Hearing the loud announcements of gate changes in the JFK, New York airport made my heart beat, thump, almost explode in my chest.  I was home. Back in America. The land of the free. So why did I feel like I was in shackles? The entire trip I had longed for a Big Mac, hot, crispy fries with salt and a large Coke with ice. Yet walking slowly through the airport I found my tastebuds and my soul yearning for Poulet Yassa, a traditional chicken dish from the Casamance region of Senegal.

Senegal, where I had spent the last two weeks. Finally placing my feet on African soil, my land, my home, the place that I intimately yearned for.  The place where everything made sense. I found myself there, pieces of my heritage scattered among the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Senegal, where I felt free, liberated. Free to be me for two weeks—336 hours, 20,160 minutes, 1,209,600 seconds that I could just breathe. I didn’t think about being Black. My skin no longer a barrier and at times in America a shield. I wasn’t concerned about people following me in stores to determine if I was stealing. I didn’t think about my hair, my vernacular, my style of dress.  I didn’t wonder if people understood me, even with the language barrier there was an undercurrent of understanding. Mutuality. “I see you, Sister.” And then, as I left Goree Island, after standing in the doorway of The Door of No Return, running my fingertips along the rough concrete of the rooms where my people were held, weeping as I imagined the horrors that took place there, I made my way back to the boat to return to the mainland of Dakar. A man, dressed in full African garb said four words that I will never forget. “Welcome Back Home, Sister.” I turned in shock, “What did you say?” I asked as I fought back the tears. “Welcome Back Home, Sister,” he repeated. “Thank you,” I managed to spill out of my mouth as I hugged him tightly. This was my home and I had made it back. I was born in America but Africa, indeed was my home.

Returning to America was not an easy feat. I felt like a stranger in a foreign land. The week I returned I didn’t want to leave my house. I kept my blinds turned down, my curtains closed. I didn’t want to walk back into my reality. A world where just 24 hours before I boarded a plane Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer and bled out on Facebook Live in front of the mother of his child and his daughter. A world where a young Black woman was tossed across a classroom like a rag doll. A world where Sandra Bland could be moving to a new state and end up dead on the floor of a jailhouse cell. A world where being Black just seemed to be criminalistic. I  dreaded the thought of coming back.

Yet here I was and life is life so I had to return. On the day I came back to the office, Chris Strub was waiting  to interview me about Smoketown- a predominately Black neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky that is deep in the throes of gentrification.  Sitting with Chris was everything I wanted to avoid. The reason I locked myself in my house reveling in my solitude. He was a White male and although I did not know his economic status, I ascertained he came from a life of comfort, perhaps not privilege but indeed comfort. Not today my mind was screaming. Quite frankly the last thing I wanted to do was spend my first day back in the office talking to a White male about Smoketown and the challenges of Smoketown. How could he even begin to understand systematic oppression? I was tired, discouraged and overwhelmed. Must every day be a fight when you are just trying to exist?

Chris and I sat at a table and he asked me about Smoketown and then he asked about the shootings that were taking place in America.  I felt a lump in my throat. Not now. No. And I said, ” Chris look, America has a problem with admitting its atrocities. There is no harm in saying, “This happened and I’m sorry.”  We can never begin to heal until we acknowledge what happened. It was not so long ago. This entire system is based on racism. It is based on oppression. It is based on them versus us. It is based on the have and the have-nots. It was built on our backs to keep us on our backs.

And I started crying. And I kept crying. Cried for all the police shootings and buried children. I cried for Sandra, and Aiyana. I cried for Trayvon and Mike. I cried for the blood running in the streets. I cried for my ancestors in Africa that was stuffed onto slaveships and brought to this land to endure a life of hell. I cried for those that hung from trees, that were killed senselessly. I cried for 4 little girls in Birmingham. I cried for all the suffering and hurt and pain. I cried for everything we lost. Everything that was stolen. I cried for what could have been.  I cried wondering why we just couldn’t have been left alone? It all came out, poured out in waves of tears and I said, “Sometimes people just need to hear, ‘I’m sorry’”. And he looked at me and said, “I don’t know if this will help but I’m sorry.” He didn’t say anything else. We let the air, heavy with years of pain marinate between us. He didn’t tell me that slavery was so long ago, get over it. He didn’t attempt to tell me how his ancestors were enslaved too. He didn’t attempt to justify the bullshit. He didn’t tell me he would be marching at the next Black Lives Matter rally. He didn’t tell me he made catchy signs for a march on Washington. He didn’t ask me what do you want me to do? He didn’t say, “Well I have Black friends.” He didn’t say, “Well that wasn’t me that was them.”

He didn’t say anything.

He remained silent.

He just allowed me the space to cry.

And sometimes that is what we need.

Just let us cry. In peace.

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