The never-ending grief of being Black in America

I’m trying to listen and learn.

Last week, I was invited to guest-write for a widely-read newsletter. Although the topic, grief, was timeless, the way I approached it became quickly outdated.

“This pandemic has given us so much to mourn, from our routines and sense of certainty, to our livelihoods and the lives of people we love,” I wrote.

The essay was due last Monday, and it published the following Friday. In the span of those five days, the United States ignited and erupted. That Monday, a Black man named George Floyd died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s death was captured on video, and within days, demonstrators took to Minneapolis’ streets to demand accountability. By Friday, protests and riots had broken out across the country, and have since spread worldwide. The heartbreak and rage—even viewed from a distance through a tiny phone screen—were immensely palpable.

If I could rewrite that essay, I would have made it clear that, here in the U.S., we were mourning the effects of the pandemic and the horror of police brutality and racial injustice. The grief surrounding Floyd’s death, and the many Black lives lost before his, needed to be acknowledged, too.

Of course, the coronavirus crisis and racial injustice are intertwined. Both are the result of a deeply flawed system, as Matt Zapotosky and Isaac Stanley-Becker explain in The Washington Post:

America’s persistent political dysfunction and racial inequality were laid bare this week, as the coronavirus death toll hit a tragic new milestone and as the country was served yet another reminder of how black people are killed by law enforcement in disproportionately high numbers. Together, the events present a grim tableau of a nation in crisis—one seared by violence against its citizens, plagued by a deadly disease that remains uncontained, and rattled by a devastating blow to its economy.

That article was one of many that I read over the weekend. For my own sanity, I tried to limit my intake of social media and the incessant commentary of 24/7 news—a difficult challenge, especially as protests spread across the country. I did, however, read as much as I could. I tried to listen and learn. I donated to a few causes, hoping to feel a little less helpless in the process. I reached out to Black friends. I examined my own privilege and prejudice. I went on plenty of long walks to try and make sense of it all.

I don’t have the words yet to articulate everything I processed over the past few days, nor do I believe the internet needs another white person sharing what she thinks about this issue. Instead, I wanted to share excerpts from some of the most thought-provoking articles I read. They were immensely helpful to me, and I hope they benefit you, too.

In this stunning piece for The Nation, Elie Mystal describes what it’s like to be a Black person living in America:

Put yourself in the position of a relatively conscious black person in America just since this past March. Black people have seen a pandemic disproportionately rip through their communities while the media continually runs live press conferences of a racist president lying about the disease. We’ve seen layoffs and unemployment ravage our communities while Congress funnels billions of dollars to white-owned businesses. We’ve seen white people absolutely lose their minds, waving guns and Confederate flags at police officers, pushing them into lakes and gathering in large groups without consequence while we’ve seen police literally sit on black people for allegedly violating social distancing orders.

And then the stories of the killings started. In the past three weeks: Ahmaud Arbery was lynched, on video. Breonna Taylor was killed by police in her own bed, offscreen. And George Floyd was choked out on the street in broad daylight by police while strangers literally begged for his life.

Imagine you’ve been black this whole time and watched all of this happen and you show up to protest and, instead of being met with docile, restrained police that the white Confederates get, you are confronted by police in full riot gear who use tear gas and rubber bullets to control your crowd.

And then you see a rock. And then you see an unguarded white-owned business. And then you see a match.

The fact that most black people do not pick up the rock in that situation is a miracle. The fact that the overwhelming majority of black people respond to the violence and terrorism practiced against us with words and songs instead of rocks and bricks is altogether supernatural. America should be thankful black and brown people respond to state-sponsored violence with nonviolence. In other times, in other places, the injustice regularly practiced by the white American paramilitary forces known as the local police would be met with rebellion or revolution. Here, black people take to the streets, and almost all of us do so nonviolently. America is the luckiest place on earth.

Roxane Gay’s reminder, “Remember, No One Is Coming to Save Us,” is honest and heartbreaking:

Eventually, doctors will find a coronavirus vaccine, but black people will continue to wait, despite the futility of hope, for a cure for racism. We will live with the knowledge that a hashtag is not a vaccine for white supremacy. We live with the knowledge that, still, no one is coming to save us. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free.

Grief is almost always top of mind for me. Lately, motherhood is too. But I will never know the grief of being a Black mother. A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez shares her experience:

As Black mothers, we are living in an especially troublesome time — sandwiched between the current public health threat of Covid-19 and the longtime reality of police brutality. We are trapped in a double-bind of racism.

While there’s an influx of “pandemic grief guides,” none are useful in teaching Black children that the virus is terrifying, but that racism is the public health crisis more likely to kill you. There are no instructions about where Black mothers are supposed to place their fears and sorrow.

As Black mothers, grief is embedded in our being. It accumulates and manifests as body aches and pains. But many of us have never been taught how to deal with it so it doesn’t become yet another risk to our health.

I worry often about how much journalists have suffered lately. They’ve faced layoffs and pay cuts, vitriol from the President of the United States and regular citizens, and the vicarious trauma of covering especially heavy stories. Some days, it feels unbearable. As LZ Granderson writes, that load is even heavier when you’re Black.

In these moments, we don’t have a choice. Journalists of color recognize how important, essential, it is that we be there to bear witness. I do not look forward to going back into the streets to hear the cries of a hurting people. In fact, I dread it. But I do it because I recognize the melody. Their song is my song. Their pain is my pain. They have taken to the streets because they feel they have no other choice. So I, and others, follow, because neither do we.

The opening paragraph of R. Eric Thomas’ essay in Elle, “It Does Not Matter If You Are Good,” is a gut punch:

At some point you learn to speak clearly and slowly, to widen your eyes a bit, perhaps to smile, in situations where the underlying danger of everyday existence races to the surface like an air bubble in murky water. Of course you do this with law enforcement, at a traffic stop or in a random encounter on the street, but you do this also in the most anodyne situations—with the train conductor when your ticket won’t scan, with the concierge at an apartment building, with the random white stranger who suddenly wants to know what you’re doing, where you’ve just come from, where you think you’re going. You learn to perform harmlessness, not as a way of selling yourself out—though it often feels like that—but as an attempt at heading off a conflict that seems to always be brewing. You learn—or, at least I, a black, cisgender man, learned—that there will be moments, random and unbidden, where to save your life you must convince a stranger that you are in some amorphous way good. And at the same time you learn that it probably will not make a difference.

Finally, a refrain I’ve heard over and over from Black people is that they are tired. Grief is exhausting, and the grief stemming from racism in America seems to be never-ending. It reminds me of Tired, by Langston Hughes, a poem I revisited among all of the articles and commentary of the past few days.

I am so tired of waiting,

Aren't you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two—

And see what worms are eating

At the rind.



Listen, learn, then take action

I’d love to hear what you are doing in response to the events of the past few days. Is there a resource guide you found that’s especially helpful? A specific cause you’re supporting? A creative way that you are taking care of yourself and others? Maybe there’s a quote that really stuck with you, a protest moment that inspired you, or another article that you think I should read. I want to hear it all.

Share your best resources and ideas by replying to this email, leaving a comment, or sending me a message. I’ll curate your replies in Thursday’s newsletter, crediting you by first name only (let me know if you’d like to remain anonymous). 

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p.s. Hello to the newest readers of My Sweet Dumb Brain! I’m glad you’re here. You may not realize it yet, but you’re now part of a wonderfully empathetic community of people. Thursday newsletters are typically limited to paying subscribers, but I’m planning to send this week’s issue to everyone.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this essay did not capitalize Black in reference to racial identity. Here’s why capitalization is important.

My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates. Photo by munshots on Unsplash.