Breathing Lessons for Black Girls An African American WU student spends an uneasy summer vacation.

Photo courtesy Lisa M. Williams

 

 

breathe (v.): to draw air into and expel it from the lungs

 

On the last day of May, I perch on the kitchen stool, eyes closed, as my father glides the clippers across my head. His hand gingerly holds my forehead in place. He skillfully works back and forth, like he does every month with my little brother, like he did three years ago with my grandfather in Alabama. Wait, was that my father that cut my grandfather’s hair? My mind is clouded and tired; I squinch my eyes shut trying to remember—who cut my grandfather’s hair that day, my internship starts tomorrow, eight minutes and forty-six seconds—I open my eyes. I force myself to return to the stillness. I silence my mind until all I hear again is the buzz of the clippers.

On the internet, I am frequently encountering the rhetorical device of cautious white pathos. In nearly every email, text message, and social media statement they are ‘saddened,’ ‘burdened,’ ‘disheartened,’ ‘pained,’ ‘hurt.’ How odd. Why doesn’t George Floyd’s murder make them angry, impassioned, furious, resolute? What are they so sad about? It is flesh that looks like mine that lays breathless in the street, desperate in hospice, lifeless in a morgue. Respiratory failure. Somehow lukewarm statements and recycled platitudes still feel like a knee on my neck. A virus blocking my lungs. A knife in my back.

Across the street a little Black girl plays. She runs back and forth across the lawn, into the driveway next door. She makes me nervous, running everywhere: to the sidewalk, almost in the street, up and down the tiny slope on her front lawn. Through the window above my desk, I see her dance back and forth between her lawn and the one next door, taunting her father, giggling, laughing. I think, she does not know boundaries yet. Barriers. She does not know where she can and cannot go. All she knows is to fall down in the grass and laugh. The line she crossed between the lawn and the street she does not acknowledge. She does not know it exists. I wish she never had to know. I wish I never felt afraid when I saw little Black kids playing outside: the little Black boy yesterday riding his bike in the street. Be careful. Be young. Have fun. Don’t know.

 

• • •

 

breathe (v.): to inhale and exhale freely

 

There is a crisis in the hospitals there is a crisis in the stock market there is a crisis in the streets there is a crisis in my living room at 6 a.m. on Father’s Day morning because my mother is weeping about being too dizzy to see and COVID and fear. And I am shaking and I am helping her to the restroom and I am giving my address to the 911 dispatcher and I am fighting the fear.

The paramedics standing in my living room are of little help. They are defensive when we answer their questions, try too hard to convince my mother to go to the hospital. “Any chance you’re pregnant?” they ask laughingly. “No,” we respond stiffly. We explain why. The paramedic gets snippy: “How am I supposed to know that stuff?” No one said you are, my mind bites. My mother weeps, leaning against my brother and me, in fear of the emergency room. There are too many ways for Black people to go.

It is flesh that looks like mine that lays breathless in the street, desperate in hospice, lifeless in a morgue. Respiratory failure. Somehow lukewarm statements and recycled platitudes still feel like a knee on my neck. A virus blocking my lungs. A knife in my back.

She opts to stay at home and wait out the dizziness on the living room couch—it could just be a symptom of dehydration. Leaning against the back of the sofa, watching as the paramedics retreat down the stairs, a thought occurs to me: this is my father’s first Father’s Day without his father.

Four hours later, I make breakfast while dancing to the music my recuperated and rehydrated mother is adding to our family playlist. We laugh and watch a documentary. We nap and watch another movie. Life moves on.

I am not sure if the fear is gone.

 

• • •

 

breathe (v.): to spend a great deal of time, thought, or effort on (something); to be wholly devoted to (some interest or activity)

 

Near the end of the spring semester, I was talking to Black WashU alumni about being a student during a Black Lives Matter uprising.

Now in June, I write race equity initiatives with fellow ArtSci students, craft petitions, and attend Zoom meetings to plan demands to Chancellor Martin.

I keep looking around. Will someone tell me if that time is now? Will someone tell me if this is activism?

I will not know until I am looking back. I will not know until it is over. I will not know until I am talking to the next round of WashU students about how to mobilize against racial injustice.

My voice does not shake as much as I thought it would when I deliver my statement to the Chancellor. I speak of the time I had to ride in the back of a WUPD vehicle for medical transport: blood sugar – panic – medic – rifle – terror – disarm. I am still not sure if this is activism. But the Zoom room is packed with more than a hundred supporters. The virtual presence is felt. And the messages from my friends, classmates, even TAs warm my heart. Even if my words seem to fall on cold ears.

It is strange; I am more scared after speaking than before. My stomach twists tighter as thoughts whirl. Will they revoke my scholarship for speaking out? Will I be targeted? Will I keep my job? My leadership position?

Is it activism yet?

A day later I am still afraid. My fears are worsened watching the mayor of St. Louis read private citizens’ names and addresses on a livestream, scoffing and smirking at their pleas for justice and reform. Her brow furrows in the same way the Chancellor’s did just the day before. My address is listed in WebStac (I was forced to update it or else be barred from registering for classes), just a couple clicks away.

