Letters from a Young Poet #1
On questions: City birds
Letter to the black community: an exploratory confession.
There won’t be freedom without confession. You don’t owe me a thing, I’m aware of that, but I want to explain why it took me this long to understand that a homicide outside a convenience store in Minneapolis can coexist with spring in the English countryside. If you’re willing – I hope you are – let me tangle through the truth.
I don’t fault the happy children. Not when they skip past the homeless through the park, not when they complain to their mothers about their pinching new shoes; especially not when they are small and wide-eyed, asking me if I ever brush my hair. I’d rather see them warm and loved, unaware that they are, through no act of their own, little manifestations of privilege.
I was one of them. Kids like us then become mildly talented adolescents whose happy circumstances lift us into the realm of excellence and pending prominence. We are the chosen ones, the crème de la crème of society, in the words of my then economics teacher. This narrative, directed at a room of mostly white fourteen-year-olds, starts to merge with our view on life until it solidifies into unquestioned reality. The world exists only as it is in our line of sight, and what’s there is pleasant; a promising future, friends who laugh at the same things, exciting stresses about an exciting life.
We can’t care about what we have never seen, would rather refuse to see. It’s easier to be pre-occupied with ourselves, more comfortable to submit to complacency and dispassion for tragedy that doesn’t involve us. We hear about things on the news and all agree it is terribly sad before changing the channel, banishing it from our minds, sending it back to where it came from. On we skip, past all the unthinkable disasters.
2020 was the needle to this bubble. It was the tough love my happy life had protected me from, all the way into my twenties. On March 16th, I fell ill with the virus that had been tightening its grip on the world. This was when the pandemic was new, lockdown still an unfamiliar concept. Following a two-week quarantine, I travelled to Loughborough, where my partner stayed. We spent two months enjoying a quiet and beautiful spring. I slept, stretched in the garden, fell back into a daily reading habit. By May 25th, I was blissfully rested, like dough proofing in the sunroom. On the same day, George Floyd was killed.
I returned to London in time for work on the first day of June, a thin scarf tied over my nose and mouth. I was thinking about everything young people think about: myself, my job, how to balance the need for money with the desire to be creative. The night before work, I lay awake, feeling my brain dig fervently, headed for the centre of the universe. I was excited. Normality had been suspended by COVID-19, and because it hadn’t yet brought me loss or sorrow, there was a sense of freedom instead. The slate had been wiped clean: anything felt possible.
The hum carried me past midnight, wide awake and dreading the morning. I reached for my phone to distract my straining mind and was faced with Derek Chauvin’s cavalier smile.
In itself, this was nothing new. I’d heard of similar events countless times before, shaking my head with all the lukewarm empathy of the privileged. This time, it caught me after two months of stillness, of a paused and negated reality, of my mental lining thickening and readying itself for the truth.
My excitement fizzled out. An inkling, somewhere in the back of my head - god, it’s like two different worlds - like footsteps in the distance. It was the dread you feel after you’ve hurt yourself, right before the blood wells up. I tried to hide, pretended to go to sleep. But something gripped me, hard and unyielding; growing pains bloomed in the joints of my soul. The world had come for me. I cried until sunrise.
The debt of grief and outrage that I had collected over the previous twenty years washed over me in those hours. I tried to take everything in, refusing now to put my head back into the sand. Face forward and repent – this was the same voice that produced my faltering, painful poetry and ridiculed me every time I giggled for the camera. It was absolute, disconnected from my body and often from the present moment - it ordered from above, static and cerebral.
No choice but to obey, as it coldly supervised my implosion. I cancelled work and spent two days trapped between guilt and shame, giving myself up to them, hoping they would purge me. I think it’s important here to make the distinction between guilt and shame: the guilt came from being white, the shame from being black. No – not shame for being black – it’s hard to explain, but let me try.
I felt unworthy. All along, you must have regarded me with a sort of trust – a trust I hadn’t deserved. I was an impostor. I needed a disclaimer to tell you and everyone who would listen I’m not really black – I’m not part of that shining brave beautiful crowd and I don’t deserve your kinship. I’m sorry for my skin, my lips, my sway. It’s all deceit, but I don’t mean it to be – do you understand? Could you forgive me this?
I can barely tell you, now, but there’s nothing else for it. The revulsion that first night was overwhelming. For the life I had been living, for the lie I had unwittingly told. How many times already had I failed to stand in solidarity with you? Embarrassed myself, given myself away? How many times had one of you met me and known that I was not like you? Had you felt disappointed? Betrayed?
