I was 9 years old the first time I was punched in the face.
During a church service, I absconded from the sanctuary with two of my older cousins and headed to a neighborhood store. When I returned, my mother asked where I had been and I snitched: “I went to the store with Bernard and Geet.” (Don’t ask where he got the nickname because I don’t know.)
I can’t recall who punched me first, but when Bernard and Geet were through pummeling me, I was done snitching for life. I remember how my eyes filled with water after the first punch. I remember Bernard getting mad at me because spit flew out of my mouth. I remember them warning me that I “bet’ not cry.” Most of all, I still remember thinking to myself, a few seconds into the beating, after the shock of the first slobber-knocker began to subside: “This ain’t so bad.”
That same cousin, Bernard, who was a boxing champion, later taught me how to fight. The first thing he taught me was not to flail wildly or to reflexively close my eyes when my opponent threw a punch. He warned me that he was going to keep jabbing me in the face with his boxing glove until I stopped flinching. I would love to say that I easily grasped the concept, but that’s not what happened.
He beat the dog shit out of me for an hour.
After what seemed like an eternity (he now says it was five or 10 minutes), I became accustomed to the blows and finally stopped flinching. “OK,” he said, “now you’re ready to learn how to fight.”
Since then, I have been in too many fistfights to count. I am neither a lover nor a fighter, but being skinny, nerdy and the youngest of my friends means that I was usually the prime target of bullies and anyone who wanted to engage in fisticuffs. Despite losing more fights than most people have ever been involved in, I can’t remember ever fighting out of fear or anger. I also can’t recall ever feeling proud, angry or sad after fighting—even when I got my ass kicked. It was always just a thing that happened. Being punched in the face always hurts, but after you get used to it, it ain’t so bad.
On June 12, 2013, I cried when I was punched in the face.
On that day, a Florida jury rendered a not guilty count for George Zimmerman in his second-degree murder case. Even though I had expected a not guilty verdict, I was stunned by it. It hurt pretty bad.
I was so upset by the killing of Michael Brown that I drove down to Ferguson, Mo., the next day. I made the trip again to await the decision on Officer Darren Wilson. When the grand jury declined to prosecute Wilson, I was shocked again, despite the fact that I knew it was coming. As I drove back home, I was still mad. I didn’t cry, but it still hurt.
After watching the video of Eric Garner’s death, I was so upset by the injustice that I felt the national outrage and foolishly ended up protesting by myself (and having my Apple Store privileges revoked).
When Freddie Gray died in the back of a police wagon, I drove to Baltimore. I understood how some of the protesters could be so angry that they took their frustrations out on police cars. I wasn’t shocked when city and state officials called the protesters “thugs.” I talked to the thugs. Many of them were not used to being punched in the face and were simply flailing wildly at their opponent. When the city dropped the case against the police involved in Gray’s death, I must admit, I flinched a little bit.
It didn’t hurt as much with Sandra Bland. Even less with Alton Sterling. And again with Rekia Boyd. And Sam Dubose. And Anthony Lamar Smith. And Philando Castile. And Laquan McDonald. And on and on.
The killing of Stephon Clark is as unfathomable a tragedy as Garner’s death or Castile’s. It was so callous and cold-blooded, all of America should be outraged. On Tuesday, after the death of Clark, I watched Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announce that there was insufficient evidence to charge Baton Rouge, La., police officers with the murder of Sterling.
Both events scared me.
I wasn’t scared because of how tragic or surprising the incidents were. Sadly, the Sterling nonprosecution was exactly what many people, including me, assumed would happen. And cases like Clark’s are becoming all too frequent.
I was scared because they didn’t hurt at all.
It is not that I don’t care—I do. It’s just that it has become so overwhelmingly common. I’ve learned how to tighten my muscles before being elbowed in the gut. I know how to take a punch to the face.
I am not supposed to feel like this.
Over the past week, in preparing stories for The Root, I watched four videos of black people being killed by police officers here, here, here and here. As I wrote about Decynthia Clements, I had to rewind the video, again and again, to describe how she was killed.
My eyes were open. I did not cry. I didn’t even flinch. It was just a thing that happened.
According to the Washington Post, in 2015, 26 percent of the 995 people police shot and killed by the police were black. In 2016, 24 percent of the 963 people killed by bullets from cops were black. In 2017, 23 percent of the 987 people killed by police were black.
