Black joy is only a temporary reprieve from the constant trauma of existing in America.

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Train Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia 65851-Short-Lived. Why Living Lighthearted Isn’t a Thing for Black People in the U.S.

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His name was Keith Lamont Scott. He was shot and killed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg City police officer, Brentley Vinson (a Black man) on September 20, 2016. Scott’s on-camera killing marked the last time I watched such a video.

At the time, I worked as a news producer. The job was to write the news of the day. The mantra ingrained in us: “Write to video.”

I did my job. I watched the video to write to it, produce to it, “play it up.” First the dashcam. Then the bodycam. Finally, the cell phone video recorded by Scott’s wife, Rakeyia. It was her frantic, blood-curdling pleas that broke me.

Her repeated requests of: “Don’t shoot him,” that went unanswered and ignored settled in my bones. Then the quick succession of four shots. I jumped out of my desk seat.

Even though I knew the shots were coming, they stunned me. Shook me. Scared me.

Tears instantly fell as I watched the chaotic scene and listened to Rakeyia’s screams escalate to a new register in her vocal cords as she yelled repeatedly in distress: “He better not be dead.”

I cried openly in the newsroom.

A fellow producer — another Black woman — tried to calm me down and get me to pull it together because: “We can’t cry in front of these white folks.” I didn’t care. I let the tears fall. I let the grief I felt for Rakeyia, for Keith, consume me. I sat with my feelings. Pissed off. Angry. Sad. Upset. Hurt.

I wondered aloud, “They killed him, even though they were there to serve a search warrant for somebody else. What happened to that guy?”

I was trying to make it make sense. Despite all the accounts of the case, 5 years later I still don’t understand.

I still remember the accented sounds of his wife’s voice. I still remember how I felt when the shots were fired. I vowed then to never watch another video of police killing a Black person again, even as I continued to work in television news for another 3 years.

This was my trauma response.

The American Psychological Association defines trauma as, “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster.”

“Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer-term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea,” Oakland, California psychological Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson says.

Beyond just having flashbacks, the moment gets stuck on pause, Johnson adds. “You can’t really process the fear and anxiety you felt when that thing was happening to you. So you get frozen and stuck in that moment. And it can happen vicariously. You don’t have to be there, you can watch something on TV.”

“I can have relief and trauma all at the same time within my body.”

– DR. JACQUELYN JOHNSON

Trauma piled atop trauma

In 2020, when the video went viral of Derek Chauvin murdering George Perry Floyd, Jr. by kneeling on his neck for more than 9 minutes, I didn’t watch the video.

I wrote about the case and its impacts for various media outlets — but I never watched the video.

I did not watch the trial.

I kept up with the case by skimming newspaper reports and watching the nightly news on networks. When they showed clips of the video or even the still picture of a blank-faced Chauvin kneeling on an anguished and dying Floyd, I turned my head.

Trying to keep my vow. Trying to keep my mind and eyes clean and clear of seeing state-sanctioned Black death.

However, I did watch the verdict.

I put the TV on in the living room while I continued to help my son with his homework in our dining room. In my head, I held a list of errands I still needed to run but would put on hold until the verdict came out.

I waited with my eyes glued to the screen, phone in hand, TV muted when the video played as B-roll. I scrolled social media and felt the collective tension and anxiety of Black Twitter.

Then it happened.

Three guilty verdicts. I wasn’t relieved or joyous. I was perhaps overcome with a feeling of vindication. In an exhale whispered to no one in particular as: “Finally.”

“Finally, some accountability.”

“Finally, some retribution.”

“Finally, some justice.” Kind of.

The guilty verdict brought to my mind the oft quoted phrase, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” popularized by Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t necessarily believe the phrase, but that day… that moment… that verdict, I thought: “Maybe. Just maybe. It’s true.”

Hours later, #MaKhiaBryant.

Then Andrew Brown, Jr.

Then Isaiah Brown.

Before them #DaunteWright. And #AdamToledo.

The names came so quickly, like a split-flap display in an old train depot.

The police sides of the cases, parroted by news outlets, were expedient.

Reaction of heartbroken parents immediate.

Videos of the encounters posted on social or released, exigent.

Too much to keep up with. Too many stories to follow. Too many videos. I couldn’t ignore them all.

I saw the footage of Ma’Khia Bryant’s killing too many times to count during the week it first happened. The video and it’s slo-mo edit that tries to visually explain why an officer had no choice but to fire 4 shots into a 16-year-old girl, doesn’t explain anything to me.

The clips from Ma’Khia’s TikTok channel that have flooded my timeline in an attempt to change the current narrative of the “knife-wielding teenager” break my heart even more.

“The mantra ingrained in us: ‘write to video.’”

– NIKESHA WILLIAMS

It hurts more for me to see her doing her hair, and making faces for the camera, than it does for me to see her cut down by an officer who had other choices.

Possibly because I’ve known many Ma’Khia’s in my life. Girls — and guys — who fight with knives.

Perpetrating

In high school, it was nothing for a girl to let others know she was armed by swiping her tongue from one cheek where a razor blade was tucked, revealing it between white teeth, and then quickly depositing it once again in the corner of the other cheek.

If girls were fighting, at school or on the block, the reproach of the crowd — no matter whose side you were on — was always: “You better hope she don’t have a blade, because you might get cut.”

