They looked at him, these strangers, as if they had known him all his life. He wanted to laugh in their faces, to stand up and wave his shackled wrists at them. But he turned, saw his mother’s eyes, and he confessed to a crime he hadn’t thought to commit.
She was shrouded in many layers that defined her in a manner that suited others. Her name carried the weight of heavy, hyphenated labels that pretended to know her better than she knew herself. People looked at her and saw her as an outsider, forgetting that they themselves often did not belong. She didn’t know how to explain to them that she came from a place where the best of friends could suddenly turn against one another, once they were old enough to understand politics, a place where children died before they could understand the concept of death, their laughter interrupted with an act of ruthless precision.
She had been that child once. She remembered the Damascus of her childhood as one filled with high-spirited street vendors who winked at her whenever she went to the market with her father, the smell of roasted sunflower seeds always present in the thick, summer air. She remembered standing on the marble floors outside the Umayyad Mosque at night, watching her reflection stare back at her toothlessly as she held both her parents’ hands.
People wouldn’t believe her if she told them that she also felt afraid. She walked past them everyday and recognized the anger and caution in their eyes. Sometimes there was hatred; mostly, there was indifference. In her black veil, she had an advantage, and this is what unnerved them the most. They couldn’t see anything except her dark, unwavering eyes, so they said nothing. But their thoughts were anything but silent, and she heard them all. In the same way little children pointed and their parents whispered, she learned to decipher the unspoken word. She wondered if they could do the same, if they could hear her even when she hadn’t spoken. I know I don’t belong here, she thought, just in case they could. But I don’t belong there, either. Tell me, then, where should I go?
On the outside she is black. On the outside there is nothing separating her from Maya Angelou, from Langston Hughes, from Etta James and Al Green. Because of her skin color she is a part of long-standing traditions by default. She immediately inherits everything that stems from having African roots.
And there is something beautiful in this, because it means she can always belong. It means she can enjoy decades of black history and feel as though it strikes a cord with her, personally, simply because of the ebony complexion her ancestors passed down to her.
It also means she has a responsibility.
You see, being black on the outside is one thing. It is a superficial layer that says to the world, she’s just another black girl. She’s got natural, spiraling curls and a wide smile, equally wide hips, and a southern drawl. She likes her grits and cornmeal and chicken fried, and she loves God first, always. She bobs her head to the rhythms in her head and she’s a family girl: ain’t that something.
She learned about famous black people in school just like everyone else. About the musicians and the poets and the activists, and before them the abolitionists. She never felt any particularly strong connection to them before, when she was little. But they were black, and she was black. And that was enough.
There’s nothing wrong with being black on the outside. But if she’s going to be black, she needs to step outside of these things that, while true, can also trap her in her own skin. She needs to embrace her history– all of her history– and re-define herself in a world where that history is rapidly repeating itself.
Suddenly it is as though it is 1965 again. She questions whether this is even possible, if she can actually live in such a world as this– where human beings are gunned down first and the questions come later. She wonders how long it will be before the riots break out, before the batons come down and the people retaliate with rage.
Her story is not unique. There are girls like her everywhere. She wants to change this, even if it won’t have an impact, even if no one remembers her name and she doesn’t make it into some hall of fame. She doesn’t know yet what she can do, but she knows this:
She is not Eric Garner
She is not Michael Brown
She is not Tanisha Anderson or Tamir Rice
She is not Freddie Gray
But she is their sister, and her voice is her weapon.
She can post hashtags that proclaim whose lives matter, she can protest outside of police stations. She can brandish her pen and write her grievances across the sky– however she chooses to do it, she must take injustice head on.
She recalls men who spoke of dreams, and men who fell fighting for their freedom. Like everyone else, she has read about brave women on buses and brave women in the underground. And she will feel a responsibility to do her part, to stand with her people.
And in her journey to discovering who she is, she will finally come to realize what being black entails.