The view from Trauma Land

"I want to use your work, D," a good friend who teaches high school English — I'll call her Vee — told me at a mixer, in front of a couple of artists we hang out with. "But it is triggering. It's so violent that I can't stand to read it." To be a Black artist in an era of trauma, to write honestly about a traumatized world, from inside Trauma Land. The conflicting expectations, needs, and complexities dance slowly inside my skull, up and down, grinding against the walls.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

I took a beat before responding to Vee –– a long beat, where I looked at myself, the things I endured, the many clichés that many Black men of my generation have also endured, like shootings, police violence, poor schools, no health insurance, and a string of bad relationships that include ex-lovers who enjoyed hurling aerosol cans and TV remote controls at our heads on the nights we stayed out drinking too late. I think about how I mention these brutal stories in a lot of my work, while making a serious effort to weave them in and around a thoroughly researched historical context to provide a bigger picture of why our people were shooting, why our schools were poor and why those young ladies tested their arm strength against us. And I responded with something light, like, "I feel you. You know I don't want to ruffle feathers. I just want to tell my story."

But what I really wanted to say was this: "You are in Baltimore. Many of the kids in this city are living these stories. How does it help them if we act like the pain doesn't exist? Using art as a tool to process and explain trauma is the only therapy many of us will be able to access."

I'd tell her that the conversation about promoting joy over pain is cute on the Internet, but it's not a complete story. A lot of us are in constant pain. However, I can't respond like that. It's not in my nature. After all, I don't want to ruffle any feathers.

But then I had my own feathers ruffled during a friendly debate with a colleague I'll call the Doctor. The Doctor is a highly respected, award-winning, bestselling author. We were having a sandwich in D.C. and he was telling me how much he admired my work, both my writing skills and the connection I have with nontraditional readers, especially in the Baltimore region. However, like Vee, he said he often gets lost in the overwhelming amount of darkness in my work.

Overwhelming, I thought? Because he said it in a laughing manner, I decided to step out of character and push back a little. I pointed out that our backgrounds are significantly different.

"I didn't have scholarly parents like you. I'm from the bottom — my neighborhood was literally called Down Bottom," I said. "I didn't grow up on acres of land with a big house, full of countless books to thumb through when bored. As a matter of fact, I didn't have any concept of a quality structural education at all. As far as the men in my family go, I'm a first generation high school graduate. All we really had was the block, Doc, and we had to survive that. I guess part of that survival is sharing the stories."

The Doctor raised an eyebrow while pulling at the thin strands of hair on his chin, then challenged me back.

"You are such a funny guy, though," he said. "Why not highlight the good, the funny? I know it wasn't all bad. The 'hood can't be sooooo awful, I mean, come on!"

I explained to him that resiliency is currency where I'm from, so celebrating the triumphs and promoting that is good in a way. But in the end I simply agreed to disagree with him.

"You know that 'sooooo awful' is perspective, right?" I laughed. "Your awful isn't necessarily my awful."

"Go to hell, D. Watkins!" he laughed back.

Vee is one of my favorite educators and the Doctor is one of my favorite scholars — a very important contemporary voice on race, in my opinion — and I respect both of them enough to take their feelings on literature into consideration.

So I lounged in my office on a recent lazy Saturday and re-examined my body of work, created across different phases of my life. Not just my books — I looked at old essays, interviews, the embarrassing grad school stories I crafted before I found my voice, op-eds for major newspapers like the New York Times and The Guardian. So much freelance work.

The Doctor and Vee were both right, in a way. I'm a pretty dark guy. Or at least I have a history of publishing some dark nonfiction material: kill, kill, kill, and murder, more killing and more murder. A lot of my writing, especially my older work, feels extra dark right now, and rightfully so. I've been in the streets for most of my life. I wrote three books and most of my articles while living in one of the worse neighborhoods in America. I've since relocated to a different part of Baltimore and have already seen slight changes in my writing after the move. My life also includes marriage and fatherhood now. But all of this is a part of my story. So that leaves me with a question: Should I downplay my background and my formative experiences when I write to make other people feel comfortable? To further our current cultures new obsession with joy? What I even be able to appreciate that joy or explain its relevance if I didn't have those dark experiences to compare it to?

I thought about those question for days, even asking myself if I had the right to tell the stories of the people who struggled with me but never escaped our turbulent origins as I did. Some are dead, some incarcerated. My incarcerated friends love when I write about our street days; they print them out and tack them to the tattered walls of their cells. I assume that guys like the Doctor don't know about the connections many incarcerated people have and feel with my work, or he would have considered their feelings before making his case. Obviously I can't ask my friends who have passed how they fell about the way I write about us, but I have a collection of notes and personal letters from their surviving family members: Thank you so much, D, for keeping my brother alive. I write for them. Without them, there would be no me.

