After shootings in Buffalo and Texas, it’s clear dark days require deep love
It’s easy to feel numb after witnessing such violence, but we can’t let that happen if we want to create a better world
The morning the news of the Buffalo, New York, massacre came crashing against the hollowness of my heart, I struggled to make sense of what I’d just heard. I rubbed my temples, bouncing between writing out tweets and deleting them, inhaling and exhaling under the sound of Kendrick Lamar’s voice.
I don’t remember what I had for breakfast that day, or what my children said. Just snatches of words: “white” and “boy” and “with a gun” and then “murdered Black people.” The victims’ faces, though — I have not stopped thinking about their faces since that day.
I think grief and trauma do that to us: It sits so deeply in our mind that it turns an easy morning into a time of weeping, tossing the imagination into an abyss of chaos that could only be described as terror. And then there is the question: When will enough be enough?
Unfortunately, that question seems impossible to answer. Less than two weeks after an 18-year-old gunman walked into that Tops grocery store on Buffalo’s east side to “kill as many Blacks as possible,” another 18-year-old shot his way into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, killing at least 21 people, including 19 children.
Enough should have been enough years ago, but we keep finding ourselves here time and time again.
My grandmother called after the Buffalo shooting, but I missed it. I called her back, creasing the pages of my small, black journal, hoping somehow to catch a word of passing wisdom as she spoke — but she didn’t pick up. In a flash, my mind went to the images of the Black elders who were murdered in that grocery store. I saved them to my computer and now they’re staring back at me.
When the shooter entered the store in one of the Blackest neighborhoods in Buffalo, intent on carrying out his racist plot, I wonder if he ever considered that death does not just rob us of life, but it also robs us of peace. Did he ever consider that the people he killed, those who hid and those who watched him be apprehended as if he just said a bad word rather than carried out a lynching, would feel this grief as the expression of years of terrorism that sits in our bodies?
Of course, the answer is no.
I am still in disbelief. I am also caught between asking questions that make me feel like a ticking time bomb of rage, and finding relief in the things that have been making me feel somewhat alive — looking for answers in books, talking to my friends about what we already know about racism, hugging my wife, kissing my kids. These days, I stare at my computer, grasping for answers, crying with friends, and praying that my wife and my children will be safe. I remind myself that the presence of a hug is worth more than the bullet of a gun.
For the last few years, I have made a practice of remembering the names of murdered Black people who deserve to be remembered, even as the world attempts to erase them. I guess I believe there is something spiritual about this practice. Maybe, I wonder to myself, if I physically write down their names, then I could drive out the numbness I feel over the continued loss.
Just two years ago, I wrote down the names of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. Just two years ago, I put three black hearts beside their names and outlined the letters in clouds. Just two years ago, I called my grandma and asked how she felt. I wondered if those names were as present and as painful as Emmett Till for her, and if their murders sit in her 80-year-old body, making her as tired as I felt.
“We been in a rut,” she told me then. “We been in a rut.”
I asked her if she ever thought about running, moving up north like her brother Sambo did in the 1960s after having slapped the taste out a white man’s mouth, laughing his way to Baltimore. I asked if she and grandaddy ever dreamed of someplace other than here.
“I was born, I’m going to live and I’m going to die in the South,” she said. I laughed.
Here I am two years later, calling her again, devastated that we are still adding names to the list. I tell her I’m sorry that she, as a Black Southern woman, has had to give this country her best and endure the worst. And I say I’m sorry that Uncle Sambo is dead. And that grandaddy is dead. And that she had to hear about those who look like her being murdered during a quick run to the store. I say I’m sorry that she still lives in a country where some believe white people deserve the best things on earth while Black people have to wait for the best things in heaven.
“That low-down boy,” she said, “went and killed all those Black people.”
If I can be completely honest, we have died so much and at such staggering rates, that it has almost become normal. Between the violence, the racism and COVID-19, I have almost run out of tears and words that feel like they do these tragedies justice. It is easy to forget that I only experience their pain vicariously, and that when the Bible says “mourn with those who mourn,” it doesn’t take into account that distance can do something to those feelings and being overwhelmed by the news can make it hard to cry.
Yet, I have forced myself to write their names. Ruth Whitfield. Aaron Salter Jr. Pearly Young. Roberta Drury. Celestine Chaney. Heyward Patterson. Andre Mackneil. Katherine “Kat” Massey. Geraldine Chapman Talley. Margus Morrison.
I write their names and whisper them to myself. I don’t want to forget them. Under their names, I write a eulogy: You deserved more. You didn’t deserve hatred. You didn’t deserve terror. You deserved to be here. I love you. We love you. You deserved more.
In the essay Dark Days, James Baldwin writes that “to be Black was to confront, and to be forced to confront, a condition forged in history.” The condition he was referring to is white supremacy, which hasn’t died with time and passing generations. It is inherited and transferred, like a prized possession that only yields destruction and erasure. Sadly, the ones who must pay the ultimate price are not those who created a world that benefits whiteness and claims divinity upon itself and damnation upon others, but those, like me and like my wife and like my children and like my parents and like all who have dreamed of breath amid the chokehold of racism.
