I can’t sleep.
I just…I can’t do it. I try, but my eyelids won’t shut. my mind refuses to mute itself for even a few hours. I can’t fall asleep, and it’s not a matter of desire, but rather of ability (or lack thereof).
Frankly, I’m scared. This all started crystallizing following the conclusion to the emotionally depleting Trayvon Martin case. Since the acquittal, I haven’t been able to get out of my head. I haven’t been able to prevent the tears from falling — or shake this eerie feeling that insists on lingering.
Forget the political debates. Forget even the influence of human rights logic on controversial policy.These things, though important, touch on only part of the issues. What about our hearts? What about our minds? What about my well-being? Because I can’t seem to sleep.
Some of you might be thinking, “Oh no…here we go again with this stuff.” Others might be thinking this post is coming too late, that the season for this content has passed. Well, if that is you, I ask you to consider just how different these issues are for someone like me — how deep they truly run.
This is not seasonal for me. I am perpetually tormented. I’m terrified — utterly paralyzed, at times, by my own country. As a black man in America, I fear the very place I call home, or at least wish to. I’m 50% Swedish and was born and reared in Scandinavia — meaning, I am more “authentically” European than many who judge me for being Black.
I experienced racism a couple weeks back. I was on the bus, on the way to my architecture job. It was early in the morning and I was all dressed up in a tie and whatnot. But despite my professional look, no one would sit next to me. Though the pursuit of a seat was obvious for many, the option to stand was seemingly more appealing than sitting next to the black kid.
I am not speculating here, I’m certain. The bus was over capacity, and people were searching for a seat. And yet, every seat was full — every seat, that is, except for the one directly to the right of me. They saw the seat, they saw me, they hesitated, and then frustratingly remained standing. Several of them, again and again, like a knife in my gut that kept on twisting. They likely meant no harm, and I doubt the decision was even that conscious, but that is exactly why it is difficult for me to sleep. This brilliantly demonstrates how internalized our privilege and oppression has become.
It hit me hard that morning. I felt alone, and I felt betrayed. Here was a kid eager to get to his job, ready to engage in an innocent conversation or a simple smiling interaction with whoever would give me the time of day. I wished to connect to my fellow human beings, as I always do. But I was isolated by a community I consider my peers, left victim to the bitter thoughts and emotions of my own mind.
I can’t ride the bus anymore without absorbing each decision people timidly make about simple choices like where to sit or who to interact with. Although beauty is ever-present, I can’t help but notice how consistently, and without fail, isolation is the end result for black and brown men.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that this happens so often, but all these years I seem to have subconsciously numbed myself to such issues. Well, that is no longer an option for me. Since the acquittal, I see and hear everything with more clarity. I feel these astringent ramifications taking their toll on my already depleted spirit, and there is nothing I can do to ignore it. Something about the Trayvon Martin case messed me up. I’m just trying to stitch myself back together.
So why is my sleep deprivation important?
Because it reaches beyond race, beyond oppression even — though it is relevant to both. It touches on the biggest issue of all, fear. I fear living in a place where my accomplishments and my hopeful smiles are not deemed “sufficient.” My skin color is still the determining factor of my public worth, which in many places is close to nothing.
I am still not taken seriously. All I wish is to be seen as legitimate, worthy of a stranger’s morning companionship. To those of you who don’t know me, I want to be an unquestioned equal — one who does not have to read his resume to justify his presence. It feels like no matter what I do, no matter how hard I work or how much I give to the world, I still lose these smaller daily battles because the world around me sees only in black and white. I plan to win the war, but it doesn’t mean the endless losses don’t sting or don’t keep me awake at night.
I’m scared of irrational policies that are more concerned with right-wing versus left-wing biases than the sanctity of a human life. I am terrified by the bigots who work vehemently to make my life hell, positive that their privilege warrants them a deeper worth than the rest of us. Most of all, I am scared of the people who can’t see it, and of those who chose not to.