The elephant that must be acknowledged is that Baltimore is overflowing with pain. It's hard to write here and not engage with that pain unless you are completely disconnected from reality. I still do my community work; however, a lot of it is becoming more and more remote, and not all by choice. I get invited to speak in different states, and I travel to different countries. And when I'm home, I'm spending time with my wife and daughter, my mentees, my close-knit artist community and my family, not at large functions, or on the basketball courts Down Bottom, or by the projects where I was raised. My perspective has changed over the past few years, along with my value system. But I still feel the weight of the pain I survived and I believe that journey is important. So even as I moved away from it, I decided to keep telling my story, doubling down on exposing the ills of the system and how they affected me and others like me.

Keep in mind the audience I built was mostly high school students, college freshman, youth offenders, and incarcerated men and women who love Baltimore and the way I write the city. I used to pull up to the events wearing a hoodie or T-shirt and whatever type of Nikes, and always had a great time. I did receive invites to the more stuffy, literary types of events, and those talks went well, but I was lucky enough to have my people as my core audience. The events kept coming in, and my work kept building on itself, and my profile grew, without me making any significant changes in how I wrote. I found myself on bigger and bigger stages, presenting the same types of work. But it wasn't until I was asked to be a guest on a popular radio show that I started wondering how the people who run those bigger stages see me through my writing.

The producers loved my book and were happy to have me on for a prerecorded segment. Even though it wasn't live, they asked me to be at the station early, around 7 a.m. So I pulled up around 6:30, extra tired and even more hungry. When they let me in a studio, I was met with an enthusiastic, "Yo, D, what's up, bro! Let's get it!" from one of the hosts. I felt their energy and instantly woke up, ready to start the show. Then bottle girls came out.

Remember, this was 7 o'clock in the morning­­. I hadn't even had a cup of coffee yet. Two women with buckets of Grey Goose and Belvedere on ice sashayed into the room. One of the young ladies said, "We did our homework and we know all of your favorites!" Another producer joined the party: "Hell yeah, dawg! Turn up!"

I tried my best not to look confused. "I appreciate y'all so much and thank you for thinking of me," I said. "But it's too early for alcohol. I'm not on vacation, I'm trying to sell books. Do you have any coffee or tea?"

Everyone in the room was laughing except for me. Yes, I have written about the phase in my life when my friends and I loved top shelf vodka early in the morning. But I was in my early twenties then. Nowadays I'm perfectly fine with the mid-tier stuff, if I'm drinking at all. And I normally don't even drink with strangers. I don't like the way hard liquor makes me feel anymore. And — once more — it was early in the morning. What had I written or said that would make them think that was a reception I would welcome? Maybe they figured the amount of trauma I have written about has earned me extended drinking hours? Maybe my books depress them so much that they needed a drink.

I completed an awkward interview — no one took a drink — and left the studio thinking about Vee and the Doctor, imagining them telling me that was my fault, that my stories gave those people the license to approach me with shots for breakfast. But is it really my fault? I've written about liquor, but also about how much time I spend writing in coffee shops, and they didn't approach me with a fancy latte. I've written a lot about my love for food, especially West African cuisine, but I wasn't greeted with egusi stew and pounded yam fufu. So is the problem me and my writing, or what people choose to take away from it? I can't control that.

I have enjoyed books like Richard Price's "Clockers," "Random Family" by Adrian LeBlanc and "Ghettoside" by Jill Leovy — all white authors who wrote deeply about a Black experience. The problem is that white authors are celebrated when they project the horrors that exist inside of Black communities, but if I do it I am triggering someone, making the joy-mongers feel bad — I'm the Golden Globe- and Oscar-winning director of all trauma porn. On the success of their work, writers like Price, LeBlanc and Leovy get bigger book deals, major awards, TV and film deals. I get a bunch of lip from my peers for not dwelling in the fantasy world of limitless joy? I've lived the stories I write. I walk with the limp and have the scars and nightmares to prove it. Do I have to die to own the right to tell the stories of the times people tried to kill me?

Justifying why I write what I write has not been difficult for me. But I struggled again about how I am perceived as an artist after being approached by a white woman — I'll call her Beverly — who wanted to co-write a television show with me loosely based on my life in Baltimore. It should have been a red flag that she is not from a Black community and didn't seem to be deeply connected to one, outside of the Internet, and yet she wrote a lot about Black characters, experiences and issues. Blinded by her wit, industry knowledge, organization skills and my desire to break into the TV industry, I ignored my instinct to run as fast as I could in the other direction, and we started working on the project. After a few years of her telling me that I wasn't ready — I wasn't polished enough, I didn't have the skills to pitch to a major network — she told me that if I sent her some pictures of me worn down and shot up in the hospital, pictures that I don't even own, pictures that I know Larry David or Ted Danson wouldn't be required to submit as part of a pitch, then maybe we would have a shot at selling my story. This request came years after I met her, became a New York Times bestselling author, signed a deal to work on two HBO projects as a writer and consultant, and won multiple awards from my writing and teaching. I wasn't a total dud. But in her eyes, I was not enough. I had to be sensationalized, even in my own story.