Before someone ever kills a person with their hands, they have already killed them in their minds and in their hearts. If you have been convinced that another person’s freedom means your oppression, you will do whatever you can to control and destroy their existence. Let’s be clear: White terrorism has always been the greatest threat to Black life and what all desire in this democratic experiment. It seems that history tells the story of an insatiable desire for our suffering. What is most enraging is that so many are allowed to do it, in the schools, while they sit in the stands, while they sit behind computers, while they are called to “protect and serve,” while they stand behind pulpits, or even when they put forward legislation, and do so without ever considering how their ignorance and hatred become a death sentence.
It has become clear to me that many people in this country are more concerned about protecting a world that benefits their children than they are about dismantling a world that harms ours. Racial terrorism has always been a tool of choice when people feel that those who are not like them are too free. Whether that means a mass shooting like what we saw in Buffalo, or the kind that tries to control curriculum, or the kind that spews hatred at those calling out racism, or the kind that views immigrants as invaders. This is not a betrayal of the American tradition — this is the very embodiment of it. This is not just bad individuals. This is the fruit of a white supremacist nation. Still, we must somehow go on.
“We know,” Baldwin writes, “how utterly improbable it is — indeed, miraculous — that we can still have a drink, or a pork chop, or a laugh together.”
Early yesterday morning, my son crawled into our bed, smiling, and asked for a snack. As I fixed his chocolate chip waffles with no syrup, he grabbed a package of sliced oranges, before asking a question he asked me 10 times the day before: “Daddy, do you want to be my best friend?”
Later, when we arrived at his school for drop-off, he yelled out, “Paw Patrol! Paw Patrol, there right on the double,” before breaking into a high-pitched laugh that sounded just like my grandmother’s. I got him out of the car and walked with him into school. “Slow down, Asa,” I told him as he ran ahead of me. I greeted the teachers as I walked by, before asking him, “You gonna run in class without telling me you love me?” He stopped, turned around and hugged my neck while I kneeled to his level. “I love you, Daddy,” he said before repeating our morning affirmation: “I am brave. I am kind. I am beautiful. I can do anything. I will see you later.”
I hugged him as tightly as I could. On the way to school that morning, I heard about a shooting at a Texas elementary school.
I keep thinking about those children and their parents, and how they likely did what my son and I did, thinking we’d see each other later. But now, they are gone.
Our children should not have to die before some realize they deserve to be safe, celebrated, free, cherished, remembered, loved, protected and fought for. They deserve to experience freedom while they’re alive. In Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde once wrote, “Our children cannot dream unless they live. They cannot live unless they are nourished. ‘If you want us to change the world someday, we at least have to live long enough to grow up!’ shouts the child.” Thoughts and prayers cannot contain the emotions of this moment. There is only grief and anger.
I pulled up the images and have written down the names of the victims we know so far. At press time, the victims are: Xavier Lopez. Uziyah Garcia. Eva Mireles. Nevaeh Bravo. Irma Garcia. Amerie Garza. Maite Yuleana Rodriguez. Makenna Lee Elrod. Ellie Garcia. Tess Mata. Annabelle Guadalupe Rodriguez. Rogelio Torres. Alithia Ramirez. Jayce Carmelo Luevanos. Jailah Nicole Silguero. Miranda Mathis. Elijah Cruz Torres. Jose Flores. Alexandria “Lexi” Aniyah Rubio.
When I stare intently at those images and pray over their names, I see in their eyes the same thing I see in so many of us: courage, wonder, beauty, freedom, desire, pleasure, honesty, commitment, struggle and life. But they were taken from this world.
And that haunts me. And that grieves me. And that makes my eyes dry even as my heart is drowning in an ocean of despair. And for that, I want to say to each of these families, to so many of us who live while vicariously experiencing their suffering: I’m sorry. You do not deserve to carry both the argument for your humanity and the love necessary to protect it.
And I know, somewhere deep down inside, the miracle that Baldwin speaks of — the ability to experience joy — is present in all of us. It is present in every inhale and every exhale. It is present in every tweet and in every tear. It is present in every shout for our lives and every footstep that will stand in our stead. It is present even when it is terrorized. It is present even when it is weak. And it is important to remember that the presence of that miracle depends on our ability to see it again and again, and in the words of Baldwin, “accept it.”
They do not see us as we see ourselves, and we do not all live at their mercy. We hold grief. We know terror. But we also know the love that refuses to let this racist world have every part of us. And it is our job to hold it, love it, protect it and honor it so that it doesn’t grow cold under the weight of the world. Whatever part that is in your hand and in your mind and on your lips, protect it. Do whatever you must to feel again, to remember the dead, to fight for the living, to not let their suffering or your own be in vain or erased.
And when the moment presents itself, remember that healing and liberation are as much about resting and being free and being together as they are about resisting. “They were trying to be whole,” Baldwin says. They were and we are.