You Good (8)?
The following is a blog post unapologetically detailing my experience as a black man living in Bloomington, Indiana during the 2020 pandemic and civil unrest.
I am just going to warn you right now that this post is not like my other posts. It touches some pretty heavy subject matter pieces like racial experience, mental health, grief, family and community violence, etc. The journey in this post was less about my career and more about myself and the world around me.
Everyone had a silent struggle in 2020–2021 and everything was intertwined: work, mental health, personal history, culture, relationships, and politics. Unfortunately, a lot of my career choices and decisions will not make any sense without the appropriate context. My personal growth won’t make sense unless I’m honest about a little bit of everything.
It was March 13th when we had our last day in the office. Kassidy had planned to have all of the office workers go to an arcade as a last hurrah before we were forced to be in our homes for the foreseeable future.
I didn’t go to the arcade though.
Early that Friday afternoon, I was reading about the symptoms of Covid-19: lack of smell, dry cough, sore throat, etc.
I panicked because I was experiencing some of those symptoms and went home early. It was probably just the common cold, but I was worried for the people around me.
I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I didn’t want anyone to die.
Around the time that we got sent home, I was re-reading a book by environmentalist Donella Meadows called Thinking in Systems.
In the book, Meadows talked about common systems concepts like elements, interconnections, feedback loops, and bottlenecks. One of the most relevant ideas for me that she discussed was the idea of exponential growth. After reading her book and given the speed at which the coronavirus was spreading, I had hypothesized early on that the stay-at-home order was not going to be a one- or two-month affair like some of my coworkers had hoped. It probably wasn’t even going to be a six-month affair. We were going to be in this for the long haul.
However, even when faced with this completely unexpected wrinkle, I didn’t feel all that scared — in fact, I felt prepared. My time in Idaho had indoctrinated me in the concept of grit and western spirit. I had also experienced long stints of isolation before from the two grueling experiences I spent unemployed.
This time around, I had a job, classes to complete, and a whole social network of people that I could communicate with digitally. I wasn’t going to let a pandemic mess up my opportunity. I would work hard, be accountable, and adapt to the circumstances. I would be someone who could show up for others, even when everyone else was faltering.
I’m not a very spiritual person, but I’m starting to believe that I have a daemon.
A daemon is like a guardian angel from Christianity, except instead it's a spirit from Ancient Greek religion that warns people of upcoming trouble and tries to keep them safe.
One night while working on homework, a strange thought popped into my head. It was strange because it didn’t feel like my thought, but rather like it originated from somewhere outside of myself.
“One of your parents is going to die.”
Chalking it up to pandemic anxiety, I didn’t think about it too much.
Roughly an hour later however, I received a phone call from my father asking me how I was managing the pandemic. We talked for a little bit about the state of the world, and he let me know that he was going to the veteran’s hospital for a checkup. He asked me if I needed money, and I told him that I didn’t. I didn’t want his money. I told him that I was a grown man, and that I had everything I needed to survive the world. I think he believed me.
When I ended the call, I thought to myself out loud:
“Oh. Shit. It's going to be Dad.”
I put my phone away, reopened my analytics homework on my computer, and that was that.
One week later, I received a call from my mother letting me know that my father had passed away. He had slipped in the bathroom of his suite at the veteran’s hospital. He smashed his head on the edge of the bathtub and died a short time after.
I don’t think that I was at all ready for the physical symptoms of grief.
Maybe an hour or so after hearing the news, you collapse into a ball — like a spider after you kill it — and yell and cry your eyes out for what seems like forever. It was probably an awkward listening experience for the guy who lived in the apartment next door. There’s also the unique feeling of drunken lightheadedness despite not having consumed any alcohol. However, I think that the worst part of it is the feeling of constant aching in all of your joints that goes on for months even after the initial loss.
The death of your parents also carries ramifications that instigate an immediate identity crisis. Amongst the numerous people that liked my Facebook post above, very few people understood that I did not like my father very much. Most of the ’10 Rules’ shown above were things he had spectacularly failed to embody within himself. I have a fear of hurting others, because my father had deeply hurt me and my mother in the past. I wanted to be accountable and show up for people, because my father had failed to show up for me — and especially my older sister. It was becoming clear to me that I wanted to be a good man, not out of love for others, but out of spite, resentment, and frustration for my father and other men I had to deal with growing up. I wanted to be better.
Regardless of whether you loved your parents, hated them, or exist somewhere in between, you begin to ask: Who am I? What am I doing this all for anyway? Where are all these feelings supposed to go? These questions have longstanding effects about who you believe you are, where you believe you should be going, and how you should treat others. Questions like these have an insidious way of mapping themselves onto every dimension of your life.