Maybe this was my fault. Maybe me allowing her to have full access to my ideas, my stories, my triumphs and my downfalls gave her a license to see me as a commodity. Maybe when you put yourself out there as an artist you give everyone who consumes your art the same license. And people can do what they want with that license: reward it, celebrate it, trash it, and yes, call it trauma porn. The only thing that balances me after analyzing the cocktail of all these events is realizing that there is no balance. To be a Black artist in an era of trauma, in a world of trauma, I have to make the art that I want to make. I have to ignore what's going to be appropriate to social media audiences this week, because it probably won't be appropriate for social media next week either. I have to ignore the constantly evolving rhetoric that's sometimes so woke it's woking itself in circles, allowing nothing to be done.

I don't want to be a part of a movement of fake, forced positivity. But I also don't want to write for people who only want to consume and glorify a poor, downtrodden Black experience. The only solution for me, and the advice I would give to other artists who struggle with this, is this: Tell your truth. Accept your truth, and do not let other people twist, bend or mold it into the version of your truth they want to see.

The ability to call someones life "Trauma Porn" or lust after someone's pain to enhance you art career is a luxury that many of us never had. My colleagues who feel my work is too dark don't truly get me and my struggles or my work, as i I do not fully understand them. And that is OK. Let's normalize agreeing to disagree. There's a whole spectrum of human experience between joy and trauma, too. And we need to be free to tell all of our stories.

How are we supposed to celebrate July 4 after Juneteenth?

America, you can have the Fourth of July back.

Last month, President Joe Biden signed legislation designating June 19, or Juneteenth — a day commemorating the end of slavery in the United States — a federal holiday. I received the news via text from a friend: "JUNETEENTH IS OFFICIALLY A HOLIDAY!!!!", followed by a series of emojis. I went to Twitter to see what people were saying about it and got kind of freaked out by the Super Bowl-winning level of excitement I found.

This article first appeared on Salon.

Don't get me wrong — I think it's a great gesture. But people were acting like the president released a reparations plan, as if the direct deposits were about to hit our accounts. I could understand the excitement if the federal government had done something meaningful like ended the war on drugs and freed the people incarcerated in federal prison for marijuana distribution while legal cannabis clinics open up all over the county. They just made a new federal holiday. Relax.

That said, the energy and meaning behind Juneteenth is special enough for me to stop celebrating July 4 — the day, the idea, the theme, the outfit choice — for good, starting this year. I'm going to call my editor and ask for some extra task I'm normally not responsible for, like filing papers in the office even though we're still working virtually, or standing on the beltway near my house swinging a huge red sign telling people to go read Salon.

Giving up the holiday won't be hard. I've never really embraced July 4 for a number of reasons, including but not limited to the following:

1. I am Black. Black people fought in the Revolutionary War for Caucasian freedom, but didn't receive their own. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that all men were born equal with the right to liberty while he enslaved hundreds of people of African descent. George Washington began his command of the Continental Army forbidding the recruitment of Black soldiers, an order he later had to rescind. Some enslaved soldiers who fought ended up being returned to lives of bondage after the war, and the U.S. Congress banned African Americans from military service in 1792. The irony of the founding fathers fighting for their independence while robbing others of their most basic rights shouldn't be lost on anyone.

2. The national anthem is awful. The lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner" come from a terrible piece of poetry, "Defence of Fort M'Henry," that should have been forgotten instead of set to song. It was written by Francis Scott Key, a racist slave-owning hypocrite who took a shot at the enslaved men who fled to fight with the British in the War of 1812 in exchange for their freedom with the line, "No refuge could save the hireling and slave / From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave". Every year I ask the question, "Who wouldn't want freedom, and how could he not understand them opting out for a better life?" And even aside from the meaning, the poem itself doesn't hold up. He'd never win a slam with that elementary rhyme. I'd like to see him sit through a critique in even the kindest MFA workshop. He'd leave the table crying.

3. I stand with Colin Kaepernick. Watching a football game or lighting a firecracker on the Fourth is disrespectful to Colin Kaepernick. That man sacrificed his extremely lucrative NFL career in the name of justice for Black people, and I will never forget that. Last year, he denounced July 4 as a celebration of white supremacy. He's not wrong. I think he might proudly celebrate Independence Day if Black people in America didn't still have to worry about poor housing, poor schools, discrimination across the board, and — oh yeah — getting our heads blown off by police officers who too often get away with it, or serve only minimal jail time.

4. And also, the uniforms are trash. The American flag makes a terrible fashion statement. I don't wear red, white and blue star-spangled short sets, or T-shirts or socks or hats or gloves or skull caps or sneakers or the flagged-out plastic drapes that my old neighbor used to protect his Geo Metro from the sun and inclement weather.

