Cuts and Blows

When my body is a bullseye, how can I make room for joy?

Rob Lewis

Most days I feel like the world don’t want Black joy to exist. From bathroom stalls to church bombings in the Jim Crow South, we still can’t find safety in this world, even in the seemingly safest of places. They wonder why I sing the blues. We still fighting to get into bathrooms, we still fighting to be safe in a church. Even though I left the church and use whatever bathroom I damn well please, I know one day it may all come with a detrimental consequence. My body absorbs the residual consequences of a world on fire. From Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, DC, Virginia, Maryland to Oregon I’ve traveled. Nothing has changed. I thought I could be safe here. I thought I’d found a balance between fight and flight. I never imagined I’d only find myself frozen. 

Since eighteen, my car has been my home, where I feel the most safe, but on this day in June—five days before my birthday—he came at my car with a big stick meant to commit violence on my body. Anytime I make it another year in this world, it is a celebration. That day I was reminded why. 

At first I didn’t know what he was yelling. He got closer. I heard with clarity the words nigger and faggot—pejorative terms for identities I hold, identities that indicated to him that I was a target in more ways than one. That is how intersectionality plays out, and it breaks me when people use words without understanding that. He might have said these words because of mental illness, but that doesn’t make me feel safer. What about my mental health? My PTSD from racial trauma? This trauma makes me avoid more affordable paths to work, this trauma still feels like warm marrow and boiling blood and cold bones. It’s like breathing in shards: this must be resistance. My body is a bull’s-eye for hatred, for hurt, for dispossession. How can I make room for joy, knowing I will always be fearful that this world will try to rob me of it? 

And even if the world gave this man nothing else beyond neglect, it told him to hate me. Follow me. Harass me. Hurt me. Kill me. It extended him the privilege and the unquestioned right to do so. His words are supported by the sheer nature and narrative of this nation’s history that lives on through him, through those who collectively renew licenses to terrorize the marginalized. These are weaponized words that don’t necessarily sting any less, but words I am accustomed to when niceties fail or doors are closed, when white supremacy and anti-Blackness suggest that others should feel entitled to colonize my body. There are sadists who demand I prove my pain and label me a masochist when the scars I once covered can be seen. They want me to prove the oppression that they have caused. This is the most abhorrent game I never wanted to play. Welcome to the slave games. 

They won’t stop. I stopped begging them to. But I am so tired because these words give birth to action. These words cause intergenerational devastation that causes my body to contort excruciatingly in the middle of the night. And I can’t mend my wounds with the necessary attention because these words have enhanced my hypervigilance and hypervisibility and I have to choose between bleeding out from gaping wounds or preparing for the next attack. Either way, am I not dying? Sticks and stones. Even nursery rhymes set me up to not have a voice, to not be seen, to not be believed. He had a stick. The world casts its stones. 

Words have power. They told me to turn the other cheek. They stabbed me in the back. I am raw now and some days it’s difficult for me to even care anymore and I’m sure that’s what they wanted all along. It seems that in every direction I choose to run, there is danger. I just wanted to run back home, back to my mother’s womb. Even then, she must have known what world I was entering, because she knew what world she existed in. I wasn’t safe, because she was never safe. The same way her mother was never safe. The way my grandfather never stood a chance. He transferred his hurt to everyone he encountered. I am ashamed to say that I myself have done the same more days than not. 

I’m faced with fear because of things I can’t hide about who I am, and things I wouldn’t hide even if I could. I thought this was a place where living in unquestioned queerness was possible. But I didn’t account for what it meant to be Black and queer here. I wake up and Black is the first thing I see, the first thing they see but never want to acknowledge, the first thing that’s attacked. Their silence is their complicity in the destruction of my people, their attempted destruction of me. They made these constructs. They say, “I haven’t done anything.” I scream back, “Bruh, neither the hell did I.” But they benefit from this construct and I suffer for it. I thought this was a place that had the race thing figured out. But it was never figured out, just swept under rugs. History unveils itself. I cannot stay here. I’m not safe anywhere. I don’t have the option to go, the wherewithal to stay. 

I just wanted to be Black and go home. But we have never been able to just go home. Don’t know why I had hoped it would be different here. 

I struggle to explain why I can’t create a safe space. I struggle in direct actions. I struggle knowing that every day my body understands that I could prematurely die because of who I am. I want something more than this. 

My mind reacts and says, “Hurt yourself before someone else does. Before this world does.” Because that is how desperate searches for autonomy can manifest. When breathing doesn’t feel involuntary anymore. My belly is full of fiery laughter in fleeting moments, a cupid’s bow curls on my lips. My eyes seek hope even when there’s nothing but ominous and foreboding clouds of despair and uncertainty overhead. My heart becomes heavy again. Joy visited but will not stay, no matter how much I plead. I struggle to understand love that doesn’t require colonial ownership. 

Cuts and blows. Cuts and blows. Looking to get lost in anything that makes me shift from numbness. 

These bones. This resolve. They try to break, and break, and break us, and I fear the very real possibility of the worst harm of all: the world making us invisible, making us the subjects of its genocide, and rewriting histories that never state that we were here. The hardest thing about worst fears is when you realize you’re living through them, that your ancestors have too. We were here. We are here. Fighting and writing ourselves into existence. I just wonder when we’ll get a chance to talk about liberation instead of just resistance and resilience. 

This is what it feels like to embody fatigue. I take steps away from educating people on things they already know but refuse to believe, for it has always been emotional labor. But we are expected to do this for others. I cannot hold your fragility, tears, disbelief. They are roadblocks to my self-emancipation. 

