Submitted to the AFRO by Dr. Kaye Wise Whitehead
For the past five months. I have spent my days driving around and visiting the Black Butterfly neighborhoods of Baltimore City. I visited the schools, the corner and liquor stores, and the churches. I rode the bus through the neighborhoods, listened in on some conversations, and talked to some of the residents. There were days when I was overwhelmed by the feelings of despair, the rows of boarded up houses, and the ever-growing piles of trash. There were days when I walked on some blocks and it felt like time had stood still. The streets looked abandoned. The houses looked old almost as if the world had moved on and had forgotten that they existed. On my third week of walking around, an elderly woman, who reminded me of my grandmother, wanted to know what I was doing and why I kept showing up. She wanted to know if I was cop or if I was lost. I fumbled around for an answer because how do you tell someone that you are walking through their neighborhood so that you could bear witness to their suffering. I tried to explain that I was the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” and that I wrote for the AFRO and that I wanted to document what was happening in our city. I knew that I was rambling and that I probably sounded like an outsider or an interloper, but I wanted her to understand why I was there and why I had to document what I saw. I also wanted her to understand why I kept coming back. She looked at me, long and hard, and then, as she turned to walk away, she said, “Dr. Kaye, we’re invisible to them. They don’t see us. They don’t hear us. They don’t care about us. You tell them that we’re not invisible. Tell them that we matter.”
I thought about Miss Janet and about what she said every time I walked through her neighborhood. I used to look for her because I wanted her to know that I heard her. I wanted her to know that I saw her. I wanted her to know that she was not invisible to me. I have written this letter to her a dozen times in my mind, trying so hard to put words down on paper, especially on the days when I read about the increasing neighborhood violence, or walked past another sidewalk vigil with candles and teddy bears and handwritten notes. I tried to write something on the day when I walked into one of the schools and saw the bars on the windows, the trash in the hallways, and our children, sitting in overcrowded classrooms trying to learn. I wanted to share her message with them, to let them know that they are not invisible and that their lives and their futures do matter. I wanted to do that to speak some truth into the void, to fill the pockets of pain with her words of hope.
I understand Black invisibility in a city where politicians argue about policies and theories while their most vulnerable residents suffer in silence. I understand Black suffering and the reality of life in the Black Butterfly versus life in the White L. I understand this the system is designed to keep certain communities impoverished, thriving on its suffering and breeding on its pain. I understand that when you live in the Black Butterfly, you are living in a conflict zone within a stressful environment that causes severe, prolonged trauma. I understand all this, intellectually, but emotionally, it makes no sense to me. I visited these neighborhoods, met some of the residents and listened to their stories, and there were days when the pain was so real to me that I experienced trauma. There were days when I got home, sat in a chair in my living room, and cried. Those were the days when it took me a few hours to decompress, breathing slowing and talking myself through my pain. I can only imagine what it must be like if you are unable to leave.
What do you do when you realize that the most dangerous place that you can imagine is a place that some people call home? What do you tell people when you know that they cannot afford to move and they cannot imagine another way forward? When you listen to their stories of pain and sorrow, what can you say to offer some type of solace? How do you deal with the everyday reality that comes from knowing that there are people living in the Black Butterfly and dealing with Black invisibility and Black suffering? I believe that you send up an emergency flare; you put a note into a bottle and toss it into the water; you find a place and speak their pain into the wind; you disrupt life and yell out their truth with every breath that you have; and, you tell everyone you know, everyone you see, that they are not invisible and that they do matter. And when you are finished, you find the strength within yourself, to do it all over again.
Karsonya Wise Whitehead is the #blackmommyactivist and an associate professor of communication and African and African American studies at Loyola University Maryland. She is the host of “Today With Dr. Kaye” on WEAA 88.9 FM and the author of the forthcoming “Dispatches from Baltimore: The Birth of the Black Mommy Activist.” She lives in Baltimore City with her husband and their two sons.
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