So here I am: too jaded to fully embrace Juneteenth but too literate to hold a warm place for Independence Day in my cold, cold heart.

I think about our conflicting celebrations of independence around this time every year. I've been attending Juneteenth events, functions and parties for the last five years or so, but I've been to Independence Day cookouts my whole life. I always eat the food on July 4 — plates of grilled lamb, barbecue chicken, deviled eggs, all the salads, carbs on carbs on carbs. But I'm not eating for me; no, I have principles and discipline. I will, however, eat for the ancestors.

I never contribute financially or materially as that would feel too much like honoring the cause. I have to be strong. So when I get invited, whether by family and friends or strangers from the internet, I let them know that I will be arriving with nothing but an appetite for destruction, just like the Founding Fathers.

While I honestly do connect more with Juneteenth, I would be lying if I said the initial hype around its new federally recognized status this year didn't make it feel a bit like a special little Independence Day for the Blacks. Hearing Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden sing "Lift Every Voice" off-beat does not liberate anyone.

But I am a sucker for the happiness of my people. Seeing them lace themselves into full-on dashiki levels of attire they haven't worn since Chadwick Boseman's "Black Panther" premiere, being proud of our African heritage in the name of freedom, all of that is a win for me. And so I will not get upset at people who still choose to celebrate the July 4, because having the ability to champion what you want to champion and celebrate what you want to celebrate is what these holidays are supposed to be about.

So if you do decide to have a big Independence Day cookout — white people, that's what you call a barbecue — I will gladly come, eat, and even take two or three plates to go. For the ancestors, of course.

The lost art of not having an opinion on everything

"Slavery is not real. Have you ever seen a picture of a slave with dreds? White people just tell y'all that to make y'all's dumb asses serve them and be inferior. And y'all just listen like sheep."

This article first appeared on Salon.

This is a paraphrased example of a social media post by an old high school friend of mine I'll call Tim. Ignoring the hundreds of years of research and brilliant scholarship on the topic — not to mention the 13th and 14th amendments, the millions of pages written, photos from the pre-Photoshop era, personal testimonies from actual people who were once enslaved like Fredrick Douglass, Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs, and the whole Federal Writers Project in general — to offer a hot take on a topic nobody asked him to weigh in on.

I usually don't reply to posts like this. But his words irked me in a way I shouldn't have let myself be irked. Against my better judgment, I replied.

"Believe it or not, your opinion on this topic is really not necessary," I commented.

"Don't tell me that brainwashed you too, Watkins. SMH," he spat back. "Please don't tell me you bought into the whole slavery myth. That is the oldest white man trick in the book!"

"What did you study, Tim? What have you unearthed in a world where many Black people can trace their American roots back to the plantations where their families were held hostage?" I responded. "What qualifies you to make these claims?"

"Hold tight," Tim wrote. "I'll send over some links. And Watkins, be careful with this information I'm about to give you, this ain't for the weak-hearted."

I know this is a wild and crazy idea — and I realize I already violated it by telling Tim what I thought about his absurd theory — but I truly believe everyone should consider trying this very simple practice: You don't have to give your opinion online. We could all try shutting up more often and keeping our two cents to ourselves.

Watch a big news story that explains a topic you truly know nothing about? Agree or disagree with how that story was presented, and its conclusion? Look away from your phone. And if you can't, at least look away from your texting apps. Look away from your social media accounts. Do not touch the keys. Look away from your desktop or laptop, look away from the guy next to you at the bar, look away from the woman sitting alone in the airport, look away from your kids, even. And as you are looking away, do us all a big favor and pack up that rickety soapbox you might be tempted to climb upon to offer some corner store commentary and instead, please, keep it to yourself.

Social media, mobile phones, algorithms that elevate debunked garbage theories, the 24-hour news cycle, 80 billion podcasts and countless think pieces written by people who don't think, this digital ecosystem encourages too many self-proclaimed geniuses and meme-educated amateurs who think Googling is research to give into a burning urge to share their opinions on any and every topic, regardless of whether they are qualified to do so.

A clear example of the need to stay in one's own lane came a few weeks ago from comedian and podcast host Joe Rogan, when he downplayed the need for the COVID-19 vaccine, claiming, "If you're a healthy person, and you're exercising all the time, and you're young, and you're eating well ... like, I don't think you need to worry about this." Of course nothing in Rogan's bio indicates anything about him studying immunology, virology, or any kind of medicine. After the backlash, Rogan backpedaled. "I'm not a doctor, I'm a f**king moron," he said later. "I'm not a respected source of information, even for me."

But I don't blame Rogan for jumping out there with his bogus vaccine statement in the first place. He's a comedian and that's what comedians do. They get paid to make jokes and shouldn't be taken seriously, even when they're on their own podcast trying to be taken seriously.

