Greens Farms Academy is a PreK-12, coed school in Westport, CT

'I Can't Breathe'

By Shanelle Henry
Director of Equity and Inclusion

 

I CAN’T BREATHE.

 

My throat is constricted.

My chest is tight.

My palms are sweaty.

On a racial trauma scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest), I am at a 9.5.

 

I CAN’T BREATHE.

 

My eyes well up with tears.

I am awash with fear and familiarity.

I feel like I am stuck in a time warp and once again, it is May 2003. I am lying on a table in my doctor’s office and he has just identified the child I am preparing to bring into this world. Hot tears streamed down my face then, as they do now. However, they were not — are not — new-parent tears of joy.

 

I CAN’T BREATHE.

 

Flash forward.

 

These are the days I was crying about when I burst into tears in 2003. The day I was informed that I was carrying a Black male child in my belly, I cried for his unborn life because I felt the heavy weight of the responsibility [FEAR] of trying to raise a Black boy into a man in this country. And, almost every year since, I am again reminded of that [FEAR] each time another Black male is killed for living, breathing, daring to be BLACK:

 

Sean Bell - Queens, NY (2006)

Oscar Grant, III - Oakland, CA (2009)

Trayvon Martin (age 17) - Sanford, Florida (2012)

Eric Garner - Staten Island, NY (2014)

Michael Brown (age 18) - Ferguson, MO (2014)

Tamir Rice (age 12) - Cleveland, OH (2014)

Akai Gurley - Brooklyn, NY (2014)

Walter Scott - N. Charleston, SC (2015)

Freddie Gray, Jr. - Baltimore, MD (2015)

Jamar Clark - Minneapolis, MN (2015)

Keith Childress, Jr. - Las Vegas, NV (2015)

Alton Sterling - Baton Rouge, LA (2016)

Philando Castile - St. Paul, MN (2016)

Terence Crutcher - Tulsa, OK (2016)

Jordan Edwards (age 15) - Dallas, TX (2017)

Stephon Clark - Sacramento, CA (2018)

Antwon Rose, Jr. - E. Pittsburgh, PA (2018)

Botham Jean - Dallas, TX (2018)

Elijah McClain - Aurora, CO (2019)

Ahmaud Arbery - Glynn County, GA (2020)

George Floyd - Minneapolis, MN (2020)

Rayshard Brooks - Atlanta, GA (2020)

 

Every day since his birth, I pray that my son does not become the next hashtag. Every time he gets angry at me for telling him to “take your hood off your head,” “take your hands out of your pockets,” “fix your face,” and “watch your tone,” I am crushed. “I’m sorry, son,” I say. “No, it isn’t fair.” And, although he says he understands, I can see the light dim in his eyes. There is no joy for my Black boy. The tears fall again.

 

I CAN’T BREATHE.

 

I am also the parent of a teenage daughter. Time warp back to 2004, and the moment I learned that I was expecting a girl. I knew then that I would go above and beyond to ensure that she would love herself as a Black woman and see herself as beautiful — despite the normative Eurocentric milieu which would tell her otherwise. Any mother can tell you, being a #girlmom isn’t easy — it is challenging, amusing and dramatic (in every sense of the word). You have to be prepared to experience any emotion for every possible scenario. However, painfully, that is where our similarities end. Black women and girls as young as 7, and as old as 93, have also been killed by the police, though we rarely hear their names:

 

Alberta Spruill - Harlem, NY (2003)

Tarika Wilson - Lima, OH (2008)

Aiyana Stanley-Jones (age 7) - Detroit, MI (2010)

Rekia Boyd - Chicago, IL (2012)

Shereese Francis - New York, NY (2012)

Kayla Moore - Berkeley, CA (2013)

Michelle Cusseaux - Phoenix, AZ (2014)

Tanisha Anderson - Cleveland, OH (2014)

Natasha McKenna - Fairfax, VA (2015)

Sandra Bland - Prairie View, TX (2015)

India Kager - Virginia Beach, VA (2015)

Janet Wilson - Dearborn, MI (2016)

Wakiesha Wilson - Los Angeles, CA (2016)

Korryn Gaines - Baltimore, MD (2016)

Charleena Lyles - Seattle, WA (2017)

Pamela Turner - Baytown, TX (2019)

Atatiana Jefferson - Fort Worth, TX (2019)

Dominique Clayton - Oxford, MS (2019)

Breonna Taylor - Louisville, KY (2020)

 

I CAN’T BREATHE.

 

In 2017, a report by the Initiative on Gender Justice and Opportunity at the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality explored how sexism and racism interact to shape Black girls’ experiences in education, criminal justice and social relationships. Known as “adultification bias,” the report suggests that bias toward black girls can lead to less protection and support, and more punishment among educators and law enforcement.

As a Black parent, I know that my children are going to experience racism in this world. Therefore, I am tasked with having conversations about race with my children that others do not. For example, I have had, and continue to have, “The Talk” with my children because it is literally a matter of life or death. It has become increasingly vital for Black children to be racially competent, and I do everything I can to ensure my children have the tools to thrive in the face of bias.

 

“I AM SICK AND TIRED OF BEING SICK AND TIRED”

— Fannie Lou Hamer (1964)

 

Since Spring Break, everything has ramped up so quickly: the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19 prompted the closing of the school building in March for the remainder of the school year, and initiated three months of distance learning; the death of George Floyd heightened national attention on the racial inequality and social injustice that has plagued our nation for centuries; and, protests have erupted around the country (and the world) fueled by Black people pushed to the edge from decades of having their humanity denied.

Today, I am reminded of author James Baldwin who, in 1961, when asked by a radio host about being Black in America, said: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost, almost all of the time ... and part of the rage is this: It isn’t only what is happening to you. But it’s what’s happening all around you and all of the time in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, indifference of most white people in this country, and their ignorance.”

I, like many Black people across this country, am grappling with the trauma, exhaustion, and rage from yet another death at the hands of the police. I am tired. My racial battle fatigue is at its peak, managing emotions ranging from anger to sadness to hopelessness — sometimes feeling all of these things simultaneously. Yet, as a DEI practitioner, my work has never been more important ... or more personal. There is so much to do, and so many people to support, help, and educate.

Racial equity work is — and should be — disorienting. It is about becoming comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations about race and racism, systemic oppression, and all of the inequitable practices that have plagued our country for centuries. We cannot continue to remain paralyzed by the fear of “saying the wrong thing,” or believing the fairytale that we live in a “post-racial” or “colorblind” society. We must focus on the issues of racial equity at our school. The time is NOW.

Eventually, the noise surrounding the heinous killings of George Floyd and others will subside; we will have a medical response to COVID-19; the unrest will cease, and life will resume back to normal. However, I don’t want to return to normal. What was “normal” for others has never been the same normal for me, my children, and other Black Indigenous People of Color (BlPOC). It is time for each of us to look at our own spheres of influence — family, home community, school, work, house of worship, etc. — and do what we can to shift the systems we are a part of towards racial equity. The nation is clearly at a tipping point. It’s time for CHANGE.