My friend Maurice Berger, a writer, art curator, and social-justice advocate, died in the first stages of the pandemic, just as stay-at-home orders spread, like the virus itself, throughout the United States. I was already in an active struggle—not quite a losing battle but certainly not a winning one—with fear and anxiety. Maurice’s death knocked me over. I took to the darkness, like a drug, sleeping with the shades drawn. “I have no fight in me,” I told my husband when I was awake and upright, scaring him half to death.
One morning, when I was trying to summon the will to rise and meet the day in some fashion, I was, simultaneously, working on an image that had been tugging at me. Early in the COVID-19 crisis, I had started composing an essay that I intended as a sort of homage to nonessential touching. I was in the flow before Maurice died, and phrases and even sentences were coming and fitting together in one of those rare, prime moments when everything works.
Something led me back to an image that morning, as I lay on my side, facing the wall. I was remembering a moment from the before, a mundane encounter with a barista at my favorite coffee shop, thinking of its value, unappreciated by me at the time. I was remembering receiving a cup of coffee from this stranger, a tattooed, sprightly, dark-haired, bespectacled young white woman. It was an unseasonably warm March day, and the young woman and I seemed to be volleying good cheer back and forth, just because we felt like it. Our fingers touched as she presented me with my coffee. They touched again when we traded cash for coins (how dirty money is, another new awareness). In that moment with the barista, I thought about the pleasure I received every Sunday during the Eucharist, looking into the eyes of the chalice bearer, usually a friend, reciting the traditional phrases we were both taught long ago to exchange at that sacred moment. I wanted to capture what both of those moments felt like, back in the before. Polite and intimate, I thought. Safe. Legal, tender.
The phrase rumbled through me steadily, gaining force, suffusing me with light. Legal, tender. Maybe this was Maurice reaching me, telling me to get up and write. And I did get up, arrived at my big wooden desk, and sat down to set out and see how far that phrase would take me.
Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down on February 23rd. Maurice died one month later.
I didn’t know about Arbery’s death until May, when most of the world was treated to the video of his murder. I was working. But Ahmaud Arbery was dead. I was aware of it in the manner, I believe, that most black people who live in this country are aware of such events. I make mental notes—which state? which town? which road? which corner?—gleaning all of this information while knowing that nowhere, really, is safe. Danger can spring at any moment.
Generations of black writers have described this experience. W. E. B. Du Bois called it double consciousness, the psychological dissonance caused by living both black and human in the world. Perhaps we are only beginning to understand the cost of living with such a soundtrack in the back of your mind, the refrain of black death.
I was trying to keep everything under control inside the walls that surround me.
When my twin daughters’ school went remote, there was some relief in having them at home all the time. They are fourteen, recent graduates of eighth grade. Born in Ethiopia, they became U.S. citizens when we adopted them as infants. Middle school was difficult for both of my girls. Let’s just say that they have emerged from these years with a keen appreciation of the way that racism works in subtle (and not so subtle) ways in liberal communities.
Over the past three years, I became one of those parents. I had the time and the resources, the autonomy at my job, to meet with teachers and administrators when my daughters and I agreed that such meetings were necessary. My background, as an academic and a child of professionals, makes me bold when it comes to most encounters with authority figures, particularly at school, so I was not intimidated when I had to intervene on my children’s behalf on several occasions. This was something my mother had to do for me and my brothers, for some of the same reasons, forty years ago, in the slowly desegregating South. I shook my head grimly when I noted the enduring similarities between our experiences, but we soldiered on, as black people do, and I was glad for the lessons in perseverance and valuing yourself no matter what others (white people) thought—lessons that my mother gave me that I could now pass on to my children.
I could see a noticeable difference in my daughters’ demeanor after the first couple of weeks at home. I read an article about how other black children were thriving in remote learning, not having to deal with the race-related struggles that they endured in school. I thought this applied to my girls. So there was some sort of silver lining, after all.
“The purpose of a house is to keep the outside world out,” our contractor told us, when we moved into our home three years ago. If it weren’t for the need to walk my dog, I would spend most of every day inside, not only because of lockdown. Three years in, and I am still constantly aware of my dark skin in this affluent, predominantly white neighborhood, even though most of my neighbors have been nothing but outwardly welcoming to me and my family. When I wrote, on social media, about living and working as a black person in white spaces, particularly during the lockdown and the international uprising against racism and police violence, neighbors I hardly know liked the post, expressed compassion, and pledged a new awareness.