Rogan has a substantial platform –– millions of people follow his podcast and his social media accounts where they are exposed to his commentary. And in today's world, the products of digital celebrity — follower counts and engagement levels — equal currency. An abundance of currency. Everyday people with platforms who never had any interest in medicine or science until we found ourselves in a pandemic suddenly found their words and opinions holding as much weight with the public as doctors who have dedicated their lives and careers to studying medicine. Pseudo-experts compete with experts now — not because of earned authority, but based solely on their ability to attract likes to their posts, even if their accounts are largely focused on unrelated matters like cats, fashion, fitness or half-naked photos of themselves or others. Because it doesn't matter where or how you built your platform; your followers just have to be real people, and you need a lot of them. Build that army of followers out to 100,000 or more and you too can identify as an expert on whatever you like. You can be more relevant than Dr. Fauci.

I want to be clear: I do believe in the First Amendment. People should be legally allowed to speak their minds and state their feelings. However, like owning a firearm, raising a child, operating heavy machinery, or driving a car, we should understand that the privilege of doing so comes with great responsibility. Words can and do hurt others. Fake news and fake history is divisive and harmful.

I also know I'm writing commentary right now. I offer my opinion for a living, which sounds pretentious, but I take it seriously, bringing my life experience — all of my trials and errors — and my research into my work. And as a rule, I don't speak on what I don't know. For example: the other day I got a message from a former student telling me that he had been discriminated against in a hospital because of his skin color. I did not give him spiritual advice. I did not tell him to organize a BLM protest. And I didn't tell him that he had a $1 million lawsuit on his hands. I simply told him, "I know this is rare and strange, but I do not understand your situation, and I do not have the skill set to instruct you. Please contact a lawyer or a person who specializes in discrimination. I wish you the best." It is very simple to walk away from things we do not understand. It is easy to avoid being reckless in our reactions. I think and interview and study before I put words to page or open a social media app.

Back to my old friend Tim. After sending me his dangerous links that are not for the weak-hearted, I saw yet another outrageous social media post of his. This time he wrote about the pandemic.

"COVID is not real! And you people wearing those dumb ass masks and taking that poisonous vaccine are lost sheep!" Tim posted, ignoring the record number of hospitalizations and the more than half a million Americans who have lost their lives.

I thought back to the Tim I knew in tenth grade — a chubby, lovable, shy kid who sat at the end of my lunch table eating school-issued mashed potatoes, who never really said anything unless he was complimenting me or one of the other kids on our Air Jordans. I remember him getting punched in the mouth and not fighting back. I remember him dating a girl whose face he had airbrushed onto a t-shirt he wore religiously. I remember him always laughing, but never really contributing to our jokes. Was he shy, or was he dreaming up conspiracy theories even back then? Was he in history class with us thinking Frederick Douglass was some made-up folk hero played by Morgan Freeman, or that Harriet Jacobs was just a novel character dreamed up for our delight? I never heard him debate anything in class, on the basketball court, or even when our classes had our best arguments on days when teachers were absent, leaving a substitute to fill in. I never really knew what he thought about anything until I joined Facebook. I friended him and was greeted by a long rant he penned claiming Beethoven, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Bruce Lee, every Native American, and a few people I can't remember, were all unarguably, 100 percent Black.

The explosion of Facebook must have birthed the monster in Tim. His false history lessons began getting more shares and likes over the years, to the point where he built up a small platform of over 1,000 followers. He started dressing differently, wearing headwraps, multi-colored dashikis and long wooden necklaces with heavy ankhs dangling from the end. Along with this new platform and image came a confidence he never really showed when we were young, and now like a Joe Rogan in miniature he has an incentive to issue hot takes on everything from Obama being a clone with a fake birth certificate to the microchips Bill Gates is planting in all of us by way of the coronavirus vaccine.

Right now, a platform is a currency more valuable than Bitcoin, and the stage has been set for anyone to cash in on bad opinions, dreamed-up medical advice, and fabricated history. I'm not picking on Tim or even taking shots at Joe Rogan. But 2016 should have been the breaking point for all of us, and yet this behavior persists. A 2018 Ohio State University study showed that fake news spread on Facebook helped elect Donald Trump — a racist, sexist, classist windbag who downplayed COVID-19 for political capital, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths in the process.

Here are the false stories, along with the percentages of Obama supporters who believed they were at least "probably" true (in parenthesis):
1. Clinton was in "very poor health due to a serious illness" (12 percent)
2. Pope Francis endorsed Trump (8 percent)
3. Clinton approved weapons sales to Islamic jihadists, "including ISIS" (20 percent)
Overall about one-quarter of 2012 Obama voters believed at least one of these stories, and of that group 45 percent voted for Clinton. Of those who believed none of the fake news stories, 89 percent voted for Clinton.

