On any given morning, my seven-year-old daughter achieves peak noisemaking before daybreak.
She asks me to join her in her overloud activities as my partner stares intently—a look acknowledging my effort while also indicating that I’m failing to match her buy-in as a parent. I’ll never pretend to have sacrificed more than she has, but my day-to-day contributions of breakfast-making and play-acting as the big-spending customer at all sorts of imaginary “stores” are master classes in childcare. By midmorning, my partner is off saving the world, and I’m left to make pitch decks and write press releases amid the refrain of ear-splitting requests my seven-year-old deems critical in the moment: ice cream and Trolli Sour Brite Crawlers for breakfast, Solange-inspired karaoke rollerblading along the hardwood floors, cries for a multicolored unicorn named “Corny” from the real Santa for Christmas. I learn her encyclopedic knowledge of medical diagnoses whenever I ask her to complete a homework assignment.
Yet on the morning of May 26, 2020, her voice fell silent.
An amateur video surfaced that had her rapt at the edge of my bed with her head tilted to the left and her eyes wide. Like countless others, I was made aware of George Floyd’s murder the day prior and was doing my best to avoid watching Darnella Frazier’s heroic footage. Having suffered through countless viewings of similar atrocities over the years—in person and on screen—I was in no mood to carry the weight of a bigoted cop taking another Black life without recourse. Weeks earlier, I’d avoided footage of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, recalling the sulk of lumbering from a college classroom to my first internship with Amadou Diallou, Malcolm Ferguson, and Patrick Dorismond fresh on my heart and mind. On this day, I dreaded my first month at a new workplace nearly 20 years later and the task of pretending to be okay. The likelihood that I would fail—and fail miserably—was exacerbated by the realization that I’d be feigning placidity in front of my new team at a predominantly white regional theatre already grappling with its role as willful bystanders to America’s systemic assault on Black lives.
And yet my daughter couldn’t pry her eyes from the newscast, and I joined her in watching the big screen, which made Big Floyd’s agonizing pleas feel as large as the life being lost, and his killer smaller than the knee he callously pressed against Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. Before I could question whether she understood what was happening, she shot me a look that confirmed my suspicion.
Curious, her almost teary eyes added weight to her asking, “Is this real?” I couldn’t answer fast enough—or at all. “Dad,” she pushed, tapping my leg double-quick, glancing at the screen, and then back at me, “is this real or a movie?” Well, it’s both, I thought but couldn’t answer. And so I sat up and held her as tightly as I knew how without saying a word. Normally she would fight me on this, but that day was different. Her letting me hold her so tight indicated an understanding of why it was necessary and who needed it most. She wanted to protect me. As I moved to release her, she gripped me tightly and whispered: “I don’t want anything to happen to you. I don’t want you to die, okay?”
I was wrecked by the thought.
Moments later I had taken her place on the bed. There I was replaying the video a seventh time, knowing that my upcoming Zoom call would be an all-staff meeting where the pretending would commence. I didn’t want to talk about it—any of “it”—but my daughter’s words clanged inside my ears, urging me to repeat them aloud. By the time I found the strength to speak, I repeated her words: “Don’t” and “die” fell from my lips and I promised her that I wouldn’t. It’s a promise I’m struggling to keep in a world that is ambivalent about my right to live.
With the backdrop of this newfound pain—and the soundscape of calls to abolish unjust and unbound policing across the country—my new employer tasked me with leading their affirmation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Much like authoring the statement suspending their season of theatre productions due to a novel virus that would expose the disparities communities of color experience in economic and health infrastructure compared to their white counterparts—or a response to demands by a bold collective to redress the institutionalized racism of American theatre—I felt both uniquely qualified to speak and painfully unprepared to carry the burden.
I started and stopped. All the grief of isolation as the virus ravaged families and unearthed masked and unmasked factions welled up in my eyes as I fought back the torrent of emotion. As demonstrators rejected the sanctioned quarantine and locked arms to call for an end to America’s unending love story with racism, I felt my forehead tense with a fear that it was all for show.
