I Can’t Breathe, in black and white
The single most traumatic event in my life was being suffocated by a white man, stronger than I, while I cried out, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I was in a domestically violent relationship. He eventually had an ironic mercy on me and relented. I did not meet my Maker that day, but it changed me forever. Forever.
I wrote about it last year and you can find it here. The imagery I used to describe my experience drew almost exclusively from Harriet Tubman, the North Star and the road to freedom for American slaves.
I’ve been preoccupied in my life recently with a graduating senior, an ailing father, the confines of corona virus mandates and the angst of planning my future in my new role as ‘empty nester’. I haven’t been writing or painting much. My creative outlets have been poring over old photos and taking long walks down memory lane. When I learned of the death of George Floyd, it first came across my desk as another news story. I was still in a place of preoccupation and my mind didn’t register the details or the gravity.
The next day, I began to learn more. It’s taken me an entire week to watch footage and listen to audio because I feared a ‘trigger’ from my own experience. And yet, I mostly felt disconnected from it all. A different town. A stranger. I noticed a sort of numbness on my part as though it didn't affect me or touch me. So it wouldn’t move me.
But then, I remembered silence. I remembered the deafening silence of my 'friends' - those who knew the abuse was occurring - and did nothing, said nothing, accused me of inciting an unchristian response — blamed me for using my voice.
And then I remembered George Floyd’s pleas. His heartfelt cries. His repeated reminders that he could.not.breathe. His repeated reminders that he could.not.breathe. His repeated reminders that he could.not.breathe. And I heard the voices of the bystanders nearly begging the officers to stop the madness. Silence. Callous silence. Blank stares. Unmoved.
Sitting alone in a room, I nearly gasped audibly. It touched me. I would not be ’that friend‘ who knows and does nothing, says nothing, accuses of inciting unchristian responses or blames people of color for using their voice. At the very least, I will be a loyal friend. I will use my voice - you know, the one I found after being abused - to stand with those who have the same skin tone as George Floyd. I will stand with those who get their faces shoved into pavement who just. can’t. breathe. I will speak up in some of the only ways I know how- painting and writing.
I’m no Harriet Tubman. My courage pales. I’m no North Star. My intentions go south fast. I will never have black skin. At times, my ignorance is as white as I am. But I want to be a freedom fighter. I want to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. I want to be a Quaker, who are also called 'Friends'. I am on the journey to freedom and healing with black lives. Because they matter. Let.them.breathe.
In the numbness, before I had words, I painted. Pulling out my cosmetics, and a faded photo of the epicenter of my abuse, I painted in silence. This painting is a rendering of the tin trailer in which I experienced near suffocation. The place where I couldn't breathe. The place where I had no voice. I purposefully painted it with all black and white cosmetics. Nail polish, eye shadow and eyeliner on canvas. Original photo can be found here.