While I’ve never been a fighter myself, I have witnessed enough. One from high school sticks out in my mind.

Four of us, myself, two other girls, and a guy, walked to get lunch from the off-campus chicken wing spot. We went inside the small brick building, ordered, waited, got our plates of three wings and fries drenched in mild sauce stuffed into a brown paper bag and left.

On our way out, the guy who was with us accidentally bumped into another guy who was still waiting for his food. Our acquaintance excused his misstep. The other guy, full of bluster and bravado, jumped in his face just outside the door.

Our friend said to us, “Here hold this,” as he shoved his food toward us. We took it and the fight commenced.

Cussing, pushing, shoving, fists flying. The three of us stood watching. Our friend prevailed as the victor. He rejoined us, retrieved his food from our hands, and we crossed the street back to school with unease between us.

“There was no celebration for the cause célébre.”

– NIKESHA WILLIAMS

There were tears in his eyes. At some point, he said, “He’s lucky I didn’t cut him.”

“With what?” we asked.

He whipped out a razor blade and responded, “With this.”

Seeing Ma’Khia and knowing she’s no longer alive is heart wrenching. Though I don’t know her, I know her. I know many like her.

I could have been her. Seeing her happy in her TikTok videos while I grieve her loss conceives in the body what Johnson describes as a dialectic.

“I can have relief and trauma all at the same time within my body,” she says. “We are complex — we don’t just feel one emotion typically, we feel a whole spectrum and whole range of emotions simultaneously within us.”

Revelation

“…they wouldn’t need constant and consistent therapy if they weren’t depressed and overwhelmed from living and working in an anti-Black environment.”

– DR. JACQUELYN JOHNSON

Seeing faces entombed in time, like artifacts in amber: Adam Toledo, Isaiah Brown, Andrew Brown, Ma’Khia Bryant, George Floyd, and… and… and… reminds me that there’s no justice just as there’s no joy.

The reprieve of the verdict in the Derek Chauvin murder trial was temporary and transient.

There was no celebration for the cause célébre.

Only an incredulous expression of: “Finally.”

The tightness in my chest hasn’t gone anywhere. The tension and pressure in my body hasn’t eased.

My fatalistic curiosity of when my short, brown-bodied, snaggle-toothed 6-year-old will go from cute to threatening to menace is as unrelenting as the regularity with which police officers have continued to kill us.

This is trauma.

The effect of racism in America at work in my body and on my brain increasing my stress level and cutting my life expectancy.

Yet, even that previous sentence is evidence of either my own privilege or naïveté. That I have the gumption to have an expectation of life, a long life, in a country that has never valued the breath in my body as equal to those men and women with significantly less melanin than me, is silly.

By and large, our lives, our hope — along with our very health — appear to be short-lived.

For these reasons and these feelings, the CDC has recently recognized racism as a serious public health threat. In the statement on behalf of the agency, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky said:

“Racism is a serious public health threat that directly affects the well-being of millions of Americans. As a result, it affects the health of our entire nation.

“Racism is not just the discrimination against one group based on the color of their skin or their race or ethnicity, but the structural barriers that impact racial and ethnic groups differently to influence where a person lives, where they work, where their children play, and where they worship and gather in community.

“These social determinants of health have life-long negative effects on the mental and physical health of individuals in communities of color.”

Johnson adds that “we weren’t meant to survive [as] human beings under a constant threat of violence under constant insecurity, and lack of resources.”

She tells her clients frankly that they wouldn’t need constant and consistent therapy if they weren’t depressed and overwhelmed from living and working in an anti-Black environment.

Johnson reinforces the importance of Black joy even if it’s brief, even if it’s a break and far-off glimpse of a rainbow in a downpour.

She says it’s like sunscreen: “I have to keep reapplying sunscreen. It’s not like you do it once and you’re good for the rest of your life… Black joy is the same as sunscreen to protect yourself. We can’t get rid of the sun, we can’t get rid of racism.”

So, for now, I sit with my feelings, concerns, and questions.

The replays of the videos.

The sounds of screaming and crying widows, mothers, and bystanders.

The names. The faces.

All of it on a loop in my subconscious until it’s triggered and brought to the forefront by another name. Another face. Another video. Another story.

A balm like no other

This stress and constant trauma is only salved by the joys I find in the solace of family and friends.

My son’s laughter.

My unborn daughter’s in-utero Olympic swimming.

I revel in those moments. In my humanity, whether it’s recognized by others or not. This is resistance.

Johnson says, “We kind of turn inward to ourselves to say, hey, let’s validate each other because we’re not getting it anywhere in our society.”

Even in the midst of constant trauma by one racist act after another, one life lost after another, finding safe spaces and places to experience joy is necessary no matter how short-lived.


Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award-winning news producer and award-winning author. She was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois and attended The Florida State University where she graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in communication: mass media studies and honors English creative writing. Nikesha’s debut novel, “Four Women,” was awarded the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Award in the category of Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. “Four Women” was also recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists as an Outstanding Literary Work. Nikesha is a full-time writer and writing coach and has freelanced for several publications including VOX, Very Smart Brothas, and Shadow and Act. Nikesha lives in Jacksonville, Florida, but you can always find her online at contact@newwrites.com, Facebook, or @Nikesha_Elise on Twitter and Instagram.