by NaKeesa Frazier-Jennings
Early on the morning of Monday, May 25, my husband and I got out of bed while the sky was still dark and drove to the beach. We are both fans of a good day trip, but due to the recent recommendations for the people in our state to stay in and stay safe from the coronavirus, we had not taken one in quite a while. My favorite form of exercise is walking, and I prefer to do it outside while enjoying fresh air and the many beautiful sights to see and experience throughout the area that I call home: the Pacific Northwest. I have countless pictures of the beautiful scenery and look at them repeatedly because they bring me so much joy. However, with so many parks and trails being closed as of late, exercising for the most part has had to be done inside of my house. So, sensing that I needed an outing of some kind, my husband asked: “Do you want to get up at 2 a.m. one day during the Memorial Day weekend and drive to the beach to watch the sunrise?” He was not even finished with his sentence before I yelled out a resounding “Yes!”
My husband and I are two of the extremely fortunate people who still have our jobs during the unprecedented rate of unemployment in this country and for this we are grateful. A few weeks before our drive to the beach, I’d suggested that we take vacation time from our jobs to just have some time to relax and recharge because the stress of this very unsettling time in our country and in the rest of the world was definitely taking its toll on us. The Memorial Day weekend seemed like the perfect opportunity to get some extended time away from our regular routine so we both requested the day after Memorial Day as vacation time away from work. My plan was for us to nap a lot, watch movies, and eat some of our favorite meals since we still had to stay home however, my husband’s idea of watching the sun come up while at the beach sounded like a perfect plan.
So, after just a couple of hours in the car we arrived at the Pacific Ocean. As the sun rose and the waves showed their always amazing power and beauty, tears of happiness instantly sprung to my eyes. What was even better was that there were no other people on the beach that we could see other than one person who was far off in the distance who looked to be walking their dog. For several moments, I stood near our car and just breathed in and out deeply, savoring this very precious time. After months of worrying and being on heightened alert trying to navigate what and how a global pandemic could affect my husband, myself, and our loved ones, those moments on the beach were like ones I’d had many times before but I can’t ever remember feeling like I needed them as much as I did on that day, at that time.
What I imagine that we, all humans, had been experiencing since the novel coronavirus began to spread across the world was the stress of not knowing what to expect next as things continued to progress at such a rapid rate. In my community, the Black community, there were many reports about how a disproportionate amount of deaths from coronavirus were taking its toll on us. This did not surprise me as I am used to all manner of health disparities affecting the Black community disproportionately, however, this time scared me much more than ever before. My heart and my mind were both filled with love for and thoughts of all the Black elders, all the Black people who have underlying health conditions, and all of the Black people who did not have access to adequate healthcare or even worse, those who would undoubtedly receive less than adequate healthcare due to the color of their skin which could lead to disastrous results. To say that my levels of fear and anxiety were at an all-time high would be an understatement. Besides all the Black people outside of my household that I worried about, I was concerned about how or worse yet when this pandemic would affect myself, my husband, or both of us. Having had these thoughts for months was all the more reason why our short beach excursion was such a welcome break for me.
My husband and I spent a very short time in our car at the beach that day and just moments standing outside near the water before we took the drive back home. We both felt refreshed, but we still crashed on the couch shortly after we got home while it was still morning. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful, but little did we know that in the days and weeks to come, our lives as Black people in America would be impacted in ways that I could personally never have imagined.
Quickly, the news media shifted their focus from all-day reporting about the coronavirus to reports about the death of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, who had died in police custody, and it was as if our viewing of the sunrise at the beach was nothing more than just a dream because we were instantly back to our reality, which is like a living nightmare. For my part, I was still silently grieving the recent deaths of other unarmed Black people whose stories had been shared between the news segments that were primarily dedicated to the coronavirus pandemic. Honestly, I had been carrying in my heart and in my mind the deaths of all of the unarmed Black women, men, and children I’d heard about on national news platforms for the better part of a decade. So, though the recent deaths were not new news, they were each just as tragic, heart-wrenching, and fear-inducing as the ones that came before them. In fact, my life, to a large extent, has had the killings of unarmed Black people as a constant part of it for several decades. Miraculously, I have not lost someone close to me in this way, but that does not mean that this normal part of Black life in America has not impacted me greatly.
One of my earliest memories of becoming aware and then instantly shaken to my core about how easily an unarmed Black person’s life could be taken without there being any consequences for their murder was when I was still in school. I think I was in the eighth grade, and my teacher showed us a film about Emmet Till. The sight of his severely mangled and bloated face and body while he laid in his open casket spoke undeniably to the horrific death he had suffered. Back then, in the 1950s, there were no surveillance videos, camera phones, or any other technology to show in vivid detail what took place and led to the death of that 14-year-old Black boy. His mother’s insistence that his casket be open during his funeral and the pictures that were shared by the news media, though, were enough.
