The first time I woke up and remembered I was black, I couldn’t breathe.
The night before, Darren Wilson wasn’t indicted for the murder of Mike Brown. I couldn’t get the image of Mike’s mother crying right after his death out of my head, how her tears looked so natural – intrinsic even. And for the first time, I got it: bodies guarded in black skin are harboring a sea.
I broke open that morning. The saltwater crashed at my chest, flooded up to my eyes, filled my room, made me struggle for the surface, cascaded down the hall as I opened the door, and continued with no end.
For twenty years prior, I’d spent every day in the waves, forgetting what my legs felt like, falling asleep with the rocking still in my limbs. To think, all that time I hadn’t known I was a fish.
But, I’m not a fish. I’m a woman.
The thing is, America is a great liar. For a couple centuries now, she’s said “liberty and justice for all” as though the “all” didn’t have qualifiers. As in, “all” white men. And to cover up this lie, she said black and brown people were less than human – but superhuman, too, to withstand all the pain.
America said Eric Garner was a fish. “I can’t breathe,” he said. “Yes, he can,” she said, “he’s a fish.”
He wasn’t a fish; he was a man.
And yet she made hooks for him, for Mike, for Aiyana, for Sam, for Rekia, for Trayvon – for us, for us, for only us.
So, we must be fish.
We must be able to breathe under water, under all that pressure. We must not be drowning.
But I woke up that morning gasping for air. That’s what happens, when you take a fish out of water. The thing is, I wanted no part of the water, of the sea. I didn’t want to live in it – I wanted to fight. But I had no idea where to begin. This was a problem I had no immediate solution for, no concrete plan of action. It was so much bigger than me and still so intimate to my being. I was a problem.
I don’t remember what I did that day. Whatever it was, it couldn’t make up for the fact that Mike, Eric, and all the others were dead – or that I could be, too.
But the day after, I did not wake up to the same thought. I must have swallowed it before it could swallow me. Thoughts do that, you know – consume you. And I realized this is what I had been doing for thousands of days since the first day I could name my skin tone and knew what it meant. I had done it subconsciously at first, when I was younger and didn’t know any better. But in the past few years, it had been a conscious effort. Who wants to remember they are a fish, first thing in the morning?
But the thing about fish is that they have gills, they swim – they survive where mammals cannot. I’m not a fish. I don’t have gills. But I have learned to swim. When the sea broke my body open and filled my world that morning, it had always been there. I had been swimming all along. Treading sometimes, just barely getting by with my head over water. Other times, relaxing, floating on my back. Now, it’s hard to imagine those moments, when I was ignorant of the sea. But now that I know of the sea and its power, floating is nothing short of beautiful. I don’t think I’ll escape the water in my lifetime, but I’ll be damned if I can’t tame it.
The sea has swallowed bodies like mine, thousands of times. I am always swimming over a graveyard; there are bones below that once had names. I have a name. Made of my breath, my body, me. And when I say it, I say the names of every bone in the graveyard, of every one swimming this sea with me. I am transcendent.
I’m a fish… but not a fish at all.