Trump — another self-proclaimed expert, gassed by his own opinions and made-up theories — actually raised the money to further back up his BS and rode a wave of privilege and lies all the way to the White House. The time this guy got on TV and speculated about whether you could kill the coronavirus by injecting yourself with bleach wasn't even the wildest claim he made in his presidency. Trump lowered the bar so much that I'm afraid now that any BS artist with a sizable platform can become the leader of the alleged free world. Is Joe Rogan next? Tim? A person like Tim is not harmless just because his platform is smaller than Rogan's or Trump's (before he was banned from mainstream social platforms). Small pockets of people are listening to him. They're liking his comments, reposting his memes, and helping his platform grow. They understand that platform is currency and will try to do the same for themselves so they can cash in, too.

We need a better educated and more media-literate public to balance the effects of the unchecked platform. In the meantime, what I can do is check myself and make sure I'm not giving commentary on every topic imaginable, especially on public forums. It is tempting. I have a platform, too. Sometimes I'm guilty of the same things I'm criticizing Tim and Rogan for. Opinions are fine on occasion or when requested. But like everything else they should be doled out in moderation. At the end of the day, minding your business is really not that hard.

I sent Tim a message telling him that I had checked out those YouTube links he sent me. Like an idiot, I clicked the first one, which sent me down a rabbit hole of conspiracy videos packaged so well I began to understand why so many people believe that crap. But I couldn't resist poking holes in his theories.

"I still got respect for you brother," he responded. "But you are brainwashed." Then he unfollowed me.

America is not on trial -- Derek Chauvin is

George Floyd's accused killer, Derek Chauvin, is on trial and I can't turn away.

Since the video showing the kneeling on the neck of a 46-year-old unarmed Black father, who then died, by a police officer with a history of fatal force went viral, so did their names, sparking one of the biggest social justice movements in global history. So yes, Derek Chauvin's trial, which is set to conclude early next week, will be televised.

This article first appeared in Salon.

TV both creates and feeds our obsession with viral murder trials. We can't fault the networks for it, because so many of us refuse to turn away, just as we will stop and watch wild fights that break out in supermarkets, slow down on the beltway to gaze at flipped-over cars, and stand outside of burning buildings that have nothing to do with us. We are hooked on other people's trauma. We are thirsty for it and can't wait to drink as much as possible.

The trial has been playing on every device and TV in my house since it began in late March. As I watch, I wonder how many people I grew up with are cheering for the prosecutor, the one profession (next to cops and meter readers) we normally despise. I grow angry when the defense speaks, when Chauvin's name is mentioned, when Chauvin looks up, when he scribbles into his yellow legal pad. And then that video, over and over again, references to it, clips and screenshots, makes me even more angry. And yet I binge this trauma.

I told myself to look away, because nothing good can come from watching this. I've watched trials on TV before: George Zimmerman, the wannabe cop and armed neighborhood watchman who followed and killed Trayvon Martin, an innocent unarmed 17-year-old child, after real members of law enforcement told him to leave the teenager alone. And of course, despite overwhelming evidence, Zimmerman went free. These trials incite a visceral rage in me. Obviously guilty people get to sit on TV and play innocent while demonizing those they killed — the Mike Browns, the Trayvons, the Freddie Grays, the real victims who never got their day in court because their lives were snatched away. It is heart-shattering. Why should I watch a trial knowing that these people — often cops — too often will go free? It's like begging for punishment. But I guess I crave the pain, because I can't turn away.

I know everybody in America is entitled to a fair trial. But trials for Black people never seem fair. Chauvin is accused of killing an unarmed man on camera in one of the most harsh ways I have ever seen. So civilians like me, many of whom have sat in courtrooms before, will never truly understand why this trial experience seems a bit elaborate. Does Chauvin deserve to be heard? I think we all heard him loud and clear when he slid his hands into his pockets after resting his knee along with all of his body weight on George Floyd's neck as Floyd called out for his late mom, face pressed against the warm concrete. What else can be said?

I try to look away, but that means I also can't watch the news because the trial or commentary about it is on every channel. I check in on my wife who is working from home in the next room, and she's streaming the trial during every break that she gets. All of my friends are posting about the trial on social media and every group chat on my phone. Even when I try I can't escape it. It's a weak excuse, I know, but still, it's just enough to make me give in and watch.

One thing I do appreciate about the Derek Chauvin trial is that people are actually calling it "The Derek Chauvin Trial." This is not "The George Floyd Trial." Floyd did not get a trial because he died before he could have his day in court. Remembering that, repeating that, and reminding people of that is extremely important. Years back, when Michael Brown and Freddie Gray were killed, I remember being frustrated not just at the sight of their killers, but with how the public referenced the trial as if the victims were the subjects facing charges, not the killers. All heard was, "What's up with the Freddie Gray case? Any updates on the Freddie Gray case?" The names of his killers: Caesar R. Goodson Jr., Garrett E. Miller, Edward M. Nero, William G. Porter, Brian W. Rice and Alicia D. White should have been incorporated into the narrative and actively used because they were the suspects on trial. Defense attorneys in all of those cases wanted to frame the trials around the victims instead, digging through through their pasts in the most racist ways possible, wanting to justify their deaths. They are trying this with Floyd as well.

