When the bombings started in Austin, I was distracted by other things like a lot of other folks. I saw 17-year-old Draylen Mason’s name and that he had been attacked, but I didn’t register a connection between him and the other people who were being harmed in Austin until too late, until Governor Abbott decided it was time to offer a reward for information for the bomber who was then later described as a nice young man with challenges.
Writing for the Times is something I’ve always wanted to do. I have dreamed of publishing on the Opinion pages there since I was a college student. On Thursday, that became a reality with this piece, What It’s Like to Be Black in Austin.
By now, because the bomber is dead, and there are other things to think about and be outraged about — Stephon Clark’s murder among them — these reflections might seem to be a forgone conclusion, but because we live in a time of increasing racial terror, perhaps they are not. We are just in a different moment than when I wrote at length about leaving Austin in 2013. So I worry that failing to look at some of these thoughts or ideas will mean that fewer things get resolved, fewer conversations are aired.
Whenever I write about race or have conversations about my experience, I inevitably get questions like, “What should we do?” I feel very strongly that my work in the world is to be a witness and to write. My work is not to solve refusal to see biases at play or anything else.
I’ve been amazed by reconnecting with my friends and colleagues across the country in the wake of the piece’s publication. Most of the responses have been positive. Because this is a piece that is about race and racial critiques of well-meaning people tend to bring out defensiveness (underscored in the piece), it won’t surprise you to hear there’s been some of that as well.
In any event, writing this piece made me appreciate even more the wonderful people we meet wherever life takes us who become our community. Our truths are not other people’s truths and they don’t have to be. I hope that folks will take what is useful here and leave the rest.
In Austin, I felt a loneliness that was hard to explain. I wasn’t just a New Yorker in Texas. I was a tall, dark-skinned black woman with natural hair. I was an outsider in a place that is supposed to value weirdness, but I never felt like the right kind of weird.
I did the things everyone does in Austin. I went for runs around Lady Bird Lake. I went to hear live music. But whenever I looked around, I would always notice that there was no one else who looked like me. I tried to talk to some of my well-meaning white friends about this. They would try to “Well, actually …” me. “Well, actually, Austin is better than the rest of Texas.” What else could they say?
So I moved back to the East Coast, but I kept my home in East Austin and still visit when I can. It’s my home away from home.
I learned about the bombings on Twitter, and it was surreal to read these familiar names in the middle of the horror. These were people I wrote about, people I knew, people I shared laughs with: Nelson Linder, the head of the Austin N.A.A.C.P., and Freddie Dixon, a pillar of the community, discussing the deaths of 17-year-old Draylen Mason and 39-year-old Anthony Stephan House.
I worried for the people I knew, and then I felt, again, that deep, lonely sadness. I wasn’t the only one made to feel that I didn’t belong. Someone was targeting black people, but once the bombs appeared in other neighborhoods, the authorities no longer seemed willing to consider the possibility that hate crimes had been committed.
I don’t know what else to call them. When the bombings started, I had been writing about the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, so I knew the faces of martyrs of the civil rights movement. Whenever I hear about bombs and black people, I think of the four little girls murdered in Birmingham, Ala. I have family ties to Philadelphia, too, so I think of the Move bombings. Are there any black people who can separate news of bombs from notions of terror?
We are in an unusual cultural moment. There has been so much truth-telling over the past few months, so much affirmation about speaking truth to power. I hoped that this time, the authorities might acknowledge that, yes, black people were targeted. I thought someone might make the connection — East Austin is the only place in the city where black and brown people still live in large numbers, and they remain vocal. There are people who are afraid of that, and are threatened by that, and that makes East Austin a target. Instead, there was silence, as these concerns disappeared into the broader panic about where a bomb might strike next.