I noted your purple tie and the impressive manner in which you carried yourself as you came down the aisle. You reminded me of my husband, with your bald head and beard. You dropped your carry-on luggage in the aisle seat next to mine, and asked me to make sure no one stole your stuff while you went to the restroom.
We spoke of your mama, of your childhood in the “ATL,” of your five sisters and your hopes for them, of your ailing father and the pain of watching him suffer. We connected — because that’s what family does. And then you began to talk about your work and the stress of traveling and managing the needs of your family and divorce and paying college tuition. And as you poured out so much of yourself on our long flight, you had a beer and dark whiskey in a plastic cup — and then another and another.
The drinks flowed and your voice began to carry. You grew louder and louder speaking of corporate greed, and racism, and profiling and political corruption. I agreed with you and encouraged you to talk so only I could hear — I asked you questions about your mom, your kids, your sisters — anything to diffuse the rage I could see building. That’s when I realized that I was afraid.
I wasn’t worried about you being arrested for being publicly intoxicated. I was scared for your life. I understood your plight, the need to wear a “mask,” the required assimilation that you vehemently spoke against. You were rightfully disgusted and weary from the experiences of doing business/traveling/living while black. I also understood that our rage is cause for concern in mixed company, and can have dire consequences when it surfaces.
I held my breath. I envisioned air marshals with weapons drawn, you face down on the plane with men standing over you. I imagined my own husband’s clean-shaven bald head bleeding and no one helping him. Every time I would calmly ask you to quiet down just a little — you grew louder. You said you weren’t afraid, that you had nothing to fear. So I was carrying fear for both of us.
I was carrying both of us. See the thing is, I understood your pain, the justifiable rage pent up so deep inside of you. The alcohol merely broke the dam. I know that floodgate all too well. Once opened, nearly impossible to shut off. Pain, hurt and anger often mistaken for aggression.
In that moment, I was your sister. I could not let them hurt you — kill you. This is the burden I carried sitting next to you. One moment asking me to listen to a song on your Beats headphones and the next moment recalling the ways you had been mistreated and targeted because of the color of your skin. I was there to laugh with you and to cry for you. This is so often our role and it leaves us weary, broken and traumatized.
So now I sit in this hotel room and I cry for you. I cry for myself because I felt responsible for your survival in that moment. Upon landing and arriving at the tarmac, I whispered a prayer of thanks.
I am still praying that God will give you peace.