I was riding the 2 train into Manhattan today when I heard a muffled wet clatter, followed by concerned murmurs. When I looked up from my book, I noticed that a young woman had dropped her full plastic cup of iced coffee, and she was stooping over to pick up the cup, uselessly, as the sweet caramel liquid spilled in every direction from the point of impact. The train was pretty crowded. As I watched her, she seemed to wilt under the gaze of the disapproving strangers, folding inward, helpless to ameliorate their disdain for this mess, their sudden need to shift their bags and maneuver their bodies and feet so that the coffee would not touch them.
As if it were poison, or lava. I wished that she had a friend or two with her, so that they could smile and giggle, embarrassed, together; she was so utterly alone in her shame. Such a trifling thing, I thought, spending a few dollars on this coffee, a treat on such a hot day, and then fucking dropping it on the train. Then we sailed into Union Square and I got off, my brain already ticking forward to my next destination: Brooklyn bound L. I heard a woman exclaim “Oh my GOD!” behind me. Maybe she had just realized the bottom of her bag was soaked with iced coffee.
I suppose that I, too, was complicit, since I turned around to look at her, and the floor, and the floor around my shoes. Even as I judged these other people for doing the same thing.
This story is not an allegory.
I’m reading Ta Nehisi-Coates' letter to his son, Between the World and Me. I love reading, and I love his writing, but this is difficult. I sent Eric a text message: “I feel like I’m being scraped open.”
I’ve been copying sentences and passages that I need more time to chew on into my iPhone notes, because Eric and I share this book and I don’t think he’d want me to underline or dog-ear the pages like I normally would.
“It struck me perhaps the defining feature of being drafted into the black race was inescapable robbery of time, because the moments we spent readying the mask, or readying ourselves to expect half as much, could not be recovered. The robbery of time is not measured in lifespans but in moments. It is the last bottle of wine that you have just uncorked but do not have time to drink. It is the kiss that you do not have time to share, before she walks out of your life. It is the raft of second chances for them, and twenty-three hour days for us."
I don’t know what to do with such a blunt acceptance of the ugliness of this world. The ugliness of human nature. The reality of black life, of an entire diaspora whose existence, stretching back for centuries, is one of irreparable cruelty. I still don’t understand what it fully means to be black and I don’t understand how I will teach my child what it means for her to be black. Or how Michael or Trayvon or Aiyana or Sandra’s mother understand any of it, understand what this country is, what it can do and has done to their children with little to no recompense. And how this can continue, in perpetuity, each new death only fulfilling some demented fate that has been wrought upon the children of Africa, a twisted sequence of generational murder that has become commonplace. Michael's body lying in the street for hours. Commonplace!
I am so far from even knowing the questions to the answers I’m desperate for. And my daughter stares at me, eyes wide, her tiny brain drinking in my face and the plant by the window and the sound of her father’s laughter and the smell of the garbage on the side of the road and the touch of warm bubbles in her bath, and she wonders, wordlessly, about all of it, and sometimes I just cry because she’s so innocent and I’m so scraped open, because I’m the only mother she has. And I'm the only mother she has. But I'm the only mother she has.