In 2001, I was a 24-year-old part-time editorial assistant at Cincinnati Magazine, attending graduate school at Xavier University when I landed an interview that would help shape my view of the world for years to come. I find it disturbing and infuriating that I could still do the same interview nearly 20 years later.
About six months or so after the killing of Timothy Thomas at the hands of Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach, I nervously sat in Angela Leisure’s living room as she recounted her son’s life for me. At the time, I was the editorial assistant at the magazine, and when then–Editor-in-Chief Kitty Morgan decided that the December cover story would be dedicated to first-person interviews with local families who had faced enormous tragedies throughout the year—which included Thomas’s death and the uprising that happened in the wake of it—I never imagined that I’d end up talking to Leisure.
My hours-long conversation with Leisure covered everything under the sun—what Thomas was like as a baby, his personality as a teenager, etc.—until we reached April 7, 2001, the last day she’d ever see her son alive. She told me that one of the last things he said to her before he left the house was “I love you, lady,” and I felt my throat begin to close. That phrase was one I often said (and still say) to my own mother, a heartfelt closing remark to end our conversations until we spoke again. Before that moment, the finality of my last words to her hadn’t really crossed my mind. What would be the last words I would ever speak to my mother, or she to me?
The silence in the room was deafening as I realized Leisure had stopped talking and was waiting patiently for me to ask my next question, but I was lost. I could feel the sadness crawling up my throat and working its way into my jaw as I tried to discreetly grind my teeth. I blinked rapidly a few times, my vision swimming from unshed tears. I swallowed and took a couple of deep breaths through my nose, a final attempt to pull myself together, to soldier on with the interview. But when I opened my mouth to speak again, staring into the face of a grieving mother whose pain I never wanted to know, I crumbled under the weight of it all. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I whispered, choking on my tears.
I was sorry for her, for what happened to her son, for being “unprofessional” (i.e., human) in an interview situation, and for my 12-year-old brother who could, at any time, suffer the same fate as Thomas. I was sorry for my own mother, for myself. Sorry that Blackness often carried such a heavy price. I turned off my tape recorder as Leisure took a seat next to me on the couch, offered me a tissue, and put her hand on my back, which made me cry even harder. Why is she comforting me? I thought. This is so wrong. Everything is so wrong.
The rest of our conversation was a blur. I know I eventually turned the recorder back on, asked a few more questions, and thanked her for her time before leaving. I don’t remember the drive back to the office or the rest of that fateful day. I just kept thinking, This is all so wrong. Nineteen years later, I’m still thinking the same thing.
In the years since my interview with Leisure, I’ve seen technology advance in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I record my interviews with an app on my phone. During this spring and summer of “quarantining” and social distancing, I ordered most food and household supplies online and had them delivered to my doorstep. I watch almost all forms of entertainment on my Kindle, not on an actual television. And for better or worse, I can now see Black death and harassment all over social media at a moment’s notice.
To the average person, one who hasn’t been paying attention at all, the frequency with which clips and videos like these regularly pop up on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram may make it feel like the incidents are happening more often. The truth is, they were always happening; the internet has simply made them more visible now.
What was it about the increased visibility this time around that got protesters around the world simultaneously marching—in the middle of a global pandemic, no less—for black lives and racial justice? Why didn’t it happen for Samuel DuBose? Or Philando Castile? Or Darrien Hunt? Or Atatiana Jefferson? Why didn’t it happen for the Black children like Tamir Rice or Aiyana Jones or Trayvon Martin? Why not for Black trans people like Tony McDade? So many deaths could have lit the fuse of change. What was it about the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery that made people of all races, sexual orientations, colors, creeds, and ethnicities say, Enough is enough?
I can’t pretend to know why this particular string of Black deaths resonated with people enough to cause a reckoning that has forced confrontations between family members, coworkers, and friends, and has left businesses questioning their identities in its wake. I’ve watched skeptically as old cases get reopened for further investigation, companies are made to account for old harms they’ve inflicted, and non-Black people seek reassurance that they’re reading the right books, following the right Black people on social media, and listening to the right podcasts to be more thoughtful about race moving forward.
(Side note: If you’ve made it this far and are wondering why I haven’t mentioned property damaged in the wake of protests, the tearing down of relics of the Confederacy, or the specter of “Black on Black” crime, you have some Google searches to do before you’re ready for a layered conversation around racial injustice. Feel free to start with “slave patrols,” “Reconstruction,” and “intraracial crime” with a dash of “stop the violence [insert your city’s name here].”)
When I think about everything that’s gone on this year for too long and in too much detail, the feeling I get is a mix of skepticism, anger, and dread. Some of the change that’s come out of all this feels like victory—the ban on no-knock warrants in Louisville, the ban on chokeholds and other neck restraints in Minneapolis—but those are small pebbles attempting to fill the gaping maw of a long, dark history that constantly threatens to swallow us whole… again. Will small wins ever be enough for fundamental, sustainable change? Or will the country be forever stuck in the wash-rinse-repeat cycle of violence, outrage, and reluctant concession?
Is this the part where I’m supposed to say something hopeful about the future of race relations in this country? Something about all Americans working together to find solutions to problems that ail our nation? Well, I can’t do it. I don’t do hopeful anymore. Over the years, I’ve had my own fear-inducing encounters with police officers as well as store owners and workers who were more than willing to threaten to use the police as their personal concierge service for administering violence (if they weren’t threatening to “handle” me themselves).
The naïveté required for hope was burned out of me a long time ago. These problems are not of my creation, and they’re not mine to fix. All I have to do is find ways to survive them for however long I can. I have to survive them to live another day.
Anti-Blackness is ingrained in the very fabric of who this country is—it’s as American as apple pie. I don’t know if it and everything that happens because of it can be vanquished so easily. You’d have to dismantle entire systems and structures of oppression, and that’s not something I see happening in my lifetime. I make peace with that, every day, and try to focus on the things that bring me joy.
Joy is in seeing my 1-year-old baby cousin smile, watching her take her first steps, hearing her say her first words. It’s in having good friends I love and support and who love and support me. It’s in my mother’s hugs and joking around with my brother and exchanging funny memes with my sister. It’s in all of the little things that keep me present in the lives of those who need me and not hyper-focused on the what ifs of daily life that can haunt most Black people.
Black joy is resistance in its simplest form. And that will always matter.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Little’s interview with Leisure appeared in the December 2001 issue, not the August 2001 issue, which Little also contributed to.