07/31/2015 03:34 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

I Just Want to Be Held and Spun Around: On Black Life, Death, Love and Exhaustion


Photo courtesy of the Harvey Family (via
Zion Harvey and his sister Zoe prior to his dual hand transplant

I went to bed last night with tears in my eyes, the words, smile and spirit of 8-year-old Zion Harvey, the world's first pediatric double hand transplant recipient, lingering in my mind. I'd fallen asleep after watching a two-minute NBC News interview with Zion, this beautiful Black boy from Maryland with a smile like a Band-Aid, temporarily healing my Black woman wounds. I listened and cried as he talked about getting sick when he was two -- doctors had to amputate both his hands and feet after he developed a life-threatening bacterial infection -- and his upcoming surgery with a 40-member medical team at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to attach two donor hands and forearms onto his own.

"When I get these hands," Zion said, looking and smiling at his mother, Pattie Ray, "I will be proud of what hands I get... and if it gets messed up, I don't care, because I have my family." At the end of the video, the interviewer asked Zion what he most looks forward to doing once the surgery is done. His response: "Pick up my little sister from daycare and wait for her to run into my hands and I pick her up and spin her around."

I cried. I got chills.

I pictured Zion's little sister, Zoe, running toward him, her scrawny cinnamon-colored legs dangling in the air as her big brother with his big smile picked her up and spun her around with his new hands. I thought about my little brother, about the joy I felt as a child holding him in my arms. (My mom says I only smiled in pictures with him.) I thought about just how much a hug can mean when you live in a world in which you're constantly made to feel unloved, unworthy, less than human. How disabling it can be, the daily emotional, physical, and psychological toll that comes with just trying to survive -- let alone live and prosper -- when you inhabit a Black body in America.

Just Monday, Raynetta Turner, a 43-year-old Black woman and mother of eight, was found dead in her Mount Vernon holding-cell, making her at least the fifth Black woman to die in police custody within two weeks. This same day, artists Kalkidan Assefa and Allan André, in support of BlakCollectiv -- an organization created to "ensure the survival and dignity of Black students on uOttawa's campus" -- painted a mural on a public wall in Ottawa as a memorial to Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old Black woman found hanging in her Waller County, Texas jail cell on July 13. "I really wanted it to be a celebration of her life and her spirit," said André. Less than a day later, the mural was defaced, a white mustache and racial slurs strewn across Bland's brown face and the slogan "All Lives Matter" scrawled over her name with white paint.

That white paint, like a white hooded mask or Confederate flag, served as a public reminder that Black lives do not matter, that Black women are not worthy of decency, of space on a wall or anywhere else in the world. The act was yet another blatant attack on our humanity meant to refocus attention on whiteness and detract from the plight of Black people, a people living in a world that refuses to love us, a world that systematically oppresses and kills us and calls it policing.

This same Tuesday, a Kansas City hotel manager hung a Black slave doll from his office doorway with a garbage bag to mock Bland. Conversations about these acts of anti-Black violence were obscured, however, by international uproar over the killing of a "beloved lion." Do you really hate us that much? was all I could think as I learned of petitions being signed, protest marches being organized, Jimmy Kimmel crying on national television, and PETA's call for Walter Palmer, the Minnesota lion killer, to be "extradited, charged, and preferably, hanged." Are we that unlovable that the death of a big cat can incite global outrage, yet the widespread routine annihilation of Black lives at the hands of police is met with silence and indifference? Are our lives of such little value that two Zimbabweans were arrested on Tuesday in connection to a lion's death and could face up to ten years in prison for poaching offenses yet the majority of cops who unlawfully police, assault, and kill Black people for sport not only walk away without indictments, but rarely even lose their jobs?

To be clear, I do not condone the mistreatment and killing of animals. Cecil the Lion did not deserve to die. However, I am more pressed to focus my words, thoughts and emotions on Black life and death. I cannot allow Black women's stories and Black lives to be further pushed aside and ignored. I cannot help sustain the white supremacist mission of detracting attention from our plights.

I know that this is not what I am supposed to do. I am a Black woman. I am supposed to bear all burdens, to cry for the lion. I am expected to be loving. It is a part of our culture. As Black feminist scholar Brittney Cooper notes in a Salon piece:

Black girls learn almost from the womb to empathize with others, even when those others have committed deep injustices toward us. Perhaps it is the unparalleled level of our suffering that makes us always look with empathy upon others.

We are a loving people. So loving that despite everlasting state-sanctioned anti-Black violence and genocide and the world constantly reminding us that it does not love us, we are still able to "care about multiple things at the same time," including the death of Cecil the Lion. So loving that at age 13 we are willing to forgive white men for calling us sluts ("Everyone makes mistakes and everyone deserves a second chance," said Black teen Mo'ne Davis -- the first girl to earn a win and to pitch a shutout in Little League World History -- after being called a "slut" on Twitter by a white college baseball player). So loving that when nine of us are killed by a racist terrorist in what we thought our safest haven, we forgive ("You took something very precious away from me," said Nadine Collier, who lost her mother in Charleston's Emanuel AME Church massacre. "I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul.").

Our willingness to love yet receive none in return is exhausting. Knowing there are people, more people than some of us care to admit, who shed tears for dead lions but not dead Black human beings is exhausting. Not being treated like a human being is exhausting. Constantly waking to news of more casualties in America's war against Black life is exhausting. Perpetually mourning the loss of Black lives at the hands of law enforcement, saying the names of the dead, memorializing them in murals only to be defaced by the hands of white supremacists is exhausting. Fearing for your life every time you walk outside, every time you get behind the wheel, every time you see a police officer, every time you breathe is exhausting. Living in a world in which your blackness and womaness makes you less than human -- a hypersexual, angry or subservient caricature, the constant target of catcalling, rape and assault -- is exhausting. Forgiving, as Roxane Gay notes in a recent New York Times op-ed, "time and time again while racism or white silence in the face of racism continues to thrive" is exhausting. It is all very exhausting and we are still very much dying -- at least two of us each week at the hands of police, according to a Guardian study.

As a people subjected to perpetual physical, emotional and mental violence, more than anything else we are in need of love. We need to be reminded that we are loved. Maybe that is why I've watched the two-minute video clip of Zion a half-dozen times. I need to see a beautiful Black boy laughing and smiling despite his circumstance, wanting to use himself, his new hands, his touch to embrace a Black girl--the "most delicate" and the "most vulnerable member" of society, in the words of Toni Morrison. It is a reminder that there are people who love me -- who love us -- who see and acknowledge our humanity, who want to hug us and swing us around rather than hang us and make mockeries of our existence. Without this love and these reminders that Black lives do indeed matter, if not at the hands of police, we may die of exhaustion.