Lastly, I had one more conundrum that I had to deal with. Given the mandated stay-at-home order, and the potential existence of covid symptoms within myself, I was caught between a rock and a hard place: Do I go home and help finish out his estate? This would put my aunt and 67-year-old mother at direct risk of infection. Or I could stay in Bloomington and leave them to navigate one of the most complicated times to have to put a loved one to rest.
I decided that the risk wasn’t worth it, and that I would stay in Bloomington. I felt like it was the right decision, but I still felt humiliated. I wanted to show up for my family — I needed to. But here was a wholly unique situation where ‘showing up’ could make things exponentially worse.
Working as a graduate student only afforded me a pay rate of $10.75/hr. As a result, my apartment was utterly devoid of furniture with the exception of a folding chair, folding table, and a cheap bed.
Living alone, it felt less like a home, and more like solitary confinement.
Stuck in a physically empty, and socially lonely apartment with no way to vent my frustrations, I started to jog around my neighborhood.
Back in high school, I had a short stint as a distance runner that I absolutely hated, but doing it now felt liberating. Jogging was an excuse to be outside and feel grounded in reality. In the midst of grief, uncertainty, and touch starvation, I had found a way to feel connected to my body and to my community.
Little did I know that all of that would come crashing down when the national news cycle caught wind of the shooting of an unarmed black man in Satilla Shores, Georgia. This man was killed for jogging in a neighborhood that didn’t look all that different from my own.
When Ahmaud Arbery was killed, I thought that the universe was playing a cruel joke on me:
“You’re not even allowed to jog, nigger.”
I became afraid to go outside, and when I did, I had developed a hypervigilance towards every dirty pickup truck that drove past me. Pickup trucks had become roving sites of terror for me as Arbery had been chased down by men in a white pickup truck. Their passengers weren’t human beings, but rather pink and pale bodies with the unspoken, historical right to take away black bodies and futures. Nevertheless, the experience wasn’t novel.
Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray.
These are just a handful of cases where police and racial violence were publicized and normalized in the minds of the American public. There would be a little outrage — maybe a demonstration here, a car set on fire there — but eventually things would blow over. It always did.
So obviously, I was surprised when the whole world had exploded over the death of George Floyd. Clearly, there was something I wasn’t seeing, a subtle change in the system that caused a new feedback loop to emerge.
I was also surprised by the outpouring of Facebook messages from well-meaning White friends in response to George Floyd’s death. They all contained the same low-effort, meager energy. I can even provide you with a simple, and completely scientific, equation for explaining how it made me feel:
“You good?” + “You doing okay?” + “How’re you?” = Leave me the eff alone, plz.
The strangest aspect of this whole instance was that I had somehow, magically overnight, had gone from being: Jerome, your intelligent friend who liked philosophy and martial arts, into being: Jerome, Your One Black Friend.
Besides, I wasn’t Black.
Everything in my life up until then had repeatedly indicated to me that I wasn’t.
When I was four, my mother enrolled me in a Montessori private school so that my first exposure to language, culture, and social structure wasn’t Black.
Black peers said that I couldn’t possibly be Black because I talked too damn White, and used big words like ‘actually’. Meanwhile, White peers said that I wasn’t like other Black people. I was one of the ‘good ones’ because I didn’t act foolish and listened to alternative rock bands like Blink 182 and Linkin Park.
I wasn’t Black — I stayed inside and played video games because I couldn’t live up to the standards of embodying black and brown violence, black and brown toxic masculinity, black and brown homophobia, and black and brown false swagger.
I wasn’t Black — I had a college degree in Philosophy, the pinnacle of old entitled white man excellence.
I wasn’t Black — I was in graduate school — for technology, a discipline for model minorities like Indians and Asians.
I wasn’t Black, or White, or Chinese, or Native American, or whatever else is most likely to show up in my 23 & Me Report.
I was Jerome. I was just me. I was molded since childhood to supersede my Blackness. But my mechanisms were failing, and the mask didn’t matter anymore.
As Black Lives Matter flags hung on the porches and storefronts of White liberal allies, it didn’t help me feel less alienated — especially when those same white liberals continue to cross the street when you walk past them or flee from their porches to the inside of their homes when you walk down the sidewalk. Or when those same White liberals are incapable of building a genuine connection with you because they’re too busy worrying about the optics of not looking racist.
I felt like my ethnicity was a black hole:
Inescapable, Undeniable, and All-Consuming.
The one saving grace was that all these riots, demonstrations, and world-burning scenarios were happening somewhere else. Ahmaud was killed in Satilla Shores, Georgia: 823 miles away. George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis, Minnesota: 646 miles away. Even Breona Taylor, who was shot and killed in our relative backyard of Louisville, Kentucky, was still roughly 100 miles away.
