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OpEd: Traveler’s Notebook: America the Beautiful?

Image: A woman holds a U.S. flag during a prayer vigil in a park following the multiple police shooting in Dallas

A woman holds a U.S. flag during a prayer vigil in a park following the multiple police shooting in Dallas, Texas, U.S., on July 8, 2016. CARLO ALLEGRI / Reuters

Last week should have been a wonderful one.

I was vacationing with my family on the beautiful island of St. Maarten surrounded by smiling and cheerful chocolate and sun kissed faces—the island is nicknamed the "friendly island" after all.

I often talk about self-care—like taking a vacation— and black joy as being a revolutionary act; but in moments like last week it feels more like a luxury that too many people of color, immigrants, queer folks and those living at the intersections simply can't afford in these stressful and tragic times.

My week of palm trees and sunshine quickly turned dark when the news of not one but two shootings of unarmed black men by police and the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers reached my vacation sanctuary.

As my family watched the news unfold, our tanned faces began to lose its color — especially my teenage cousin, a young black man who looked terrified.

I told him that I worried for him and his response nearly broke my heart: "Well, I don't wear hoodies and I don't go out at night so I should be OK," he said with with the inflection of a question rather than a definitive statement.

I took a deep breath and said, "I love you and want you to be safe, but it doesn't matter what you wear or what time of day it is or how respectful you are being, it may not save you."

The reality that there were no words of comfort that I could offer him or myself in that moment left us both deflated and pensive.

The black community is suffering from a collective post-traumatic stress disorder; wounds, which I'm unsure, will ever heal and with each killing, just break open the unhealed scab time and time again.

With each instance of joy, like Jesse Williams' inspiring speech at the BET Awards or any expression of black pride we have as of late, appears to be purposefully and systematically disrupted— to remind us that black joy, much like the presumption of innocence doesn't belong to us.

Image: Community members attend a vigil in memory of Alton Sterling, who was shot dead by police, at the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge
Community members attend a vigil in memory of Alton Sterling, who was shot dead by police, at the Triple S Food Mart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana on July 6, 2016. JEFFREY DUBINSKY / Reuters

Watching the news from outside of the U.S. last week was like having an outer body experience. A mix of fear, sadness, and anger made it difficult to take deep breaths without beginning to weep.

When will we be able as black folks to live without fear of law enforcement officers who are supposed to protect us?

I couldn't help but look around me at this island beaming with blackness and wonder if life was easier here, like it had been for my mother in Jamaica. Sure, there are amazing opportunities in the U.S. compared to other places but at what cost?

A cab driver that was taking us around the island one evening marveled to us about how wonderful he thought America was. "You have an amazing country," he said. "I've been there, really, really wonderful."

His words were haunting me now as I scrolled through my Twitter feed trying to avoid watching the videos and graphic photos of the bodies of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Is America really wonderful when a list of black unarmed men, women and children killed by police is so enormous that it covered the entirety of Beyoncé's magic cube during a tribute she did in Glasgow? Is America so amazing that in almost all the highly publicized killings of black people that no one has been responsible except the victims themselves? Is it a fabulous place to live when a young black boy who should be cheering the summer months before his senior high school year is terrified to go outside at night?

The saying goes that "if you don't know your history, you will be destined to repeat it" and here we are in America in 2016 feeling more like 1816.

The reality is that THIS history of racial oppression at all costs has never been taught in our schools. This history of white supremacy and the evils of racism have never been mentioned—the redlining of neighborhoods, the sunset towns, the lynchings for stepping on sidewalks, the illegal medical testing and so on.

How are we ever to evolve to a place of knowing and acceptance when we refuse to examine the roots and history of own country? How can you heal when you refuse to recognize an open wound?

I so desperately want to believe in the beauty of America the way my cab driver in St. Maarten did. I want to be able to offer words of comfort to a scared young black boy and say, "it will all be OK," and mean it.

Right now however, America the beautiful remains a really nice memory for a charming cab driver in a distant country—but for black people living in America it's a question in desperate need of an answer—America the beautiful? I just don't know.

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