When I walk my dog these days, I am most often alone on the roads of my neighborhood. I like it that way. I can walk without my mask, free from the fear of contagion. And I wonder about the neighbors who expressed those sentiments of welcome. From behind all of these closed doors and shut windows, can they see me now?
I was glad to be able to keep my children safe from more demoralizing experiences at school. Still, memories crept in. It was as if, not having to deal with it in the day to day, my daughters were suddenly free to experience their wounds in a deep way for the first time. Three years of being one of very few black children in her classrooms had left Isabella feeling both hyper-visible and invisible, a jarring and alienating experience many black people know well. Now that she was at home with her parents, she told me, even her guidance counsellor’s good wishes felt like an intrusion. I asked Isabella’s teachers to leave her be. For Giulia, I arranged a restorative-justice session with a teacher who, after some education, had acknowledged the ways in which he had harmed her. When students made fun of her hair, he blamed her. When a group of boys mocked her for wearing a T-shirt that read “The Future is Female,” she felt that her teacher did not effectively stand up for her. Giulia had thrived in spite of him, emerging as a leader and guiding discussions in his classroom about racism and sexism.
My daughters were suffering from the echoes of their three years in middle school. Their days inside were still and peaceful; the memories were dynamic and vivid. Communication as a road to healing was something that I believed in—something I knew I needed to model if I wanted them to believe in it, too. Human connection. Making meaning out of suffering. Breaking down barriers and insisting on a common humanity through truth-telling.
And then George Floyd died, and the world was, once again, invited to watch the destruction of a black human being. The video was made by a courageous teen-age black girl. It was a triumphant, essential act, and one that will likely cost her for the rest of her life.
I knew there were videos. I was glad there were videos. I did not, and would never, watch a video of anyone’s murder. We are all indebted to the courageous witnesses among us. Yet no one should have been able to watch George Floyd die, except people who loved him, and God.
To know of the murders, to know of all the murders, to know that there are more than you even know about (so many kept hidden, so many human beings disappeared), to feel them, to let them in. And then the need to protect my children, not only for their sake but for the sake of their family in Ethiopia, who entrusted them to us. To keep the badness of the outside world out, and cultivate goodness inside these walls, decorated with a gallery of images meant to uphold and reinforce our family bond. To teach my girls compassion. To model for my community, to represent my people, to honor my ancestors. The prongs of faith and duty: two sides of a bridle.
One of my oldest friends called me just before a scheduled phone meeting. The screen lit up with her name—not her given name, but one of my pet names for her. I pressed a button, and we were suddenly face to face, though hundreds of miles apart. We looked at each other and sighed at the world. We are more than thirty-five years into an intimate relationship that is rich with all kinds of shorthand. She mentioned having watched a video. “Not the murder video,” I said, referring to footage of the death of George Floyd. We’re close enough; she knew what I meant. I was shuffling the notes I needed for the meeting, my eyes diverted from the screen.
She was still, frozen not by a glitch but by a truth she knew I didn’t want to hear. I could feel it. I stopped shuffling and looked up. “Yes,” she said. She is white.
A current of panic, dread, and anguish flamed up my arm and into the hand that was holding my phone.
“How could you?”
I talked about George Floyd’s mother, how she said the video retraumatized her every time it was circulated. I thought of the girl who took the video. I thought of my girls and all I was trying to protect them from.
“I think I just needed . . . to see,” she said.
“No,” I said, alarmed by the note of terror in my own voice.
No, I told my daughters. “You may not watch those videos. It’s not good for your soul.”
I shook my finger at their teen-age faces, in a clichéd gesture of top-down parenting that would otherwise count as a joke among us. They agreed. Still, it wasn’t purely an act of defiance that my daughter Isabella eventually watched both videos when they appeared on her social-media feed. I asked her what it felt like to watch the men die. The George Floyd video saddened her. “I thought of Nonni,” she said, referring to her Italian grandmother. “When she died, she was surrounded by people who loved her. George Floyd had no one.” It was like, if she didn’t watch it, she would be letting him die alone all over again, she said.
The Ahmaud Arbery video terrified her. When she cried, her body shook.
“I don’t like to be touched,” Isabella likes to remind me. Not wanting to be touched by her mother is an essential part of the teen-age persona I have been watching her shape over the past couple of years. Textbook. It amuses me and it pains me. I miss her body. But I knew trying to hug her in that moment would only make it worse.
