“PEOPLE ARE CRAZY,” my mother responded by text when I asked her why she had sent me a dash camera for my car.
By people, I knew she meant people like the white men who hunted Ahmaud Arbery down, chasing him in a pick-up truck with weapons in tow because he looked out of place on his jog, murdering him in the street and claiming self-defense.
By people, I knew she meant people like the police officers who were sworn to serve and protect and yet stood by, one with a knee to George Floyd’s neck as he called out for his mother and repeated over and over that he couldn’t breathe.
By people, I knew she meant those who would serve a no-knock search warrant, using a battering ram to enter an apartment after midnight and shoot and kill Breonna Taylor as she and her boyfriend were in bed for the night.
By people, I knew she meant the all unknowns that come with being Black in America with an indefinite target on your back.
My mother was concerned about her grown son, and I understood why. So, it prompted her to send me (and my brother) a dash cam for safety, to record at any moment so that there would be a video record if something were to occur in or around our vehicles. Not that a video had always led to justice; it just gave her a bit of peace knowing the camera was there. A mother’s work is never done, but being a mother of a Black son can be especially stressful. It’s often these Black mothers we see in the public eye, grieving yet finding the strength somewhere to stand up and demand justice for their slain child. My mother would understandably prefer to stay away from that spotlight and avoid having her sons or daughter becoming a hashtag.
As a parent, I can relate, because I’m a Black father of Black children, so I carry that same concern. I started writing this piece on Father’s Day, and recalled days earlier seeing a sign that said “Black Kids Matter,” and that hit hard. It made me think of Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, Aiyana Jones, Mike Brown, and so many more. Lives cut down senselessly, and forced to defend their reputations in death. The burden of validating the value of our lives and why Black and Brown folks shouldn’t just be murdered in the streets, especially by the police, is infuriating. Why must we be forced to validate our worth? Listen up, because it’s simple — this is why we’re yelling Black Lives Matter. I recently read this line, and it couldn’t have been said any better: “If you can’t say Black Lives Matter, your opinion doesn’t.”
I’m tired and I’ve had enough.
Say Their Names
As video emerged on May 26th of the death of George Floyd, we found ourselves in the middle of two pandemics, one that involves an infectious virus and one that’s been ongoing — being Black in America. I hadn’t heard the news when I first stumbled on the video and watched in horror as Floyd called out for help and eventually blacked out. Only later did I find out that I had witnessed his murder. It was hard to handle. I sat with that for a few days, trying to fully process it. While we were in the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, a respiratory disease that attacks by affecting a person’s ability to breathe, an officer of the law kneeled on another man’s neck while he pleaded to breathe. I was disgusted. I was hurt.
I’m still angry. You know why? Because none of this is new. There have been numerous stories, and occasionally videos from the brutal attacks on Black and Brown people by the police. The only difference now, and I hate to say it, is that this year was the perfect storm that forced a lot of people to finally pay attention. Because of shutdowns and with many at home — no school, no sports, no concerts, no distractions — people are focused in a way they’ve never been before, and were able to see and hear something that folks have been screaming about for years. It’s what people were saying after Mike Brown was killed and Ferguson erupted. It’s what they were rallying for in Baltimore after Freddie Gray died from injuries sustained in policy custody. It even goes back to ’92 after the acquittal of the police officers that brutally beat Rodney King and LA burned for days. And honestly, it goes back even further than that.
I’m happy people are finally paying attention, but boy am I exhausted.
George Floyd wasn’t the first time we heard someone say, “I can’t breathe” while in police custody. Breonna Taylor wasn’t the first person unjustly murdered in bed. “Say His/Her Name” has been an endless list of names, and an ongoing battle cry.
Almost a year later we’re learning about the full details of Elijah McClain’s death, while his family had been fighting to be heard all this time. To know that Elijah’s last words included “I’m just different” were especially hard to hear as a father of an autistic child who is different. We do our best to help him navigate the world and prepare him for the future, but unfortunately we know that we can’t always be there for him and that gives me a great deal of anxiety. I’d only hope that a police officer or someone would interact with him with good intentions and kindness.
It haunts me to think of my son just as afraid as 23-year-old Elijah must have been while dealing with these officers who didn’t seem trained at all to handle someone who was different, someone who was worried about their personal space and boundaries — both of which are sensory triggers. It breaks my heart that you could hear him pleading with those officers by telling them how harmless he was. “I don’t even kill flies,” you could hear him say in the body cam audio, but for them it appeared to be business as usual. Every day I say to my son, be a good person. I just pray that those people are also good to him.
Elijah, George, Breonna, Aiyana, Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, and more are just the stories that received enough social media attention to build up enough steam and to make it mainstream as a hashtag. The injustices are happening even when folks aren’t tweeting, updating their Facebook status or launching petitions. There are so many stories. There is just so much heartbreak — with so many names, and not enough justice. Just think about all of the stories that haven’t been heard yet. It’s sad.
