As a Black queer millennial, I’m often told I’m strong. For my mere existence alone is often said to be an act of resilience.
I live in a world where people who look like me are being extrajudicially killed by cops on viral videos. A global pandemic is taking away my skinfolk more rapidly than any other population. And bigotry, H.I.V., gun violence, opioids, and poverty continues to disproportionately cut at the intersections of my Black queer community unforgivingly.
Living in Philadelphia, a city that is now second to Chicago in homicides, I have witnessed too many loved ones who have had to post a family member they have lost to senseless gun violence too frequently than I can count.
The devastation of COVID-19 continues to take away the lives of Black mentors that I’ve looked up to in the industry, along with the mother of a dear friend I’ve grown up cherishing. These deaths remind me that life is unpredictable and unforgiving, that there is no rhyme or reason to how one goes, and that unfairness is the only thing constant.
Because of these systemic barriers and difficult times, I’m told I’m strong and resilient for weathering them. But right now, the insurmountable death of Black lives that I’m witnessing in the public eye and in private makes me question if such strength and endurance is a compliment or a limitation.
There are days when I just want to be alone and not keep a straight face, be upset without anyone asking me “how are you feeling” or to “stay strong.” I want imperfection in a world that expects Black people to not crack or be vulnerable. I just want my humanity.
The unexpected death of actor Chadwick Boseman has put another dark cloud over a year that has been nothing less than a terrible storm. Earlier this summer, we had lost several civil rights icons, including the great John Lewis, and now we’re mourning the loss of yet another unapologetically Black public figure.
Factor this in with the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and several other Black people who have either been taken away by the police or COVID-19 and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to consider 2020 as nothing less than the year of Black mourning.
When news broke that Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man, was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, we were heartbroken to find out that his three young sons were at the scene of the incident. Social media began to speak out against the inhumanity of three Black boys watching their father shot in broad daylight. Protests across the nation took center stage. NBA, WNBA, and other notable athletes spoke out and held boycotts.
Regardless of the outcome of this investigation, we all know that those innocent lives will be forever traumatized by the state-sanctioned violence that took place on that unfortunate Sunday for years to come.
But how we’ve mourned these tragedies and deaths have been the same of how we’ve always defined them. Congressman Lewis was a resilient Black leader who endured the beatings and bruises of Jim Crow white supremacy to later rise as a beacon of political promise.
We are often told of how those killed under the actions of police violence were parents, siblings, and children who were fighting for their lives. And with Boseman, it is now revealed that he was battling stage IV colon cancer, a disease which disproportionately impacts Black men, while still playing the legendary roles that we all loved.
They were all strong and resilient because they persevered through the hurdles that an unfair world gave them. Black people, especially Black women, are often measured by their strength and how much they endure. In a world where white supremacy permanents every aspect of our livelihoods, it’s almost hard to not speak of the resilience of the Black people who succeed given what we’re up against.
To see Boseman defeat the Hollywood establishment’s white lie that Black-centered superheroes couldn’t bring in box office gold was astonishing. Watching Lewis continue to march and outlive many of the political bigots who prayed on his demise was aspirational.
I was fortunate to meet both of these men throughout my career and it wasn’t any of their public successes that I remember the most, but their focus to make the most of what they could do with it.
I got an opportunity to meet Boseman while attending the BET Awards in 2014. This was during the media promotional run of the film Get On Up where he played the legendary Godfather of Soul, James Brown. We chatted briefly and I remember him being very intentional about the roles he played and how often he thought about how such decisions could impact Black audiences.
By this time, he had already starred as the incomparable Jackie Robinson in 42 and would go on to play even more significant Black heroes the world would admire forever.
I met John Lewis in 2016 during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I will forever remember him as a very reflective man, who had a sense of humor, but always had something to say. He told me how important the election was going to be and how young people like myself had a responsibility to not sit this one out.
Never losing sight of the times we were in, Louis will forever remain a visionary to me who was excellent at assessing how time brought about change and could lead to something new.
When we only speak on the pain and barriers that Black people such as them overcome or defeat we strip them from the fullness of their lives, and reduce the possibilities of those of us still living.
Black people shouldn’t always “be on” in order for us to consider the value and importance of our lives. There is a beauty and significance in the humor, leisure, and impatience of Black life that doesn’t have to be inspirational, extraordinary, and groundbreaking. Our lives shouldn’t only be discussed in ways that visualize us as laborious warriors, but also functional human beings that can be vulnerable, tired, lazy, and still.
The fondest memories I have of those I’ve lost to COVID-19 and gun violence this summer aren’t ones that are narratives of their most triumphant defeats. It’s the jokes we told, the childhood pranks we pulled, the times we cried, the moments we argued, and the risks we took.
Those who I mourn right now aren’t heroes and icons, but just Black people who lived. Sure, they were strong and resilient, but that’s not all they were.
As time goes on, I’m learning everyday to just live for myself. It’s not having the sense of selfishly doing things that solely revolve around me, but to continue to find ways that suit how I can best shape the world around me without losing myself within it.
A Black person who lived on this earth is enough to be mourned. And if they are given the freedom to live carelessly, joyfully, lazily, tiredly, thoughtfully, or somewhere in the middle of all of those things—that’s all that really matters.
Too often Black people aren’t given the agency to consider how they can contribute to society on their own terms. We are expected to compromise our values in order to see another day. As our nation witnesses another intense election cycle in November, if the racial uprisings and pandemic have taught us anything, it has proven to us that our lives can no longer be dictated by others.
We must fearlessly and unapologetically take back control, not just through strength and resilience, but in the power of living the best lives we can unapologetically.