The Sunday night after curfew was put into place, I was not able to go out for a walk. Another Black body had been murdered in 8 minutes and 46 seconds and Black people all over the world rose up in righteous anger and said NOPE.
In the days that followed, I heard gunshots all around my house. A curfew was issued for our safety. I didn’t think it was a good idea for me to go outside for my constitutional. Not because of the protesters. Because of my neighbors who might see a black person at night in a hoodie and assume I was there to loot their house. I still remember Trayvon and at 6-feet-1, I am way more of an imposing figure than that child was.
Not going out for my walk frustrated me because I have gotten used to it in my routine. You see, back in September, I went into the hospital with biventricular congestive heart failure. I was 467 pounds then. For those of you reading this who don’t know me, don’t worry. I am 288 pounds now! I lost that weight in under nine months through a strict diet and exercise, including a lot of walking.
This kind of transformation has been a large part of my life. Redefinition. Reclaiming my narrative.
Five years ago I was working a job for which I had no passion. A pretty bad family life, a drug addicted mother, and being Black in America caused me to fall through the cracks of education. A Black person with a GED and no ambition? America had written its narrative for me a long time ago, long before I was ever given a chance. I am a super criminal. A sexual predator. A thug. I cannot control my passions. That is what White America would have me believe about myself.
So one day in that job I hated, I realized in a moment of despair that I could try and change that narrative. I could redefine my identity to what I see in me. That I AM an artist and an activist. I AM an agent of change. I AM an asset in my community.
Today, I am the executive director, artistic director, and founder of the Echo Theater Collective. I stood side by side with community members and helped push for change in the Forest Park and Oak Park area. People ask me for my opinion on issues in the community. I am an activist, community organizer, an engaged community citizen. I am healthy for the first time in my life. I realized for the first time in my life that my voice matters.
Monday morning I get up bright and early to go for that walk. Lace up my shoes and step outside on a perfect morning. I breathe the air George Floyd was denied into my lungs. I feel free at that moment. No shackles on me. I get about two blocks from my place when I see a small boy of about 3 or 4 standing in front of his house. He smiles and waves. I wave back. I assume that his mom is tending the garden in the back and I don’t think much of it. Then he starts to walk with me.
It is at this point that I sharply realize that this little boy is White. Which makes me hyper-aware of my Blackness. I ask him where his mother is and he freezes suddenly, skeptical of me. I notice the door to the garage is open in the backyard so I shout very loudly that there is a kid out here with me, hoping to God that the mom is back there. To make myself less threatening I put on my best ‘White guy’ voice. A skill I have gotten very good at over the years. Nobody responds from that house and now the kid, suddenly terrified of me, has run into that open door and I cannot see him at all. The next door neighbor comes out. I immediately hear fear in her voice as she shakily says, “Can I help you?” I quickly and as “White-ly” as possible explain the situation and the kid pops his head out and I point to the kid to prove my point. I ask her if she knows if this kid lives there and if she can call his parents, or at the very least grab the kid from the backyard so he doesn’t run off and disappear. She then looks at me with a furtive glance and, apropos of nothing, says to me, “I should not be in front of you in my robe.”
Five years of rewriting my narrative. Five years of community service including a Ted Talk, leading conversations about bettering my community, emceeing social justice conventions, and finding my power. The mirage of freedom shattered. The self-actualized Joseph Campbell hero’s journey vision of me was dead. All that she saw was an uneducated black sexual super-predator. She did not shoot me in that moment but she did shoot my narrative. The father of the child came out moments later and all was resolved. I walked away and found the air stuffy. It was no longer the air of freedom. It was thick and I choked on its invisible pollution.
I am not free.
Later that day I spoke with Ken Snyder. He asked if I would take part in organizing an event on Juneteenth, and I told him no. I was too tired. I would listen to the meeting and consult, but I was too tired to do it anymore. I felt defeated at that moment. It seems small but it opened up every wound and trauma I carry with me. I joined that meeting. I listened to the amazing Black community leaders and White and Latinx allies speak their truths and author their stories. It was a profound moment for me.
My next step was obvious.
This Friday I am proud to emcee, Juneteenth 2020: Meet Us At The Bridge. I hope that woman who saw me that morning comes to this event. There is a story that she has to read.
Thank you for reading. I am going to go for a walk now.
Maui Jones is a community activist, the founder, executive and artistic director of Echo Theater Collective, and can be seen walking around Forest Park, Oak Park and Berwyn.