My First Protest in America: A Brief Witnessing & Haunting Inquiry

“I did not know then that this is what life is – just when you master the geometry of one world, it slips away, and suddenly again, you’re swarmed by strange shapes and impossible angles.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates

I remember my friend telling me about racism when I arrived in America in August last year and the whole time, I kept dissecting his rage, wondering what good anger will do. It was only a matter of time before my ignorance would contort into a guard of numbness that separated me from everything, from acknowledging a system steeped bone-deep in racial inequality. I never thought coming to America as a black girl would mean more than just getting my MFA degree, until now. The awareness of my new identity did not take long to unfold in a world where I’m suddenly the only person who looks like me in a class or on the streets. This quarantine, I’ve sat by my window to count the number of black folks who walk by and there’s been none so far. Clearly, there’s some isolation within this isolation and I have had to make peace with that. Some peace come easier than others; like missing my family or moving on from a relationship.

The murder of George Floyd has me wrecked. I sat in my tiny room and wept, clicking video widgets on YouTube that promised to give answers, some kind of relief, until I decided to go off social media, overwhelmed and triggered by everything I saw. I read about violence and I’m familiar with its wretched existence.  When I worked as a reporter, I filmed documentaries with survivors of abuse. I imagined I had a shield, some kind of strength to prepare me to witness the knee of a cop pressed into a black man’s neck, strangling him. I was wrong. Nothing ever prepares one for such a cruel and inhumane act as that. While I grieve, I talk to friends, cry to them, and ask: What could one possibly want from a man in a posture of surrender, a man showing no sign of resistance? What could push a human being to act in such a way, as though without conscience, as though having no heart of their own?

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None of my friends would go with me to the protest for reasons well known. In a text, one said: “Don’t go. This is Orange County. In more safe spaces, people have been run over, tear-gassed and shot. You are an international student.” Before I stepped out of the house, my white housemate asked me if I’ve got health insurance. Another text from a friend read: What would you accomplish by going? To which I replied, what would I accomplish by not going? There were a few more texts, all admonishing and urging that I keep safe and for some reason, I didn’t budge. How strange that a system compels us to anchor our lives on calculated risks, to slowly tend and cultivate a cautiousness that has us questioning everything, even ourselves. But what do I know? I had no insurance against the aftermath of this act, and had it gotten out of hands, I’d have had no kind of protection. I was either very foolish or very brave, or perhaps both. On Saturday, I showed up in Old Towne to find fewer black people than I expected and more white people displaying protest signs, shouting at the top of their lungs:

“Black lives matter!” “Say his name! George Floyd!”  “No justice, no peace. No racist police!”

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The sun was scorching down on us and my throat was parched and burning. A stranger offered me a bottle of water to drink. My arms ached from carrying a poorly made sign from a Trader Joe’s paper bag which read Don’t Call Us Dead, from Danez Smith’s work. I wasn’t sure what to expect walking a distance to a protest alone with such a sign, so I held it like a paper bag until I arrived at the scene and spread it open. It may have been cowardly, but I showed up. Later, someone will give me a bigger sign, Black Lives Matter and I would thrust it out, chanting the words with everything in me. I was in a daze, the loud honk of cars blaring in my ears and quick movements spinning the scene about me, making me dizzy. I do not do well in a crowd, much less alone. And there I was, in a foreign country, refusing to be silent. I couldn’t read all the signs but I wanted to, to take in the moment, to mark every face that was fighting for something, to hold them to their word. To hold them accountable. No Room for Racism. Silence is Not Golden. White People Do Better. I thought to myself, do they mean these words? Will I ever see through the disguise? Do they really want to do better and do they know how? Are they ready to reckon and confront the legacy of violence and subjugation, to come to a point of awakening where systemic racism is self-evident, and they recognize the need to change within?

In the words of Audre Lorde, “to reach down into the deep place of knowledge inside themselves and touch that terror and loathing of any indifference that lives here. See whose face it wears.”

