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This is What It's Like

She sits down in the hard chair using a cushion to soften the feeling. She knows she is in for a long wait. Her hair is washed and ready to go. Netflix is on and she has already decided what she will watch as the woman above her uses a rat tail comb to part and section her thick hair. Her hair is soft and its slight red hue can be seen under the direct light. As the braids start to form, she gets used to the click, click, click of nails taking up the same space to twist the three strands together. After the first movie has gone off, she needs a break to stand, to stretch, to unfold. She turns her neck back and forth as she reaches up to touch what has been done. Progress. She smiles to herself, enjoying the length of the braids. She knows there is still a long way to go, as she returns to the chair. Another movie. And then another. At this point the excitement is completely gone. All there is the sheer will for a finished product, and sleepiness. So much sleepiness. There are more breaks for both. More stretching and laughing. More yawns and shared looks of determination. And then she hears the words, "Last one." Suddenly she is wide awake. Click, click, click...silence. She has done it. With a head full of braids she hugs the soft body of the woman who dedicated her time and energy to this project. She slips her the cash she deserves and runs off for advil and a scarf. She is still in for a long night as she attempts to sleep through the pain, but she is satisfied. The braids mean freedom. The freedom of time because she will no longer have to do her hair in the morning unless she feels like it. The freedom to swim without worry about what her hair is doing or how it looks as she bobs in and out of the water. The freedom to enjoy her summer, to get up and go. 

She never expected. 

She never expected to have a violent encounter with an officer as she grabbed her towel and shimmied into her bathing suit. She flipped her braids around, enjoying them more now that the pain has disappeared. 

She never expected that she and her crew would walk barefoot in the street, wrapped in towels to get away from the startling discord of the party atmosphere and the racially charged words hanging in the air. 

She never expected that the officer would grab her arm. Her feet no longer stable, she is completely confused. Her reaction is to fight. The only time she has ever been treated like this was that one fight with that one girl years ago over some silly stuff. Her body is yanked again. She is trying to talk, to yell, to demand her mother's presence. She can hear her friends calling out to her, she hears in their horrified voices the confirmation that this isn't right. Her body continues to fight as he pulls her braids, yanking her tender scalp. Her body falls. She kicks her legs still trying to regain some measure of dignity. She feels the officer press one knee and then two onto her small frame. She cant breathe. The weight of him and all his gear is too much. She wants her mother. She wants her mother. She cries out, unwilling to let this treatment go unnoticed. She will be heard. 

Her long brown legs. Her braids covering her face. Her cries for her momma. That is what I saw when I watched that video. I saw myself. I saw every black girl I know, but I also saw myself. 

For a moment. For a moment I didnt care about the officers barrel roll or all the white people standing around watching this horrific behavior. For a moment I did not see the houses or the cars or the other teenagers helpless but defiant. For a moment all I saw, all I felt was her. I felt her shock and humiliation. I felt her fear and terror. I felt her outrage. Her sobs exploded through my own body.  

This is what it's like to be a black girl in America. 

We look into the faces of the women who love and care for us. We see one another. We share in meaningful moments. We trade secrets. We know things. We know things about hair and patience and waiting. We know about love and laughter and dancing and joy. We know things about beauty and we create it together. And we know that beauty can be shattered. We know about ugliness. We know too well about dehumanization and violence. We know about the power of our voices. We wish we didnt. But knowing our power is a necessary survival mechanism. We know about being suddenly and violently unwelcome. We know about fear and defiance. We know about being publicly stripped of our dignity while others stroll casually by. We know about the walls violence erects so that none can save. We know about people with a repressed conscience, ruled by racism, unable to see us as we are. 

There are already many things you should go read about McKinney. You should read about the history of segregated pools. You should read about housing discrimination and restrictive covenants. You should read about the history of black women in this country. And after you have read all the things, you should take a look at your own life, your own decisions. Who are you trying to keep out of your restricted neighborhood? Your private community pool? How often do you call the police instead of parents over the inconvenience of a teenage party? Who do you assume is or isnt in your neighborhood? Were you hopeful for white neighbors? Do you even see anyone else? When this happens in your neighborhood, will you just watch? Will you use your body to protect children or to ignore them, or to hurt them? Yes, you must learn and reflect and decide how you will be different. 

But for a moment. Before this becomes about you and your actions and your reactions and your thoughts and your assessment and your judgements, I need you to know two things. 

1. I need you to know that she is fully human. I need you to know that she is a full person who exists outside this one moment and also felt every yank, tug, pull, press of what you watch. I need you to know that this is not "just another" anything. This is a moment in this girls life forever. She slept in her bed this weekend, and ate breakfast prepared by her momma, and received phone calls from her girlfriends, and is right now trying to make sense of how her body, mind, emotions and spirit will carry on in the world. She is human. 

2. I need you to know that whatever feelings I had as I watched this unfold, whatever pain I felt, whatever reaction I had, God had tenfold. God felt every yank and pull. God felt every shooting pain and press of the body. God felt her sobs. For God knows the violence of this world, is intimately aware of state-sanctioned brutality. God needs not imagine. God knows. God knows this little girl's pain, a pain she didnt choose and should not have endured. 

This post was originally shared on Channing Brown's blog

[Image: Flickr user John Atherton]


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