What I don't appreciate is how some cable news outlets and pundits are pushing this idea that "America is on trial" right now. America is not on trial. Derek Chauvin is on trial. Chauvin's indictment has not changed the standard procedures of police in America. We see this with the new body camera footage released that shows how Officers Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker treated Lt. Caron Nazario in Virginia, pulling him over and pepper spraying him even though he was in uniform and following their orders. (That really doesn't matter in America.) About 10 miles away from where Chauvin is being tried, 26-year police veteran Kim Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old unarmed Black man, and the department claims she mistook her gun for her taser, which is the dumbest excuse I have ever heard. It's like these people don't even care to try harder in their own defense. It's like they know they don't have to.

Add those brutalities to the scores of cases that don't go viral, and that's our system. If Derek Chauvin is convicted, it will not erase hundreds of years of enslavement, oppression and racism dumped on Black people of the past, present, and babies who aren't even born yet. Unborn Black children in America will be guaranteed to feel the effects of racism. It is a traditional part of the Black American experience. Would I be happy if Chauvin is convicted? Absolutely. Will I feel like equality will finally be granted to Black people in America as a result? Absolutely not.

A Chauvin conviction would be a good thing for Floyd's family because that is what justice means to them. But it will probably not apply pressure to the many reckless officers policing poor communities of color without care. If convicted, Chauvin will not be the first cop to serve time. Cops know they can go to jail for killing unarmed Black people. Sometimes it does happen. And yet they still do it.

So what could a Chauvin conviction mean to our country as a whole?

I image it could have an Obama effect: The kind of result that will allow people of privilege to assume, falsely, that a particular manifestation of racism has been vanquished. This has happened to me at so many functions, and events I've keynoted, over the past five years. I'll give a talk about racism in America and what it is like and how we survive and sometimes thrive. Then some white dude with glasses and flannel will make his way to the microphone for questions, and he'll scratch his head, thank me for coming out to the event, and say something that boils down to, "We elected a Black president, so racism is over, right?" As if I didn't just spend the previous hour going into detail about how racism remains America's number one cash crop. As if I haven't traveled the world, taught and spoke and vacationed in all kinds of places, and encountered people who don't speak a word of English, but strangely, somehow, everyone knows what the N-word means.

America is not on trial. Derek Chauvin is on trial. We need the larger conversation to be about meaningful police reform, accountability, community investment and police defunding — topics that many people in power run from. It's easy for me to say "defund the police," I suppose. I don't call the cops, even when something bad happens. I don't expect them to care about me, and they have proven it time and time again. My taxes do pay their salaries, but they don't work for me.

But since we can't collectively acknowledge that policing in America is a failed system that doesn't deserve its power over us, then I will leave with one question: If we are in the age of cancel culture, living in the so-called wokest climate of American history, why does it take so much to convict an agent of an institution that executes and arrests a disproportionate number of Black and brown people every year?

Answering it honestly would be a first step in putting America on trial. I don't expect to see that happen any time soon. Meanwhile, I will continue watching to see if Derek Chauvin is convicted. This is what we get for now.

Sick of being stuck at home -- but ready to go back into the world?

After a full year of coronavirus pandemic stay-at-home life, all of it — face masks, social distancing, constant anxiety, Zoom calls, and COVID-19 itself as a potentially lethal disease — may finally be coming to an end thanks to vaccine programs growing across the country.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Some of my anti-medicine friends who were initially nervous about being vaccinated have been watching the news, seeing that essential workers are good after having their shots, with little to no side effects, and now even they feel more confident and willing to take their shot with a shot. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine only requires one dose and doesn't have to be stored in freezers, which will make it easier to get folks in for a one and done shot.

This is a real turning point. Outside may be opening up soon.

The threat of COVID kept us indoors for most of the year, but even then we weren't all safe. Three of my friends — Egan, Dante Barksdale and Dro — were murdered in the last year. Two of them were victims of gun violence. The last thing I expected during a pandemic was to lose friends that way, but it happened. And I am powerless. Normally, when deaths occur in my city, we link up, decorate the place where the incident occurred, attend vigils, throw block parties, take food to the victim's family and then all spill over to a bar for fellowship, sharing the stories of our fallen brothers and sisters. Connection has long been our only tool for coping. COVID stole that, and we were forced to mourn alone before masking up to hit the church to get a glimpse of body now while gatherings are prohibited and funerals have been dramatically reduced in size, or canceled altogether. Mourning alone creates a different type of pain, one that I'm sure I'll have to face in the future.

