I realized that I too had held my breath and thought, if that was us…

We know and have known the life and death disparity that skin color dictates when someone comes in contact with the police. We know that the police know how to not use force. We know that they hide behind a claim of fear to kill with impunity. None of that is new. It requires no new evidence. I read a few comments from Black voices that I follow online, and then traced that what I was experiencing and witnessing was the obsession with Black death. That even when it was not happening, folk had to imagine it because how could anything of terror be occurring in the U.S. without the presence and threatening of Black life. People were reposting threads of photos of violence against Black lives. Photos we’ve never asked to be archived and used whenever non-Black people felt compelled to use it in a point.

I want to move beyond the condition of Black life as mourning. I want to not see violence and danger when I am not present, and imagine its toil on me. I want to live beyond the confines of the State’s preoccupation to annihilate me and not annihilate my ability to live first. It’s one of the reasons I love Afrofuturism and science-fiction birthed from Black authors. They take us into new worlds, where we have new ways of being.

I want to move beyond the condition of Black life as mourning. I want to not see violence and danger when I am not present, and imagine its toil on me.

In his classic Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin wrote, “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” That definition of home, a place of comfort and safety and security, as a condition and not a place is a theme that has cut across my writing as I recognize more each year the work that my mother did to ensure that all of us children could take that condition of home beyond the four walls of our humble house. In the last chapter of my co-written book A FLY Girl’s Guide to University, I recount this: “In the midst of everything that has tried to claim my power from me, I had the spaces my mother formed to forge an identity of my own creation. It is the type of space and identity that I can carry with me to other lands and other countries.” I go on to talk about the ways in which safety and a comfort of home must not be tied to particular places for us as Black people: “I revisit choice as this: the ability for home to not be just one space, but rather a myriad of real and imaginary spaces of creation. The types of radical spaces my mother created that allow me to return home.”

Mia talks about when you enter into a space, believing that you are meant to be there; that you are rightfully there, no questioning your existence in that moment. Danger at the hands of the State is very real for us as Black people. But we have to also be able to imagine ourselves safe from violence and feeling the condition of safety. This is a collective work. We must continue to help each other imagine the life and joy that are integral to our Black experience.

As we look ahead to the start of the Biden administration this coming week, we see an end to Trump in office but not a beginning of commitments to Black life. Instead we have a refusal to defund the police, not enough support for people of color bearing the brunt of climate change, and a rhetoric of those who want us to return to “normal,” where normal is the constant violence waged against Black people by the State. Continuing our fight when others will surely fall away from the battles as they sigh a relief at the return to ‘normalcy’, will require doubling down on the collective work, the community care, we have come to rely on to ensure that none of us are left behind.

What I think about often is what Mia reminded me of during that call about the orange and red apocalyptic skies we experienced in September. As ash continued to accumulate in the skies above the Bay Area from the Bear fire and other fires, the marine layer was there to protect us from worsening air quality conditions. It keeps pumping clean air our way from over the ocean. So while the orange and red skies looked like the threat of more danger, they were actually the sign of better days ahead. It remains a reminder to me that I can work toward feeling safe as opposed to just knowing that I am safe, and through that practice, I will breathe more easily.

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