My identity evaporated with the dew that morning. If I was capable of such oversights, such delusion, I couldn’t uphold any claims. How could I speak of my blackness when I had not truly understood what it meant to be black? How could I think of it as part of myself, find joy and pleasure in it, when I had never experienced the pain? I had no right to a community I’d never truly known, separated by privilege. I wasn’t a part of you, and so I couldn’t claim you were a part of me.
I had nothing left. Nothing but my questions, endless and larger than life. They hovered at the periphery, waiting for me to look up; then they rose, crowding in like city birds to crumbs on the pavement. I tucked my chin and panicked quietly - what do I do? What could I?
Where does soil become solid ground? I managed a few hours of fitful sleep around mid-morning and woke to a different world, a different reflection of myself. It was a hard and unforgiving mirror – it felt like the final judgement, although I knew it was only the first.
An inconclusive portrait; I saw youth, which should put you in mind of coquettish self-awareness and silver-gilt. Drive and the desire to know. Foreignness, but in a sanctioned way – English nestled into my voice like it was there from the start, confidence that only reached as far as my status quo. Solitude, of the creative kind. Black like nobody in this country, white like no one back home. Shades of brown and the fear to offend. A gradual unfolding of style and personhood. Questions. Slivers of answers I wasn’t quick enough to capture but that momentarily dispersed the clouds of doubt, allowing me to snatch a breath.
It was me, unmasked and faceless.
This is where it started. There’s no use in keeping the truth from you – although it squeezes me hollow and I can’t look you in the eye. I thought you deserved to know, needed to know, if I’m ever to scrub myself clean of this shame. I walked the protest on June 3rd, answering every black voice from Hyde Park to Parliament demanding I say his name; every iteration was an apology. I confessed to the rhythm of your footsteps, listened to your hoarse cries, watched you walk and raise your fists. I told myself that with everything out in the open, I might learn like the rest of you not to cower under the weight of my sorrow.
I haven’t succeeded yet. The physical softens everything. It’s an inevitability to rest my mind against: I know the sun will rise, and that I will too – that there will be love to offer and breakfast to prepare. I don’t have to question myself when I wipe down the sink, watch the dogwalkers on the street, make a mental note to put a wash on later. The day-to-day brings reprieve, cushions things so that I can almost convince myself that maybe, this simple beauty is enough. Beauty, I recognise, as every spectator does. It’s soothing and comfortable, something to be grateful for and take refuge in.
It’s almost enough to forget that the hideaway of everyday life is the coward’s home. My shame doesn’t let me – face forward and repent. Familiarity would have me vacant as a houseplant, content with ritual and repetition, too timid to wonder whether any of it matters at all. What is the meaning of me? In what ways, if at all, do I matter?
Meaning is what I’m after, and that has to do with the things that are alien to me; tribe, belonging, purpose. I can’t be the observer in my own life – no matter how still and appreciative of the dawn I am, it will not detach me from place and time. I exist, here and now, and only if I justify this breath will I be able to savour the next.
What this justification looks like is another question. I can’t control how I am perceived, which makes it hard to determine how to perceive myself. If the truth of my identity is contextual, dependent on how I relate to others, where does my integrity come in? If I am what I am to you, then half of the equation surely falls into my lap. I am a daughter, and sister – these things are true by blood. But I’m not black in the way that you might’ve expected me to be, or in the way a white crowd might believe me to be. I’m not the face that a photographer sees, or the body that the man on the street corner watches. What gives these onlookers the authority that my own rallying intuition lacks?
I can’t trust my own judgement, and I can’t in good faith build on the ideas proffered by others. Whatever is truly part of me may not be for anyone to decide so much as to unveil. If I ground myself in the mess of things, admit that the world is more than my oyster, the false and affected might simply fall away. What remains should be the intention to serve, in one way or another. I can serve by loving, by trying, by learning. I must help wherever I can with everything I have at my disposal.
Twenty years of shelter means it’s my turn to march – I don’t fault the happy children, but I can’t exonerate myself. I atone by refusing to give in, refusing to look away, to let the onlooker and his insidious whispers discourage me. I shouldn’t need anyone else to strengthen my resolve, to validate the person I’m hoping to become; but even so, I can’t escape being seen and to a degree, being made. The eyes of the world are not impartial, and the preconceptions of the powerful carry more weight than they should. I realise this now, and will never again dismiss the heart-breaking significance of it, even if I simultaneously seek to escape it. We all want escape - I know he did, more than anyone in this world, for those eight minutes and forty-six seconds.
I say his name, and the birds devour me.