I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
I am in the shower washing off the day’s yard work. Mid-scrub I realize I missed a Black Lives Matter Cleveland rally in support of defunding the police. Relief pours over me. Then a healthy helping of guilt gathers in my throat—that knot that people damn for its insistence toward truth. The knot that also reminds the body, before consciousness, that death is near. The racking knowledge of what a lack of air can do to a body. But this reminder of ensuing death is not the shocking part; the record of our lives is—the overwhelming spill of memories we thought were non-memories. The body’s familiarity with such helplessness, and want. My mind holds the thought: police terror is not how I want to die.
Earlier in the day, my dad came by. I didn’t expect him, but there he was when I opened the front door, pulling up weeds from my walkway. One of the first things my father will tell you when you meet him is that he is seventy years old. This is his way of letting people know all that he has seen, and to flaunt his skill of breathing on the other side of a battle.
I join him in the yard. He tells me which weeds will cause a rash, which will require tools, and which are actually pretty if I let them bloom. He keeps his distance as we work. Masked and gloved, he said he is “social-distancing,” and I assume he was smiling from the lines that gather around his eyes.
My parents came to Ohio during the Great Migration. More than six million Black people moved during that major exodus, reaching toward a kind of living beyond Jim Crow’s murderous claw. My mother and father embarked on journeys that their parents—whether lucid or not—dreamed for them. They traveled roads still surrounded by anti-Black racism, but the cotton fields were behind them. Ambitions of art study, history majors, property ownership, and athletics claimed their talents. My mother is a writer, social worker, evangelist, and life coach. My father is a Ford Motors man, state track and field contender, and owns property throughout Greater Cleveland. They both utilize their abilities to encourage, empower, and build a stronger semblance of safety for their communities and their family.
As a teenager, I was radicalized and started writing about my town’s socio-political dynamics. In my late teens I started participating in street political actions. One that still haunts me is when we hit the ground when Darren Wilson was not indicted for killing Michael Brown. In Kent, Ohio, Black people and non-Black people who stood with us marched to the local police department. Assata Shakur’s call, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom,” fueled our movement. The poets held court as we spray painted the Kent State rock, a central community stone decorated for celebrations, memorials, and other significant events. The rock was meant to match our black dress in solidarity with national movements and to symbolize our collective mourning. Prayers went up, and rage beat through our mass of people. Halfway along our route a mighty few dozen spliced into the street. Senior organizers held up their hands. “Back on the sidewalk! We are not doing that today!” An argument ensued: Disrupt traffic or stay pumping down the sidewalk? How disruptive are we willing to be? What are we willing to risk? It was a familiar reckoning I’d seen in other political actions I participated in.
As we marched and deliberated, it was the first time I really thought to myself, “Who are we talking to? Are they listening? Could we be using our intellect elsewhere?” I believe Black Lives Matter and organizations whose interests align are doing essential work, mobilizing millions across the world to advocate against the violence enacted on Black people. However, it was then I first asked myself, What else could my lifeforce be tending to?
The first day of protests in Cleveland to honor George Floyd and combat anti-Black racism triggered my undiagnosed PTSD. No medical professional has ever said “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” to me, but many activists that made it to the other side of the 2014-16 BLM actions shared their diagnoses on Twitter or, personally, with me. I recognize the symptoms of their psychological reaction to street activism, to the encouraged martyrdom, and to being kidnapped by police in me. So, when I arrived in Downtown Cleveland and heard “No Justice, No Peace!” with flashbangs serving as a bassline, my fight or flight response activated. I stayed. I fought. I made it home before nightfall. I was sitting on my couch—doors locked—in time to avoid being snatched up for dismissing city-wide curfews.
After that march, I got on the phone with a friend who wanted to talk about our experiences. My friend said they were up front going toe-to-toe with police officers. They were struck with rubber bullets, suffocated with smoke bombs, blinded by tear gas. At one point, an officer held their eye contact, grabbed his club, and taunted them with threats. My friend’s vision blurred from anger, hilarity, and the gaggle of people restraining them as they tried to reach the officer who spewed the threat. Wrestling to get free of the fellow protestors’ grip they shook and screamed to no avail. Until just when they were about to be loose running full speed toward the officer a family member grabbed their shoulders. Made eye contact and said, “Hey! It’s me. Chill out!” My friend relaxed, and continued protesting with the others.
