600 Seconds in the Life of a Black American Woman and a Cry for Our Allies

Welcome to my monthly column Some Of Us Are Brave. This space is all about the intersected identities and experiences of American women. My focus will be race, but I’ll also tackle age, class and other issues. Ideas for a column? Contact me at tami@b-word.org

On the evening of July 6, 2016, Philando Castile, a Black man, was stopped by police in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, ostensibly for a busted taillight. Media would later report that the officer reckoned Castile’s “wide-set nose” made him fit the description of a wanted criminal. Castile, a 32-year-old cafeteria supervisor at a local Montessori school, was shot four times as he reached for his wallet, complying with the officer’s request to present his identification. Castile had previously alerted the officer that he was a licensed gun owner and was in possession of a weapon. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend and, along with her 4-year-old daughter, a passenger in the car, streamed the stop and the aftermath of the shooting live on Facebook, narrating in strained disbelief. Philando Castile was pronounced dead at a local hospital.

On the evening of July 7, 2016, my husband, a Black man, was stopped by police in suburban Indianapolis. Something about the tags on our car attracted their attention. Our niece, who was with him, called to tell me. “They’re really trying to catch people tonight. There are four or five cars pulled over out here.” Both my husband and my niece arrived home safely barely 10 minutes later. The officer didn’t even issue a ticket. But those 10 minutes—600 seconds waiting—were interminable. I thought about Alton Sterling, the Black man in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who had been killed just two days before. And Eric Garner. And Tamir Rice. And Amadou Diallo. And Freddie Gray. I worried that my husband might betray some annoyance with being stopped. Like Sandra Bland. “God, please be deferential.”

As the minutes ticked by, I thought about calling my niece. “What is happening!?”  I considered, though, what could happen if she or my husband reached for the phone. I have been rereading Alex Kotlowitz’s  award-winning nonfiction book, There Are No Children Here, published in 1991, which recounts life in Chicago’s infamous Henry Horner Homes housing project. There are so many ways for a Black body to die in America, especially in Chicago’s concrete poverty warehouses. Drugs. Gangs. Police. Slow asphyxiation of grinding poverty. In the book, LaJoe Rivers, mother to eight children, seemed always braced against a violence that she hoped would not afflict her family but that she was helpless to prevent.

Kotlowitz’s book and last week’s events highlighted for me how helpless fear for the safety of our loved ones and ourselves is a chronic part of Black American life. It afflicts most all of us by degree. I may not know what it feels like to be a young mother huddled on the floor of a high-rise housing project with my babies, waiting out the bullets of rival gang members. But I do know what it is like to wait on a husband, a son, a brother, a father, a nephew and hope that they don’t “fit the description” this night or make some cop jumpy with their Blackness. I know what it is like to be stopped by police feet from my house and greeted with “Is your license suspended?” I know what it is like to sit, remembering Rekia Boyd and Yvette Smith and Tarika Wilson, being mindful to stay very still and wondering if my Saturday errand uniform of yoga pants, t-shirt, and locs in a ponytail make me appear suspicious in my own neighborhood.

Ever-present fear is wearying. It is depressing. It is poisonous. I know this. I experience this. But one shouldn’t have to experience the threat of extrajudicial violence in order to know that the American criminal justice system is broken and horribly racist. Yet ongoing state violence against Black citizens has failed to spark anything but temporary hand-wringing from our fellow citizens. We are still dying. And Black America shouldn’t have to continue offering up our martyred loved ones as proof while the majority asks, “Well, shouldn’t it really be all lives matter?” For several days, progressive white America has offered its sympathy to the Black community for Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.

Damn that. There will be more Castiles and Sterlings and Blands and Boyds until our alleged allies can give Black people more than just sympathy. It is not sympathy we need. We need antiracist allies to do something besides head-shaking, tongue-clucking, and meme-posting. We need you to be as outraged as we are. We need you to cry as hard as we do. We need you to have conversations with your children about race. No, not conversations about how everyone is the same; real conversations about American history and white privilege. And we need you to have those same conversations with your friends and parents and your Confederate flag–loving uncle. We need you to march with us. We need you to call your mayors and your police chiefs—pressure people with power to make change. We need you to vote like all lives matter, including ours. We need you to aggravate and agitate and demonstrate. We need you not to get caught up in whether the Black victims of police violence are perfect, because that is a distraction. In America, we are not supposed to execute people who have not been tried in a court of law, and we for damn sure don’t execute them for selling loose cigarettes and CDs or driving with busted taillights. In America, we have due process of law, yet in countless cases, police stops of Black men and women result in an on-the-spot death penalty.

Black people are fed up. But privilege dictates that we will keep dying until white America is fed up, too. We are waiting.

Tamara Winfrey-Harris, a plus-size Black woman with short brown locs, poses in purple lipstick and a purple shirt with gold hoop earrings
by Tamara Winfrey-Harris
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Tamara Winfrey-Harris writes about race and gender. She is the author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America and the forthcoming Dear Black Girl: Letters From Your Sisters on Stepping Into Your Power, due March 2021 and available for preorder now.

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