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To be Black during the most American week

After a police killing and a slew of mass shootings, being American means having an uncomfortable relationship with violence

I’m not a big birthday person. I barely celebrate my own. Yet, I see the day as a time to acknowledge and take inventory of my life — to see where I’ve come from and what’s next. Over the years, I’ve treated America’s birthday the same way. 

Leading up to Independence Day this year, the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision, making abortion illegal in nearly half the states in the country, it ruled that police who didn’t inform detainees of their Miranda rights could not be sued, and the court expanded gun rights, striking down New York’s concealed carry law. To add insult to injury, a deluge of mass shootings swept across the country. It all felt like a crystallization of what America has and always will represent for me: a place where death and freedom hold the same odds, where bullets — whether stray or intentional — are as likely as survival.

When the weekend started, I was listening to a news show where the anchor asked a guest if they still had faith in America and its democracy. A few hours later, I learned of the video of Akron, Ohio, police officers shooting Jayland Walker, a 25-year-old Black man, at least 60 times before handcuffing his lifeless body. Once again, we were bearing witness to another dead Black person. At the hands of the police. Like so many before him. And again, I was flush with doubts that anything would happen to the officers who killed him. A week after the shooting, they still hadn’t been so much as questioned.

The week was heavy and brought with it a particular exhaustion about what had already happened. And yet, I wasn’t ready for what was next: a mass shooting in Highland Park, Illinois, seven people were killed and even more were injured. Almost immediately, videos of people running hit social media, and soon stories about the horrific aftermath would come pouring out: A father hiding his son in a dumpster while he looked for his other child, an orphaned toddler covered in his parents’ blood, and a daughter sharing a final goodbye with her mother, who was killed as they ran for their lives. Each account added more pain and heartbreak to an already unthinkable event. And then there was how police treated the 22-year-old white man who fled the scene. He, like the man charged in the killings at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket before him, was apprehended “without incident” by a cop who asked him to “do me a favor, get on your knees.”

The video of the arrest of the man charged in the Highland Park shootings made me feel the corruptibility of Americana poisoning all of us. After watching so many people scared and pained and saddened by the killing of Walker, I found myself battling a sense of something that felt like disappointment. I was dismayed that a white man who was suspected of killing several people wasn’t as dead as a Black man who was stopped for a traffic violation. Each time this feeling occurs, the bile rises up in me as bloodlust, because that’s what this constant barrage of death and inequality does to you. And as much as I say I don’t want police to treat white people like they treat Black people — and instead treat Black people how they treat white people — I still felt that violent urge after hearing of Walker’s brutal demise and the gentleness with which police treated the man arrested in the Highland Park shooting.

The anger I felt that the man arrested in a mass shooting woke up the next morning without so much as a scratch after inflicting so much carnage, while Black kids are filling up morgues for appearing “suspicious,” is hard to shake. Then, I felt how the darkness of what this country does to us — by succumbing to its own violence, and worshipping that violence like it worships its guns — can pull us down with it. I felt American in the worst way.

When I think about my elders linking arms and singing “We Shall Overcome,” I’m reminded that change will only happen by defeating a country built to destroy us. Historically, every step toward freedom has come on the backs of freedom fighters dragging the country along kicking and screaming. Whether it be freedom from enslavement, segregation, voting rights, women’s and LGBTQ rights, and every fight in between, America has violently resisted positive change and only capitulated when organized resistance movements have proven too strong to fail. The unrelenting faith of each person who dared to believe in victory came from faith in ourselves, and not in a country we’ve been forced to have a tenuous relationship with.

To spend a birthday with America is to understand where and who we should put our belief in. Asking us to feel American is to ask us to accept that our parades can become firing ranges, our bodies can become property, and our desires can become defined by the same bloodthirstiness this nation was established upon.

This past week has felt particularly American — a country trying to find reason for celebration washing up against a shoreline of violence, death and oppression. Where fireworks can’t drown out the sounds of automatic weapons. Where every day feels like a countdown to the end of this grand experiment. Where I searched to find meaning and defiance in a weekend that feels more like an insult than a holiday.

David Dennis Jr. is a senior writer at Andscape and an American Mosaic Journalism Prize recipient. His book, The Movement Made Us, will be released in 2022. David is a graduate of Davidson College.