By Kristi Wallace
These words are only my own.
The last time someone called me “nigger” out loud was 1976.
It was broad daylight and I was a sophomore at Mountain Home High School in Mountain Home, Idaho. There, the little white boys and girls who lived in town wore cowboy boots, drove trucks, spit tobacco juice in the drinking fountains and raised livestock as some sort of hobby. My family lived on the Air Force base near the town.
Air Force kids came from everywhere, had lived everywhere. We were safe for each other. The tobacco-spitters knew that we were destined to leave the dusty-podunk-nowhere town sitting in its own homegrown dust.
He was not bright at all. I helped him pass English. And when he said it, I didn’t hear it. It registered as sound, as utterance, but not as an actual word.
Once it hit the air, it tore through my skull; lodged itself between my eyes. Then, I understood that “nigger” was a weapon. Their weapon. White people’s weapon. It made me undeniably black. Finally. Inside, outside, in my guts, in my brains.
And although I will never forget that searing revelation of my black-blackness, I had never really thought that it would mark me as quarry in the same way it marked my slave ancestors. Then, one day a former cohort of mine at the University of Oregon casually asked me, “What is your personal politics of race?”
What? What the hell is that? Does she not see my skin? Is this woman serious? Should I get one? (Oh, God! I probably need to read more books. Like, Judith Butler, maybe? Or… what was that other woman’s name?)
Although I was stymied by her question back then, my understanding of it now is like smooth stone. That textbook-based version of a personal politics of race is a luxury I cannot afford. My so-called personal politics of race is no longer just mine nor is it solely personal. It is no longer some gauzy, ethereal consideration blithely discussed by so-called progressives (tenured or not) at heady academic conferences where everyone is a doctor of something or other. No.
When Amadou Diallo (may the angels cradle him) was murdered during my first year of graduate school, the phrase personal politics of race came to mean keeping myself safe because my life could be stubbed out like a cigarette. God, rest your child, Sandra Bland. Or that a white someone, a white anyone, could shoot me dead in a well-lit parking lot or a dark cavernous alley for be-ing. Black. Woman. Unarmed. Trayvon Martin was just a kid.
My personal politics of race means keeping my phone charged, camera ready in case I need or need to be a witness.
And I will not roll my window down without calling an ally and waiting for them to arrive if I am stopped by a police officer while in the car alone. Not. Anymore.
Personal politics of race means crossing to the other side of the street at the sight of two or three or five or 12 white, college-age men walking toward me on the sidewalk in order to stay alive. Yes. Yes, it does.
My inner universe howled when George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer who placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck until George Floyd was lifeless.
We. All. Watched. His. Soul. Vacate. That. Street.
Flew away from the white man and the camera phones and the screaming for his mama, just like in the Negro spirituals.
Mr. Floyd, face down and dead, winged it directly into the arms of his Jesus.
My mother cautioned us against becoming “militant” sometime in the ’70s when my glorious Aunt Margaret told us that afros should be proudly worn, that blackness meant something way cooler than plain ordinary anything else. She said it meant my brothers were kings and that my sisters, Wendy and Terri and I were queens. Blackness was a gift from God. That our Africa was everyone’s beginning. It meant dashikis and soul of rhythm were all guaranteed to me, to us, because of our lovely blackness. It meant feeling good in my skin all the way down to my chocolate toes. Militant? Me? Ph.D. in Comparative Literature me?
You have to know this: All the killing has changed me. Seeing black people die over and over and over again. Day after year, after dawn, after dusk, after vigil after rally, after riot, after hashtag, after prayers, after rage, after no sleep nights and someone do something, after white people and other people turning a blind ear.
The murder of black men and women has changed me. Exhausted me. Altered who I am in America.
My burden is now, and has always been, yours. You are not obligated to believe me. Just look around. Witness what we have all become. To see this killing and keep your silence is an injustice to your humanity and to whatever soul you think you have. You cannot hide from this.
Goddammit. Whoever you are, understand that my heart is just about tired of breaking.
Dr. Kristi Wallace, Ph.D., is a freelance writer who lives in Eugene with her cat and her partner, Scott. She is hoping to complete training as an end of life doula within the next year or so.