On July 4th of 2020, a black man from Spencer, Indiana was harassed and attacked by a group of White men at Monroe Lake: 11 miles away. These men pushed him up against a tree and allegedly attempted to hang him, 1920’s lynch mob style. This was the event that sent Bloomington into an uproar.
Vaughxx Booker made it real.
Vaughxx Booker brought it home.
I remember sitting on my bed in the afternoon of July 7th, 2020. There was a Black Lives Matter demonstration scheduled to occur in one hour.
I didn’t want to go.
The day before, a woman had slammed her car into a protester. While it wasn’t quite the same, it was a little too reminiscent of the car attack in Charlottesville, VA in 2017.
I also thought the whole thing was stupid. We are in the middle of a global pandemic, and suddenly everyone from Black people to antimaskers, decided that now was the appropriate time to protest injustice in large crowds. Surely, there are other ways to challenge the status quo given the circumstances. However, many of my coworkers and friends from martial arts had insisted on going to today’s protest. I felt obligated to go, not for my own life and dignity, but to be there to help my friends if something went wrong. I didn’t want to lose anyone else.
I took a deep breath, grabbed my DSLR camera, and began to walk out of my apartment down Kirkwood Avenue towards the town square. I walked past the city hall, turned right on the corner of 6th Street, and was immediately met with the largest congregation of human beings that I have ever seen in Bloomington, IN.
I was amazed.
The city actually showed up and held it down for us.
I was happy to see my coworkers and martial arts friends after spending so much time in utter isolation. The Chair of my department even wrote an incredible social media post in support of Black lives.
For the first time in five months, I had felt like I was a part of this community again.
I felt safe.
Emboldened and bored, I decided to walk around the downtown area later that night. Instead of the supportive liberals I had seen earlier, the city center had been replaced with disgruntled Whites walking around drunkenly complaining about the protests, with men driving around in the same old dusty pickup trucks that had transported the killers of Ahmaud Arbery. The only difference was that this time, some of the trucks were supplemented with Confederate flags.
In the daytime, this city had convinced me that it was anti-racist and full of support for people who looked like me. At night, the city quickly reminded me that I was just a lost boy in a Red state town after sundown.
When I arrived home, I laid in my bed with the intention of going to sleep, but there was a feeling in my mind that I couldn’t quite shake.
I had the realization that I had gone to the demonstration to potentially help my friends — my white friends — but they didn’t need my help.
They had local families, significant others, roommates, pets, and most importantly, they had middle class white bodies. My help wasn’t required. In fact, I was the one who needed help. Amongst all of my friends and coworkers, I was the only one who was Black.
I was the one who was alone and in danger.
Upon this realization, my body began to violently shake.
And shake. And shake. Uncontrollably for 30 minutes.
I would later learn that this physiological event was called a
non-epileptic seizure and that its commonly associated with PTSD.
It would be the first of many seizures that I would experience over the next year.
I woke up the next day feeling like myself — but not really.
I emailed a therapist.
Ballistic; or The Misadventures of Homeboy and the Swedish Sniper
Galvanized by the Vaughxx Booker event of July 4th and the Blue Lives Matter counterdemonstrations that began to sweep into Bloomington, I started exercising in my home like crazy. I started jogging again because, somewhere in my mind, I decided that I would rather deal with the risk of someone killing me outside than sit in my apartment like a scared child. Lastly, I started attending a local dojo to learn Jeet Kune Do, a martial art system developed by the famous martial arts movie star, Bruce Lee.
Despite investing heavily into exercise and self-defense, unless I learned some secret technique to catch bullets, I wasn’t really safe.
Almost like magic, one of my friends from martial arts invited me to take a beginner’s firearms course with him alongside, Viktor, another friend from the Czech Republic. The range was located 45 minutes away, deep in Owen County. I felt like I was venturing into somewhere unsafe, but at this rate, I didn’t care anymore. I was willing to do anything and go anywhere to get out of survival mode.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam!
Our teachers consisted of two men: an ex-army instructor who had a brunette beard and wore dark glasses, and a blonde Air Force reservist whose body was so completely caked out, that I’m confident even his ear lobes had muscles.
It was an open-air range and it was sunny outside. The instructors were funny and cordial.
Today was going to be a fun day.
“So first of all. This is how you hold a gun. You don’t hold it in one hand and turn it to the side like one of the homeboys in the hood.“
Today was going to be a very annoying day.
For some reason, whenever I was being taught something, the glasses wearing instructor felt the need to make use of stereotypical black lingo from the 90s and make cringy references to inner city culture.
To be honest though, I didn’t even get it the worst. My friend Viktor is from the Czech Republic, and he was constantly the butt of every joke.
“What kind of accent is that? Where are you from?” he asked.
