I recently uploaded an image with these words that I found as my Facebook profile picture
because, obviously, I'm tired and these words provided the language I needed to express, unpack, and understand my weariness. You see, I'm not just tired of and from the cataclysmic events that have dominated 2020, or the innumerable black lives that were ended by people who promised to protect and serve, or even my 50 years of living. No. I am 1619-2020 tired.
The weight of the "givens" we never got
As I began to unpack the weariness I have been feeling and, quite frankly, have been experiencing in some form or fashion for years, a memory floated to the surface of my mind. It was an incident that happened decades ago, when I was a young minister. My pastor was preaching an evening service at a local church. So, like a good ministerial staff member, I went to the service to hear a word and support my pastor. My homeboy, who was also a minister and the pastor's son, and I went together.
When we entered the church, I turned to go into the sanctuary and he headed directly to the host pastor's office. He turned to me puzzled and asked where I was going. I told him I was going to find a seat. He, on the other hand, thought we should go to the pastor's office, greet the preachers, and say hello to his dad. I told him to go ahead, but I was going into the sanctuary. We went back and forth for awhile, until he asked me why I did not want to go to the pastor's office. I explained to him that I did not want to be embarrassed or not feel welcomed; I was uncertain about going in there when I was not a pastor. He was not deterred. Then I said something to the effect of, "Yeah, but you're a man and your father is in there. Even if you don't belong based on your level of ministry, you'll be welcomed as a son."
It never occurred to him that he did not belong. There was no question, doubt, confusion, or anxiety of being rejected or embarrassed. Meanwhile, I had gone through every checklist in my head to determine if I should go in or if I could go in. And once I went in, eventually having been persuaded, I never completely relaxed.
His place in that room, on the other hand, was a given. He joked, chatted, and offered his opinion freely. He was a young preacher among his elders. Every movement and word was ...natural. Inbred. Instinctive. Unvetted. Unquestioned. He hadn't receive any kind of overt instruction. He just knew and was comfortable in that knowing.
One could argue that I belonged in the room as much my homeboy. However, all the "givens," all the things he instinctively knew and grew up around, all the familiarity and ease from a lifetime of living in and around what would also be his life, livelihood, and calling were not "givens" to me. What he learned almost by osmosis, the socialization he received as a byproduct of his birth, was what I had to learn and navigate in realtime as an adult, along with a plethora of messages both overt and covert that told me I did not belong in the room because I did not belong in the pulpit.
This is often the same situation many of us find ourselves in as African Americans. We spend our lives navigating in realtime places and spaces that are not "givens" for us. We belong in the places and positions, having earned our place like (or by having to perform at a higher level) than others. However, we have not been socialized into thinking nor have our experiences suggested that we actually do belong. We, too, are fighting, thinking through, and navigating our way around a multitude of micro and out right aggressions that remind us we are tolerated, at best, or targeted for destruction, at worst. From the most mundane of actions-entering a store, driving down the street, going to school, or taking a walk- decisions about safety and fair treatment are being calculated in milliseconds with the hope of equaling survival and a lack of harassment before we can even compute joy and thriving.
In short, Black folks are constantly dealing with "givens" we never got, like the benefit of the doubt, fair treatment, equal opportunity, and the freedom from every negative to foul thing that has been attached to our blackness, just to name a few. The absence of basic givens is what we learn instinctively, overtly, and experientially, often unaware of the enormity of the load or toll it takes on our bodies and our minds. It is second nature. It is being Black. It what we see everyday in the lives of those around us. We learn them because the lack of these givens makes our life in the US precarious, at best. The calculations, navigations, and split second decisions must become automatic to help us survive. These processes become so ingrained that we don't realize the enormity of the work it takes to stay sane, stay positive, stay hopeful, or just stay alive. They become ingrained because these survival skills born from the absence of the givens are generational. If we are not mindful, we will forget that the weariness we feel is not simply our own, but the residual weariness from a rest we have been denied for 400 long years.
Barry L. St Clair, Esq.
This is how my father would sign his name to the notes he left for me on the refrigerator
door. He hated his middle name and only used his middle initial. His childhood dream was to become a lawyer. It never happened. A lifetime of events that were too much to overcome made it impossible. Yes, there were poor choices. However, it was often poor choices made from piss poor options.