I expect nothing from them, and I am still disappointed. They see us as bakers of cookies and cakes and pies, like Aunt Jemima. I can’t cook you no more gold stars. They want us to be a validator of allyship like a valet Mr. Belvedere. A Bojangles entertainer and a body of proof at a party supposedly meant to create space to revel in the resilience and jubilation that is us—but that space quickly turns into one of self-congratulation for acknowledging a minority and for sitting with discomfort for three seconds. But I am not your servant. My resources have been depleted.

When they center their feelings over my body, they are making it about them again. 

I can’t pray to their god, they’ve always used him against me. Can’t praise my own, they took them away from me. 

Policies won’t get me free. They demand patriotism from coercively migrated, stolen bodies on stolen land. 

I can name a city’s police cars by heart. It’s not a hobby, it’s survival when faced with authoritative complexes. Permission granted by state sanctions to rip me apart in quarters. Sirens ring and I don’t feel protected. I don’t expect the assurance of safety; I hear my footsteps speed up. To know their history, their track records, the lengths they go to, I focus on molding my fear into seeming unsuspicious. They don’t know the root of why my body freezes, though they should. The time it would take to explain my existence is just enough time for it to be taken away. So I know when it’s time to stay. When it’s time to go. 

That day in my car, I didn’t dial 911. It would have been his words against mine. His skin against mine. His trauma against mine. My body shook for days. 

Sometimes my heart just can’t fight no more. 

When I first moved here, I was so confused by the way folks of color looked at me on the street. Was I not fitting in? Was I doing something wrong? Now I am those people on the street. I want to know you, to build community or see if it’s possible. I’ve never seen you before. I would have seen you somewhere. I want to warn you. To join you. To mourn you. 

We see each other on the street simply because we see scars invisible to most. We are cognizant of trauma and duress on a body trying to make a home for itself. 

In a gentrifying city, we pay a toll to be terrified. 

Trauma train, trauma walk, trauma race, trauma gender, trauma car. Trauma home, trauma stay. Trauma leave, trauma lost. Anti. Anti. Anti-me.

Walking out of my home every day is the greatest example I can give to show what resilience is. It has never felt like enough. 

Meantime we navigate this disaster to our own soundtrack. Step one: breathe. Step two: exist. Step three: persist. Now choose. Can you withstand the day on false hope or invested expectation that today will be okay?

I live with the very real fact that looking like I do, like my family and my people do, is a mortality factor. They told me my body wasn’t beautiful and I said, “Screw you.” But I’d be lying if I said that for years I didn’t believe you. 

I take a Lyft because I don’t feel safe on public transportation. But they never really wanted me to be a part of the public, its resources or its spaces. Being safe from harm is expensive and now I don’t even trust the driver. Cancel ride and resubmit. The fee is even more now. I’m being extorted for the illusion of safety. But what about the folks who can’t pay that fee? Capitalism exists right alongside racism. Gentrification makes us bear the brunt of inflation due to the destruction and devastation that this American system caused. Epitomic collusion. Theft. Offerings of piecemeal freedom at costs monetary and soulful. Insidious propaganda of dreams that were only my, our, nightmares. 

They have committed murder. Pay attention to the different ways it’s done. Oppressors are a creative group. 

Somebody asked me how I was today and I wasn’t able to distinguish between mania due to pandemonium, depression, or just flat-out oppression. Diagnoses overlap.  

Now ask yourself: Is this something that you have to ask yourself?

We are here. Every day. There are consequences: limited dreams or the knowledge that we may not go very far. Not because of us, but because of this. We watch as systems become automated: cute alliterative names like “Courageous Conversations” make folks think the hardest part about this work is showing up and replacing racist, sexist, heterosexist with minimized words like biased or prejudice to make digestion easier on themselves. They leave with “I chose to be vulnerable” badges. Not realizing that to choose to be vulnerable is a privilege. Questions are dodged. Actions absolved. Allyship beaming. Was it all for a few hours a day, or is it for a lifetime? It is clear to me: people steeped in privilege, not directly affected by particular positions of pain, rarely do things without reward, and rarely do them sustainably. 

Liberalism ain’t gon save you and it ain’t gon save me. We say it so much that I’m not sure what “progressive” even means anymore, if it ever meant anything. I can’t feel the small victories they keep talking about. I just feel betrayed through the act of peers pretending. The system continues to operate just as it was intended to. And if everyone’s so progressive, why does being Black and queer here still hurt so much? Something ain’t adding up. Someone ain’t showing up. But I’m not here to take attendance. I’m just here to be a witness and share my testimony. 

I don’t have a working definition of freedom, because it has always been contingent on what those who oppressed us defined it as and said we have. I was born with empty hands that my mama and grandma tried to overfill. But the world tried to cut them off soon after. I do not hold this freedom they speak of. Just like peppermints in pockets placed for my own refreshment at revival, the things that could not fit in my hands were placed in my mind, my heart, and the soles of my shoes. I am fortified by those who came before and will come after me. 

My dreams have always been mixed, a solution of nightmares that resemble reality far too much for comfort and anything that helps me feel like a tomorrow is possible. These days, I welcome insomnia. Jaws clenched so tight and eyes shut so wide that I taste erythrocytes and iodized tears on the tip of my tongue. Ready. Always. To be no more. Dear gods tell me that it was for something. That someone will realize something. Say something. That they know I was trying to be and hoped I was someone to someone. Even if only to my people, even if only to myself. Then sleep may come easy.

Look at what they’ve done. But look at me and look at us: still living.


Gender, Place, Race, Safety


1 comments have been posted.

Thank you for sharing your beauty and tragedy. If your words and suffering are good for nothing else, tonight they made my skin crawl and heart shiver in absorbing the truth of them. Please keep on living, and speaking your truth. I promise to keep listening to words such as these, to hold them with me, to shape acts through them.

Michaela | January 2018 | Portland, OR

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Cuts and Blows


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