Emotions I can name 

A grainy shadow of a hand on a wall of blue light.

Writer and DUMBO member Glynn Pogue’s lyric essay in response to the Black Lives Matter movement

By Glynn Pogue  Images by Alex Bode   Friday 19 June, 2020    Long read

I don’t know how to accurately respond in the moment when people ask me how I’m feeling. I haven’t got the language. I want it to be an emotion I can name in a word. But, for now, here are the things I’ve felt: 

1. Pained, when I heard the news of George Floyd’s murder. I was running on the treadmill, crying so hard that my body buckled, while listening to ‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar. I felt like a cliche for choosing that song, of all songs, to bring me comfort in that moment. I’d always loved the sentiment. But once the song went mainstream, I felt like the phrase ‘We gon’ be alright’ did, too. I’ve seen it on so many damn T-shirts, from Instagram brands to the ones dudes sell on the street at the Dance Africa festival in Brooklyn every summer. The intimacy of the mantra had gotten lost on me. 

But hearing Kendrick chant it in my ears that afternoon felt different. It sounded like my grandmother’s heavy sigh as she dried her soapy hands, then brought the phone into the dining room to continue one of her marathon conversations with her sister. I could hear her saying, ‘You know, Rene, Imma be alright. I’m just taking it day by day.’ I could hear the slight uncertainty in her voice. I could hear her exhaustion. 

That’s what made me cry so hard. I thought about my grandmother, a Black woman who I loved so deeply. I thought about the lessons she’d taught me and the things she’d seen. I thought about the Black people and Black things I love. I thought about the Black history I’m proud of and how beautiful we are. And my body ached, because it broke me to know my people and our things aren’t safe, never have been. I thought about how much more we deserved. I thought about the many times we’ve asserted that we were OK knowing damn well we weren’t. 

2. Redemption, while watching live streams of Minnesota burning in the days following George Floyd’s murder. I felt like I wanted to burn something, too.   

3. F**king pissed at a rally for Black lives that my mother and I attended in the small Pennsylvania town where she owns an inn. I was terrified to even attend. But my mom said we had to go. ‘We’re some of the only Black people up here. We can’t be afraid of them,’ she said. ‘How can we not show up?’

I could think of several reasons. She and I both knew the town was largely racist and conservative. We’d seen the Trump 2020 signs in people’s front yards. We’d seen the way they looked at us, unable to comprehend how these Black people had so much. What if sh*t got violent? What if they used this chance to show us how they really felt about us? It is, after all, an open-carry state. 

My mother bought poster boards and markers in red, black and green from Walmart so we could make signs. On hers, she wrote ‘Do Better. Black Lives Matter.’ I didn’t know what to write on mine. I didn’t want it to look neat and perfect, or be witty and clever. I wanted to scrawl ‘Black Lives Matter’ on a piece of cardboard as a declaration, shaky-handed in my anger. But instead I wrote ‘I can’t breathe’. 

The march was mad White and kumbaya. A man was playing the guitar and singing protest songs. My head was on a swivel the whole time, waiting for some sh*t to pop off. And ultimately it did. While one of the speakers, a young Black man, was reading his testimony of the racism he’d faced, an older White man started heckling him. He said, ‘Oh, come on man, White men aren’t racist.’ I could feel my body getting hot, but I ignored him. 

Trying not to be shaken, the Black man at the podium continued, ‘They tried to say we were two thirds a man.’ And the White man called out, ‘That’s because you are.’ I looked at him and screamed, ‘Shut the f**k up.’ It felt so good to feel fury. It felt so good to shout. 
A silhouette of a bird against a cloud in the sky at sunset.
4. Confused. I had flashbacks. I questioned everything. I replayed moments in time. I thought about my past exchanges with police officers. I thought about how easily sh*t could have gone differently. 

I remembered those times back in high school, when I was low on funds and high on rebellion. I would slide through the emergency exit doors in the subway behind ladies with strollers. I thought about the time I was running late to a birthday party. I jumped the turnstile so I could catch the train that was just rolling in. I’d almost made it through the doors when a cop, young and Black, approached me. Perhaps a little too comfortable, because he and I had something in common, I threw serious attitude his way. I sighed heavily and insisted, ‘It’s not that serious. I’m really just tryna get on my train, man.’ I remember he reached for his cuffs, but then asked for my mother’s phone number instead. ‘You’re too good for this, sis,’ he said. ‘You’re smart. I can tell.’

My mom called me later that evening, speaking before I could even mutter ‘hello’.
‘Don’t ever pull a stunt like that again. If you need a train fare, just ask,’ she said. ‘Next time the cop might not be so nice.’

I’ve always felt uneasy around cops. It’s just the way it is in Black communities. I grew up in Bed-Stuy, the notorious neighborhood repped by Jay-Z and Biggie Smalls, where you had to ‘do’ or you’d ‘die’. But, as tends to be the case in urban cities across America, the landscape of a neighborhood can switch up in mere blocks. I was both minutes and worlds away from the shootings and crack slinging that kept the cops coming and going. The most action my enclave of The ’Stuy got was a block party going too late and police coming by to remind us to keep it down. Still, while I’d never yelled, ‘Yo, it’s the boys’ or ‘The pigs are out’ when they pulled up, I’d seen enough in passing. I’ve been told enough horror stories and memorized enough rap verses that ‘f**k the police’ had become my mantra.

5. Grateful for my friends. Not the random White folks I haven’t talked to in months, who suddenly decided to text me and ask how I’m feeling. Nah, my girls. The ones who have always been there and continue to be there. Black women who I show up for, and who show up for me. We have been each other’s refuge; partners in the mental and emotional processing of this moment. We find time for laughter when we need it, desperately. They’re the ones on the other end of marathon phone calls, and the ones who text back ‘down’ when I say, ‘Hey girl, let’s hit this protest together.’

6. Foolish. On the Monday that George Floyd was murdered, I was rounding out my last week of teaching kindergarten. I’d been doing it all on Zoom for two months prior, and I was tired and ready for a break. When I heard the news of Floyd’s death, I felt foolish, for real. Because for those last two months, I’d been consumed by coronavirus and quarantine. I’d been doing TikTok challenges and was all ‘woe is me’ because my dating life had halted. I’d felt so normal, then blindly unified with the world. And all along, Black people were dying at rapid rates from this thing. But we were all at home, all annoyed, scared and over it, right? And just like that the world reminded me that as a Black woman I can never get too comfortable. Because now, on top of everything else, I had to think about this sh*t again. Another hashtag, another Black life stamped out.  

That week, whenever my coworkers asked me how I was doing, I said: 
Deep sigh, ‘I’m maintaining.’
Deep sigh, ‘I’m just taking it day by day.’
Deep sigh, ‘I’m alright.’ 
Deep sigh, ‘I’m exhausted.’