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“Through a veil, I could perceive the forbidden city, the Louisville where white folks lived. It was the Louisville of the downtown hotels, the lower floors of the big movie houses, the high schools I read about in the daily newspapers, the restricted haunts I sometimes passed, like white restaurants and country clubs, the other side of windows in the banks, and of course the inner sanctums of offices where I could go only as a client or a menial custodian. On my side of the veil, everything was Black: the homes, the people, the churches, the schools, the Negro park with the Negro park police…I knew that were two Louisville and in America, two Americas. I knew also which America was mine.”
– Professor Blyden Jackson, “Life Behind A Veil”
My niece came home from her first week of kindergarten and told her mom, “Everyone in my class is white, and I am brown.” As a Black woman, I always wondered when the reality that she was living in two Americas would hit her. I wondered when she would realize that in America, her life existed behind a veil. That between her and this other world, there was a great chasm, a deep ravine filled with the blood and bones of Black people that dared try to cross it.
She was five.
I was reminded of the words of James Baldwin: “It comes as a great shock around the age of 5, 6, or 7 to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance, along with everybody else, has not pledged allegiance to you. It comes as a great shock to see Gary Cooper killing off the Indians, and although you are rooting for Gary Cooper, that the Indians are you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.”
And so begin my niece’s dance with America. It is a dance behind the veil. It is a dance that Black people know all too well, scored to the rhythm of our blues. It was a dance that we participated in last summer as we took to the streets to protest the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. Just on the other side of police brutality was freedom. No matter how loud we shouted, how many miles we marched, justice always seemed slightly out of our grasp.
I remember the first day protesting Taylor’s death, a 26-year-old Black woman killed in her home by the Louisville Metro Police Department. As I stood in the street, we were met with armored trucks and police officers in riot gear. Then, a chemical smell started to fill the air. My partner asked, “Do you smell that?” and before she could say another word, she started coughing violently, and the crowd of protesters started running. Teargas filled the air. I was choking, spitting, and my eyes were burning as people scattered trying to get away from the fumes. I grabbed my partner’s hand, trying to lead her to safety. A woman ran up to me, handing me a mask, and started washing my eyes out with milk. A million thoughts ran through my mind. Was this the cost of freedom? The next several months, we were shot with rubber bullets, teargassed, flash banged, arrested, and charged with felonies. We were not called patriots. We were called niggers and thugs. We were vilified. We were criminalized simply for screaming, “No justice, no peace.” It is a moment in time that has traumatized and changed my life forever. A city that I loved had declared war on its citizens.
When I watched a group of predominately white people storm the United States Capitol, all the memories of the summer came flooding back. I watched as these self-described patriots, fueled by Donald Trump’s rhetoric, attempted to undermine an American election. They entered the Capitol as Congress was certifying the electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden, causing a halt to the proceedings as legislators and staff were forced to shelter in place.
How did this group of white people breach the United States Capitol, seemingly one of the nation’s most secure buildings? Where were the armored trucks? Where were the barriers? Where was the tear gas? Where were the police in riot gear? Where was the National Guard? Where were the rubber bullets and flashbangs?
And I remembered I am living in two Americas. Not just the have and the have nots. But, the haves and the don’t you dare think you can have.
One America where police strictly enforce law and order, the other America where police protect, serve, and take selfies with domestic terrorists.
One America where Black people will always be seen as a threat. Where Black people protesting will be seen as a crime. Where Black people are told to whisper when all we want to do is shout. Where Black people’s cries for peace are met with force. Where justice for Black people is seen as a threat to white people. Where Black people are arrested for even believing we can be free. Where Black people are vilified for taking a knee to bring awareness to police brutality. Where Black people are seen as the enemy.
And the other America, where white people are given the freedom to terrorize. Where white people are allowed to have a tantrum when they don’t win elections. Where white people are given free rein to fight to uphold white supremacy. Where white people can participate in looting, and many in the media will attempt to justify it. Where white people can always be seen as the victim. Where white people can kill a police officer and people overlook his death. Where white people can express their anger and frustrations freely.
White people exist beyond the veil. White people are allowed to take up and take over all spaces. They exist knowing they have the privilege to storm the United States Capitol because upholding white supremacy is their right and as American as apple pie. They exist in an America that is designed for their comfort, their joy, their happiness — even at the expense of everyone else.
And as Black people, we look on, across the chasm, from behind the veil. We looked on after Black people in Georgia fought to regain the Senate. We looked on as Eugene Goodman, a Black Capitol officer, single handily took on a white mob buying time for the Senate Chambers to secure its door. We looked on, wondering why we continue fighting for an America that never fights for us.