The last thing I thought about when I closed my eyes that Wednesday night, July 6, was the bullet tearing into the flesh of Alton Sterling as he lay pinned to the ground beneath two Baton Rouge police officers. I couldn’t get Mr. Sterling’s face out of my head — his chestnut skin and gold teeth reminding me of my own uncles. The swiftness with which his life was taken, broadcast on a loop like so many others over the last few years, had shaken me. I slept a restless sleep.
When my alarm went off at 6 a.m., I checked my Twitter feed, as I always do, while still snuggled in bed. I read a few Twitter messages, then closed my eyes, the hand holding my phone falling limply to my side. Overnight, while I was sleeping, another video, of another police killing, of another black man, in another American town, had gone viral.
I lay in my bed for the next hour, unable to gather the will to get dressed for the day. I turned the news on and listened as I read everything I could.
I wrestled with myself over whether to watch this video, too. I am a reporter and this was news. I am a human being, a black woman in a country where black death has long been spectacle.
Each detail crushed me. Stopped for a broken taillight. Dead within minutes. The blood spread across Philando Castile’s white shirt like a poppy in bloom. A 4-year-old child — just two years younger than my own — in the back seat, bearing witness. A woman, live streaming it all, her voice a terrified version of calm that I will never in my life forget. I knew watching had been a mistake.
I stayed stuck in bed another hour, wanting to wake my husband, who was snoring lightly beside me, but deciding against it: Let him have a few more moments of peace before waking to face another day in America where a black man just died for a traffic violation.
Finally, I pulled myself out of bed, showered, dressed and then sat down at my vanity mirror. I looked into my own eyes. The despair peering back at me was too much. Before I could stop them, the tears came. I sat there, unable to look at myself again, crying into my hands.
I needed to get to work, but the last thing I wanted to do was make small talk about inane things with people for whom this might be a tragedy, but an abstract one. To many white Americans, the killings of black men and women at the hands of the state, are individual incidents, each with a unique set of circumstances. For white people, who have been trained since birth to see themselves as individuals, the collective fear and collective grief that black Americans feel can be hard to grasp.
But for black Americans like me, the killings of black men and women at the hands of the state with no justice to be had, is among the oldest and most familiar American stories.
How do you explain the visceral and personal pain caused by the killing of a black person you did not even know to people who did not grow up with, as their legacy, the hushed stories of black bodies hung from trees by a lynching mob populated with sheriff’s deputies? Or of law enforcement, who often doubled as the Ku Klux Klan, killing black Southerners on lonely roads under the gaze of a silent moon?
To many of us, the almost guaranteed failure in modern times to hold the police responsible for these deaths feels eerily familiar; black Americans add these recent cases to the list of countless black people who died a few generations ago “at the hands of persons unknown.”
But, of course, this is not just about history and our disparate recollections of it. It is about now, and the way the vast gulf between the collective lived experiences of white Americans and that of black Americans can make true empathy seem impossible.
How do you explain — how can you make those who are not black feel — the consuming sense of dread and despair, when one sees the smiling faces, captured in photos, of Mr. Castile and Mr. Sterling, and knows that but for the grace of God, it could have been your uncle, your brother, your child, you? That if a police officer, his mind having soaked up centuries of racial fears, were to stop your loved one, or you, he may not be able to see a family man or doting mother? Someone who is not a boogeyman, but someone whom, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so piercingly lays out in “Between the World and Me,” parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, spouses, children and community had poured their love, hopes and dreams into. Someone who pushed a daughter on the swing, hugged a fiancée after an argument, told bad jokes.
How do you explain that awful understanding that each of these deaths confirms for black citizens, that if stopped by the police, we may be stripped down to our most basic of elements, that one part of us that is a complete fiction: our race. And that fiction — the American crime of blackness — can turn a broken taillight into a death sentence.
The last thing I wanted to do that day, and on many days, was face people who did not, at a gut level, get this. My friends, also struggling to leave their homes and head out into the world, reached out to me, and I to them. We sent texts and Facebook messages. We grieved together, trying to fill the hollow with love. Many people called into work that day, unable to deal with the mundane in the face of a tragedy.
We’d been here again and again, but somehow, this felt depressingly the same yet also different. Even older black people, typically stoics from weathering things my generation has not had to, found themselves, to their alarm, crying as well.
Later I would interview a man in Texas named Patrick Francis. He grew up in a rough part of Houston, went to college to study criminal justice and spent 10 years in law enforcement before switching to a career in internet technology. This was not a man prone to displays of emotion. Somewhat bewildered, the father of four grown sons, he explained that he’d cried more than once following the two recent killings. And as he recounted trying to talk his son down from the white-hot rage he felt, I could hear emotion constricting Francis’s voice through the phone as he apologized for his tears.
I picked up my phone and called one of my dearest friends. As we talked, words tumbled out in rapid spurts only to be consumed by long periods of silence when we could find nothing to say. It was a familiar conversation. One we’d had when Trayvon Martin died. When the video of Eric Garner came out. For Rekia Boyd. Tamir Rice. Aiyana Stanley-Jones. Walter Scott. Laquan McDonald. The weight of all those names combined with the recent deaths, captured on video without enough room in between to catch our breath, rendered us hopeless and helpless. And then our sorrow turned to rage. Because we knew, in just a matter of days, there would be another. It seemed as inevitable as the sun rising.
Sorrow was debilitating, but anger fueled resolve. I hung up with my friend, washed my face, and headed into work.
That same night, a black sniper took the lives of five Dallas police officers during a protest against police violence. And then a little more than a week later, another black man killed three police officers in Baton Rouge. The mourning for these deaths, too, came wrapped in another fear, shared by those who did not want violence against black citizens or violence against the police: that, once again, the actions of a few would be a smudge against us all; that the crimes of two unstable men would derail a protest movement that sought only value for black lives.
And I could not help but think that this callous taking of life, the killing begetting killing, had revealed a rupture. I am not sure it will ever be fixed.
Nikole Hannah-Jones is a staff writer for the New York Times. She won a 2016 Peabody Award for her series on school segregation for “This American Life.” She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter covering racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and creator of the landmark 1619 Project
Copyright © Nikole Hannah-Jones, New York Times Magazine.