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There was a moment during the protest where an electric chorus followed my words. I didn’t realize I was leading until I saw people waiting for my cue to join in. I was unhooked and as if possessed; the tension of fear having broken through me. I was untouchable, even powerful for a moment. “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” We took up Floyd’s cry and made it ours. I don’t think I’ve felt my voice charged with such intense emotions. I was instantly seized up by an urgency, my whole body moving with rage and a plead for help, my voice directed at everyone around me- the cops on the side of the streets, the white people alongside me protesting too. I’ve done many a brave thing but this, this open cry for liberation and justice? The bravest thing I’ve ever had to do.

“What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!”

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After nearly three hours of marching around the Plaza Park in Old Towne Orange, my vocal cords strained from screaming, Marie, a new friend I made will offer to drive me home, she wouldn’t let me walk home alone. She said she’s worried about me. Said her boyfriend is black and she came to protest for him because “they would kill him, but they can’t kill me.” I felt a lump caught in my throat. I couldn’t find a response to that but I thought to myself, Oh she knows. She recognizes the truth of the present and has chosen to act on it. How much longer will it take for others to arrive at this reckoning? To understand their own history and its brutal wrought upon the world; and to be released from its hold over their lives? How many more deaths and protests before people begin to really look within themselves and confront destructive ideals about their assumed superiority, their privilege, the very foundation of their existence? To make the personal political and dissent from any indifference to institutionalized dehumanization.

I arrived home and quickly settled to write what I had just witnessed, not wanting to forget anything. I understand there’s so much I don’t know about racism in America but if I’m certain about one thing- it is that there is no peace to be made with injustice. As I sit here recounting this experience in my small and private moment, there is a deep lingering of how do I go from here? How do I proceed to live a life not scarred by palpable rage or caught in perpetual distraction from probing a social system predicated on the foundation of racial hierarchy? I don’t have a clue as to this imposition on my mind; but this inconvenience I can bear when the lives of black people are on the line. This is my truth- I am growing into a consciousness that may shock me with its reality, but I will see it through, even fearfully. I may not have the power to prevent injustice, but I sure am not incapable of doing something meaningful about it.

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35 thoughts on “My First Protest in America: A Brief Witnessing & Haunting Inquiry

  1. We matter !!! And what you did was so brave!! There were protests in Germany too, where a lot of white people were angry and saying that it’s not that bad so why do we exaggerate? I am taken aback, I am shocked, I am hurt and somewhat depressed. But I push through it, I feel love, I pray for it and more of it in the world. And do the very thing I can do, write! Just write, and this brave Action you did the other day, is your way, your part, your solution in your own way to kick hatred to the curb and stand tall cos Black lives matter ✊🏾✊🏿✊🏽

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” – Toni Morrison

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      1. Try the phenomenal writer!! I could clearly picture the scenes in my mind. This must be a tough period especially for people in such areas. You have been brave to stand up. Kudos for not sitting in silence but adding your voice. It’s even better to know that the whites are also joining these protests. But for me, I think it’s time they and in fact everybody begins to show equality even in minute ways.

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      2. Thank you for reading! 💖

        “I’m for truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it is for or against. I’m a human being, first and foremost, and as such I’m for whoever and whatever benefits humanity as a whole.” – Malcolm X

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  2. I was really trying to avoid reading this because I’m already overwhelmed. Very proud of you for going out to protest! It’s not easy to do it even with friends around you. It must have taken a lot of determination to do that. About this piece, it articulated everything we’ve felt perfectly. I love it! Thank you for taking your time to do this❤️❤️❤️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading this, Nonny! 😊

      “One of the great liabilities of history is that all too many people fail to remain awake through great periods of social change. Today, our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change” – Martin Luther King Jr.

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  3. Tryphena..⁩ I am speechless!!!.. This piece is sooo powerful, the emotions were undiluted.. I couldn’t help but read with a clear mental picture of it. I could virtually see myself witnessing everything through this write up.. I am really proud of you Try.. And that single decision you took defying all odds was really a brave one girl😉😍.. I pray God takes you to bigger and unimaginable places with amazing opportunities to explore this talents and changes lives😊

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    1. Nora dear, thank you for saying this!