I could hear my friend’s hype over the phone. They said, “Matthew, man, I was on the way to my destiny. I didn’t care what happened. It’s cool fam showed up, but I saw the light. They blocked me from it!” I advised they stay lowkey for a minute because the press and police are taking pictures of protestors to make an arrest later. I wish that I didn’t know what they meant by “I was on the way to my destiny.” But there are those of us who reluctantly or even feverishly have martyr dreams. Those of us who know we will have a martyr’s fate.
Recently, my brother joked that a fitting end to my life would be by police bullet at a BLM protest. He laughed as he said it—clutching his side. His sense-of-humor courtesy of watching BET’s ComicView, as a kid, and his time in the US military. When I checked him about his comment he said it’s common during deployment for soldiers to joke about a fellow troop’s plausible death by minefield or friendly fire. I knew the humor. We relied on the same dark comedy as activists. And since every joke holds truth (especially when I consider my disgust with the State, policing, and any amendment other than the second), I understood.
But I laughed a nervous laugh. Because lately, death has been standing eyelash-to-eyelash with me. I wake up to helicopters circling above my neighborhood. White Americans have been making more eye contact with a smile. Black trans women are being untied from trees while summer is blossoming the femme in me. I have long known the fate of Black Americans invested in Black American wellness. Invested in upending systems borne out of anti-Black ideology, practice, sickness.
So, to be real, I was not pressed about missing the rally to defund police because I am trying to avoid being killed. My end brought to me by the State’s anti-Black fury and bullet is not how I want to go out.
My dream has always been to die with honor. To transition to eternity with a legacy notable enough to immortalize with a statue, a documentary, and a Library of Congress archive of my work. As a teenager I dreamt of myself aging gracefully. My visions were all of me in an NBA uniform or standing on a soapbox directing people with ambiguous language—words like: freedom, imagination, revolution. Something like the heroes we screen print onto T-shirts and quote on social-media. I do not want that dream fulfilled through martyrdom. I do not want to know the destiny my friend feels slipped by them. I do not want images of me splayed out with a gang of people with faces like mine and unlike mine hovering above my face.
Someone once said to me, “There are casualties in war. Rayshard Brooks had to die to fuel the movement.” I get it. I am not romantic about war waged against Black people for land, labor, property, and trade. I know that Black American soldiers, like any soldiers, understand the potential for death when we suit up. What jars me is the idea that death by police may be the only way we die with the reverence and glory we deserve for our survival in this country. Would we scream Rayshard’s name if not for a police’s bullet? Why is Breonna Taylor not caped for so hard if not for a police’s bullet? Will anyone remember my name if they get me?
As my dad and I tend the lawn, I think, This is enough. I’d rather live unprovoked by a one-trick president, fallible allies, and brain-wiped police forces. I could—like my dad and mom—use my finite life force toward whims outside of racism’s distraction. I could smile at my son years from now on a piece of land less enthralled with white fear, greed, and amoralism. I love my parents for the example of how to stay and live with honor born of family, Black dreams, and manifesting. I also know, though, I am still in my hunger years, and I must build on the work my parents and elders did for me.
I look into my father’s face with a handful of dead grass, and hope my children will look proudly into mine.
Matthew Thompson is a Black American poet, comedian, and filmmaker from Cleveland, Ohio. Thompson is an alum of The New School’s MFA writing program and a Lambda Literary, Cave Canem, and Winter Tangerine Review fellow. Thompson has work published or forthcoming in The Seventh Wave Magazine, Racebaitr, Emerge: 2019 Lambda Fellows Anthology, Juked Poetry, and elsewhere. He has performed and shown his film work across the US and internationally including: Melrose Ballroom, Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, Pratt Institute, Godsbanen Museum, and Apache Cafe. Keep up with Matthew @mattmattradio.
Li Young Lee