Despite the deadly impact this virus has had on the world, and the loss of those friends while the pandemic raged around us, this year has also been magical for me. Transformative, even. My daughter was born a month or so before we reached pandemic status­­. Being forced to be at home, just the three of us, for all of that time means my wife and I have had the luxury of witnessing and capturing all of her first moments. Her first giggle. Her first wet tears. Her first bath. The first time she rolled over. All of it is stored in our camera rolls. We captured her eating solid foods for the first time, first rice cereal cut with breast milk and then, when she advanced to smashed vegetables, we were there for that too. The first time she sat up on her own, the first time she held her bottle, played peek-a-boo, laughed so loud it sounded like screams. We saw her identify her nose, my nose, my wife's nose and ears, and then we captured her standing up. We saw the first time she crawled, the first time she fed herself, the first steps she took. We saw it all and filmed it all. We could literally make a 200-hour-long documentary on her young life. I wouldn't trade having this time with her for anything in the world. But I am sick of being in the house.

We've been on lockdown for so long we've entered a strange place where people will shame others for not wanting to be in the house anymore, let alone not accomplishing enough during the pandemic. They're the most responsible, they cook the most French meals, practice yoga six times a day, which causes them to lose 38 pounds (and yet they're also the most spiritual), and they're double-masking even when they're all alone, because nobody is handling this stay-at-home pandemic life better than they are. But this is not normal life. And I'm OK with acknowledging that.

I hate this. Before the pandemic, it was so easy to find antibacterial wipes and spray and hand sanitizer. We had boatloads of that stuff because nobody washed their hands or sanitized anything except me, it seemed. But I'm sick of wiping stuff down while my wife and daughter look over my shoulder. And yes, I'm sick of being in the house. My wife is sick of being in the house. And if my daughter could talk, I imagine she'd say she is, too.

We aren't at the finish line yet, but we can see it in the distance. Herd immunity, whatever that means, is coming. My daughter will finally learn there are more than two other people in the world, because we're going everywhere when the pandemic ends.

Everywhere.

Cocktails with David Duke and Little Rudy Giuliani at the bar where Candace Owens does karaoke? Text me the address. If Trump starts having campaign rallies again, even if he's not running? We're pulling up with our tiki torches and pressed khakis.

If there's an Airbnb on Elm Street to book, we're sleeping over. If my wife wants a romantic hiking trip to Camp Crystal Lake, I'm booking their best cabin. Celebrate Halloween in Haddonfield? Trick or treat. Groupon could sell me a luxury stay at the Bates Motel right now — I'd pack my fancy robe and extra champagne.

We're going anywhere and everywhere. Diversity rallies with that white family from "Get Out." Dinner parties at Hannibal Lechter's house. I don't care what it is or where. We're going.

Or at least I think we are. Because honestly, I don't really know. I'm going to have to re-adjust to going out the same way I had to adjust a year ago to staying inside all the time.

This deadly virus has quickly claimed more than 500,000 lives in the U.S. and I think about that number every time I leave the house. I put on my two masks, drench my hands in sanitizer to the point where it burns inside of my fingernails, fill the console of my car with more masks, more gloves, more sanitizer. Every time I see a person talking or coughing or sipping their drink­­, it freaks me out. I never really liked hugs, but now I don't even shake hands. I'm not comfortable around people anymore. I feel like contact with anybody could make me or my family sick. How can I get back to hanging out and having a good time without thinking about shortness of breath, loss of taste and excruciating headaches?

Recently I attended a small celebration for a friend who received a huge promotion at work — the kind of promotion that guys like us don't normally get. This was such big news that even I left the safety of my home to come celebrate. There were ten of us, and even though I was the only one who stayed in the corner with three masks on, barely able to breathe, I enjoyed myself. I had missed this. It felt good to laugh, to talk trash through my layered N-95s, to enjoy fellowship with friends I hadn't seen for a year. But once the eleventh person walked in the door, I stopped being comfortable and had to leave.

How long will I feel like this? Will I be that weirdo still wearing a mask years after this ends, waiting for Nike to start making matching hazmat suits? Will I have any skin left on my hands from the excessive washing and sanitizing? Will I keep wearing gloves and keep 12 feet of distance between me and everybody except my wife and baby, constantly whipping out my phone to Google Dr. Fauci's latest news, scanning his Instagram and Twitter for updates? (Is he on Pinterest, or Black Planet?) Will I still avoid events and parties with more than ten people, or will I be able to readjust?

I think about this a lot, too: How will the people who lost family members to COVID readjust? Death is normal — it will happen to us all — but it shouldn't have happened like this, so suddenly to so many, in such a short timeline.

What we shouldn't re-adjust to is a society that fails to save lives because of poor leadership, systemic poverty, and science denial. Collectively, we are going to have to figure out what life after COVID should be, and the small roles we can all play in making sure it never goes down like this again. We can start by not rushing back into normal life without taking all of the still-necessary precautions just because we're sick of being in the house. We still need to wash our hands, wear our masks, and get vaccinated as soon as we can.

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