“I’ll tell you what freedom is to me; No fear! I mean, really, no fear! If I could have that [for] half my life...no fear...” -Nina Simone
It’s a school night. My homework is spread out on my bed, where I’m curled up under the blue flowers of my comforter. My room is decorated in shades of blue; oceanic cobalt covering one wall, a sky blue washing over another, and a large blue carpet with blue floral details stretching under my bed onto the dark brown floor. My room’s blues wash peace over me. When painting it, I felt ready to recline in baptismal limbo; a space of my own.
“...and you wouldn’t believe how they were acting. Shouting, hitting nightsticks on mailboxes and light poles! Three men piling up on top of one kid about my size!” I’m on the phone with my mother.
“That kid in the yellow sweater?” she asks.
“Yes, and mind you, these guys were fully armed. I’m talking nightsticks, Tasers, guns, bulletproof vest, the whole nine,” I say.
My earliest memories with my mother are her eyes, large, dark, and stunning as New Moons, locking with mine when she tells me to keep my classmates’ hands out of my hair. I remember being my friend’s first grade cosmetology experiment one recess (she was undoubtedly practicing the braiding techniques used on her own head that weekend prior), and as a result, I came home with loosened plaits. In one impromptu midweek re- plaiting session, with yanking, parting, and a very close brush-up with the hot comb, mother teaches me that God created personal space to guard against enemies. She teaches me I don’t have to fear my own space.
At seventeen years old, I’m still unlearning the world’s doctrine of fear.
“But why were there so many police there in the first place, what started it all?” my mother asks, “Think about this with some common sense.”
I’ve spent too much common sense rushing past the canine cars patrolling downtown Pittsburgh. I’ve spent common sense witnessing twisted up against storefronts for standing at their bus stop. I’ve spent common sense watching men with badges tackle children like a high school bully would. I’ve spent common sense biting my tongue, and I’m tired.
“Something about a kid tinkering with an escalator in the T Station, it doesn’t matter. They’re supposed to be trained to deal with that without hurting people” I say.
“You’re right, they are” my mom replies, pausing for a quiet moment between us. A subtle understanding. “Look young Sista Soulja, you should know I appreciate the little fighter spirit you got for your people. It’s put a strong mind in your head.” I smile. “Sista Soulja” is one of the many playful nicknames my mother has granted me whenever I bring up anything in the social justice vein. The nickname often rings hollow to me, like some oversized Timbs my mom promised I’d grow into after a couple winters.
“It just means you and Dad raised me right.” I say. “I’m not trying to come off bitter or anything—”
“But you ever listen to how hard you talk sometimes?”
“What do you mean?” I say.
“You make these blanket statements about police,” my mother says, “How’s that any better than how they talk about us?”
“I only talk what I feel, Mom. I can’t sugarcoat that— “
“Hey, I’m about to stop for gas, I’ll talk to you when I get home,” she says, “A cop’s parked here.” A cop’s parked here.
I’m seeing Sandra Bland’s mug shot, cheekbones poking out of a face without a pulse.
A cop’s parked here.
I’m watching four of them downtown, pushing fourteen-year-olds around, wielding spite like nightsticks.
A cop’s parked here.
I’m eight years old again; sinking into silent panic after learning why Emmett Till’s baby face was beat to white meat. A cop’s parked here...
“Mom, call me back when you’re done,” I say flatly.
“What you want me calling back for—” she starts.
“Please, just call me back.” It comes out of me like a cub’s whimper, a desperate plea. Not like the girl with a strong will and strong words about her. Not like a co-president of her school’s Black Student Union. Not like the girl who joins conference calls with a national network of student activists. It comes out of me like the truth; that I’m scared.
“Okay,” she hangs up and I’m sitting alone in my blue room. The threat of death has a way of making the world shrink. It caps “see-you-later” with “be safe” and can define the feeling of “disempowered”. My room feels smaller.
A quiet moment rings with the fear that I am working to unlearn.
I grab a journal from the end of my bed and begin writing. If I can think about what I’m scribbling, then I can’t let my mind wander to the worst. I turn my music up as loud as my phone allows. If I don’t let it get too quiet, then I can’t mentally replay the incidents of assault from this week. Or last week. Or the week before that. I start drafting plans and networks and examples of student action. If I can catalogue and control what’s in my room, then maybe it could extend out to the world. Try to breathe in the shades of blue, try to feel that peace wash through me. Perhaps the world where cops can snatch up me and my loved ones within their sadistic will could be dismantled.
As long as I’m not the only one working to get free.