There was a fleeting moment, in the beginning of this unprecedented global pandemic, when I was released from the gravity of my skin.
Our country was quarantined, isolated, imagining the worst from an invisible enemy. In Seattle, everyone wore masks, myself included. The world had emptied, and for the first time in my life, I was able to move through it relatively unnoticed.
Every day, my routine was the same. Wake up. Scan the news. Don a hat, gloves and mask before leaving home to walk my dog Hudson, and maybe even jog a bit. In the normal world, our walks were one of the only things that would prompt white people to acknowledge me, a small cattle dog apparently enough to assuage their discomfort with my existence. In the pandemic world, we, like everyone else, were essentially invisible.
Back at home, I’d start my workday as press secretary for The Lincoln Project, a political organization founded by Republicans to prevent the reelection of Donald Trump, finding myself in this unlikely position after nearly a decade of political, public affairs and strategy work after graduating from Morehouse. I’d call reporters and news outlets, write messaging and op-eds. Even as our economy tanked and unemployment hit a record high, even as Trump stumbled through his purposefully inept COVID-19 response (arguably designed to increase the suffering of certain populations) that smacked with unbridled corporate greed, even as his MAGA cohorts embraced pseudo-science over public safety, and staged armed protests for haircuts, and screamed vacuously for “freedom,” I, for a time, felt a strange lightness. A passive, yet profound peace.
After work, I’d repeat the morning routine, and maybe go grocery shopping or for a walk, just to fill my time. Masked, my eyes and voice were the extent of my perceivable identity. I was able to float through the deeply preoccupied world as just another. I just … was.
Don’t get me wrong, like many, I’m in shock, anxious, restless, depressed, and unraveling in this quarantined isolation. I’ve suffered significant personal losses, reckoned with the effects of childhood trauma, confronted problematic beliefs, and sought out therapy. But moving unidentifiably through an empty America, for the first time I can remember, the full weight and burden of my Blackness wasn’t necessarily a contributing factor to these feelings.
And so I, momentarily, forgot the reality that my identity and my body were spoken for in this country, and had been long before I was born.
That ephemeral lightness evaporated the day I learned of the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, the Black jogger brutally killed by a father and son, Travis and Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan. I could only imagine the feeling of superiority, entitlement, and authority that must’ve emboldened them to track and trap Ahmaud, to shoot him, and then to record and photograph the aftermath of their barbarism to his body, all seemingly without any sufficient cause except the color of his skin.
I sank further when I heard about how the Louisville Police, in the dead of night and with no forewarning, entered the home of Breonna Taylor, deemed her a threat as she slept peacefully with her partner, and initiated a firefight, riddling her 26-year-old Black body with bullets. I felt desolation, reading the police report, the justifications that followed, the unimaginable gall that led authorities to arrest her boyfriend and the inhumanity of refusing Breonna medical attention for more than 20 minutes after she was shot.
I felt itchy and agitated watching Amy Cooper’s Oscar-worthy performance in New York City’s Central Park, as she threatened birdwatcher Christian Cooper with the police, pretending to be in danger as she purposefully and powerfully wielded her whiteness as a weapon. She knew full well, with her suddenly wavering voice and carefully chosen descriptors for the 911 operator, that she was conjuring the outsized, malevolent response that comes when American white women call upon American white men for “help” in moments of “distress” involving Black men. In 1955, when Carolyn Bryant accused 14-year-old Emmett Till of flirting with her in a grocery store, she knew what she was conjuring, too. Intimately.
By the time I began watching the casual police execution of George Floyd, I felt that all-too-familiar anger return — the anger older Black folks tell you to be mindful of; the anger they tell you to be careful voicing around white folks, lest they fear you and react. I saw police officer Derek Chauvin kneel on the neck of George, hands in his pocket, unbothered by the man’s desperate cries for mercy and air, and his deceased Mama. I listened as Floyd narrated his own death, before his lifeless body was dragged across the ground, no CPR administered, no care given, no humanity recognized. By this point, my anger had been replaced with an all-consuming rage.
As I viewed the subsequent protests in Minneapolis escalate, my only response was an unremorseful, “Let it all burn.”
Born of this rage and discomfort, I decided to march for the first time in my life. That I hadn’t done it before is something that brings me immense, searing shame to admit. For so long, I’ve considered my “march” to be in the lofty spaces, in corporate boardrooms and campaign war rooms, working for philanthropies and non-profits, all the while actively convincing myself it was for the benefit of my people. The truth is, I’ve painstakingly layered my existence, feverishly trying to climb the American meritocracy from a poor, single-parent, household in Dorchester to my current standing. “I’m not just a Black man,” was my quietly kept rebuttal, vainly hoping my success and credentials would help me achieve separation from the burden of my skin. But in my desperate pursuit I had, in effect, been pacified and co-opted as the oppression of my people continued.
Somewhere between my consuming rage and this cutting introspection, it occurred to me that, in my stead, others, possibly bereft of this leisure and privilege and not permitted to move through this world like I do but unwilling to be pacified and placated, have been taking to the streets, throwing their bodies and voices against this system of oppression, crying out for my freedom. For me.