I wanted to believe that the unsettling dystopian reality of 2020 had transformed into a panorama of mutual understanding, where descendants of slavery locked arms with wide-eyed white allies to chant “Black lives matter.” As it became commonplace for privileged inaction to be called out as cowardice, I wanted to believe change was on the horizon. I struggled to conceive it as the weaponization of privilege against Black men entering a downtown St. Louis loft after a late night at work or birding in Central Park’s 38-acre Ramble became fireable offenses. Yet I’m not a man who could believe something just because I wished it were so. Not when the reality was captured in painful resolution again and again. And that reality was that Black lives still didn’t matter nearly as much as they should. The documents of hatred against those who look like me replayed in my head and made me dismiss the moments of positive change as mere moments.
Months after receiving my daughter’s protection, together with her urging that I “live,” the intensity of the protesting has tamped down. My formative years were bookended by vicious assaults on Rodney King in 1991 and Abner Louima in 1997. Both instances fueled protests loudly calling for an end to racism that likewise quickly dissolved. I blame years of observing the ebb and flow of shouting turned silent as my excuse for being numb. I wish it were different, because change finally feels attainable, with so many outwardly willing to right the course.
But I have my doubts.
Black and Latinx communities being disproportionately ravaged by COVID-19 is a reminder of the gravity of inequality and the enormity of the change that’s required. I’m cognizant that our political system is composed of parties that used to be separated by differences on interpretations of the Constitution and the strength of the federal government; now their values feel transactional as they offer vastly different interpretations of equality in exchange for power. One of these parties is struggling to determine the length of America’s attention span for addressing racism, while the other is openly dealing in hatred.
This is America. My America. A country that loudly protests racism while enforcing it, and objects to mask-wearing in the midst of a global pandemic spread by respiratory droplets. America does this, all of this, simultaneously. Broadcasting its fleeting capacity to love while ceaselessly defending landmarks commemorating hate. We do this, as proud Americans, in unison.
We are inhabitants of a wealthy nation-state that rejects universal healthcare as Red Scare Communism, even as over a trillion dollars per fiscal year are expended in workers’ compensation, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, pensions, Veteran’s benefits, temporary disability insurance, unemployment insurance, supplemental security income, private social welfare expenditures, and many other social safety nets. A prejudicial stance uses coded language to purport that reducing its largest federal budget item is not influenced by race. Much as America was slow to respond to an AIDS epidemic it labeled a “gay plague,” initial responses to the pandemic signaled that, once again, America isn’t too keen to stop a scourge that is killing its Black and brown communities first. America doesn’t provide basic healthcare to all its citizens because it can’t quite commit to the fact that their lives matter. If nothing else, America is expert in sales, selling its bootstraps mentality to the very people it keeps barefoot.
The volume of protesting goes up as the racial climate changes—and as video evidence of blue-on-Black hate crimes are made available. These recurrent heatwaves are only cause for concern for those who believe change is possible: that America is capable of seeing race as a social construct with a sordid history, not a monolithic determination of how groups of people are to be sorted and given or denied their due. Whatever your beliefs on whether my life matters as much as yours, my daughter would prefer that I’m around for years to come.
I prefer noisier days. The energy of communities of all sorts uniting to demand equal treatment for all is the truest sound of America. The communal roar of likeminded rebels is how it all started. Voicing our calls for freedom is just as constitutional as acknowledging that we’ve all been created equal. Yet many of us still feel that we’re counted as three-fifths of a whole. Unalike. Unequal. Un-American.
One day soon, I sincerely hope that everything gets loud enough to make a real difference. For now, my daughter is resigned to join me on all my morning walks. To ensure that I’m safe.
King Kenney (he/him) is a writer, lecturer, cause marketing strategist, and director of marketing and communications at Long Wharf Theatre.
Support American Theatre: a just and thriving theatre ecology begins with information for all. Please join us in this mission by making a donation to our publisher, Theatre Communications Group. When you support American Theatre magazine and TCG, you support a long legacy of quality nonprofit arts journalism. Click here to make your fully tax-deductible donation today!