“The Czech Republic.” responded Viktor.
“The what? — Nah. You’re Russian. You a spy or something? KGB?” he said as he laughed.
Maybe it was just the Army culture he came from — but we were paying this guy money, and not even the power of almighty capital could get him to use a smidgen of political correctness. But we were out in the middle of Nowhere, Indiana learning how to shoot guns. I wasn’t about to tell a 190 lbs. conservative ex-military instructor to shut the hell up, especially with his best friend Brock Lesnar on deck — especially since those big white bodies could freely take away my 135 lbs. Black body if they felt even remotely threatened and call it self-defense.
We would just have to smile and fake laugh like society taught us to.
After learning the fundamentals of loading, aiming, and holstering our weapon, the glasses wearing instructor corralled us across the field towards human shaped targets.
“Okay, so now we’re going to practice shooting these black targets…”
He stopped midsentence and grinned to himself. He gave a little chuckle, as if he said something really funny — an inside joke to himself.
I don’t think my compatriots noticed his subtle admission, but I did.
In case you’ve never shot a gun before — they’re loud as hell.
Even from something as small and manageable as a Glock 17, guns have a sound and kick that reverberates throughout your entire body and sends shocks up and down your motor neurons.
As I fired 9mm bullets into the homeboy shaped targets, the sounds and smells of the range had a way of activating old memories.
Like how the sound of loading seventeen bullets into the chamber reminded me of the sound of cases rattling down onto the church roof during New Year’s Revival service.
Or memories of my brother-in-law showing off his gun collection.
He had a smile on his face as he explained to me the story of how he bought each one.
I was smiling too.
Or memories of the day that I walked to a friend’s house through the Mexican part of town. I was wearing the wrong colors, and an older kid made sure to let me know.
He said that he’d shoot me if he saw me again.
Or childhood memories of beer bottles whizzing past my mother’s head and smashing into the wall behind her. She’s arguing with my stepdad about bills in the kitchen again. He’s yelling and screaming and threatening to kill us all with the rifle that he keeps downstairs.
I leave my GameBoy and my emotions on the dining room table.
I calmly go into my room and hide in the closet like she taught me to.
Or memories of a newscast discussing an elderly couple murdered by a group of black teenagers. I had gone to middle school with all them.
It was a home invasion, and the boys tied the couple to chairs before stealing everything they could. After realizing that they didn’t initially hide their faces, they returned to the house and shot the old man and woman.
They didn’t get away with it.
Six years later, I would become a cameraman for their son’s local talk show.
I wonder how Gerard coped.
In the midst of firing these bullets, I even started recollecting memories that were not my own. Things that happened long before I was even born.
I remembered the summer day when my uncle shot and killed my grandfather outside their home in Gary, Indiana.
I imagined how the sound of fireworks might have activated my schizophrenic, veteran uncle’s PTSD and transported him back into a warzone.
I remembered how it must have felt like to be my dad. To hear those gunshots and find my grandfather bleeding out on the front lawn.
I imagined what my uncle must’ve felt, as I remembered the day he was sentenced to decades in prison.
I wondered if rehabilitation at a mental health facility would’ve been better.
I remember my father knocking on my mother’s apartment door, perhaps looking for a shoulder to cry on.
She would let him stay the night.
You are just a mistake born from a traumatic experience — You don’t deserve to be here — You are a generational curse— Prove that you are good enough to exist—
I want to believe in the postmodern, feminist dream that true masculinity is about embodying virtue: accountability, honesty, compassion, emotional availability, and nonviolence. But deep in my bones, feminist masculinity feels like the stupid dream of a naive child.
The true, defining characteristic of masculinity — the only thing that has ever been rewarded in society — is power.
Internally, power is the capacity to maintain your self-respect while expending as little effort as possible to do so.
Externally, power is having the privilege to say anything and perform any action, freely, with little to no fear of the consequences.
A large part of me wanted to tell my firearms instructor that the way he was talking to us was unacceptable. A darker part of me wanted to point my gun at him and shoot him dead, the same way that my uncle killed my grandfather.
Either way, I think that I just wanted to reassert my masculinity.
Maybe that’s all I had been trying to do this whole time during the pandemic.
But life had long informed me that we’re not supposedto have rage.
We’re not supposed to express indignation.
We’re not supposed to be sad.
We’re not a supposed to be mentally distressed.
We’re only allowed to be Good.
And sometimes being Good, isn’t good enough.
By the end of the day, my Czech friend was now known by a number of different ethnic monikers such as The Russian Spy and The Swedish Sniper.
The only person who wasn’t subject to ethnically based microaggressions was my friend, Adam. But he’s a smart guy— he knows what was up.
He had the decency to walk over to us — and with eyes that expressed legitimate care and frustration, he asked: