By Jasmine Huang
While the world continues to purge itself with unanticipated savagery, my days have grown long and idle in quarantine. I’ve fallen into a routine of riding my bike to the new neighborhoods that have been constructed while I’ve been gone. Inspired by the aesthetics of old Southern colonial architecture, the homes leer ever-so-slightly into the realm of the grotesque. They loom in their magnanimous form, modern and indomitable despite being from such an antiquated tradition. Sad little trees sit in their yards, newly-planted and baby-like, a poor substitution of all the woods that stood there prior to their arrival.
Two properties rest at the border of these soon-to-be neighborhoods. One large house can be seen through the foliage; the other remains hidden, its presence denoted only by the barbed-wire fence that straggles along the ground. Each time, I stop before the pile of rocks near the back corner of the road. This is where the barbed-wire is most visible, rusted and decayed but still sharp enough to pierce the skin and bring forth blood (and perhaps tetanus).
In March, I exhausted my dog walking out there. After noticing a thing ensnared in the barbed wire, I’d stared silently at it. Shades of brown dotted its surface. Dark spots of shadow and black gave it the character of a hawk while white markings made it seem almost like a miniature Bambi. But a doe-eyed deer was far too big to fit into that pocket of space, so I squinted some more, still undecided as to what it was. Eventually, I returned home, deterred by the sun’s fading glow.
When April arrived, I went back with my brother. Pointing at the mass of brown, I called out to him. What do you think this is? We debated between it being a bird and a strange tree branch that had fallen during a storm. Ten minutes passed. In truth, I was too scared to get closer to the fence, afraid of unbridled reality and its resolute force and clarity. The line where the road ended and the grass sprouted acted as an invisible barrier of sorts.
In a moment of cowardice, I found myself growing frightened by the possibility that the thing stuck in the wire was a creature that once lived and breathed as I did and still do. The curve of its body bespoke of wings and the texture reminded me of disturbed feathers. A broken neck could have easily been the reason why the eyes weren’t visible. But my brother and I squinted and said to ourselves, the wood grain brings the dapples of shadow, the white is the heart of the tree, and the texture is the layered surface of bark; it must be a tree branch. So we biked away, satisfied with our answer.
Then May came, arriving with pure, unrestrained fury. Throughout my time in quarantine, I’d been listening to podcasts on my bike rides. As spring break went along, I began to hear the quiet momentum of Ahmaud Arbery’s death as it pulsed through the media. Around dusk one day, I went out to make my daily rounds and started playing an episode out loud.
—Chased by armed white residents—the news host’s voice crackled through my phone.
—Running in a South Georgia neighborhood—I whizzed past the local library.
—A release of a video of the February confrontation—I veered left and right to avoid the pedestrians.
—The video appears to show the deadly struggle—I blundered through the grass.
—Ahmaud Arbery was killed in a neighborhood a short jog away from his home— lowering my head, I avoided the eyes of anyone I passed by.
I remember when I went off the trail and into a new neighborhood, I started biking faster. By now, the news broadcast was over. I’d neglected to put my hair up, so it lay snarled and unruly. Yet somehow from the clear sky, a raindrop had fallen precisely onto the bare scalp of my part, almost as though it were a reprimand from God.
When May came, I imagine she bore down in her anger even harder to remind us again, and again, that this was nothing new. Following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and countless others, I suppose she looked back on the world as it was then and as it is now, bitter and disappointed at how little has changed. Hope remains timid and meager in Pandora’s box. So as May comes and goes, and June follows, she must wait her turn once more before she can wish for anything else.
We debate aimlessly and argue whether or not violence is a legitimate form of protest. Ten years pass, then ten decades. In truth, we’re too scared to get closer to the fence, afraid of unbridled reality and its resolute force and clarity. The line between Black and white acts as an invisible barrier of sorts—but deep down, we already know this. We knew this long ago.
In moments of cowardice, those in power are frightened by the possibility that the people trapped in their unjust system of racial violence and oppression are capable of just as much greatness and love, if not more. Yet the curve of their bodies spoke of life, pride, and dignity; that alone should have been enough.
But when George Floyd’s neck was beaten and broken, we still saw his face. We still saw his eyes. We saw him. And what have our lawmakers and leaders done since then?
When they squint at America and its tiny nooks and crannies, at the vast rivers of suffering rife with anger, at the inequities, the sorrow, and the strange, sudden notes of beauty that appear every so often, what do they see? What do they say?
When Sewanee’s administration receives texts, emails, tweets, and comments about the most recent cases of racial violence, what have its white members done? What has the departing Vice-Chancellor done? What have the white members of our Board of Regents and Trustees done? When they learn about the killings against Black lives, what have the individuals belonging to the non-Black community of color done?
And when you see them, what do you say? What do you do?
I ask these questions because this is what I ask myself. I would be remiss if I did not say how I’ve struggled to understand the dynamics and differences of being Black and being a person of color— and one who is East Asian at that. I would be oblivious if I did not recognize that the unjust murder of Black Americans is nothing new. I would be hypocritical to not acknowledge the moments where I’ve made mistakes and had to admit that I, too, am at fault for anti-Blackness. And I would be wrong to not apologize and recognize that I was late in coming to all of these realizations.
When we think of systemic racism and how anti-Blackness is so deeply embedded within it, we must remember that these issues are thick, pervasive, and riddled with violence. They latch onto the backs of necks, passed down from generation to generation until they become instinctual. Implicit. Unspoken, yet underlying. Even if we scurry into the warm, familiar corners of our homes, even if we post on social media (like, share, repeat), even if we open ourselves up for discussion—we are still capable and culpable of them.
Say their names out loud: Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Say them and feel the weight that hangs upon your shoulders. Then notice the sense of burden that suddenly grips your tongue. And when you say their names, remember: Do not wait for the burning bush to suddenly appear and prove its infallibility, or for Lazarus to rise once more from the craggy depths of his tomb — confront yourself as you confront this world — present, in this singular dimension of foggy nights and quivering atoms, of the suffering that is poured forth from the soul on a day-by-day basis.
As you sip on the blood that has been spilled for your communion, so too must you recognize the blood that has been spilled for America to live and breathe as mightily and cruelly as she does today. Do not request those who have been slain to play God. How can you ask them to show grace when the ones in power clench their clammy, unrelenting fingers around it, believing such a favor to be warranted for only those whose skin remains as pure and pasty as curdled milk?
The other day, I set forth on my bike. It was warm outside, a bit humid with a slight breeze. By the time I arrived at the pile of rocks, dusk was coming to an end and the shadows had begun to lengthen. The trees whispered to one another, gossiping amongst themselves. Despite the storms that had recently overtaken the area, I saw the brown still nestled firmly in the barbed wire. I jumped off my bike and stood for a moment. Admired the indigo sky and the blue-green leaves. Took a little breath. Paused—
Then I stepped onto the grass.