I’m feeling it, my friends and family are feeling it: the weight of this moment is immeasurable. Black Americans have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic. This has been compounded by the tragic deaths of Black men and women — lives cut short at the hands of police and vigilantes.
Ahmaud Arbery shot while jogging. Breonna Taylor killed in her home. George Floyd suffocated as the world watched. Rayshard Brooks asleep in a Wendy’s parking lot. Robert Fuller found hung from a tree in Palmdale, Calif. We lament the Black lives lost, past and present.
Repeated trauma and stress have real effects on health, both physical and mental. Though the dialogue surrounding mental health is changing, it’s often considered a taboo subject in the Black community. Navigating the intersections of Black identity has always been layered and complex. With these ideas in mind, I photographed family, friends, and others in my community of Southern California and spoke with them about how being Black in the U.S. affects them, especially right now. Here are their stories and portraits.
We’ve chosen to use first names only to respect participants’ privacy. Interviews have been condensed and edited.
Christine, 28 (top)
I can see someone I know in all of those names. When I hear Sandra Bland, I think of myself. When I hear Tony McDade, I think of one of my aunt’s best friends, who’s no longer here. When I think of George Floyd, I think of my uncle. When I think of Trayvon Martin, I think of any young person that I know, but also that that could one day be my child. It seems like Black people continue to have to be the sacrificial lambs to make people get it.
I’m not sleeping well. I was having nightmares. But I still was like, OK, I’m going to show up. I’m going to do my best. But I wasn’t at my best. And after a while I was just like, I’m not going to feel guilty about that.
Sometimes I wonder, like, why did God give us such a burden? But I still think being Black is a gift. I think that being Black is what makes us find our light in this world and lets us be a light to people, because we are a beautiful people. I think about what we’re capable of. And so I’m like, you know what? I’m still very proud to be Black. It comes with way more troubles than if I were born different. But I wouldn’t trade it.
I’ve seen more than a few Black bodies. I will no longer consume the types of videos that are now all over social media. It’s not for me to take that in.
When it was just Covid that we were dealing with, I was like, man, I can’t wait to get back to the office. And I miss that grind. I feel like it’s harder to focus when I’m home. But with this — everybody knows what this is. I’m glad I’m not in the office right now.
It’s still hard to show up at work, because I’m a Black man at work. It’s almost impossible to be your authentic self as a Black man in this space. I’m glad that I don’t have to be at work when I randomly get sad. It’s hard to go all in for the types of corporate law that you do when people who look like me are getting gunned down or asphyxiated in the street.
It’s not just like one emotion at a time, it’s all emotions at once — and not really being able to reconcile them because you’re anticipating another death coming.
It’s almost like we have to sacrifice ourselves now in order to bring justice. We’re going out in large numbers, we’re going out in groups. We’re in a unique position that mostly everyone is working from home or while everyone’s at home. So why not go out there, take our chances, take our precautions, and just like do the damn thing.
It makes me proud of Black people because we’re literally going through shit all the time. And despite a pandemic going on, we still want to fight for justice. So it just makes me proud knowing that Black people are fighting for each other.
When I do try to move forward in joy and do something that makes me happy, in the back of my mind I’m thinking about what’s happening. I have to tune it out, to be honest. And then the next day, if I have tuned it out, it is going to come back and still affect me. My mental health is not — it can’t be where I want it to be because Black folks are dying.
I want to stay in the movement, I want to fight. But like, I also need a day off and like, recognizing that that’s OK, too.
Victoria, 67 (left)
I have a husband, three sons, and seven grandsons. And so I’m praying.
I never thought in my life I would be at a time like this. We’re the products of the civil rights movement. We’re the first generation.
It was always the police pull you over — don’t talk, just get the ticket. Just come on home. We’ll deal with it. Our oldest son lives in Texas. And he was saying that — his son is 12. And I’m thinking, will it ever stop? It’s very, very heavy on my heart. Sometimes I just tear up for no reason.
What’s affecting me most is not being able to kiss and to hug — especially our grandchildren. I miss them so badly. That’s wearing on me. And then on top of that, then I’ve got to turn on the TV and I got to see somebody putting their knee on a person’s neck and looking “so like?” and “so what?” The expression on his face said it all for me.
Khalif, 69 (right)
White folk are learning what we have been, quote-unquote complaining about.
We as Black folks did not know what really happened to us. White folks didn’t know because they were not taught. The changes that were supposed to happen within the culture and society, education, and the repair of Black folks that was supposed to occur since 1865, never occurred. That has never been addressed. They’ve been lied to as white folk. We’ve been lied to. My fantasy is that they’re agitated because “why do we want so much?” And so there’s a dynamic there that grows out of ignorance.