I can’t sleep knowing that black men all over the country are just as scared as I am, even if pride won’t let it show. Whether we hide it behind a suit and tie, a “masculine” facade, or the barrel of a gun, we’re all petrified. I can’t sleep knowing that some of my good friends in Chicago could be dead tomorrow, because they live in a city that neglects them — and in a nation that won’t pay close enough attention. I fear the comprehension that if one of my black brothers were innocently shot and killed, their murderer could walk off free. Too many already have. They might not pull the trigger, but they sure don’t do anything to better the reality for brown kids like me.
I want to be clear: I’ve been blessed and I live a beautiful life — but I am not so naïve that I fail to see the structural injustices before me. I know I have it easier than some, but my blessings do not exempt me from these injustices, and I refuse to be another statistic. However, I also understand that I’ve been given enough of the resources to enable such victories; we’re not all so lucky.
You see, regardless of where you stand on the Zimmerman verdict or any of the hundred others that came before (which we seem to have conveniently ignored or forgotten), you cannot refute how we feel; I know many of us feel like we’ve been punched in the gut, like we just took massive step backwards, and that we’re even further away from feeling at home in this country.
Unfortunately, the only time I’ve felt truly American was during September 11, 2001. Only then have I been able to grieve as an equal. Only then has all my love been unquestioningly accepted and valued. Only then have I felt that my skin was part of what made me American, not what set me apart.
I fear you, America, because for some reason — through incomprehensible ignorance — you have chosen to fear me.
I’m scared because, at times, you’ve even convinced me of its “truth.” You’ve made me feel insufficient and insignificant. I have internalized this oppression, believing, even for a second, that people ignoring me on the bus might actually be my fault. That people choose to cross the street as I approach because, maybe…maybe I really am dangerous. Maybe I really am too intimidating for this woman to engage in a conversation with. Maybe I really am too dark for him/her to look into my eyes. Maybe I really am inferior. I mean, there must be a reason why so many people who don’t know me seem to disregard my value as a human being, right?
That doesn’t mean I don’t understand my worth. I know what this country would be capable of if it embraced all its citizens, if it truly lived up to its mission of diversity. I know the power I have to better this nation and this world — not in spite of my black skin, but because of my black skin.
What pains me the most is the comprehension that black men fit into only one piece of this larger puzzle and that so many people are oppressed in some way. Although this verse of discontent is for pigments of brown and black, the song of which it’s a part is for all those who feel betrayed. What of the queer community? Or the poor? Or women? Or Muslims?
Unfortunately, the list goes on and on; this narrative is all too familiar. But we can no longer deny the humanity of a slain child, regardless of the race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation at play. The fact that you are [insert identity here] does not change that you are human first.
I think now to my peers throughout the years, a diverse group of people with different identities and experiences that break many barriers and bridge almost every gap. They are my inspiration. They are the evidence that should we choose the path of coalition, there is nothing we are not capable of. They are the proof that love, compassion, and dedication are priceless qualities, insurmountable in value and impact. Frankly, without them — without us — this world is incomplete.
I fear that a royal baby’s birth appears more important and relevant than the lives tragically lost around the world the very same day. I respect and appreciate any celebration of life as much as the next person — any reminder of joy, any innocent and necessary distraction from disarray and heartache. However, I fear this may be something more. I fear, ironically, that fear dictates us.
I fear the woman that fears my hand. I fear the man that fears my smile. I fear the person that fears my loving embrace. Yet, what I fear the most is the one who feels nothing — whose apathy warrants complacency, stagnancy, and the passive perpetuation of all that is evil in this world.
I still can’t sleep, but I can fear the darkness no longer.
I will light up the dark places.
Like the beautiful burden that it is, I will carry the audacity to tackle this dream deferred — to stand boldly and to speak against all that makes ordinary human being fear the world they love.
I choose now, the path of fearlessness.