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The trauma of being a black man and seeing stories like Ahmaud Arbery’s

What happens to a generation of black men who continue to see images of themselves continually cut down for simply existing? What do we do with all that pain? That fear? That anger? 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.

The first time I felt it, in this way, was July 13, 2013. I was visiting home in the Bay Area. I was standing, not sitting, in front of the TV in my mom’s living room waiting for an answer that had been more than a year coming.

Then, I felt it again on July 6, 2016. Sitting on the couch in my best friend’s quiet living room. He was out late. I was there alone seeing a video I shouldn’t have been watching.

The next time was September 20 of that same year. I’d thrown on a jacket to walk around the corner to Target to pick up a couple of things in a way we all go to Target to “pick up a couple of things.” But, as I got ready to step outside, I stopped and realized I was dressed in black pants, a black hoodie, and black sneakers about to go walk down the street well-past reasonable “take-a-walk hours.”

The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin. The video of Philando Castille dying in his car with his girlfriend pleading with God and their 4-year-old child trying to make it alright. Terence Crutcher being murdered by a police officer on the side of the road when his car broke down.

These are moments when I felt something change in me.

With Trayvon, it was the affirming of the feeling that respectability was bulls**t. “You don’t have to be doing anything,” I thought. Fear. I felt the least safe and the most angry I’d probably ever felt about something that didn’t happen directly to me.

With Philando, it was a clarity that I had to stop consuming the images every time we were privy to them. “I can’t see this s**t anymore.” Pain. I felt this after seeing Diamond Reynolds screaming to God, begging for Philando’s life and then their little girl consoling her: “It’s alright mommy, I’m right here with you.” I’ve never gotten her voice out of my head.

With Terence’s story of being shot and killed in the street because his car had broken down — not unlike the story of Corey Jones 11 months earlier — with this one, I was angry. I was angry that I was afraid — even just for a moment. I still went to Target that night, but not out of necessity, but out of defiance.

Drake and Rihanna’s “Too Good” played in my headphones. I’ve told my friends the story countless times, and they think I’m corny for it, but the lyrics hit me so differently that night. I tweeted about how every line of the song felt like Black America’s song to white America.

“I don’t know how to talk to you

I don’t know how to ask you if you’re okay

My friends always feel the need to tell me things

Seems like they’re just happier than us these days

Yeah, these days I don’t know how to talk to you

I don’t know how to be there when you need me

It feels like the only time you see me

Is when you turn your head to the side and look at me differently…”

I felt angry because I didn’t know what else we were supposed to do, how else we were supposed to be. I felt angry because I felt too clearly that the next one to die could be me or someone whose name I knew.

I’m a 6’3” black man, albeit I’m about as light as we come, which hasn’t been a running theme in the killings of unarmed black men, although the fear was the same. But, if it wasn’t me, it could easily be one of my three brothers, all of whom are taller than me, living three very different lives, in different cities around the country.

And now, there’s Ahmaud Arbery.

Ahmaud was murdered on a street in Georgia in broad daylight by two white men who followed him like prey, antagonized him, then shot and killed him. And it took two months and a video for arrests to be made. Police seeing the video didn’t warrant an arrest, the public’s seeing the video did. Just like Trayvon.

New details surface every day about this case, but as of right now, we know a few things: Ahmaud went out for a run; the white men who saw, pursued, and killed him are Gregory and Travis McMichael; they claim Ahmaud fit the description of a man related in a string of recent robberies in the neighborhood; reports say there were no reports of robberies in the months prior in the area that would corroborate the McMichaels’ claim.

Additionally, a video has surfaced showing Ahmaud entering a construction site in the moments before his encounter with his killers. According to The Washington Post, the owner of the construction site said of his own property, in regards to the McMichaels reports that Arbery may have been robbing homes, “That’s completely wrong. I’ve never had a police report or anything stolen from my property, or any kind of robbery.”

To this day, I’ve never seen the video of his murder, I hopefully never will. I’ve avoided it, having almost accidentally seen it multiple times in the last week.

People around the country have been going out on runs, sharing about it on social media with various tags, in solidarity with Ahmaud and his family. His birthday was on Friday (May 8), two days before Mother’s Day this year. His mother said the year he was born, his birthday was on Mother’s Day.

Two of my three brothers had birthdays over this same weekend, too. They’re both former athletes who still work out — may go for a run. I lived in Georgia for six years. I go for a walk just to escape from the house after months of Coronavirus stay-at-home orders. My best friend told me of his friend who’s in Georgia right now visiting family that he’s gone out for a run and came back home to his mother waiting on the porch for him to get back safely.

Ahmaud could be any one of us because Ahmaud is all of us.

I don’t ever pretend to speak for all black men, but I know that we all know it. Black men across the country walk around knowing none of us are that different than Ahmaud. Or Trayvon. Or Philando. Or Corey. Or Terence.

We know it at work. We know it on the road. We know it at home, in the store, at church, when we wake up, and when we go to sleep.

I’m tired of knowing it. I’m more tired of thinking it. And even more tired of having to feel it.

What happens to a generation of black men who continue to see images of themselves continually cut down for simply existing? What do we do with all that pain? That fear? That anger?

And before we can process it, it happens again. And again. And again.

On cable news, now years ago, someone aptly asked this question with a post-traumatic stress disorder framing. The expert replied, “Where’s the post?” This PTSD is present traumatic stress and maybe even pre-traumatic stress because none of us thinks for a second it’s not coming for another one of us.

There’s not a reassuring ending here, just the reality that black men everywhere are processing this story, these stories, in myriad ways – most of which stem from the fear that they, or another man they love, will become the next moment that changes us.

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