I’ve had May 8 circled on my calendar since the fall.
Today was supposed to be College Signing Day in Philadelphia, or as it was renamed this year here, Our Class, Our Future. It was on my home turf, too, at the University of Pennsylvania. So what was going to happen today was that I would be standing on stage at Penn’s famed Palestra for about 90 seconds, letting 5000 or so Philadelphia high school seniors know that I am the author of the paperback they are receiving in their swag bags — Higher Learning: Maximizing Your College Experience. And I was going to emphasize in my 90 seconds how critical it would be for them to not just read the book, but study it (like the book explains).
After this, I had planned to take the rest of the day off to go home and promote the book. Because today, May 8, was the scheduled release date. You only get one of those, so I was set on making it count.
Of course, none of this happened. I did release the book today, but let me back up.
I woke up early this morning.
For those who know me, my early isn’t regular people’s early, so I’m not even going put a number out here on the internet now and have someone doing an intervention call. Let’s just say it was dark out, and leave it at that. I started plotting and scheming, updating contact lists, figuring out social media strategy, then doing final prep for my big meeting in the morning. Turns out I woke up too early, so when regular people were getting up, I took a quick nap. Slept through my workout time, but I chalked it up and kept it moving.
At 10:00 am I hosted a virtual convening of over twenty different college access and completion partners in the Philadelphia region. Some community-based, some university-housed, some large, some small. For ninety minutes we talked about shifting plans to online programming and how we could collaborate. We shared work-life (im)balance stories and the very real struggles of our students and their families. We cried. We laughed. We lifted each other up. It was absolutely beautiful.
Afterwards I was on a high. I had a lot of energy and a ton of action items to follow up on. I made a quick lunch and checked social media to pass some time.
I tried to do what I normally do. I guess you could call it protective filtering. I scrolled past #RunWithAhmaud. Then I scrolled past #RunForAhmaud. And #RunForMaud. I was looking for some feel good story, somewhere. Can someone survive COVID-19 today and get reunited with their family on my feed, pleeeease?!?! Nope. Not today. I started looking at people’s running maps and times. I read their frustrations and questions. The tears welled up.
“Go get your sneakers.”
In the college completion call earlier, I gave my Ahmaud story. I told everyone about how I have a love-hate (mostly hate) relationship with running, but I force myself to do it. I’ve been out 2–3 times a week since we’ve all been at home. Ain’t nothing pretty about my runs, but they get done. I never run at night though. And I try not to go out when it’s dark in the morning.
And — I’ve never shared this before — when I’m running and I see a police car, I force myself to imagine the calmness a White person feels when they are jogging and see (or probably don’t even notice) a police car, and I channel that energy. It’s an equally liberating and dehumanizing mental exercise.
“Get up. Get your sneakers.”
“But I just ate. And I’m about to send these very important emails.”
“Get. Your. Sneakers.”
That was all me. Self talk. After a few quiet, surreal moments, I was no longer making the choice to run my 2.23. It was chosen for me.
I listened to Jay Electronica and imagined Black liberation as I ran through what was once Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward, a mostly Black neighborhood, now carved up into different subsections with unaffordable housing everywhere.
I thought about what these White men (including the one who filmed it) had been doing for the past 74 days, and whether they felt any remorse. I thought about Just Mercy, and how in the face of so many facts saying otherwise, Black guilt can be manufactured and sold, feeding back into the system and snatching lives. I thought about the audacity of Whiteness, expressed in the phrase “make America great again.”
Please, point to “again” for me. Show me where you are talking about. In the American history that I know, there aren’t too many “agains” that are great for people of color.
But you’re not racist though.
I have sat with this for most of my life. How about you?
It re-hits me each time I see Ahmaud’s face on my screen. Because I know Ahmaud. Ahmaud comes to Makuu, Penn’s Black Cultural Center where I work, every day. His head is the same shape as this student, his complexion just like that one’s, his smile exactly like another’s.
When I heard Sandra Bland’s frustration on film during her traffic stop, it spoke to me, because I knew it well and have heard it often. It is a human reaction to lifetimes’ of injustice, and we are entitled to every once of it and then some. When I see Trayvon Martin in his jumpsuit at the STEM program he did, I can’t help but wonder, isn’t this the dream? Why can’t they let us have our slice of the dream?
When I tell you I felt this. Here’s why…
As I did my cool down walk home, I passed the historical marker where the Lombard Street Riot of 1842 happened. It wasn’t a riot. It was White Philadelphia immigrants upset that Black Philadelphians were happy and living life. They destroyed Black progress and ended Black lives and then blamed Black people because this is what anti-Blackness is and does.
So again, please point out “again” for me.
The top picture of this piece is the second photo of me running (or, in this case, after a run). The only other existing pic is from 1989 in my high school yearbook. My daughter, and so many other seniors around the country, won’t have high school yearbooks, or at least not complete versions. I would think that this harsh reality, coupled with many others (health, jobs, mental wellness, and more) would be something we could unite around, and do what we can to fill the gaps. Some of us are.
I’m going to do my part. I’m working on partnerships to circulate Higher Learning as widely as possible and gift them to as many schools as I can. I believe in the work, and I think that my book can inspire the Class of 2020 during a time when they need it most. But the blunt truth of this all is that college completion won’t mean shit if America doesn’t confront its brutal past (and present), and reconcile the trauma of our birth story.
There is no “again.” Holding onto that nightmare is killing us all. Y’all don’t seem to care though, so I think we need to stop dancing around the matter and talk about that. America was born broken. This freedom that you speak of was never real.
A part of me wanted to have the conversation today.
I wondered if the White runners I saw were also #RunningForAhmaud.
Twice, I thought about stopping them and asking. But it’s complicated, with social distancing and all.
And of course, I didn’t want to appear threatening.