Bearing Witness

Sunday, January 15, 2023

CW: police violence, mention of blood 

My neighbor is a mother of four. We become friends and watch each other’s kids in emergencies. Her oldest boys are half-Black, so she apologizes to me for all the ways she cannot raise her “big boys” with “nappy hair” because she is white. I think about her big boys and their hair that’s like mine. My instinct is to run my hands through their tight curls and show them that they’re loved. Instead, I smile when they call me “Miss” while they run bare-chested to and from my house in the blistering sun and too-thick heat.

When my neighbor isn’t answering the many cries for her motherly attention, she waves goodbye to me from the driver’s seat of her van, then heads to work where she’s a hospice nurse. When the pandemic starts, I stop watching her kids in between her work shifts. Their disembodied voices call “Miss” from over the wall that divides our backyards. Our greetings echo in the air, strangely quiet, in the spring of 2020.


I arrive at the house where I’ll be staying in Minneapolis for a week-long writing residency. Clouds slide across the sky causing the light to change from gold to dark gray. A storm is coming. I step inside and tour the house’s wide rooms. Pushing aside the paisley curtains covering a sliding glass door, I see a sign in the backyard that reads:


I gasp. This intake of air is so sharp that it slices the silence and stings my lungs. The sign reads like a warning for my Black body.


What are the properties of air?

  • Air is a gaseous mixture. It is composed of nitrogen, oxygen, water vapor, and other compounds.
  • Air has no color or odor. You cannot see or smell it.
  • Air exerts pressure. Its particles move in every direction, creating force.

Although it’s not a property of air, here’s an essential truth: people need air to breathe.


A Black man named George Floyd lies on the asphalt while a police officer’s knee presses into his neck, expelling the air from George’s body. With the air he has left, George cries out. His pleas mix with the weeping and shouting of the people gathered around him, witnessing.

The air stills in my chest, expanding into a thick wall that presses against my ribs as I read news articles about George Floyd’s death. I avoid speaking to my neighbor. I give most white folks a wide berth. Alone, I cry and yell. In other houses across the nation, Black people are doing the same. The air fills with our rage as we grieve six feet apart.


It’s 80 degrees but breezy when I walk up the street to Cavell Park. The landscape is static and flat. I sit on a bench and marvel at how different the air is here. It’s lighter and cooler than I’m used to. I smile as it comforts my body, and I embrace the serenity.

A gust writhes across the park. Leaves rattle overhead and trees sway to the music. The world becomes alive. The wind whips my braids into the air and pitches my body forward off the bench. It moves with such force that the wind pushes a laugh from deep inside my gut. Then I weep—I’m unsure why.


What makes air dangerous?

  • What should be a balm for the body on a stifling day can transform into a destructive force in certain conditions.
  • The combination of humid, warm air and dry, cool air creates tornadoes. With enough force, this now agitated air forms spinning currents that destroy objects and people around it.
  • Air moving from high-pressure to low-pressure environments will generate wind. In arid, desert climes, extremely strong winds can create sandstorms that excoriate the ground, exposing the rough earth and objects long buried—sometimes burying living things in the process.

But here’s yet another essential truth: people perceive air as dangerous by the very nature of who has it in their bodies.


My neighbor says George Floyd’s murder is terrible. She thinks people like herself and my husband, white people, should be doing more. She rubs her face and tells me she’s sorry for the world we live in and for her big boys with their dark brown skin. My neighbor worries that her boys are already targets for the police. But I keep thinking about how her feelings are conditional. How she’s made negative comments about her sons’ hair. How she’s likely made harmful comments about their skin. How she’s probably said these things to their faces, stripping the life right out of them.


I see another sign on the way home from Cavell Park. This one reads:


The air stirs around my feet, and I remember where I am. I remember George Floyd was murdered in this city. It’s not that I have forgotten him in two years, but my memory, like the air currently inside me, has become compressed. It’s been all packed down, day after day, trying to keep itself contained, trying to keep from exploding.


How can air be weaponized?

  • Air’s presence or absence determines life or death. Too much of it weighs on the living, folding and pushing it toward the ground like a passing breeze on a stalk of grass or an immovable body crushing another body.
  • Without air, there is a vacuum. Without air, beings that depend on it to breathe will suffocate. Remove the air from their lungs and they will gasp for the life-giving substance until they die.
  • Air can carry odorless, invisible viruses and poisons to unknowing victims that infiltrate their bodies, causing damage until it’s too late to recover.

Here’s the strongest truth: we all wield the air in our lungs like taut bowstrings ready to send our words like arrows into the world. Breathe in and pull the string; breathe out and puncture the air from another person.


During a rare afternoon in fall 2020, my neighbor and I are outside at the same time. Our families emerge from our houses while she and I chat. Soon, my neighbor crosses the unmarked border separating our properties and approaches me standing on my walkway.

Our children play, though they have learned to keep their distance from one another. My youngest daughter sits near our silk tree and sings to the rocks. My eyes follow my oldest as she treads the line dividing our homes. My neighbor tells me that a Black hospice patient contracted COVID-19 while under her care. She says that the patient and his family yelled obscenities as they accused her of giving him the coronavirus. I turn away to look for my oldest and also because my neighbor tells me this story while her face is too close to mine, never denying that she has COVID-19.

My eyes follow my daughter as she runs into the space between our houses where grocery bags, bent aluminum cans, and other detritus are gathered since our last sandstorm. The space where the wind has raked the ground and exposed broken glass and rusted nails. My neighbor steps in front of my gaze and says, “That guy was a real nigger.” I look at her, feeling the air slip from my body and lay motionless at our feet. She stares at me, readying for a response.

I open my mouth and a child’s screams rend the air. My daughter emerges from between our houses with a bloodied foot. Sandburs hang from her heel. I try to run, but my neighbor stops me and repeats, “He was a nigger.” Then she earnestly asks me if I know that she’s not talking about me but the other ones. The other Black people.

The autumn heat on my skin cannot compete with the inferno burning inside me. Easing away from my neighbor, I survey the damage she’s caused that no one can see except me. Two big boys stand silently in their mother’s shadow as they stare at her sunburned back. A little girl cries for her mommy, tears glistening on her upturned face, arms outstretched and empty. A memory echoes: a Black man lying on the ground in Minneapolis tearfully calling, “Mama! Mama!”  

And the air grows heavier in my chest. I cannot breathe, I cannot speak. There is no wind to push us forward. Instead, we learn to live in its absence.

Sunday, January 15, 2023