Photo : by Jérémie Battaglia, (left to right Anne-Sophie Tzeuton, Rebecca Paris, and Ghionawit Tamir)
Rebecca Paris is a recent graduate from Concordia University in Political Science and Women’s Studies. She was born and raised in Paris, France, but has been floating through cities all over the world ever since, from New Orleans to Hanoï, and lately, Montreal. Since moving to Montreal, Rebecca has spent most of her free time working on community building initiatives, the latest of which is a photo project called Project: ColourMeBlack which you can follow on Facebook. Her writing is also available on her blog at www.reb-raconte.tumblr.com.
[the following is the transcript of a speech I made at a black lives matter demonstration in Montreal, on July 16, 2016]
February 26th, 2012.
I was 17 years old when Trayvon Martin, also 17, was murdered. He was getting ready to graduate high school, just like me, and his death hit me like a brick. I remember seeing his killer’s face on the news and listening to people debate whether or not he [George Zimmerman] was within his rights in killing Trayvon. I learned that day that our culture does not account for black angels. That black kids can be killed, and still be seen as demons.
November 22nd , 2014.
This time, it was a 12 year old, Tamir Rice who was shot and killed, by the police. As I watched the footage of his body dropping in that park, play on loop on social media, all I could think about was my own 12 year old sister. She’d been asking for a bike to go to the park or the candy store with her friends. After Tamir’s death, I hated myself for thinking it, but I was glad that she never got the bike. And then there was Sandra Bland.
July 13th, 2015.
She was an activist, like many of us here. She spoke for our people and on behalf of our lives, and still. Still, she found herself dead inside of a jail cell. Mike Brown. Rekia Boyd. Eric Garner. Ayiana Jones. Darren Hunt. Renisha McBride. Sean Bell. Even here in Canada, Andrew Loku. The list goes on and on, and black bodies continue to be destroyed all over the world. From Garrissa in Kenya, to Maroua in Cameroon. And to our girls in Nigeria, kidnapped over 800 days ago. To the black trans girls and women, routinely getting assaulted, murdered and forgotten. Most recently Dee Dee Dodds. But also Maya Young and Veronica Banks Cano.
For those of you who may still feel like this is distant, this is not an us problem, let me remind you of a quote from Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Till Mobley. Back in 1955 she said, “two months ago, I had a nice apartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, that’s their business, not mine. Now I know how wrong I was. The murder of my son has shown me that what has happened to any of us anywhere in the world had better be the business of us all!”
Two more names for you all: A year ago, one of my closest friends Terry was arrested by the Baton Rouge police. He had made the mistake of being a black kid without a car, and was walking home from a late night shift when the police approached him. They cuffed his hands and feet, claiming that he fit the description of a suspect. Throughout the six hours or so he spent at the police station, policemen verbally and emotionally taunted him, hoping to get a reaction out of him to justify violence. He later told me that he stayed silent, fearing that he might lose his life if he reacted to any of their provocations.
A few years before that, my uncle Dele was stopped for a routine license plate check in New Orleans. He’d just moved to the US from Benin by way of France and was driving a car the police officer who arrested him clearly deemed too nice for him. Getting impatient and not knowing any better, my uncle stepped out of the vehicle to ask the officer what was going on, who immediately pointed his firearm at my uncle, ready to shoot. My uncle was unarmed and clueless but that made no difference. In the eyes of that officer, he was a threat.
You’ve never heard those names because luckily, and I hate that I find those situations lucky, Terry and my uncle Dele both survived, even though they both thought they might die. One for being black and carless, the other for being black with too nice a car. And yet many of us do not survive. In fact, it is the same Baton Rouge police department that arrested and detained my friend Terry which recently killed 37 year old Alton Sterling.
I myself had to work the day following [Alton] Sterling’s brutal murder. I spent the day surrounded by coworkers and customers who were all seemingly unaffected. All day, I greeted and asked people how they were doing, and lied to those who reciprocated the question. “Yes, I’m fine, thank you.” And with each variation of that answer, I felt my sanity, my truth and my sense of self, dwindle away. So much so that I found myself weeping in the bathroom in the middle of my shift out of fear, frustration and most of all, grief.
So it is with that in mind that I speak to you all today. Each day seems to bring about more violence against black bodies and each day those of us who survive must carry the burden of grief. A grief that manifests differently in all of us, and often comes in waves of isolation, anger, paranoia, anxiety and depression even. I’ve found myself actively avoiding the world in days like these, my spirit too broken to handle interactions with unaffected people. I avoided the video of Alton Sterling’s murder too because I know how paralyzing images of black death have been, and in these moments I have to force myself to go on. So how do we do this?
First, I’m reminded of my mother’s words to me:
“Ma fille, she said, the struggle won’t come from beyond the grave, and so you must keep on living.”
I thought about that for a long time, and realized something. The project of white supremacy aims to destroy and annihilate the black body, but not only. When we neglect to care for our mental health, we allow our minds and spirits to be destroyed by white supremacy too. And as advocates for our brothers and sisters who are no longer with us, we simply cannot allow that to happen.
So we must find ways to heal ourselves and care for our spirits individually and collectively. Individually, we must allow ourselves to feel joy, and move beyond the guilt that often comes with enjoying ourselves in spite of the mountains of black deaths we are surrounded by. That means knowing when to prioritize the struggle and when to prioritize our own minds. We may not always be mentally and emotionally equipped to attend a protest, or to engage in those heated conversations online and offline with people who will argue about the value of our lives. We need to start recognizing that in these situations, simply doing things that make us happy is revolutionary. So paint your nails. Watch a movie. Hang out with your friends. Take a bubble bath. Play video games. Go for a run. I don’t care how you keep your mind happy but do that first, and engage in the struggle second.
Collectively, we need to be here for one another. If you can provide support to others, make it known. Make yourself available to talk, cry, complain and organize. And make space for laughter too. Do not forget to laugh. We are a resilient people and much of our strength historically has come from our ability to make beauty out of pain. So keep creating beauty. Support your brothers and sisters who are creating beauty and spreading love. Acknowledge one another and fight against isolation. Ultimately, we all know that our survival depends on unity and unity stems from unconditional love and support. Remember that each and every black life matters, whether or not they support the struggle, whether or not they share your views.
Remember that protecting one another means protecting one another from inside and outside of our community. In the same way that you ask our allies not to stay silent in the face of the injustices we face, be vocal within our community. Protect and represent for the disabled black kids, the trans, gay, lesbian, bi and ace black kids. Protect black creativity. Protect poor black folks. Uneducated black folks. Isolated black folks. Token black folks too. Be there for one another, and ensure that we all keep living through and in spite of the grief. In spite of the survivor’s guilt. In spite of a world that is hell bent on destroying us. Because our lives matter and will always matter.