Unable to afford college or perhaps even believe it was a real option after 12 years in a predominantly white school system that he and his cousins integrated, he was going to enter the army. Blinded in one eye during a motorcycle accident, he could not enter (a blessing in disguise?). He had no real job opportunities so he hustled on the streets the best he could. It was the late '60's-early '70's and he was a casualty of the heroin being pumped into black neighborhoods and then he was criminalized because of his addiction. He missed my Yale graduation due to incarceration.
I have often said, "My father showed me the way, but for some reason could never take the way he showed me." We are taught the blame the victim. In reality, my father saw the way from behind the doors locked in front of him. He was also wise enough to forge some hairpins to help me pick a few of the ones designed to keep me out.
My father was an intelligent, witty, charming, playful, handsome man. He was a "girl dad" before they coined the phrase. And he never had a chance, nor was he able to make one.
Ann Jean Walker
My mother was a child when she had me. Barely 16. My uncles tell me that it was not unusual for her to complete the high school marking period with a 98 average. A library has probably been written on the interrelated systems of oppression that converged on her that resulted in poverty, addiction, prostitution, and incarceration. She didn't survive the 20th century heroin epidemic. We all know it wasn't an epidemic back then. It was moral failure or weakness of character. Even the preacher that eulogized her condemned her to hell.
Doretha Virginia Hancock St. Clair
My paternal grandmother and the only mother I knew. She loved baseball. She used to play it with her nieces, nephews, and children in the sandlot across the railroad tracks. Grandma said she wanted to be a physical education teacher. Instead, she was a domestic in a private home and then in the housekeeping department of a nursing home. I spent a summer volunteering at that nursing home and occasionally helping her make beds. A resident asked me if I was going to follow in her footsteps. My grandmother answered, "No, she's going to be a doctor."
Abram Jasper Edwards
The picture to left was taken at my Yale graduation. I was the first grandchild so I named him. He was Pop pop. When I was in high school, he bought a Lincoln Continental and my grandmother bought a Town Car. I remember Big Mom (my great grandmother) fussing about them spending that kind of money on cars. My grandmother told her mother that she worked hard, she could afford it, and she wanted it ( I cannot remember my grandmother ever expressing a want beyond her reply to, "What do you want for Mother's Day/birthday/Christmas?). Sitting together on the front stoop, Pop pop quietly told me that when he was growing up, a black man could not own a Lincoln. "They wouldn't sell it to you no matter how much money you had. Not even the undertaker could buy one."
Big Mom and Mother
The first 2 pictures are of Della Wade Hale (Big Mom) and her mother, Sarah Elizabeth Wade (Mother). I was 3 when Mother died. Big Mom's great grandparent (her mother's grandparents) were slaves. Big Mom's grandparents were the first generation born free. My point: slavery wasn't that long ago.
The legacy given
I write their names and say them. I share their stories to remind me and memorialize them. I look back now and not only see the individuals, but the powers and principalities that incumbered their lives. And I marvel, because as Audre Lorde stated,"We were never meant to survive." But we did. I did because each of the lives mentioned above, and countless more I could not include, carried the survival lessons they learned or were given, and gave them to me. The lessons were designed to teach me (us) to recognize and NEVER ASSUME the "givens" because we never got them. So we were told things like
keep your hands in your pockets and don't pick up anything you are not going to buy
no window, don't go in the store if you don't have money to buy something
you cannot do what white people do and think you will get away with it
you have to be twice as smart and work twice as hard
We were given"the talk" about the police.
The list goes on and on. We are given a survival kit because we live in the maddening reality that every white person is a potential threat based on empirical, historical evidence; that white supremacy is so insidious that as a friend's father put it on the eve of our graduation from Yale-"y'all are going to need a Master's degree to figure it out;" and that there is always push back or consequences to acknowledging the above or acknowledging it without providing the "not all white people" clause.
All of this is on top of, mingled in, and circumscribing every activity. Work. Job. School. Recreation. Relationships. Religion (we will talk about that one soon). And I haven't even mentioned my direct encounters with white supremacy.
I. Am. So. Damn. Tired.
And it's not "poor time management," or a crowded schedule, or saying "yes" to too much. It is the 400 year refusal of this nation to acknowledge the truth that #BlackLivesMatter while simultaneously being confronted with the ways in which we truncate this hashtag in our own communities. #BlackLivesMatter, all of the them. Periodt. So I am using my pandemic pause to rest and reflect in order to figure out who, by virtue of my own prejudices and biases, I am wearing out, because we all need a break.