Risk Factors: Being Black During a Pandemic
By Javan Howard
Posted on Wednesday, June 3, 2020.
This blog is a part of the NYC Arts in Education Roundtable’s new blog series, “Teaching Artists Speak Out: Blogs from Quarantine.” As schools remain closed, we’ve invited some “Teaching Artists of the Roundtable” to help us curate a series of blog posts written for and by NYC teaching artists. We’ll be posting new blogs each Tuesday and Thursday for the next several weeks.
Reposted here with permission of the Author
As a black man in America, I’m used to being followed. It happens everywhere, especially in NYC. I’m not sure which part is more sad: As a black man the things that I’m used to, or how what I’m used to hits differently during these times? Racism, police brutality, the inequalities, the list becoming an endless black pit. I expect it, I accept it. The innate history of racism that travels around us. Yet I still walk. Not just to get from place to place, I walk not just for comfort or a form of exercise. It’s a safe haven. An unfolding process that revitalizes my soul. For years, it’s been one of the ways I’ve dealt with my depression.
I can’t count the times that I’ve been stopped, followed, or harassed by police throughout my 32 years. It has happened all over. Luckily, I’ve been conditioned through the stop and frisk era. When I was 15 growing up in the Bronx, I spent 90 minutes in handcuffs being lectured then “Let go” for being in the park after dark. They didn’t care that I left basketball practice, walked from the #2 train and the park was the only way to get to my apartment building. I was followed from the train, but only stopped when I got to the park. That didn’t bother me.
I was 21 in Pennsylvania, a year from my own graduation when I went to court against a PA state trooper who cited and charged me for disorderly conduct. My friends and I were asked to leave by this officer for being too loud at a local diner near my school during graduation weekend. The waiter never asked us to quiet down, no one in the restaurant even complained. Our only crime was being in a restaurant at the same time as this officer who felt his break was being disturbed. Or maybe it was being the only black table in his empty section. We were escorted out, embarrassed, lectured and degraded for over an hour. We found out later this same officer had several complaints against his dealings with people of color in the community. I was emotionally and financially supported by my college throughout the trial and charges were eventually dismissed.
I was 25 in Long Island, when I was stopped with groceries in both hands by an officer drawing his weapon because I “fit the description” of a suspect who robbed a gas station. I admit my life froze. However, I was just as concerned about what would happen to me in that moment, as much as my eggs if I dropped my bags. So still, that didn’t bother me. Maybe it should, but on most days it doesn’t: It’s just a regular day in America.
"To be black in America is a risk itself."
To be black in America is a risk itself. Am I ok with the inequality that exists? The disproportionate numbers that correlate with people of color being harassed and arrested? No, I will never be. My soul hurts. We all know about the inhumanity of police brutality. It’s written across our history. But what about during a pandemic? Are we not supposed to be more human? I ask where are we safe? As the protest increases, riots spark for a government shutdown, I walk afraid of having my life being shut down by the government.
I assess the risk factors of being black while going out during Covid-19. I could mention many, but my worst fears are captured by the two black customers kicked out of walmart for wearing a protective mask. I feel some kind of way by going out without an “appropriate” mask. My skin doesn’t allow me the same protective privileges as others. I think about how threatening I look when I leave my home. Does my homemade scarf or mask look gang related? Will I be allowed in the store or followed for wearing it? Why do I even have to think about this?
I’m used to walking daily for my own health. However, due to Covid-19 and our NY Pause, I walk less and less. I feel like I suffer because of it. I’m at a loss now more than ever. I ignored walks entirely the first few weeks of lockdown. Now, I try to average about 2 walks a week. The way I process my emotions is at risk. I went out this past weekend and almost immediately regretted it. It’s those additional risk factors the government neglects to mention associated with proper social distancing and being black in a pandemic. I had gloves, and an appropriate mask. I wanted to do my usual route which would take about one hour to complete walking over Bayshore.
I had my music and was in peak spirit when I passed the LIRR Bayshore station and saw a cop car and thought nothing of it. I made it towards Main Street when I noticed the same cop car near my updated location: let’s call it a coincidence. (By default, I picked up a habit of memorizing cop cars that pass me.) After starting to reverse my course, the same car was parked across the College and slowly trotted out when I passed the car. I made it to the corner, but the light was green and cars roared across the crosswalk. I could still see what awaited me across the street. I admittledy panicked upon seeing 3 cop cars at the corner Seven 11 (directly across from the Bayshore LIRR) now windows down and that officer talking to them.
I’ve been here before, too many times. Like many of you, I just wanted to be left alone and get home but could feel the pressure forming in the pit of my stomach. The light was red. They dispersed many ways. One kept straight, one turned left, the other went right but crept slow. They waited to see what I was doing. I wanted to stay straight but didn’t. After some hesitation, I took a sharp right off the path. I saw lights and the cop car making a u-turn, Luckily the family dollar was open. I went in. They didn’t follow. Due to social distancing, I was in the store for 40 mins waiting in line. I spent $20. I didn’t plan on spending the money, but thought it was a worthwhile investment in my own safety.
I’m writing this as I’m questioning a lot of things. The blatant murder of George Floyd, the unnecessary death of Ahmaud Arbery and why it took so long to arrest his murderers, all while another black man Dreasjon “Sean” Reed streamed his death live on facebook, as he feared for his own life. I fear for my own life, but have long ago normalized the atrocities of inequities that exist for people of color: police brutality, educational gaps and inequality, guilty until proven innocent. I fear for my safety from the virus and take protections and precautions against a supposed “invisible enemy” (Covid-19) that is killing people still disproportionately in communities of color. But how do we take protections and precautions against racism, the real “invisible enemy” that has been killing my people for years? Although I haven’t accepted it, I can definitely say I’ve normalized a lot of things when it comes to being black in america. However, I didn’t think we would have to normalize those same issues during a pandemic.
Will we ever take the next step? I find myself answering the same questions as I walk back through the events of the past few weeks. It’s the same questions traveling throughout my blood and my history that my people have been asking in this country for years.
"Where can I be black, instead of just blackened out? Where can I be me? "
Javan Howard is a poet and writer from Bronx, NY. He truly believes that the lived experience is the ultimate teaching tool and uses poetry as a social forum to foster discourse about love, culture, and identity. He has facilitated workshops across NYC with The New York State Office of Children and Family Services, Voices UnBroken, The GO Project and Wingspan Arts. He currently is a Teaching Artist for Teachers & Writers Collaborative and USDAN Camp For The Arts. He is also the Lead Mentor for Teaching Artist Project at Community Word Project.
To learn more about Jay Howard’s work visit: www.Javanjhoward.com