“There is something that those who have been to hell and back possess. The rest of the world romanticizes it, wants to know how to attain it without suffering. People travel from all over the world to witness examples of when the human spirit should have broken but did not. They think by being witness, they can be initiated into this secret world of unauthorized joy.”
—From Warsan Shire’s “Letter to New Orleans”
There is a revolution going on down the street from my house. From McDaniel Street, you hit University Ave., make a left, and walk half a mile to the inferno we used to call Wendy’s. The older black lady who works the late shift at the drive-thru has two kids and a son who just graduated high school. I don’t know if Ms. Tonya is okay, but I hope her son is out here tonight breathing in this new world. At the altar (see: Wendy’s) you will find the charred bits of what is no longer possible, and what is. A future with police is not a future that I will survive. Too much pop in my tongue and too much dreaming in the back of my throat. People like me don’t make it over.
They took Rayshard’s body two days ago, but the helicopters won’t stop hovering. We all watched the video and hoped for a story we didn’t already know. I can’t seem to get the Sharpie marks of the jail support line to scrub off of my skin. The color of the flames eats away at what no longer stands on the back of my eyelids.
I have enough tear gas in my blood to know what doomsday tastes like. I know theft because it’s in my lineage and know how to find reclamation in the wreckage. Could mold myself a reenactment of the moment a man with the same last name as me was murdered for having the gall/spite/righteous insolence to fight death.
Nestled here between starlight and the crunch of this city, this land is not ours, but no one will reap our dead after tonight. We salt the earth behind us and burn the bridges as they come.
I don’t know how many days it’s been since the uprising began. Last week I thought I was made of silk; today my back could snap at the thought of a deep breath. Everything feels infinite and finite. Every day is another catastrophe I am not ready to face.
It is hour three outside the CNN center and I have sweat through everything I own. The crowd of young black kids swarming the hall of fame for goods of any kind is something precious and untouchable. The hivemind moves us from building to building; we are ready to put our hands on everything because tonight we are reclaiming it all. It doesn’t have to be spoken, but there is laughter, and broken glass and the slight hissing of spray paint that is infecting the precious jewel of the black elite. Tonight, it’s ours to adorn.
I look to my left. A brigade of police walks down the steps of the hall of fame. There is no majestic term for seeing the monster lunge towards you. I am suddenly looking at two worlds of death living in front of me. At this moment, I hear the drums of doom and my body leaves me. My roommates and I begin screaming to anyone on the street to get their shit and run. Starbucks is being destroyed behind us and before I can put my goggles on I can feel it. Capsaicin doesn’t have a taste. But it grips your throat like the lover you don’t talk about in mixed company. It’s remarkable how quickly the body can humble you. In minutes, I am doubled over trying to wipe the tear gas from my eyes, and I am reminded that my body is not invincible. That they could take all that I am and nobody would remember.
There is a barrier of people making sure we are all safe. The hivemind can see all and knows when the wind shifts. We navigate farther down the street as the police inch closer. The state is trying to lick the fire that we have started, but tonight we are the forbidden thing. Nothing goes untouched. Every hotel, restaurant, and museum that night wore the mark of rebellion. No one could say we weren’t there or that our rage didn’t show up in its best regalia. In the morning we will be sore from the adrenaline and full of gumption for a world without cages—the one without police, the one where we keep each other safe.
I worry about making this sound romantic because it is not. Or at least, in that moment, I do not feel heroic or beautiful. Seeing my lover run from the police does not make me feel blacker than the day before. If anything, I am frozen by how easily the world is ready to dispose of my bones. How my primal drive to live shows up even when I don’t want it to. I am running from the devil that has always been on my back and I feel no pride in that. No sense of self in being a lost thing. I am running with a mob of other nameless black people trying to keep whatever we have left. I am not here to make you salivate for freedom but more to retell the moment I thought death was calling my name. The moment I thought it would kill every black thing it could touch.
No one can explain what it feels like the day after, the week after, or, hell, even a year after it all happens. I try to tell myself that I am a community organizer because I work for the people, but sometimes the human error slips out. I put my body in front of the immense thing because I feel bravest pretending I am ready to die. I have convinced myself that my last sacrifice on the frontlines must be my body. Will I be exalted if I am killed by the police? Will I be worthy then? Will that be enough?
No one tells you that once you have been in the grips of the death machine, it is hard to stand yourself in the morning for having the divine will to still be alive. You realize that the only time you feel most in control is when you can see the barrel of the gun looking back at you. So you sleep all day, or work yourself into the ground. Sleeping keeps you in the spin cycle of your dissociation and working keeps the high of playing with the darkness right on the tip of your tongue. Always waiting for you. If you can be the charming revolutionary you have been told to be then maybe one day all this sacrifice will be enough. The lies I told myself sit under my tongue and help me sleep at night. My body is still scared of rest.
I don’t know when I lost hope but I know where I can find it. It’s in the midst of the black kids I will never meet again, tearing apart a museum that was built in their names. It’s in the screams of people watching an Atlanta police car catch fire. It’s bubbling under the current of neoliberal politics. It is the nightmare of the black elite resting peacefully in Buckhead. It’s revenge in capital letters. And some days it’s black healers imagining the world after the fires burnout, doing the work to keep us whole and tender. Even as the world rots, the softness we are owed.
My definition of joy is changing these days. I thought it was at the bottom of a belly laugh, or even in my lover’s left dimple. But I see it in the space between revolution and uprising, both terms transforming the world as we know it. Demanding we open our chests wide enough to feel the warmth of a new dawn.
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