I’m trying to stay balanced. We have to stay focused. We can’t afford to become ill. You’ve got the police brutality, you’ve got coronavirus. We can’t afford to become so emotionally out in space that we lose our focus and effectiveness. This, too, shall pass. But this is not the first time that these viruses have come.
I’m sickened. I’m saddened, I’m stressed. My anxiety has risen. I am disturbed.
I see people are very unmoved, as if they’ve just given up hope. My energies are going towards something more positive in trying to get laws and policy changed. The rage for whites are woven into our political system against African Americans. And so if we don’t change policy and law, they’ll continue to weave these laws and the inequities will continue if we don’t stand up and do something.
As an African American parent, I had a whole lot of fight to do in raising my children in the suburbs. My husband and I, we were always present. In the board rooms, PTA, schools site council — from kindergarten all the way through. They were treated differently and they may not have recognized it, but for me as a parent, I saw it. They had to face racism very early. That was hurting for me. My youngest daughter was called a nigger in elementary school. Somebody spit on her. And then another child tried to cut her hair. We advocated for them and they made it through OK, but very stressful as parents living in the suburbs.
I’m hypersensitive right now. I’m unapologetic about it. Because it just weighs on your psyche. The world watched George Floyd call for his mom. And the white officer just laid his knee on his neck and looked around like he was nothing.
Right now it costs more money to fund a prisoner than it takes to send our children to school. Let’s flip that because that’s problematic. And I’m pissed off.
On top of having to navigate a pandemic and trying to stay healthy, Black people are having to fight for the right to live free of state violence. I’m just really so exhausted, so fed up, and out of the capacity to be nice.
I come from a tiny town called Lumberton, North Carolina. And they had several protests. Lumberton is one of those spaces that often gets forgotten because it’s in one of places where it’s like racism will always be there. I myself often thought the same way, that maybe this is just how it is and progress happens elsewhere.
There’s something particular about this moment of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. I think it has a lot to do with the fact that we’ve already lost so much. And we were already set up to lose much more. And no one was going to care about what we had lost. Having millions of Black folks in America who are without employment or having to navigate having no money in a pandemic when they should be having the resources they need to stay safe and healthy, I think this put pressure on what we’re seeing now. It’s making this moment feel urgent for a lot more people.
Some people can go out and protest. I feel like me being in this space, being the only Black man, the only Black person period in my [graduate school] program. My way of activism is making sure my voice is heard and that I can represent in this white person, male dominated space. It takes a mental toll being the only Black one.
I came back from San Diego. It’s just so white. I was running a couple times a week when Ahmaud [Arbery] got killed and I was like, see, I can’t even do that. I literally can’t do that here with all these white people.
I’m still a young Black man. I’m sure that people that move in and see me and my friends coming to this house, they’re questioning it. Is it only a matter of time where, let’s say I just go on a casual walk here and somebody doesn’t recognize me — are they calling the police right away on me? Are they taking matters into their own hands? So I just try to stay out the way, especially right now.
I do think that we’re in a better position now then we were a few years ago. And I feel like the momentum is building, but it is mentally taxing, kind of seeing all this stuff.
Sometimes I have to get off of social media and stop watching the news because it can be overwhelming. If you’re constantly watching police harm somebody, it feels like they’re attacking a family member and you can’t do anything about it. And then, what makes it even more stressful, is when you realize that you have to fight your hardest and turn the world upside down just to get justice.
I realize that a lot of Black people have PTSD from being racially profiled, and with brutality. We fight for laws to be changed or made, but ultimately, at the end of the day, if it’s enforced by a racist structure, there will ultimately not be any change.
The [George Floyd] video is just heartbreaking. To see someone struggle like that, to see that there’s no value that was put on his life at all. Being a banker, I thought — based on the story, who said the bill was counterfeit? Where is the bill? Who? Who knows? And he could have picked that up anywhere. I worked for a bank. Innocent people get a hold of counterfeit money all the time. So, a $20 counterfeit bill and a man’s life?
There is great concern on my part that the Black community has been just set upon with this virus in a way that none of the other races are experiencing. It’s frightening. It’s really caused my family to take extra, extra precautions and care because our numbers are high compared to others. I’ll continue to move forward, I’ll continue to engage. I’m constantly thinking of ways that I can be helpful, that I can support the things that I feel are so important and stay safe at the same time. We’ve gotta find alternative ways of making things work and being present when it’s important.
As a child of the ’60s, I’m tired.
It’s really sad to think that in 2020 we still have these issues and people have this superiority thinking. I just reminisce, thinking about some of the brutality that I saw as a kid growing up, and just wondered why. Even Martin Luther King said at one point he was frustrated because he thought that what he was showing white America, and telling white America, that people would just join in.