So, I marched. I stood and walked. I chanted and screamed. I touched, reinforced, reassured, and loved my people. I saw and felt their pain and misery and anger and hatred and confusion and love, and they felt mine. Present at the march was a young man of beautiful deep-dark skin, towering above us, beard unkempt, pain and rage in his eyes. I remember feeling him, being made aware of his presence, glimpsing a sea of bodies part as he approached the line of officers gathered around us. The perimeter of officers felt it, too. It seemed to scare them. They, with pistols and batons, dressed in full body armor, inched closer together. It was clear to me what his intent was. He had a message for them, one he could no longer contain. It was erupting out of his body. He stood in front of them and screamed until he lost his voice. Challenging their humanity, their masculinity, and above all else, their whiteness. Tempting them to forget their jobs. Begging them to step across the riot line and meet him. I stood alongside him, mindful of them. As he was ending, I reached out and put my arms around him, hugging him close. He balked initially, surprised by my embrace, but received it as his anger slowly subsided. I tightened my grip, and repeatedly told him that I loved him. It was all that I could muster.
I stood there, taking it all in — the march, the cops, the young man, every moment. And then I sat, on a downtown curb, and sobbed.
After months of an odd peace, with the world stopped on its axis, seemingly so we could all take a deep breath, the world felt like it was spinning again, but in an endless unraveling. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. Like any rope that’s been coiled too tightly in one direction for too long, our country is frayed and splintered, and must violently unwind to right itself. We must unwind it.
But after all of that, the months went on, and each day I held my thoughts close to my chest, nursing my feelings, tending them, but also quietly hoping the fire would subside. That I wouldn’t have to rock the small, fragile boat that is my life. That I could bury the angst and hurt, as I have so many times before, so it could harden and callous.
Then, I awoke to a video of Jacob Blake, a Black man, a son and brother and a father of three, who, according to his lawyer, for his good deed of stopping an altercation between two people, was shot seven times in the back, at point-blank range, in front of his young children.
I laid in bed that morning, filled with hopelessness and rage, and again sobbed.
Over the course of these last few months, my white friends, mostly the liberal ones, have reached out repeatedly. They ask, “What can I do?” and “How can I help?” I appreciate and love them, and tell them so, politely responding in ways that roundly avoid answering what’s at the heart of their inquiries, refraining from telling them what I truly feel — that I’m nearly hopeless. That as Black Americans, we collectively experience a harsh, sobering reality in America. That White America, in a myriad of ways, imprints upon us an understanding of our inherent worth regardless of upbringing, socio-economic standing, education or location.
That in this country, their country, our skin is our birthright.
That I truly don’t know how they can help, other than that’s it’s up to them, because we have tried everything to attain freedom in this country, and it’s gotten us essentially nowhere. And what do we have left to give?
We’ve prayed to higher powers. We’ve marched, sat, kneeled, begged, and starved ourselves. We’ve been wrongfully arrested and imprisoned. We’ve been killed, both en masse, singularly and systemically. We’ve been looted, pillaged, burned, raped, and lynched. And through all of that, we have continually appealed to some supposed shared humanity and empathy.
And I do not tell them my greatest fear, that America will always be America — and that there’s nothing more American than the ceaseless oppression, subjugation and mutilation of Black people.
The truth is, at this point, I have almost no expectation of white Americans suddenly recognizing our humanity and relinquishing their privilege to extend to us equity and equality. I’m unsure that even if I had some foolproof, failsafe, convenient and palatable answer, that even “well-meaning” white folks would listen, never-mind put it into action.
What I do know is this, White America: At the very least, in this moment, you cannot allow yourself to turn away.
Pay attention to the President of the United States of America, this perfect embodiment of the America we’ve told you countless times existed. You, or your family, or your friends voted him into office, knowing full well he brought with him beliefs and policies of America’s underbelly, harkening back to times of Jim Crow, proudly echoing American segregationists. Do not let yourself be numb to the fact that in this time of fear, misery, and unrest, the man holding one of the most powerful jobs in the world is blatantly stoking it, calling for violence, destruction, and ultimately the state-sanctioned killing of Black Americans.
Watch. Think. Do your best to feel. Let yourself wallow in the discomfort of what you are bearing witness to, and what you are actively or passively complicit in.
And then, truly, self-interrogate. Unpack the ways in which you operate in and benefit from this system, your system. Examine how you treat us while at work, socially, in various relationships. How you dictate terms, manage spaces, center your white experiences and other us. Acknowledge the power and privilege you’ve always enjoyed. How do you exercise it? Do you actively disavow it?
Only in doing these things will you understand that our plight doesn’t exist in a vacuum, irrespective of your power and privilege. And that the burden we’ve been forced to carry and the gravity we feel is ultimately tethered to you, the privileges you protect and enjoy, and your valuation of our worth and humanity. It is your birthright too.
You must decide not to allow this system of oppression to stain you as it has stained your ancestors. Do not let your resounding inaction mean that in your twilight years, you have to gloss over these moments and weave the same revisionist tales that fill our history books. Do not, through your actions or lack thereof, let your children’s children look upon you the way you look upon people from the past you now see were on the wrong side of history.
Like my children, and my children’s children, it will be their birthright as well, lest you bring an end to this.
Otherwise, this nation that will never find peace from its sins.
Nate Nesbitt is the National Press Secretary for The Lincoln Project and a public affairs strategist. He is a Morehouse man from Dorchester, Massachusetts.