America is on fire and I am burning.

Life, Race

America is on fire and I, a Black man, am burning. The suffering is unbearable. There is no relief. 

I am not responsible for the blaze, but I get blamed for its destruction. I don’t know how to escape the searing heat. But what would escape even mean? This is my country, my home. When the pain drives me to beat back against the flames I am scorned, derision coming down like ash. I am told I am fighting my country, when I am fighting to save it. 

My heart breaks. I see those with the means to help me put out this fire, but they do nothing. I yell, I scream, I wave my arms and beg them to help. They look at my panic with confusion.

First there was George Floyd and now Jacob Blake. Peaceful protests and now violent riots flood American streets as the conversation on police brutality continues. 

After I published a recent editorial, a reader wrote me, explaining why a few Black men—no longer alive to be celebrated on Father’s Day, to watch a daughter earn her diploma, or to watch a son have a child of his own—should have expected the lethal violence they received.

“From all appearances, it seems that George Floyd’s death was the fault of at least one officer. But that wouldn’t have happened if Floyd hadn’t tried to pass a counterfeit $20 bill. How difficult is it not to pass counterfeit currency?”

“Eric Garner had been arrested 20 times for selling illegal cigarettes. He had to know he would be arrested again. And when he was, he resisted. He was a big guy, bigger than the officers who tried to arrest him. If he had not resisted, he would be alive today. How difficult is it not to resist arrest?”

“Laquan McDonald would not have been killed if he hadn’t been high, walking down a Chicago street waving a knife, slashing tires and stabbing windshields. The office who shot him had no business doing so, but all of that could have been avoided if McDonald had just obeyed police orders. Everyone has a legal duty to obey a police order.”

These responses and thoughts are the acrid smoke of the fire, poisoning the air we breathe. 

The smoke burns in our lungs, saps our strength, and obscures the way forward, making progress even harder. Anyone who blames a Jacob Blake or a George Floyd for his own death is blaming me for a fire I did not start and that alone I cannot extinguish. 

As fire burns hotter and the temperature rises, I am scared. I am desperate. I know I am burning because of the color of my skin. 

I feel like giving up but what would that mean? Would that mean that I would need to be open to accepting that shooting an unarmed man seven times in the back or kneeling on a man’s neck as he begs for his life is ever justified? What if others say the man is a “criminal”—what then? 

But I know I cannot give up. How could I when I see young Black and Brown boys in the flames around me, watching me, looking up at me? I see their terror and I know I need to show them that being afraid is nothing to be ashamed of, that courage is working for justice and peace in the face of your own fear. I need to show them that they deserve, as much as anyone, to tell themselves every morning, “I, too, am America.”