till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise
high as the list’ning skies,
let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
We’re too intimate with brutality,” said Gina Athena Ulysse, author, feminist anthropology professor, ethnographer, member of the Haitian diaspora and performance artist, at a recent lecture I attended during the Brooklyn Book Festival.
As she said these words, slow with firm intent, “We’re too intimate with brutality,” I thought of the time I was driving this summer, days after Sandra Bland’s death, and I noticed a cop car behind me and remembered that I didn’t have to be doing anything but looking like myself to get pulled over. I rehearsed what I would say to them to save my own life if they flashed their lights.
I thought about how I carry my receipt in my hand each time I leave the store so that people know I didn’t steal anything.
I thought of how many times I’ve been mistaken for a different woman, based solely on skin color, and wondered how long it will take for the wrong person to make that mistake and for that mistake to become fatal.
We have become too intimate with brutality. This statement is startling, isn’t it? Perhaps because it doesn’t say, “We are becoming too intimate with brutality.” The word becoming implies we are getting there, but to say “we have become” implies this has taken time. It doesn’t say, “We were too intimate with brutality,” although you could argue that as well. It has taken centuries of enslavement and genocide and silence and numbness to get to this point.
We have been and we continue to be too intimate with brutality.
Brutality has become a guest that has overstayed its welcome, except it should never have been invited to the table. It carries with it pain and trauma and anger and tears and fear. It has made itself at home in our minds without us extending a hospitable hand.
We have become too intimate with brutality.For me, the “we” in this statement is people of color, but “we” is also relevant for too many communities. “We” could be victims of gun violence/racialized violence/sexualized violence/violence against the trans* community/domestic violence and countless others.
That “we” can also be us as a society, as a people who have become numb to headlines about the death of [insert minority person here].
That “we” can mean those of us who are tired, but being tired isn’t an option when there’s so much work to be done and being angry isn’t considered a valid form of expressing oneself.
And I know, I know, that in a time when new stories on police brutality and systemic racism are published daily, it’s exhausting. It’s hard to read. It’s hard to know what to do besides say, “I’m so sorry.” Or dialogue with a police officer. Or say another prayer.
But what do we do when we can’t be black in church? What should I have done when, just like June Jordan wrote in her “Poem about My Rights,” it wasn’t safe to be me being me where I was?How am I supposed to accept that things have changed when my 89-year-old great-grandmother was probably thinking these same thoughts when she was my age?
We have become too intimate with brutality. We have become too intimate with suffering. And I am tired.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has
Sing a song full of the hope that the presence has
Facing the rising sun
of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
*trans is an umbrella term that refers to the diverse identities within the gender identity spectrum, including but not limited to transgender, nonbinary, gender nonconforming, genderqueer, genderfluid, genderless.