Shape Change: For George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery

“I don’t think things are getting worse, I think they are getting uncovered.” —adrienne maree brown, Pleasure Activism

“None of us knows enough, but we can’t let that stop us.” —Ruth King, Mindful of Race

I pick up a book called The Crying Book because reviewers praised it and I tend to appreciate prose written by poets. I don’t know what I expected but I find myself in a foreign land, one where author Heather Christie cries with abandon, cries early, cries often. She weeps into her fascination with crying, her own tears, others’. Christie embraces the act of crying, even as she explores grief over a friends’ suicide and postpartum depression. I feel as if I am a traveler in need of directions but don’t speak the local language.

I rarely cry. I am trying to get better about that. But still. I cannot imagine gleefully sequestering myself to sob in the bathroom, as Christie does at one point. Although I discover when simply telling my partner about the scene in The Cider House Rules, when Michael Caine, giving a roomful of boys his nightly farewell, says, “Goodnight, you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England,” that I instantly choke up. It’s such a lovely thing to say to orphans.

I open up the news and discover that the pressures of systemic racism and white supremacy have once again exploded, like tectonic plates, pushing, pushing, grinding, pushing, until they slip and the world shakes. For a time. It occurs to me that white supremacy probably prices in these little earthquakes, that they are the cost of sustaining oppression and consolidating power. Let the people have their tantrum. It even helps emulsify white racial resentment. And seemingly puts no cracks in the structures of wealth and power.

I’m simultaneously reading The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. I wrote a dissertation chapter on this book. I have long defended it for it’s depiction of generational war trauma. But this time I don’t see the trauma, I see a bunch of white men behaving like tools. I cringe at forgotten, unnecessary uses of the word “nigger.” I am in no mood to apologize for Hemingway right now; I have no interest in talking about literature in historical “context.” I put “Sun” away.

The quake officially comes from the choking murder of a black man by police, George Floyd of Minneapolis. But George Floyd’s death comes upon the murder of Breonna Taylor, shot and killed in her bed by police acting under a “no knock” warrant. And the weaponization of white womanhood in Central Park against a black man simply trying to birdwatch in peace. And the unprosecuted murder of Ahmaud Arbury, a black runner, chased and gunned down by two white men. These are the baldest of facts.

I do not cry. I do not rage. Instead I feel weary, swampy, bone-sucking, soul-drenching fatigue. I realize my tense jaw, relax it. It returns to clenching, like a person slipping home to her abuser. My shoulders throb, a nest of tension. But I do not cry.

I feel powerless, helpless. And this, too, is a feature, not a bug, of white supremacy. Octavia Butler floats in my head, a writer who would have no patience with paralysis, no truck with apathy. In the “Earthseed” trilogy, the titular religion builds on the premise that “God is change.” The only constant is change. Change, which is to say God, will bite you in ass all the time. But a proponent of Earthseed can work to “shape change” and in so doing “shape God.”

I also turn to Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose memoir Between the World and Me urges his teenage son to awaken from what Coates calls “the Dream” of whiteness. He writes, “Perhaps struggle is all we have because the god of history is an atheist, and nothing about this world is meant to be. So you must wake up every morning knowing that no promise is unbreakable, least of all the promise of waking up at all. This is not despair. These are the preferences of the universe itself: verbs over nouns, actions over states, struggle over hope.”

“All that you touch you Change. All that you Change, Changes you.” Butler enjoins us to action, on purely practical terms, because Change will happen, regardless of one’s weariness or despair. Coates does not write for me, but he still speaks Truth. Verbs over nouns. Actions over states. Struggle over hope.

At the same time, mindfulness teacher Ruth King calls all us to the act of stillness, of sitting with racial distress. She urges us to remember that “nothing in life is personal, permanent, or perfect,” although I find it difficult to accept those words right now. She writes, “don’t be afraid of getting your heart broken. Do your work, say your prayers, then do your best. Grieve, rest, keep hate at bay, and join with others for refuge. Don’t get too far ahead now! This moment is enough to digest. Sit, breathe, open.” For King, sitting is a verb, another way to Change and be Changed.

I do not know what else to say. It feels as if all the words have been said before, are being said again now. I believe in the power of saying his name, saying her name, even as the list gets longer and longer. And longer. It feels strange to speak, when I know voices like mine get amplified inequitably. It feels unconscionable to stay silent, even when words fail, gasp to the ground, and flicker out.

I feel tears welling up in my heart, but I do not cry. The world does not need one more white woman’s tears. It needs all of us to shape Change.

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