I woke up, dead.
It was tough to make out that it was me, but it was. My body was twisted and mangled. There was blood everywhere. My blue Tottenham Spurs jersey was shredded, filled with holes, and my red blood was starting to turn it purple. This must have just happened—I could still hear the crack of the bullets echoing off the nearby buildings.
I tried to remember the final seconds but I couldn’t. There was just the blaring of the police sirens and a feeling inside that I couldn’t explain: Confusion? Fear? Anger? Surprise?
It was a question that didn’t need an answer. Something happened (or, more likely, nothing happened) and the police killed me. It seemed simple and obvious but I couldn’t get my head around it even as the life I used to have spread out around me; a claret lake staining the street with all the things I had yet to do, but now never could.
My friends and I had talked about this moment a lot over the last couple of years. It was an anxiety I was barely aware of in the beginning, like a faint hum in the background of my daily life. But with the onslaught of the shootings and the deaths it had grown into a deafening fear. Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile—this sense that being black and being male at the same time could become fatal at any moment had escalated into something definitive. Something tangible. I was living with it all the time. It was on my shoulder like a devil. It was affecting my sleep, my walks home, my laughter. I felt that each time I did one of those things it could be the last time I’d do any of them.
I had hoped I was important, but maybe my blackness wasn’t. The TV didn’t seem to think so. The talking heads and pundits were always telling folks to wait until all the facts were out, even when the truth was right in your face. When a black man gets shot while lying on his back with his hands up, what facts do we need to wait for?
This wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I wasn’t a thug. I didn’t own a hoodie. I had no swagger. I lived in a nice neighborhood. I had an English soccer jersey on when they shot me. There was no reason for this.
Or, maybe there was. Maybe it was a reason I had spent my life working to avoid. The simplest and most depressing reason. That my black life didn’t matter very much at all.
I’d talked to my friends—my white friends for sure—at length when I was still breathing. But what had I missed? What made me unsafe? How had I found myself in this position? I had done everything I was supposed to do to make sure this didn’t happen, but it did. I’d spent most of my life as a different person, a pretender to the ruling order, which, if done right, was supposed to prevent this…finality.
But maybe I had it wrong.
I thought back to being a kid in the ’80s. I was the only black kid in my class for a long time. I didn’t want to be an outsider. I learned to be like my white friends so I could make more of them. We all did, us few minority kids. It’s what you had to do to make school bearable. I picked the right sports: No basketball, lacrosse. I learned to listen to the right music: Pink Floyd and classic rock or nothing. I learned how to greet my friends’ fathers with a firm handshake and a “sir” at the end of the greeting. I was the black boy they liked and wanted to see do well. It was what I needed to do to fit in.
In my twenties and thirties I did it again but for a different reason. All these friendly behaviors became lubricants in the professional world. A million little tics of assimilation, so numerous as to almost be invisible. The smiles and greetings. The way I laughed. The lightening of my voice when greeting certain people and the deepening for others. The clothes: All navy all the time. The food I ate and didn’t eat. The way I figured out how not to take it personally when I’d introduce myself to a white person, clearly stating my name, only to have them give it back to me incorrectly seconds later. If you wanted to be successful, you did all of this. There wasn’t a discussion.
But in the last couple of years, as the internet started to live-stream the assassination of black men at the hands of law enforcement daily, I had started to think of all this differently. It was hard to nail down because I believed in law and order. I supported the police and policing. And I thought I had mastered the behaviors I needed to stay safe.
I wanted to explain the growing dread I felt to people, but there was something missing. Maybe experience—or lack thereof—on their part was the problem. When something doesn’t happen to you it’s easy to think it doesn’t happen to anyone. But it could have been arrogance on my part too. I never dealt with the police. I was the good black guy. I didn’t drive, so I never got pulled over. I went to the right schools. Lived in the right place. Had friends with power. This wasn’t going to happen to me.
And then it did.
At first I thought those behaviors—the ability to mimic those with control, safety, white skin—were there to help me make friends. Later I thought they were there to make me successful, to help me get ahead. But recently I’d begun to wonder if they had just been there to keep me alive. Maybe that was it all along and I just never knew it. Maybe making it to 42 meant I’d actually won, not the prize of living but of having a chance to live that long. Longer than the kids who grew up next door to me in Sandtown.
And then the rage came.
The sun was beating down on my corpse while the officers stood around my body. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I was furious and terrified of what they might be saying. My phone was on the ground, glass shattered. I looked at it and wondered what they would post about me. I could see a news truck coming down the street at a breakneck pace and I was left guessing what they would say. What would the story be? Upstanding Ivy League graduate killed tragically, unnecessarily? Dangerous black guy didn’t listen or cooperate with the police, killed for everyone’s safety?
Who would make sure my friends, my family knew the truth? How would I be remembered? Would anyone care?
I screamed and it was so loud I thought the world would crack open from the force of it. But no one heard me. The cops kept talking and it kept getting harder for me to hear them. The reporter was rushing over, but also starting to fade. It was over.
I was over.
I guess this is how my black life ended. I had hoped my life would matter, but I’d been feeling like it didn’t very much. My death hadn’t made the world end, but I’d managed to leave it with both a bang and a whimper. Everyone was fading from view when I realized that I was too. And then the ringing hum was there. It was getting quieter all the time. But it said something. It asked a question; one I knew would never be answered for me.
“What will they say happened to me?”