      “ I have come to believe over and over again that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood.” – Audre Lorde

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  4. This piece literally broke my heart. The video of George’s last moments on earth kept replaying in my mind the whole time as I read this. I had to fight back the tears in my eyes. He was a fighter and so are you though you both fight for different things. We did not choose our skin color yet it determines our fate and defines us which is rather sad. I have been lazy at reading lately but I must say this is a brilliant work of art . Your talent is unmatched. You have always had it in you. You are strong and brave. Thanks for adding your voice. The world must know! Yes, we are black and all lives can’t matter until black lives matter.

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    1. Adwoa, thank you so much for your words.

      “I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; — but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest — I will not equivocate — I will not excuse — I will not retreat a single inch — AND I WILL BE HEARD.”
      – William Lloyd Garrison

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    1. Thank you for reading!

      “Optimism for me isn’t a passive expectation that things will get better; it’s a conviction that if we can make things better — that whatever suffering we see, no matter how bad it is, we can help people if we don’t lose hope and we don’t look away,” – Melinda Gates

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  5. So powerful and so well put Tryphena. Thank you so much for sharing. I literally had tears in my eyes as I began to read because I could identify so much with your opening statements about not knowing what it really meant to come to America as a black girl. I feel you and I’m amazed and inspired by your courage. Your gift will surely make room for you Hun. You are going places!

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    1. Anna! What a kind thing to say! Thank you, Love!

      “Deliver me from writers who say the way they live doesn’t matter. I’m not sure a bad person can write a good book. If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for.” – Alice Walker

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  6. Really proud of you sis. Emotions were soo raw and profound. It’s high time we all started joining in the fight to put an end to systemic racism. Thank you for reminding us that we can join in this fight wherever we find ourselves. Keep up the great work sis🙌🏻❤️

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    1. Love you, Sky!!!! 💛

      “I contend that the cry of ‘Black Power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.” — Martin Luther King, Jr

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  7. I appreciate your passion to fight for what is right! I must say, this is very brave of you Tryphena. It is sad that such horrific events occur in our world which seems to be ever narrowing from the great findings of knowledge and continuous interconnectedness between peoples and cultures. Thank you for another wonderful piece and I do hope you continue to change the world with your talent! 💚
    Proud of you 👏🏽👏🏽👏🏽

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    1. Thank you for such wonderful feedback, Ivy ❤️

      “For it isn’t enough to talk about peace. One must believe in it. And it isn’t enough to believe in it. One must work at it.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

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  8. I literally just read this because I’ve been busy writing a paper all day but damn! I could feel every letter of your words! Powerful piece Try
    It can only get better from here!
    I’m truly proud of you Try.

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    1. Thank you, Princess!!

      “Ordinary language is an accretion of lies. The language of literature must be, therefore, the language of transgression, a rupture of individual systems, a shattering of psychic oppression. The only function of literature lies in the uncovering of the self in history.” – Susan Sotang

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  9. I may not have the power to prevent injustice, but I sure am not incapable of doing something meaningful about it. The most profound statement in this whole piece for me, it’s actually my take away.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading!

      “What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, without knowing that this is the result of it, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” – James Baldwin

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  10. Thank you so much Tryphena for sharing your experience. So beautifully written! I am so proud and inspired by your courage to get out there and make your voice heard! Thank you for your bravery!

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    1. Hi Sharnique!! What an honor to have you read this! Shannon is so kind for sharing this piece with the team! Your feedback means a lot to me! 😊

      “ Precisely at the point when you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.” – James Baldwin

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    1. Thanks for reading, Sey!

      “I plan to stand by nonviolence, because I have found it to be a philosophy of life that regulates not only my dealings in the struggle for racial justice, but also my dealings with people, and with my own self.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Naana!

      “There must exist a paradigm, a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform
      consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.” –Bell Kooks

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  11. Reading your piece at exactly 4:49am at my part of the world. You should see how scared I was when you fearlessly walked out to join the protest. Beautifully strong piece of work and an exemplary act of bravery. My heart sank as I read this piece. You had me at the protest at 4:49am today.
    Do they mean these words? Are the concerns genuine? That’s a question for the heavens.
    Well done!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading, Bridget ❤

      “It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, "Wait on time.”
      ― Martin Luther King Jr

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