What is the difference between dying, and being so afraid to die that you never live?


Editor’s Note: A version of this piece was previously published on The Each Other Project

I learned to swim well before I was 14 by taking classes at the local YMCA in East Cleveland. If that rec center was the only frame of reference, you’d think swimming was an exclusively Black phenomenon, the pool being even more segregated than the larger community. After moving to a more diverse suburb, however, I learned that white folks steering clear of floating Black people wasn’t unique to the Y I went to in my youth.

Perhaps pools with our bodies inside are too damning a reminder of the days they first came for us, invoking horror-movie scenes of those of us who didn’t make it across the ocean, so were fed to it. And their consciences, like vigilantes, judge them guilty since no court ever will.

But pools unplagued by our bodies and the haunting flashbacks they bring have always occupied a special place in the white community’s imagination. So much so that not too long ago they took specific care to ban us from them. Black skin was covered in a sickness that was somehow benign enough for our mothers to nurse, hold and wipe the asses of their children at the expense of time with us, but as soon as our skin made contact with the water, the whole pool turned to filth. On a few occasions, throwing acid in the water as those same mothers swam was seen as a fitting punishment for molesting their pools, so many Black people can’t swim because those who would have taught us were never allowed to learn how.

I learned how to well before I was 14, but I still can’t swim. Not in McKinney. In McKinney, a pool party with Black attendees is raided by police. In McKinney, a 14-year-old girl is brutalized by an officer for trying to swim. This is another form of acid, the injustice system white vigilante consciences should rectify, but never do. Punishment for molesting the pools.

“Get your asses down on the ground!” – Officer Eric Casebolt

I’ve always been jealous of how well my older siblings could swim. They were lifeguards as I took classes at the Y, and I never did become quite as skilled. They always seemed to leave such big shoes to fill, and doing just as well or better as the next eldest was expected in my family, much to my chagrin. And when I was 14, my older brother was heading to Princeton.

White people had their own expectations of me and my siblings. When I told him where my brother was heading, a white classmate explained to me all about Affirmative Action and how it played a seismic role in admissions. I didn’t know then, but you can’t do anything on your own if you’re Black. And if you forget, they always remind you to get your ass (back) down on the ground. I didn’t know my place, but I was learning quickly.

A white cop tightens handcuffs around the wrists of a sitting Black boy.

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By 14, I had yet to be arrested, and I was terrified of the very concept of being in jail. In my childish mind informed by anti-Black ideas of respectability, an arrest meant you had done something reprehensible, and there was hardly any redemption.

So, I toed the line. I rarely even cursed. I wore my pants up and associated with the “right” crowds. My innocence was important to me. A child’s innocence should be important to everyone.

I know now an arrest often just means you have been Black. For some of us, simply being a child is arrest-worthy. Simply talking back. Simply not knowing your place, because how can you know a thing that you never had? Even the Black baby’s body lacks guiltlessness. How can a Black child’s innocence be important if it was never there?

Maybe that’s why Black children look so old to white people that a 12-year-old Black boy was perceived as being a 20-year-old adult before a white officer gunned him down within 3 seconds of seeing him. Maybe that’s why the arrest rate for Black juveniles is 5 times the rate for white youth. Maybe that’s why Black youth represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons, but only 13% of the population. Maybe that’s what happened in McKinney.

At 14, respectability taught me to walk around desperately clutching an innocence that did not exist. I held it up as proof when a white boy with a confederate flag pendant stepped up while calling me a nigger at college a few years later. He left that incident a little bruised, so I was written up, despite displaying my innocence for all to witness.

I have since been in jail, and I survived fairly unscathed. I am no longer afraid of temporarily being inside of them, or those who would occupy them with me, but I am now terrified that the very concept of jails, prisons and human cages shares reality with a world in which the Black body itself is criminal.

A white cop grabs hold of a 14-year-old girl’s hair and drags her to the ground.

At 14, the long hair I had grown throughout middle school was gone. One of the reasons was that my mother thought I would look more mature without it. I wonder if by “mature” she meant “less threatening to white people.”

Once someone grabbed and pulled my hair during a fight, and it felt as if they were trying to pull the scalp from my head. So that they could get to my brain, maybe, and take access to my mind.

There’s something intensely personal and fiercely powerful about hair. Having it pulled was like having an integral part of me in someone else’s hands, being wrenched away. This is why Black people become so angry when white people touch our hair. This is why white people touch it. And that was the other reason I cut it, so that no one else could pull it from me.

