These are the names of four Black people who have died — and their deaths have captured our attention, tears and outrage.
We have each witnessed footage or news reports about their deaths many times through our TV screens, phones, social media feeds — but what happens to when these harrowing accounts fade from the news cycle? What can we do? Is there a way to protect every Black life that resides in this country? How do we transform our frustrations into actionable change that has a permanent effect?
I do not have the answers to these questions. I am exhausted and in mourning for those I have never met, and something has shifted within me. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s home in Jamaica, in the sweltering heat, confused as to why George Zimmerman was acquitted after killing Trayvon Martin.
I was twelve.
Since then, countless people have died at the hands of police — their killings preserved on dashcam or bystander video, while many others were never filmed.
In 2017, something shifted for me again. At 16, watching the white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, I saw hate like I had never before. I witnessed a vitriol that seemed to nearly grab me by the throat through my TV screen. Through the violent marches on TV, racism once again became apparent to me — knowing that many people who, despite having never met me, would much rather see me dead.
I grew up in mixed schools, I was privileged to go to a Christian private high school, and I’m now pursuing a degree at state school — yet none of this protects me. Despite the brave face I put on every day, I live in fear. And now, as more and more Black people are being gunned down by murderous police, I feel powerless.
It is not easy to live in a nation whose flag of 50 stars and 13 stripes holds nothing but pain for you. I do not remember the last time I sang the national anthem and meant it — or if I ever had. As a child of immigrants, I’ve always had a strange relationship with America. Whatever childlike pride I once had for my country disappeared a very long time ago. I am ashamed at the lies of equality and progress that this nation feeds to me, the continued denial of the validity and humanity of Black life, of Indigenous lives, of immigrant lives — the list goes on. As I reflect upon the aforementioned deaths, I cannot shake a piece of Stokely Carmichael’s 1966 speech at UC Berkeley from my mind.
Carmichael argued that civil rights bills were made as reminders to white people to treat Black people correctly. Black people already knew they were free to go about their lives, but have been systematically and violently prevented from doing so. He said that the failure of civil rights bills is because of the failure of white people to deal with the issues in their communities.
“How can white people who are the majority — and who are responsible for making democracy work — make it work? They have miserably failed to this point. They have never made democracy work, be it inside the United States, Vietnam, South Africa, Philippines, South America, Puerto Rico. Wherever American has been, she has not been able to make democracy work; so that in a larger sense, we not only condemn the country for what it’s done internally, but we must condemn it for what it does externally. We see this country trying to rule the world, and someone must stand up and start articulating that this country is not God, and cannot rule the world.”
Due to this lack of self-correction, we need to condemn America for its internal failures, as well as its failures abroad. His words are realized again today, as people across America experience the collective realization that our country needs to confront its issues with racism — and that permanent change needs to be made.
Generations have come and gone without mass, intense change — and our current failing system is now on trial. We see swaths of outrage that eventually die down until the next Black death. America has failed to sustain, maintain and truthfully keep a democracy that benefits all of its citizens. It has not allowed for equal treatment under the law, and I cannot stay silent. I have been born condemned by a law that has criminalized my mere existence.
So I write this as a supplication to my community, to this nation and my generation. We must move from our comfort zones and demand our government do right by us. Use your civic power, write petitions, call every legislator and leader. Bust down the doors of the old order of silence, of injustice, and fight for your families and future children. Vote and elect officials who will uphold our dignity as Black people in America. And through these things, I hope that change will come.
• • •
America (God Bless You if It’s Good to You)
by Sarah Beckford
America, America, take your hands off me
Let these lungs breathe
America, America, have you not seen what you’ve done to me
I have watched myself die with my blood still coursing through me
My mind is marked with the history of generations killed before their time
America, America, what have I ever done to you?
Was I born to be murdered by the law
America, America, must I run from you to live
Or will you take my feet from me
America, America, this Black body is human and not animal
Open thine eyes to the tyranny
You put me in towns meant to choke me from growing
You imprison me with no hope of better days
You tear down my schools
You insert poison into my streets
You claim you want me, but I am just a trophy to perform for you
You delude me into making a life that can end at an instant
America, America can you hear me
Or will you mutilate me further so there is no justice
Will you allow me to breathe in peace
How many times must I see my family die
How many more lives until you confront your lies
You cannot claim to be past something that lives in your veins and mind
Racism is a disease you’ve normalized
America, America home of the brave hope that refuses to listen to history
An unfit home to the immigrant that it despises
A matriarch of a democracy that eats its children
Where even in death and in life expectancy, we are unequal
What more can I write when I can hardly form the words
I can’t remember the names because the list grows daily
America, America open thine eyes
Witness the blood on your hands and the tears all the mothers have cried
I beg you for justice this time