Reality is Horror Enough

On black trauma, Daunte Wright, and creativity

Them, a new series streaming from Amazon is the latest entry into the black horror genre. I haven’t watched the show because reality is horror enough, but I have read reviews of the show and followed some of the discourse. The series seems problematic in that it is predicated on black trauma and black suffering that veers into gratuitous territory. I must reserve my judgment. Many of the show’s critics want to know when we will see more black entertainment that isn’t about racism or slavery or segregation or any of the numerous traumas black people have experienced and continue to experience. This is, indeed, a question I have asked in my writing many times. Our lives are so much more than our suffering. We have stories to tell that do not center whiteness and the evils of white supremacy. But it is not that easy to get those stories made. Many Hollywood executives simply don’t know what to do with those stories. Or they don’t have the imagination to believe they can and do exist. Black creators often have to compromise all kinds of things to get any kind of work made and the more I learn about why those compromises are made, the less I have it in me to judge them.

Every day there are so many interesting things I want to write that have little or nothing to do with black trauma. I have an idea percolating about a cookbook called IDGAF: Messy Cooking for Messy People, and I would love to put together a proposal and see if I could make something of it. I am finishing up my next book that should be out in November if I can get it across the finish line. It is a book about writing advice and using your voice and creativity. I am proud of it but getting the final polish done has been a struggle. I have a YA novel in progress that I am also excited about. I’m doing some screen writing. I am writing an essay about guns and an Afro Future short story. This is what I have worked toward, being in a place where I can tell the kinds of stories I want to tell, how I want to tell them.

Every day there are so many interesting things I want to write, but then I see what is happening in this country, and suddenly it’s hard to believe that writing about these things is a good use of my time and energy. It all starts to feel frivolous. There is yet another extrajudicial murder of a black person by a police officer. Or there is video of a black person being treated horrifically during a routine traffic stop which is something of a misnomer as there is no such thing as a routine traffic stop when you’re black. Every broken taillight or missed stop sign or other minor infraction can potentially end in death. Or a white police officer is on trial for an extrajudicial murder and you have to try and make sense of due process for a man who was captured with his knee on a black man’s neck for nearly nine minutes.

Daunte Wright was twenty-years old. That is so painfully young in the same way of Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Kalief Browder, Trayvon Martin, Stephon Clark, Breonna Taylor, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson. Daunte Wright was killed by Kim Potter, a veteran police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota. His girlfriend, Chyna, was in the car when Daunte was killed. He was father to a two-year old son, Daunte Jr. He called his mother as he was being pulled over. I keep seeing his picture and it will haunt me for quite a long time. He had a sweet face, the kind of sweet of a young man who has not yet been soured by the world. It is a rare thing to see in a black man.

In the past ten years I have written some version of this horrific recitation more times than I care to count. At this point, I am not even sure what this work is. Bearing witness? Adding my incandescent rage and disgust and exhaustion to the public record? I have long understood that this work won’t make a dent in white supremacy. Words will not stop police bullets. We cannot wrap ourselves in essays as if they were as strong as Kevlar. I hope there is a day when we will not have to write about all of these stolen black lives, but I fear that day will not come in this lifetime.

When George Floyd was murdered, “well-meaning white folks,” made their Instagram avatars black and put “black lives matter,” in their social media bios and e-mail signatures, and bought all the right books on racism they proceeded to not read and formed reading groups in which they did not participate and expressed appropriate amounts of public dismay and disgust as the world continued to turn. Most of it was pageantry, vigorous remonstrations to prove they weren’t like those other, racist white people.

Daunte Wright’s black life mattered. And then it didn’t. He was, apparently, pulled over for a traffic violation and told to get out of the car because of the air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror. The catalysts for these extrajudicial murders are always so absurdly banal, which makes it all so much worse. The only reason we can hope for a fraction of justice is by grace of body cameras on police officers that don’t always “work” and smart phone videos from bystanders or the victims themselves. Without these tools, we would be left with the nothing to which we were accustomed for more than a century.

In a press conference, the Brooklyn Center police chief posited that perhaps the police officer who killed Daunte Wright mistook her service weapon for her taser. It was such a pathetic, insulting excuse when he could have simply said nothing. Each time we hear about one of these stories, I am struck by the sheer cowardice of these officers—cowardice warped by racism. I am struck by the incompetence. I have held a loaded 9MM pistol and I have held a taser. The differences between the two weapons are many. The gun is heavy. It requires removing the safety, aiming, and pulling a trigger. The weight is a constant reminder of the power you are holding in the palm of your hand. A taser is lightweight and requires some of the same motions as firing a gun but there are no real similarities. Anyone who cannot tell the difference between these two weapons should not work in law enforcement.

Time and again, these police officers make it seem like they were terrified and felt like they were in mortal danger. I don’t actually believe these protestations. Fear is simply convenient cover for those who see black people as expendable targets. But if these officers are so fragile, so easily scared, they too do not belong in law enforcement. That they are willing to offer such empty excuses is a testament to their utter lack of shame and their avowed commitment to the status quo.

People in Minneapolis are protesting the death of yet another black man at the hands of police. Three counties instituted 7 p.m. curfews as elected officials anticipated violence. While the protests continue over the next while, a certain kind of person will fret over “riots” and “looting.” They will worry about property damage while minimizing the horror Daunte Wright’s murder and George Floyd’s murder, and the bitter traumas black people carry on their backs while trying to be free to walk down the street or drive home from work or live a good life. It’s no wonder at all that so much of our creative work gravitates toward trauma. We have not yet found a way to escape its clutches.

At the Brooklyn Center police headquarters, the American flag billowed in the wind in the hours after Daunte Wright’s murder. Just beneath it, the department raised a small black flag with a blue line across it. The message, the grotesque defiance, was crystal clear. Our response, when we are ready, must be equally clear, and even more defiant. It is not lost on me that Daunte Wright was murdered while Derek Chauvin is on trial for murder ten miles away. One pandemic is ending while a long-standing pandemic rages on and on.