We take tremendous pride with who is on the CYTIES team, and couldn’t be more inspired by our top field agent in D.C., Andrew Williams. He’s captivated us with all things coffee, cocktails, and style, but right now in the most vital way, he’s here to talk about being a black man in America.
FACING MY OWN BLACKNESS
At this moment, nothing feels more purposeful than these words on this page. I owe that to George Floyd (and Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Trayvon Martin) —to not let my attention, energy, or constructive anger wane with time.
The extinguishing of another Black life is like turning a knife in a wounded heart. It’s re-traumatizing for so many of us. Yet, I’m finding a way to heal and channel my hurt into action. As a Black man, I feel compelled (through my writing) to voice my pain and move others to do the same. I didn’t always feel this way.
I’ve had a complicated journey to this moment; It wasn’t until adulthood that I really began grappling with a terrifying truth: being Black represents an imminent danger to my life.
Before There was Trayvon, There Was Tyron
Growing up in St. Petersburg, Florida, I have vague memories of the 1996 riots, sparked in response to the death of an unarmed black man at the hands of police—Tyron Lewis— that flooded the streets of my community with unrest. A furniture store burned, gunshots rang out and our city attracted national attention. To a young boy, violent recourse felt obscure and futile. Destroying your own community (no matter the provocation) felt counterproductive to the cause.
Today, I’ve come to a similar, yet more nuanced perspective, one that Dr. King pronounced: “violence is the voice of the unheard.” Racism has held its knee on our “necks” since we won our freedom, and we’ve been gasping for air, to be heard, ever since. Every time we have a (often fleeting) platform, pinned up intensity asserts itself as a roar—marching, arson, and vandalism become microphones to protest racism.
One of the Lucky Ones
I wish I had the same clarity then as I do now. I was a quiet and respectful kid, who intuitively avoided trouble. My encounters with law enforcement were rare; seeds of distrust were never sown. Time is an opportunistic teacher. Youth is no excuse for ignorance, but the true nature of the world is often revealed through, well, time.
In many ways, the unusual trajectory of my life protected me from reality. After elementary school, my mom enrolled me in an experimental middle school, Academy Prep, offering free private education to young Black boys. That opened the door to my admission into a prestigious, co-educational boarding school in Delaware—St. Andrew’s School. I had a wanderlust to indulge and she knew the farther away from home I was, the more enriched my life would be (and the safer I would be).
With the wind at my back, I never felt my Blackness holding me back. Having unconstrained access to opportunity made it harder to see entrenched injustice and inequity. I was lucky. But, there was something restless inside me.
Boarding school abruptly exposed me to wealth and privilege and their relationship to Whiteness—skin tone was currency and I immediately became a social chameleon. I wanted, desperately, to feel as comfortable in my skin as my white classmates, but I also wanted to be cool with the Black kids. I never felt I fully belonged to either group.
St. Andrew’s championed diversity and didn’t shy away from difficult conversations, but was also a bubble. The supportive school community was “woke” but there, you can’t simulate the mundane situations (like driving down the street, going to the store, or running 2.23 miles) that endanger Black men—being in the wrong place at the wrong time could be a death sentence.
In high school, my activism came in spurts. During my Sophomore year, I applied for and attended a diversity leadership conference for young people in Providence and led an on-campus workshop about my learnings. It connected me more to my own power, but something was holding me back. I couldn’t commit, with all my soul, to that moment.
It’s the same sentiment that prevented me from being more active or introspective in college. I had gotten far enough without questioning the depth of my Blackness. Meanwhile, the brutalization of Black bodies didn’t stop.
Awakening The Other
My awakening finally came. As an American Studies major, I learned about the “other” and its preservation of racial hegemony and penned a senior thesis with underpinnings of the commodification of Black bodies. I traced the practice from American slavery, through the integration of American sports and found its residual present-day manifestations in the diverging portrayals of Black and White quarterbacks in commercials (a layered subject for another day). I titled it The Myth of the Black Quarterback. There was a hierarchy of human worth that played out right before our eyes. That was a turning point. As Kanye sang: “Racism’s still alive, they just be concealin’ it.”
The backdrop of my college graduation, the election of a Black president in 2008 (or his comprehensive speech about race in America), made little progress in quelling generational racism. I watched as an intelligent, thoughtful, and accomplished Black man balanced raising a Black family while leading a divided nation. He spoke passionately about progress, appealing to our better angels and racial healing. But, he was also an existential threat to the continuation of White superiority. Because we are always a threat.
I spent my first three years as a professional working for a social justice organization. I was introduced to the school-to-prison pipeline (the disproportionate and overly punitive disciplining of young black and brown students, funneling them into the juvenile justice system), voter suppression in Black communities, and the effort to permanently disenfranchise former felons (calculated attacks on one of our most basic rights, the right to vote). I started to connect the dots. Racism had built-in fail-safes. Its tentacles had infiltrated every institution and was hell-bent on stripping Black people of their voice and humanity. If it didn’t get us early, it damn sure would later: through silencing us, locking us up (either physically or psychologically) or killing us. It was clear: death is inevitable, but living or dying with dignity is not promised to everyone.
In recent years, through diversity, equity, and inclusion training, I’ve also come to even more deeply understand the ways systemic racism has persisted, from the earliest days of our country’s founding, through every stage of its evolution. It’s stitched into the fabric of America and unraveling it will take a multi-generational, multicultural coalition fighting until there is no “other,” until there’s just us.
Collective Outcry of Emotion
Today, the lens through which I view the world (through the eyes of a Black man), provides me a more vivid picture. I see and feel moments much differently now, because my awareness of how I’m perceived, everywhere I go, is heightened. There’s a presumption that I’m a threat, that I have a latent proclivity to violence. And so, implicit bias and injustice persist. My anger has grown, but I work to not let it simmer without an outlet. We all need an outlet. This moment is our collective outcrying of emotion.
We need a diverse movement in the streets marching, shouting, and screaming (if necessary). We also need Black writers creating thought-provoking content, Black creatives stretching our imaginations, Black leaders leading and others pursuing leadership, Black citizens voting, Black communities flourishing and Black-owned businesses thriving. Because, Black lives matter. I still have mixed emotions about violent protests, but Dr. King’s words about ‘voices of the unheard’ (our voices) keep echoing in my mind—and I feel their pain.
For my part, I’ve found harmony and a feeling of belonging in the city I’ve called home for more than a decade, and in places I’ve seen as I’ve traveled the world. In Washington, DC, I’ve discovered kindred spirits of all races that lift me up. A sense of place grounds me. The bars, coffee shops, and other spaces I frequent are my sanctuaries. No city is without its shortcomings, but I’ve focused, through CYTIES, on lifting up the places I love and with which I feel connected.
George Floyd’s murder fractured but didn’t shattered what I believe in, which is hope and relationships, or what CYTIES believes in, which is that we belong to each other. The thread that holds CYTIES together is connection. Connection to vast open roads and where those roads lead us and bring us, intimately, together. Connection begins with humanity, and most urgently, respecting everyone’s humanity: equally.
This platform is nothing else, if not a catalyst (a furious spark), where I’ve always felt seen and heard. I’m committed to helping CYTIES relentlessly celebrate the spaces where we congregate. These are the shared spaces where we create, innovate, and inspire each other—I hope my journey inspires others to find their unique voices in this moment because they are needed more than ever.