I am still not sure if this is activism. But the Zoom room is packed with more than a hundred supporters. The virtual presence is felt. And the messages from my friends, classmates, even TAs warm my heart. Even if my words seem to fall on cold ears.

A week later I have a panic attack in the post office, trying to apply for a passport. It is not because of the Zoom call or COVID or the latex-free gloves I have accidentally left in the car or the protests or the fact that I have to find another job at the end of July. It is because I was so prepared for my passport application and made an appointment and took my passport photo just right and got to the post office on time but still messed up—forgot to say I had an appointment—accidentally stepped up to the counter twice when I was not supposed to—did not realize a line of people behind me were calling out to me at once until several seconds passed—left spaces blank on my application. And because I am having a panic attack in public. Why are you anxious you shouldn’t be anxious you’re so stupid for getting anxious in a post office are you serious right nowI can’t breathe.

I cry on the way home.

 

• • •

 

breathe (v.): to pause and rest before continuing

 

In my job’s virtual equity training, they ask “how does anti-Blackness show up in your life, how does it make you feel, and where do you feel it in your body?”

And I think of my hair and I think of television ads and I think of comments from high school teachers who wrote my recommendation letters and I think of my nose and I think of my clothes and I think of my favorite books and I think of the surprise in people’s eyes when they see a Black woman at the interview.

And I feel my shoulders tense up into rocks. And my stomach forms a solid defense lining, to protect me from the bottomless overwhelming sinking feeling.

And five minutes later the Zoom has ended and I go back to work, the boulder still floating in my gut.

 

• • •

 

breathe (v.): to give rest from exertion to

 

On July 31, my mom wakes me at 8 a.m. to tell me two things:

 

  1. the article I wrote for my internship has garnered attention on Twitter
  2. my junior-year university housing contract has been thrown out.

 

I am so groggy that I feel no emotion besides overwhelming confusion and want desperately to go back to sleep. I do not sleep again until late that night.

By 10 a.m. I feel seething anger. I have read every policy and notification from the university. Everything says the same: I must find somewhere else to live this school year. All summer I had depended on that university housing, counted on it, looked forward to it even. I had prepared for it. Made my plans around it.

Now I am in the middle of nowhere. Starting over completely. With less than two months before classes begin.

By 2 p.m. I have had three phone discussions about housing, answered four emails about my article, begun my online apartment search, and scrolled through the replies on the Tweet about my article. I am exhausted—all my usual panic and anxiety has folded together into one heavy blanket of defeat. I want to nap. Instead, I call my now former roommates for the second time.

Everything says the same: I must find somewhere else to live this school year. All summer I had depended on that university housing, counted on it, looked forward to it even. I had prepared for it. Made my plans around it.

That night I have a nightmare. Funnily enough. Not “funny” amusing, but “funny” because I have had nightmares all summer about my university housing and those dreams were “funny” amusing to me when I had them; every time, I would laughingly tell my parents how weird the dreams were and would reassure myself that the apartment would be fine. It is just a new place, different from the South 40, but fine.

And now I look back and those dreams are “funny” disturbing as in I should have woken up that morning and canceled my university housing and leased an apartment, as in I should have texted my then roommates and told them I was a bit worried, as in I should not have laughed so much.

Now when I lie awake at 5 a.m. thinking of the nightmare I had, I know it is very real—not the bizarre things that happened in my dream, but the genuine, justified fear that motivated it.

I do not go back to sleep. I spend the rest of the day searching the internet for apartments.

 

• • •

 

breathe (v.): utter, express

 

As the summer draws to a close, I am gazing out the windshield of my car, listening to Gil Scott-Heron, Jamila Woods, and Nina Simone, thinking of Jacob Blake. The weight of Black life constantly being threatened, policed, criminalized makes me drive more carefully, signal intentionally, note the squad cars in my rear view. I do not even want an altercation to begin. The patrol vehicle that rolls down my street every day still makes my stomach tighten.

And to add to that, this summer has seen my brother turn thirteen, and the taller he gets, the more pride and fear I feel. The bolder he gets, the surer of himself and his rights and the value of his life and his voice he gets, the more fired up he gets about injustice—from a low test score he feels he does not deserve to Black lives being treated as disposable—and the more impressed and terrified I become.

Five days before I move into my new St. Louis apartment, I lay on my back in my bedroom alone, and say out loud the name of each Black life that has been lost.

And to add to that, one afternoon when I see a police car stopped outside my house and my father speaking to the officer inside, fear seizes my heart and I jump up from my chair and run to the door and yell for my mom and fumble for my phone—it is only a former neighbor. He was just hired on to the force. He stopped by to say hello. It takes me a while to calm down.

Five days before I move into my new St. Louis apartment, I lay on my back in my bedroom alone, and say out loud the name of each Black life that has been lost. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Tony McDade. Oluwatoyin Salau. Dominique Fells. Riah Milton. Nina Pop. Rayshard Brooks.

 

breathe (v.): live.

 

 

Note: all definitions taken from Merriam-Webster.

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