I haven’t been feeling myself lately. Or rather, I’ve been feeling less than my best self as I am wont to do periodically because I have bipolar disorder. So, a friend and I went for a Vitamin P&D Day (that’s pizza and sunlight. We’re nerds.) and it turns out that my Blackness in public can be as much a destabilizing factor in my mental health as anything else.
The pizza parlor in question is quaint enough. It’s in a brick-paved pocket of a predominately white suburb, and the surrounding shops reflect that: a froyo shop, a Pier 1, clothing boutiques for substitute teachers and retirees who live on lakes, a seafood restaurant with a[n unnecessary] valet service.
It’s the sort of place where Black people throw solidarity nods when we see each other.
My friend — a perfectly carefree black man — and I are enjoying our pizza, discussing anime (Netflix’s Ajin is great despite its cel-shaded animation) and Captain America: Civil War’s political allegory. And then a cop walked in.
They seemed chill enough for armed men. Their radios crackled in police gibberish. Patrol cars parked on the brick street in front of the movie theater next door. They looked around as police do, as anyone should, really. And suddenly, I couldn’t remember what I’d been talking about. Were they just hungry or had something happened? Whose description did my friend fit today? Where were the other black bodies, the ones who could be relied upon to record and tell my story if something happened here? Not all of the officers were white, but when has that mattered? My friend and I hadn’t done anything, but when has that mattered?
I’m a direct person and I made polite eye contact with one of officers. And then I realize I wasn’t doing it because I’m polite. It was in the interest of self-preservation. Their individual saunters no longer stemmed from the peace of enjoying a slow shift on a beautiful day. They were relaxed because they knew their own power in this little shop.
I’m Black. I knew of their power, too.
Anxiety crept across my skin and flexed like scales. I watched their hands casually linger near their sidearms. I strained to hear the radio nonsense. My heart and my head hurt. The heat maybe from the ovens and the sun in the window behind me were suddenly oppressive. I wanted to throw up. I wrestled with when would be an appropriate time and speed to leave. Too soon and too fast and we’d look suspicious. But if I stayed long enough to melt down crying over my half-eaten slice, it would draw too much attention.
I longed to Alex Mack myself into a puddle and ooze away unnoticed.I sat, frozen in agony until they’d ordered and took seats on the other side of the parlor. And then I counted my breaths in pace with steps I felt were slow enough to get us both out of there alive.
When the anxiety inevitably subsided, I felt guilt at having felt threatened by officers who just wanted pizza. I’m a military brat, veteran, and a pragmatist, and can’t help but be hip to the duality of armed service. In all likelihood, these men probably had a sincere interest in the service and protection of their community. They probably had families, had never shot anyone, and found me and my friend wholly unremarkable. But I live in Florida where Trayvon Martin minded his own business and his murderer was excused by the communities these men protect.
We live traumatized existences in Black skin. Black adults in the U.S. are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults and are more likely to meet diagnostic criteria for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). And in situations like police brutality, the trauma does not have to be a personal experience to be internalized. We absorb attacks on Blackness as a community, so when we see Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, Mike Brown, Jr., Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd… sigh.
We see family. We see ourselves.
The havoc these events can wreak on our minds and spirits is a health issue, and one that we have to address as destructive and not just something to be endured out of sheer Black necessity.
LeKesha Lewis is a web developer and book blerd. She advocates strongly for carefree blackness in literature, and prefers bloody over sparkly when selecting her anime. She takes her whiskey neat and her coffee with cream, sugar, and marshmallows, too, if you have them. If not, don’t worry about it.