They are winning.
The reason they are winning is not that we are afraid to fight. It is not that we have stopped caring about the eradication of black lives. We are growing indifferent to the pain. They are winning because we have become anesthetized by repeated punches to the face and bullets to the brains.
However, this particular brand of anesthesia is only for us.
When Nikolas Cruz killed 17 students at Parkland, Fla.’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, America had already become accustomed to mass shootings and gun violence. I’m pretty sure at least two or three of the nearly 800,000 people who showed up in Washington, D.C., to march for their lives had heard about the gun violence in black communities like Chicago and Birmingham, Ala. Yet everything changed when it happened to some well-spoken, photogenic white kids. The country was ready to fight.
We took America’s mistreatment of women for granted so long that we were willing to overlook the conduct of the funniest comedians, our favorite singers and the most successful people in Hollywood. Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement had been highlighting our ambivalence toward sexual violence and misconduct against women for years. But when white women co-opted the #MeToo movement, America put on its fighting flip-flops.
We are not supposed to be like this.
Our children are not supposed to sleepwalk through live-shooter drills. Our girls should not be accustomed to being sexually assaulted or mistreated by men. Children are supposed to flinch when they hear gunshots. Women are supposed to cry when they are touched inappropriately.
And black people are not supposed to see so many images of black death that we can eat a sandwich while watching people’s brains and blood splatter onto sidewalks. We aren’t supposed to become so numb to injustice that we are too tired to raise our fists. There is no way to muster the same anger over and over again. It is impossible to rekindle the dwindling fires of outrage.
We already know that black people are willing to fight.
A week after Donald Trump was elected president, white women realized what the hell 53 percent of them had done, and they filled the streets with what may have been the biggest march in U.S. history: the Women’s March. Black women showed up, too.
When the voices of the Parkland survivors made America realize that bullets can also kill white people, they organized the March for Our Lives. Despite the fact that black activists had been trying to convince America that our lives mattered since the death of Trayvon Martin, the black teenagers showed up, too.
When will anyone show up for us? When will we show up for ourselves?
I am no longer as concerned with the deaths as I am with the apathy. White people have moved on from caring about police brutality. Black people are becoming numb to it. I am becoming numb to it.
It is supposed to hurt.
I can only hope that our lack of outrage means that we are done crying and flailing wildly. If we have finally grown accustomed to being punched in the face, we should be ready to fight.
I eventually learned that my cousin Bernard was not a boxing champ. He just beat up a lot of people when he was in jail. One day, when I was about 13 or 14, Bernard and Geet were with one of their older friends, A Thug, who was probably 16 or 17. (That is not a slight against anyone. I swear on everything that is good and true that the dude’s name was Anthony, but everyone called him “A Thug.” And this was long before Tupac.)
Anyway, I inadvertently kicked over A Thug’s beer and he was mad as hell. He punched me in the face. I knew I couldn’t cry. I knew I had to fight him. Bernard and Geet were right there waiting for me to fight this beer-drinking (in my mind) grown-ass man.
When I hit A Thug, he tried to knock me into the future, which I knew he would. (Most people try to knock people out in a fight. When you’re small, you learn to jab someone to keep them off you, and someone will eventually break up the fight.) He missed and we kept fighting.
The perfect ending to this story would be a description of how I knocked out A Thug and gained my cousins’ respect. That didn’t happen. It was the most unremarkable display of fighting you will ever see. I poked like I was playing Punch-a-Bunch on The Price Is Right. He swung like Mike Tyson in a dark room. My cousins broke it up and—when it was over—I just went home. A Thug never bothered me again. It was just a thing that happened.
Aside from trying to sort out the reasons for my apathy, I don’t even know why I wrote this. Why giving a fuck hurts so much. Why not giving a fuck is even scarier. Why this slow-dripping nigger anesthesia has me lost in a dark, guilt-ridden void between anger and apathy and ... fuck.
There is no valuable lesson to be gleaned from being punched in the face repeatedly. It doesn’t make you any tougher or a better fighter. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t make you stronger. It makes you weaker. It only makes you numb.
Until it kills you. It always kills you.
But if we’re going to get our asses kicked anyway, we might as well fight.