(RNS) — The morning is already hot, thick. Alone at my kitchen table in the dark, I light a candle — “Gardenia,” it smells of late fall, of cinnamon and creamed oranges — and I close my eyes to pray.
But there is no prayer.
There are words. But they are not mine. “I stayed in my body.” Words from a testimony at the Derek Chauvin trial — a trial I could not watch, only read in glimpses.
There is a voice. But it is not God’s. It is Kiese Laymon, one of my closest friends and a fellow writer, on the phone, “I’m just glad to be alive. I’m just glad we here.”
And there are images. Not of heaven but of the closest I’ve ever come to hell. Images, so fresh in my memory, of blue scrubs and blood, dark hands and light hands pressing on my wife’s stomach. “Girl,” a nurse says jokingly to ease the tension, “this yo life.”
I open my eyes and shake my head, as if such a motion could erase what I feel in my body, as if my mind is an Etch A Sketch.
I wish it were that easy. These past weeks have made me tired. I am more than tired: I am terrified, the kind of terrified that messes with your sleep, your ability to pray, to read, to think, to feel creative and healthy.
Four terrifying, bewildering days in the hospital and then our daughter, Ava, is born. We are so tired. We are so happy. I am still afraid. All of my fears about Black women and childbirth and the love of your life slipping out of your grasp had met me in the cold, dark, lonely hospital room.
The hospital elevator doors open for me and an older white lady is inside. She grabs the collar of her pink shirt to wipe at tears. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I’m so sorry.”
“You don’t have to apologize,” I say.
“I’m sorry, ” she says again anyway. “My brother is on the fourth floor. They said he’s not going to make it.”
She looks old enough to be my grandmother, but she cries young enough like a child in the middle of having something snatched from them. “What’s your brother’s name?” I ask. She tells me his name and more. She tells me how much she has lost, how much COVID has taken from her. She tells me about all the ways she is afraid and how she grabs the cross on her neck and holds it tight and prays for herself and for everybody who has lost like her.
I know none of this is normal. I know people are afraid just like I am, and some of them are alone, and some of them have found ways to cope, and some of them have not. All of us are in that hospital because something had changed the order of things in our life.
“What’s good fam?” Kiese on the phone. We catch up, and then, as we so often do, we start talking about football, about names on the backs of jerseys, and Black bodies under white lights, and old memories we both have of our bodies doing things we can only dream of doing today. I forget we are in a pandemic. I forget how much we’ve all lost, all the terrible things that have happened to us. I believe it’s all going to be alright.
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I read him some sentences from the book I am writing. He says, “hmmmm.” And I hope it is the type of hmmm that turns Black books into bestsellers. I finish reading. “Dawg,” he says. “Owwwweeee.” I know what that means. I feel inspired, loved, seen. I feel what we have all needed to feel in moments like this, when we are forced to feel our losses and rarely enjoy our wins. I want Black wins. Real Black wins. “Aye, big bruh,” I say. “I appreciate that fo’ real, fo’ real.”
Kiese laughs. “I’m just glad to be alive,” he says. “I’m just glad we here.”
When we finish talking I realize that’s what I’ve wanted to keep near and return to again and again. I want to know the things we lost are not greater than the things we hold on to. I want to believe what we’re doing now is not just creating good art but actually loving others, and doing good, and growing up, and getting better, and holding out for more than what’s around us.
“To encounter oneself,” James Baldwin writes, “is to encounter the other: and this is love … If I can respect this, both of us can live. Neither of us, truly, can live without the other.” This daily encounter, Baldwin says, is the heavy, tattered glory of the gift of God.
I have been thinking a lot about encounters lately. The trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis cop who murdered George Floyd last year, has been thrumming in the background of all this. I couldn’t and can’t and won’t bring myself to watch it. Am I failing George and us by not being there? I don’t know, but I know how terrible it was to see him crying “Mama, Mama,” succumbing under the weight of a white man, who neither cared about George nor his mama nor any of us who watched, and prayed and suffered a deep and terrifying memory.
“I did call the police on the police. Because I believe I witnessed a murder.” This is from the testimony of Donald Wynn Williams II, who was present that day when Chauvin encountered Floyd.
A murder. A deadly encounter.
“No, you can’t paint me out to be angry,” Williams told the defense lawyers who tried to characterize him as an agitator at the scene. “I grew professional,” he said. “And I stayed in my body.”
He stayed in his body. We stayed in our body. George, beautiful George, did not stay.
I remember another body. A little Black girl marching in protest last June after Floyd’s death. Her eyes beautiful and stern and sharp, her teal short-sleeve shirt pressed to her fragile frame, her jacket around her waist as a tulip, a mask upon her chin, her head bent to the side, screaming, screaming: No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace! My mind is full of memories, from even before my birth, of little Black girls and little Black boys and Black mothers and Black fathers screaming those same words, in the same cadence, over the same, cold, loved, dying, dead Black bodies.
Why should she have to be so strong as to bear the weight of these deaths, the weight of such memories on her heart and her shoulders and in her arms as she raises them and puts them down and lifts them up again?
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My two-year-old son, Asa, is awake now. He comes up to me as I sit at the kitchen table. “Daddy, Daddy,” he calls out to me. I pick him up. My wife walks in. I smile at her. “I love you,” I say. “I love you.”
Asa’s smile widens, his brown skin glistens like the dew of the morning. He grabs my face with both hands and says, “Look!”
There is nothing to look at, just the empty, open space of our kitchen.
“Look!” He is turning my face to his toys. He has put his train tracks together, the magnetic blue trains connecting to one another, and says, “I did it! I did it!”
He is so happy, so proud of himself. He is so free. He has no care but to experience as much pleasure and peace and play as he possibly can. He does not yet have to feel what I feel. And I am so happy he does not have to.
I let myself imagine one day I might tell him, “Look!” and on the other side there will not be dead Black bodies. There will not be Black girls screaming and Black men testifying and Black women weeping and alive Black boys trembling and shaking.
I imagine we will not have to be witnesses to death but witnesses to life, to possibilities, to joy.
And if that day does not come, and if he has to be like one of the students in Minnesota who walked out of school for George, and if he has to be like the little one crying out for another, and if he has to call a friend in the midst of struggle, and hold his loved ones when they are afraid, I will be okay because I would have taught him love. And if any of us are worth loving, then we are worth remembering, and if we are worth remembering, then we are worthy of whatever anyone can do to remind ourselves of this: Black people deserve love. Black people do not deserve death.
(Danté Stewart is a writer and student at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Connect with him at dantecstewart.com and @stewartdantec. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)