I watched her shoulders shudder and terror travel though her narrow frame like electricity. I stood there, less than ten feet away, my hands clasped in front of me.
He wanted his mother.
We held the restorative-justice session for Giulia over Zoom. She cried several times during the session, confessing her feelings to her teacher, who had allowed her to be teased and harangued in moments he now describes as racist and misogynistic. He confessed his ignorance and apologized sincerely for the harm he caused. I could see, even through a screen, how my daughter’s pain entered him, corrected him, educated him. This happened because he let it be so. But as small as he must have felt during the session, he still had all the power. He had to show up for Giulia to heal. And show up he did.
The first time my daughter broke down, I reached out my hand to stroke her arm. We were sitting side by side at my desk, our shoulders less than five inches apart. She shrugged me off harshly. “I’m sorry for babying you,” I wrote her on a piece of paper. She dropped her eyes momentarily from the screen to read it. “It’s O.K.,” she wrote back.
For the rest of the session, I visualized sitting on my hands while Giulia cried and cried, and her teacher watched her, tears in his own eyes. She put her head down and sobbed; while her head was down, her teacher quickly and discreetly wiped away his tears. I was touched by his determination not to make a show of his sadness. Everyone in that space, real and virtual, tiny and vast, our trinity, united through Giulia’s misery, was broken, then restored, then broken again.
My daughter lifted her head and powered on, describing episodes that took place in his classroom, a testimony that hurt her all over again. She chose to speak instead of being silent.
We are inside, all of us, my husband, daughters, and me. We are a team, 24/7. Ride or die. We are bound, not by blood, or even a common last name, racial identity, or country of origin. We are connected through idiom, humor, and sensibility. By our beloved dog, who gets us out into the world and then brings us back inside. By food. By talk: inside jokes, running debates, and a shared pleasure in language itself.
My daughters are growing like hothouse flowers. They stare at their bodies in the mirror. They touch their faces, indoors, in our home, which I am constantly trying to disinfect. I steal glances at them as they watch themselves in the mirror in my bedroom. I sit perfectly still on the bed, quieted by admiration and longing. I know that if I say anything I will break the spell, our silent agreement. They need to be near me; they need to act as if they don’t want anything to do with me. “Our daughters have been practicing social distancing with us for a while,” my husband and I joke.
I miss them. They are rarely more than twenty feet away. When I move to a different floor in our house, they often move to the same floor, in a different room, out of sight.
There were long moments in the conversation between Giulia and her teacher when she couldn’t look at him. She could only look at me, her mother, whose touch she rebuffs. But I knew I was feeding her, that she was looking to me for some kind of nourishment, that I must keep my face still and open, be her mirror, her port, her light. I knew this in my bones, throughout my body. I kept my hands to myself and fed her. My husband, who is white, was at home, present as always, but I felt this was a black mother’s fight.
“It’s not fair,” Giulia said, staring at me.
“It’s not fair,” I repeated, holding her gaze.
It was only when she got what she needed from my eyes that she turned back to look her teacher in the face, their images mere inches apart.
My house is sturdy, for the most part. I dream of more renovations, of making it better, stronger, safer, and more beautiful, for my children, for my team. But I can’t keep them safe. I can’t keep the outside world out. All of my efforts are violated by phones and screens and the truth of black American life itself. A few days after she told me she watched the murders, Isabella showed me a video of a black girl with braids and deep brown skin, just like hers, telling her father that she might be killed for the color of her skin. “I’m sorry,” her father says, taking her into his arms.
“See?” my daughter said. “He couldn’t say no.” She kept the screen facing me, daring me to contradict the girl or the father.
“Yes,” I said.
All I could think was, Lucky father. At least his daughter lets him hold her.
“How did I do, Mommy?” Giulia asked quietly after the session with her teacher.
“You did great,” I told her.
“What did I do?” So quietly, she breathed the words more than spoke them.
“You told the truth. You didn’t lie. You didn’t pretend those experiences didn’t bother you,” I said. “That way? Those kinds of lies? They’ll kill you.”
I still want to write an essay about intimacy, a stranger’s touch. A quiet celebration of life, not death, not yet. A story about meaningful human transactions, absent of violence, brimming only with love. Love of self, of other, of life. Legal, tender.