This didn’t just happen.
[When I was a kid] our parents bought us bicycles. A police officer pulled up on the side and let his window down. “What are you guys doing with those bicycles?” We’re kind of confused. We were young, you know, 9, 10, 11 years old. “Where’d you get those bicycles from?” I think I remember saying we got them for Christmas. He said, “How can you afford those bicycles?” I don’t even know if I ever told anybody. But all my life I’ve been thinking about — two kids on a bicycle after Christmas? Two new bicycles and we’re suspects? You know. And this is 2020. I’m 67 years old and we’re suspects. That bothers me.
I just feel kind of heartbroken. To have to be mourning people I don’t really know, but it could be people I know. Just knowing that the virus itself was going to cause death, but that the neglect would compound that death and compound that pain.
I went to undergrad in St. Louis. I was a sophomore during the Ferguson uprising and tried to participate in the actions around that … that was a really formative part of my own growth and also my mental health journey. To reach such a huge national response again, not even six years later …
Thinking about the virus and how even by protesting to save our own lives — that is putting ourselves at risk — whether from the police or from the virus. It’s just really hard. Even if after this pandemic is over, there’s a vaccine, if Black people are still dying, going back to normal isn’t good enough. I think a lot of people realize that we’ve needed change since before this. And going back to a world where, like Black people are still dying disproportionately. It’s not enough.
Aminah, 10 (center)
I don’t like what the police are doing. I feel like they should treat everyone right. And the coronavirus, I feel like I just want to stay inside and I don’t want to go anywhere and I just want to check in on my family and stuff.
Lailah, 18 (left)
I am disappointed and sad. Because, to the police, it’s like our lives don’t matter and we’re just an outsider to this country.
Especially now that I drive a lot, sometimes I run a red light. If the light was still yellow when I was going to the intersection and I kind of think like, oh, was a cop by me, like I hesitate. And even going over the speed limit, like a couple miles, I get nervous because, I’m Black and I don’t know what’s going to happen.
It saddens me when Aminah asks me questions about what happened. I think it was the first night of the protests in LA, she started crying and she was asking me, “Why are the cops doing this? Why are they throwing tear gas?” So we just had a conversation that night. I just felt like, as she gets older I can’t protect her anymore because I’m not always going to always be with her.
Mandi, 16 (right)
They just see us as a threat and we’re just tired of fighting for our lives. We should be protected by the police not being hurt by them. It was very sad what happened to him [George Floyd]. But I think what I’m most disappointed about, is how I wasn’t surprised that it was by a cop. It makes me feel a little scared because I am Black and they could see me as a threat, even though I’m not. I’m just a kid.
Everything hit me in a way that felt extremely overwhelming. Being able to be in a place where the response to state violence is a Black response has been important for me to feel less isolated and to feel like there’s somewhere for the grief and the rage to go.
I did go to a protest. It was Black women who organized this demonstration. And I think it drew like 3,000 people. It was powerful to be there. There was a lot of people, mostly non-Black people, like by a lot. It’s weird to go to that space to feel like you want to get some relief and you want to express something, but then to feel like kind of a spectacle in the sense that everyone’s talking about Black people and there’s very few Black people there.
Before all this happened, I was like dealing with unpacking a lot of shit in my life and trying to sort through trauma and then to have both a pandemic and this moment of more attention being paid to police violence. It’s hard. It feels like there’s no sanctuary from that really intense feeling.
I feel it could be anybody. I feel like it could be me, just walking down the street, somebody think you do something, you not, and then your life get taken away.
It’s just wrong place, wrong time.
If you get pulled over, you just got to be cautious. Keep as calm as possible cause you never know. Like you reach the wrong way, something might happen, you move the wrong way, something might happen. So you just gotta keep calm and just be aware that anything could happen. … I’m always, I’m always nervous.
I’ve felt very heavy, like your bones feel like they’re made out of blood. Like you don’t want to move. You suddenly are struck with grief in the middle of the day. It’s an unfathomable pain. It’s an unfathomable grief that is really hard to sit in and is really discomforting to deal with.
I hate that I have to show up to Zoom meetings and give my best and have people ask me, “How are you doing?” And you’re just like, “How the fuck do you think I’m doing?” I’m heartbroken. I’m tired. I’m exhausted and I feel completely unsafe.
I was going to therapy regularly, dealing with my own traumas and then having this added on to what I already deal with. It doesn’t feel like there’s room to heal. It doesn’t feel like there’s room to feel safe. It doesn’t feel like there’s room for me to just be myself. Black people aren’t safe anywhere, regardless of whether they’re at home or not.