In McKinney, I couldn’t tell if I was watching a grown man grabbing the hair of a child and throwing her to the ground by it, or an attempt at ripping the scalp off a Black baby in order to get to her brain and force inside of it the belief that she is useless.

And with every time her face slammed against the ground–useless. Useless. Useless.

White observers create a human shield around a cop who has just attacked a child. The cop pulls a gun on the other Black children trying to stop his brutalization.

What do you do when you see a grown man dragging a child to the ground by her hair? Do you sit back and do nothing? Interfere? Do you defend him? What if he has a gun drawn? Do you still jump to his defense?

White citizens answered these questions in McKinney, and this is why I no longer have faith in consciences riddled with white guilt. White citizens guarded an armed man as he smashed a child’s head into the ground over and over.

And I wanted to be there to fight for this child—to try and stop this madness—but maybe it’s all for the best. I’m certain if I had been there I’d be dead.

“On your face!” – Officer Eric Casebolt

At 14, I found myself staring at the face of another 14-year-old who looked just like me. Or used to. His face was now a grotesque disfigurement resembling kneaded dough and silly putty. His eye had been gouged out. He was dressed in a suit and tie.

Not long before this picture was taken, he was beaten beyond recognition and had barbed wire fastened around his neck before being shot, tied to a cotton gin fan and dropped into the water by two white men who did not like that a white woman said he whistled at her.

I misspoke before–they only steer clear of floating Black bodies when those bodies are filled with life. And maybe that fear I blamed on a guilty conscience is instead just a fear that we haven’t sunk yet. Indeed, their waters are perfectly suitable for Black bodies if they are dead.

I watch this cop grab a 14-year-old Black child by the hair and violently push her face into the dirt, and I wonder how many times Emmett Till’s face was smashed into the ground before it came to look the way it did. Before it stopped being a face and was made a nightmare. She is beautiful too–just like him. I’m starting to understand that in this world our beauty must be removed. Stripped way. Smashed into the ground. Turned into silly putty.

How long do tears remain inside of your eyes before your body replaces them? I think seeing the face of Emmett Till was the first time I cried just hearing about a historical event. I think I cried all night. It’s now 12 years later, but I know somehow that these are the same tears.

The officer places his knee on the 14-year-old’s back, leaning his entire weight into her.

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This country was built on the backs of Black people. Four centuries of chattel slavery created this “greatest nation in the world.” Watching this representative of that nation-state put his full weight on the back of a Black child as she screams, this brutal history is what is within the frames.

Futilely, she struggles to remove the weight from her back. It was 400 years of struggling that leaves us at this very moment, only to see her face-down on the ground.

After a moment, she goes still, sobbing quietly to herself after coming to the realization that she won’t get up. She can’t get up. And she can’t get him off of her.

This is the source of my anxiety. It feels like we won’t ever get up. Like we can’t get them off of us. It feels like this happens over and over and over again. Emmett Till was 64 years ago. Tamir Rice was 4. Dajerria Becton was 3. And the countless who were erased or debased in between. What are we fighting for? What’s the point? Couldn’t swim then, can’t swim now. Couldn’t be kids then, can’t be kids now.

The same tears from 4 years ago, or from 400?

“Get out of here, or you’re going, too.” – Officer Eric Casebolt

In the wake of Black Lives Matter, they tell us that Black kids need to know what happens when we stand up for ourselves. You go down, face first. Look at this girl crying on the ground and learn to stay in your place, or you’ll go down, too.

And yet, here we are. We never do stop fighting. We march. We riot. We organize.

But perhaps the response has to be: What would happen if we loved each other more than they could ever hate us? More than they could ever frighten us into turning our backs on the ones who never do stay in their place? Enough to always stand by those who stop teaching our children anti-Black messages about criminality? Enough to give platform to those who seek to abolish the police, prisons and even the state? How do we become one of them?

How do we stop thinking it might be for the best not to be around to protect our children because otherwise we would be dead? What is the difference between dying, and being so afraid to die that you never live?

Abolition is impractical, and I know this. Sometimes, I feel like the critics of divesting from electoral politics, of the rejection of liberalism, and of the radical abandoning of faith in incremental progress narratives are saying, “Hari, stop fantasizing about this impossible world where Black people are free.” But what would happen to those of us who are drowning if and when we start to imagine this impossible freedom altogether?