Fast forward to the year 2016, which is when my husband and I bought our first home. We were proud, happy, felt accomplished, and felt all the other things people feel when they buy their first home. The afternoon that we went to pick up the keys to our new home from the realtor was the day after the news of the deaths that week of both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, two more Black men who had been killed. When my husband picked me up from work so that we could head over to the realtor’s office our conversation was only, could only be about these two men. By the time we pulled into the parking lot of the realtor’s office we were both sobbing. We felt these deaths so deeply. I felt not just sadness for those latest two victims and their families but I also felt such a strong sense of grief for every single Black person who was not safe and who is not protected from this either becoming their fate or the fate of someone they love. Every year on the anniversary of the purchase of our first home, we can only think of the Black men who were killed, because “celebrating” just does not feel right.
Since George Floyd’s death on the same day as our beach outing, I have been inundated with not only my feelings of sorrow that he died in the way that he did, but my heart is just consumed with sadness for his family. I am re-traumatized every time I am online and see still shots of his body laying on the ground or when I don’t get to the television remote quickly enough so that I hear, yet again, the pleas he makes for his life and then him calling out in absolute anguish for his dead mother. The news coverage and the reality of living through everything that has ensued since his death is so heavy and is quite so burdensome to absorb on a daily basis. The depths of the collective pain, fear, and exhaustion that so many Black people are experiencing cannot truly be described in mere words.
Seemingly, though, many individuals, institutions, groups, authority figures, and more have come to an agreement and have even gone as far as to say to Black people in the wake of George Floyd’s death we should “take time” to take care of ourselves. It seems very logical to some that we should do that and now, more than ever, we deserve to do just that — take the time to take care of ourselves. But how exactly are we to do that when we live in a society where caring for oneself emotionally does not seem to be socially acceptable beyond short-term or momentary pleasures like binge-watching television programs or movies for a day, or enjoying a few hours at a spa, or indulging in your favorite meal?
During my adult life, I have seen people respond with great kindness to other people and their families who are experiencing a physical illness of some sort. People will rally around them in support by doing things like bringing them food, medication, and flowers, and in some instances, money has even been donated through crowd funding programs, collections from church members, fundraisers, and more. When someone says that they themselves or their family member is sick with a physical illness and needs time to care for themselves or their family member, for the most part, no one questions it. However, for years, I have shared time and time again how Black people in particular carry the weight of not just the effects that racism has on our daily lives but how we often live with the fear of how it will play out next, and to what degree will it affect us this time? The stress of this type of reality places an emotional burden on a person that someone who does not experience this could never imagine.
The level of never-ending resilience that it takes to live day after day under these conditions while taking care of all the other things we have to take care of just to exist (eating, sleeping, working, child-rearing, going to school, running errands, going to doctor’s appointments, etc.) would be an unattainable feat for many. However, Black people are just supposed to do it, every single day of our lives, without complaint. As a matter of fact, from a very young age, I received the message loud and clear that we, Black people, are not to show how hard our reality really is to the outside world. This was our business, not to be shared openly or even admitted amongst ourselves. That message was reinforced in adulthood as I navigated through one dehumanizing event after another, most of which I only had to experience based on the fact that I am Black. I have rejected and will continue to reject that message! From my perspective, everyone who is not Black needs to hear about our reality and they need to hear about it from us. Until I take my last breath, I will continue to be one of the Black voices who unapologetically speaks to exactly what our reality is by sharing my own life experiences.
The emotional toll that living in a Black body takes on a Black body is largely considered something that many believe is just not real. Unlike when someone says that they are physically ill and needs support, when a person needs time to care for their emotional well-being it is not considered necessary or even valid. So, when I and many others have said that Black people need time to take care of themselves, we are largely ignored. When I would tell people that my personal boundaries and commitment to self-care were non-negotiable in order to support my overall wellness, they’d often seem perplexed. Sometimes, very rarely, people would understand and even agree that these strategies were good ones for wellness. However, there is not a true level of real support in our society for that to happen — at least not in the way that Black people need.
From living with the insidiousness of racism that permeates every facet of our lives from activities of daily living to health disparities and the very real threat of being killed — violently, while unarmed — because our lives aren’t valued and we are seen by far too many as less-than and therefore unworthy of human decency, what do we do? How do we support ourselves emotionally? What would that even look like if it could be done adequately enough so that Black people get time to, at the very least, get restorative rest to recharge to try and exist another day? I can tell you right now, it is NOT spending less than 30 minutes at the beach wearing masks in the midst of a viral pandemic. So finally, I ask, can Black people living in a society, reality, and climate like this ever, really, get a break?
Of course, the answer is absolutely, unequivocally, no.
NaKeesa Frazier-Jennings is a longtime Seattle area resident originally from the Washington, D.C. area. Mrs. Frazier-Jennings is an advocate for race and social justice, often using the written word to shed light on the many issues faced by Black people, other communities of color, and women. She enjoys writing, very amateur photography, coloring, jigsaw puzzles, watching documentaries, going on easy hikes, and spending time both virtually and in-person with family and friends.
Featured image by Alex Garland.