Growing up, I don’t recall sitting down with my mother and stepfather about the birds and bees, but I do remember the other talk. The one about how to respond and act when dealing with the police. That talk is one of survival if you find yourself face-to-face with the law. My goal has always been to just avoid the police altogether. I’ve never been arrested, and outside of being pulled over by four cop cars in New Haven, Connecticut years ago at gunpoint for matching a suspect’s description and scared out of my mind, I have never had any run-ins with the law. But I can feel the tension in my body when I see the police in my rearview mirror, and I keep my eye on them if an officer enters a room or the space that I’m in. “Is it me they want,” I think to myself even though I’ve done nothing wrong. Will something I do be misinterpreted? The fear is always present whenever they are.
As a 42-year-old Black man in America, I’ve felt out of place more times than I can count. I can always sense it, read it in the room, and feel the vibe. I’ve moved in spaces that were predominantly white — both professionally and socially. I’ve always been aware of it, and have found myself doing what is known as code switching if needed. I also have a name that may even imply my race, because when you hear “Quajay” you don’t expect a white man to appear. There was a time where I tried to soften it, saying, “call me Jay.” I don’t do that anymore. I’m often called Q, but those same people know that my name is Quajay and I embrace the uniqueness of the name my parents gave me.
I’m not proud of the moments where I adjusted so that my Blackness wouldn’t be mistaken for a threat, but being seen as a threat goes against survival, and survival is the key. Being the safe Black fella often makes you the spokesperson and/or translator for anything happening in the Black community. That guy has been me on several occasions. Being seen as “one of the good ones” often leads to being overlooked as having a strong opinion about issues that matter, because folks don’t see you in the same way. You can hear it in their tone and in the way they speak to you. They don’t even think to check in because perhaps they think that what’s happening in the larger Black community doesn’t impact you. It does, and it always will.
I am a Black man. I’ll always be a Black man. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more aware of when I’m twisting too much to make someone else feel comfortable, and now I’m more focused on how I feel and whether I’m comfortable. Being Black shouldn’t be a threat, and bending shouldn’t be the only way we survive.
I left Connecticut almost 16 years ago, living in Washington, DC for a few years and later moving to Rochester, New York, where I’ve been for almost 13 years. My wife and I decided to settle in her hometown. Over the last two years I have photographed public art around Rochester. As we entered the first few months of the COVID-19 crisis, I focused a lot on imagery to inspire. After May 30, my camera turned mostly towards protest art in public spaces, and public art intended to create dialogue.
I’ve used my lens to further amplify the voices in our community and spread these messages.
Rochester-based artist Shawn Dunwoody, whose vibrant walls and art are visible throughout the city, has created several pieces over the last few months, first focused on COVID awareness, then on Black Lives Matter. A few weeks ago he painted “Enough” on a black canvas, one that allowed people to write in chalk around the word — making the wall a community board of ideas, thoughts, and messages to one another. Enough was a sentiment that Shawn and I shared. A black block with “Enough” written in white was one of the first things I posted on all of my social media accounts several days after George Floyd was murdered. It was the only word I could think of to sum up how I felt.
Shawn’s piece encouraged the community to share what there was enough of, or not enough of. One of the early messages that resonated with me was, “There’s enough history to know better.” Systemic racism and white supremacy aren’t new problems, they’ve always existed. People are less distracted and now trying to focus on the problem. Now that we have that attention, let’s do better. Let’s use the history to change the future.
I recently stood face to face with a portrait of George Floyd that was wheat-pasted on an electric box in between an all-black panel and another panel that read “Black Lives Matter.” While I photographed this piece of public art, I looked through the viewfinder, and as Floyd’s likeness looked back at me, I could feel emotion rushing through my body. I got choked up, a knot in my throat and it was almost a paralyzing feeling, because all I could think about was: What if that was me or someone I loved? As a Black man in America, that feeling is in the back of my mind too often.
I pray that one day that feeling goes away. I’m hopeful, yet I remain realistic. The hope is that people are further galvanized by this moment, willing to have tough conversations, bringing the same energy that’s been present over the last few weeks and that they show up and really give a damn for change.
I find inspiration and hope as young people begin to become more involved and press the issues. My daughter attended a peaceful protest in Connecticut, and a niece did the same in New Jersey declaring loudly and proudly on a poster board, “You’ve F’d with the last generation.” I hope that this is true.
Our work is not over. We all have a different role to play. Some are on the front lines, others are in the background, and even more are spreading awareness. I believe this is a pivotal point in history. Our actions matter. Our intentions matter.
And Black Lives Matter, period.
This column appears in the Summer 2020 issue of The Waterbury Observer, Waterbury, Connecticut. Quajay Donnell is a Rochester, New York based photographer with a passion for public art. Follow him on twitter @ quajay