“Can I ask you a personal question? It’s one I’ve been dying to ask you since you guys walked into the office that first day.”
I braced myself for an inappropriate query before chirping an apprehensive “Sure! Go right ahead.”
“Why did you move to South Africa…when so many people are leaving?”
This is proving to be a difficult question to answer, as she was not the first (and certainly won’t be the last) person to ask it. I faltered and offered an unintelligent, canned response. Something about exposing my children to a “new culture” and providing our entire family with a “change of scenery”. Her tone was saturated with such utter shock and disbelief, as if our decision to relocate to this country was a tragic mistake that needed irrefutable justification that I desperately wanted to give her an answer that would satisfy her incredulity and curiosity. This paltry attempt was all I could muster.
“I just feel very much at peace here,” I concluded.
She responded with a flat “Umph.”
The inquisitor was the admin at what is to be our children’s new school. Even though she and I have only met on two occasions, we’ve established a mutual respect for one other. She’s a straight shooter who calls it as she sees it; my type of woman. Ordinarily, I would have responded with the same sort of directness that we both embody…but how do you begin to explain to a stranger that the impetus behind the decision in question is fear? And specifically, the fear of becoming prey – carrion for a militarized American police force? The real truth was shrouded in much more gloom. The peace I described wasn’t so much as me running towards something positive in South Africa in as much as I was running away from something far more frightening. And though our family’s mission web page is chockfull of flowery prose about our emigration being spawned from a desire to encourage Godliness, entrepreneurship and the like (which would have been the more inspirational response and the one my husband would have given), my personal motivation is and has always been rooted in a desire to escape a feeling of latent terror. Was she – a white South African woman – ready for that level of truth? How uncomfortable would that make her? I couldn’t be sure, so in providing this saccharine coated answer I instinctively did what Black people in America have been trained all our lives to do: Make white people feel safe.
A year or so ago, Evelyn from the Internets created a video in which she suggested that Black people ought to have the option to “call into work Black”, the same way people call into work sick. She performed a hilarious – but poignant – sequence of morning rituals to illustrate her point. Before we get out of bed, almost everyone in this modern age does the same thing: we check our phones for the time, the weather and the news. When you’re Black, that news seemingly always involves the death of an unarmed Black man, woman or child at the hands of the police. Then comes the predictable chorus from the majority population admonishing the dead for refusing to “obey authority”, effectively pouring salt in our collective gaping wounds while blaming the slain individual for their own tax-payer funded murder. This is sprinkled with the insidious insistence that Black folk are imagining that race and racism are factors contributing to any of these events.
This cycle has been on rinse and repeat for the past 500 years, and the load doesn’t seem to get any lighter.
In the days leading up to and following our fairly successful transition to the southern hemisphere, I have noted the absence of the dreaded Hash Tag. You know the one: the one that announces the identity of the slain youth/college kid/activist/jay walker/loosie cig seller/what-have-you on Twitter. The hash tag that carries the weight of the details of this person whose life has been cut short because (s)he “looked suspicious” or “resisted arrest”…even when there is no indication of what they were being arrested for in the first place. The hash tags that are permanently seared into your consciousness like the molten metal of a slaver’s branding iron. The hash tag tweeted and retweeted like a death knell.
I knew that they were out there – the unnamed and killed – but there was no evidence of it online or anywhere else. I tried to convince myself that maybe I HAVE BEEN overly sensitive. Maybe 2016 was different and the police had learned how to do their duties without taking life, and taking it violently and wantonly. Maybe the nightmare I was running away from in America was actually over.
Maybe…But even my instincts told me that this was neither true nor possible. The absence of these names and faces from the public consciousness were more likely due to media suppression than the police’s sudden ability to do their job humanely where Black bodies were concerned.
And then it happened. This morning I awoke to the news of Alton Sterling’s sidewalk execution on July 5th. Before the dawn’s early light had filtered through my bedroom, I saw him wrestled to the ground and heard a series of shots that silenced Mr. Sterling’s questions. “What did I do? What the f— did I do?”
Then I heard the officer pause his gunfire before shooting him three more times. That old, familiar shroud of grief cloaked itself around me again. That white-hot pain that I’ve learned to anticipate every year threaded its way through my heart. I was crestfallen, but today I experienced something different.
I experienced relief.
I experienced gratitude.
I experienced an indescribable bitter sweetness, one that I imagine must be similar to survivor’s guilt.
Because for the first time in my adult life – and more specifically since becoming a mother – I don’t have the same sense of fear that is dovetailed with the experience of raising a Black boy in America. I don’t worry that once he’s grown and barely out of the house (or playing in the park), his name will be this summer’s dreaded hash tag. In watching Alton Sterling die, I feel the grief that follows yet another Black life lost – this time because he was selling CDs and had a gun in an open carry state – but I don’t feel that same ancient weight…the one where I seriously have to wonder if I or someone in my immediate family could be next. I don’t feel like I’m living under a terrorist’s threat any more. I feel sad…but more than that, I feel free.
The Guardian keeps a tab on the number of people killed by police in the USA. Alton Sterling is Number 558 in 2016. That’s more lives snuffed out than calendar days thus far. And we all know Number 559 is not far behind. We can feel it. He/she could be lost and needing directions or failing to use a traffic signal right now. There is no ultimate guide for keeping yourself safe and Black in America. Ours is the struggle of the pine tree, pleading with the axe to find a new purpose at Christmastime. There’s no way in that equation that the pine tree comes out the victor and every day is Christmas.
As far as South Africa is concerned, perhaps this is still the honeymoon phase of my new arrangement, but I don’t feel “Black” in this country – at least not in the way I did in the States. I don’t feel like my children or I have a constant bull’s eye on our backs. I’m not naïve. I know that the safety and acceptance we’re experiencing now is because we’ve been ‘othered’. Sure, we may be Black, but we’re Americans above all. This makes us a novelty and that sort of discrimination benefits us now, but as we adapt and adopt more of the customs of our host’s society those perceptions could change.
I’ll deal with that when the time comes. For the moment, I’ll happily trade exoticism for a sense of safety. And because calling in Black is never going to be an option, this is the next best thing I could have done for my peace of mind.