By Kevin A. Blanks • 

Finally, in the aftermath of Ahmaud Arbery’s trial, I am able to exhale. I didn’t even realize I was holding my breath until the verdict came in and the jury declared Arbery’s killers guilty for his murder. It should feel like a victory, but it doesn’t. In this country it feels like I’m in a constant state of holding my breath, watching the criminal justice system fail people who look like me. In times like this I should feel relieved, but instead this trial serves as a painful reminder that Black and Brown lives in fact, do not matter. But I refuse to accept this, and so should you. Even as our communities are threatened by an increase in police violence, Black death, pain, and trauma I want us to reclaim our power, to infuse our lives with Black joy, and to be the authors of our own narratives. 

The details of the Arbery trial themselves show us just how far the world is willing to go to erase us. On February 23rd, 2020, Arbery, a 25-year-old Black runner, was simply just out enjoying a jog before he was hunted down like an animal. Two white men, Gregory and Travis McMichael, under the guise of concerned citizens, grabbed their guns, jumped in their truck and pursued Arbery. Later joined by a third white man, they continued to pursue Arbery until they fatally shot him, ending his life before it really began. 

During the trial, the McMichaels testified that they were just defending their neighborhood from reports of robberies and decided to take matters into their own hands. In the initial police reports, the three white men said they felt threatened by Arbery and claimed they acted in self- defense while attempting to make a “citizen’s arrest.” However, one of the men, Travis McMichael confessed during the trial that Arbery actually never threatened any of the men. It’s egregious to think that these three white men felt protected by the law as they lynched a man—his only crime was just being a Black jogger in Satilla Shores, a predominately white neighborhood. How is it that three white men, who could only see Arbery through the barrel of a shotgun, feel threatened? When our legal system considers the actions of vigilantes as lawful justifiable, we must call it out. 

There is a long and sad history of state violence in this country where Black and Brown victims are always distorted and criminalized. Our humanity is reduced to just mere flesh. Men, women and children are depicted as super predators, scary thugs, beasts and savages, with the message being that our deaths are deserved and justified—especially in order to satiate white fear. We saw this act of fear mongering take place during Arbery’s trial when the defense Attorney, Laura Hogue, attempted to demonize Arbery. In the final closing arguments of the case, Hogue said that Arbery had “long, dirty toenails,” and that he was “not an innocent victim” while implying that he was at fault for making the choice to run in that particular Georgia neighborhood. 

Hogue attempted to blame Arbery for his murder by assassinating his character, resulting in the double death of his Black life. Instead of affirming the shared humanity of Black people, the mainstream news outlets work quickly to dig up and stitch together any pieces of information that will paint us in a negative light, to somehow absolve white guilt, to somehow justify murder—and oftentimes this all occurs in the span of time our lifeless bodies are left in the streets. The ability to see us as humans shouldn’t be predicated on whether we are deemed perfect and respectable citizens; respectability politics shouldn’t be used as a measurement in justifying one’s death. 

Respectability politics acts as a tool of oppression that wants us to wear the mask that grins and lies—to hide our most authentic selves in order to seem more palatable through the white gaze. We know this world isn’t sustainable for us. We know that this anti-Black world creates monsters out of Black and brown bodies. However, we must disrupt these false perceptions and own our narratives: by being unapologetically Black, by amplifying our voices to drown out the silences, and by creating and holding space for us to be visible and whole. In her poem, “A Litany for Survival,” Black activist and poet, Audre Lorde, urges us to speak, “remembering that we were never meant to survive.” So, when the defense attempted to paint Arbery as “dirty” and “guilty,” we have to remember he was 25, he was a football star, he was a loving son, he was in college training to be an electrician, he was a runner who frequently ran for exercise, and he was known for his big heart.

Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan Jr. were each charged and found guilty of malice, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and felony murder. I’m relieved that justice was served, but I’m not in any mood to celebrate a system for operating the way that it’s supposed to. But then again, the system was never designed for us anyways. State violence has always been embedded within the fabric of our country’s DNA—fueling how Black and Brown lives are dehumanized and affected by state and police violence at disproportionate rates. 

Black futurity has always felt elusive to us, just right outside our collective grasp. The trauma of being in this anti-Black climate threatens to leave us breathless and hopeless. In the second decade of the 21st century, Black and Brown bodies are experiencing the destructive effects of a global pandemic, capitalism, violence, and devastation within our poor, marginalized, and disabled communities. Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we don’t lose sight of the power that we have inherited from those who came before us.

It is our ancestors who remind us of our power in survival—reminding us that we have always created magic from the discarded scraps that the masters threw at us. This is the sustenance that nourishes us. This is the Black joy that resists and rejects what desires to suppress us. This is the joy that radiates through the melanin of our skin. This is the joy that burns from the fire in our eyes. This is the love and care that we pour into each other as a community. This is our power.

In a world where “we can’t breathe,” we must exhale and continue to persist and thrive. We must continue to fight, to call out injustices, and stand in solidarity together. We must remember those we have lost and create a better world for those to come. We must reclaim our Blackness and be as unapologetic as possible. We must dare to do the impossible. We must live.

As a Black and queer scholar, Kevin’s research interests include exploring the intersections of crip/queer theory, disability studies, and African American literature, towards imagining futurities for Black queer and crip lives. Kevin is also a PhD student at George Washington University, and he has spent five years as a public high school teacher—allowing him the opportunity to mentor and engage with Black and brown students through activism, solidarity, and joy.