The Psychic Toll Of Existing While Black


I've never been more conscious of the tenuousness of life and finality of death than I have been since I first considered marrying my now-wife. Bringing someone into my life — a person whose safety and well-being I volunteered to be personally accountable for — just changed things. It changed how I assess the present and conceptualize the future. It's changing my understanding of a collective necessity versus an individual one, and changing (well, slowly changing) the frequency which my thoughts and actions come from that collective perspective.

These are things I expected. Partially because they're intuitive expectations. But even if they weren't intuitive, I was told enough times by enough people to expect them. What I did not expect — what no one prepared me for — was how hyperaware I became of being alive. Of just existing. My senses are more sensitive. I'm more perceptive, more aware. I just feel…more.

And, there's no doubt this enhanced consciousness is due to also being more aware of — and, frankly, scared of — death. Both mine and hers.


Of course, being consumed with the idea of death is a fruitless exercise. To wit, I've been awake for three hours this morning. In that time, I could have been killed by dozens of different things. A car accident. A undetected shard of glass in the cup of orange juice I just drank. A fall down the stairs. A brain aneurysm. These are things that happen to people everyday. Mundane, ironic, and spectacular ways of dying that provide no lesson or moral other than the fact that there are mundane, ironic, and spectacular ways of dying.

But again, you can't obsess about that, so most of us just do things to help stave off death (exercise, eat better, wear seatbealts, etc) without consciously thinking about it.

But being Black in America is also being hyper-conscious of how much more likely you are to be killed than anyone else, and of how there are certain types of deaths both unique to your Blackness and almost completely unpreventable. Basically, there's a better than average likelihood of you getting killed, and a better than average likelihood that, if killed, there wouldn't have been any reasonable steps you could have taken to prevent it. Most deaths — as mundane, ironic, and spectacular as they can be — make sense. Morbid sense, perhaps. But sense nonetheless. Getting shot while walking my dog or after getting pulled over because of an expired inspection sticker, does not.

Death itself is just part of the cost of being human. An inescapable surcharge for being allowed to live on Earth, and we grudgingly  accept that deal. Because, well, we have no choice. But this extra shit — this being aware of the fact that as long as you're Black there's a chance that everything you've done, everything that matters about you, everything you are and are trying to be, every step you've taken to lengthen and enhance the life you're living with your wife, can one day come to an end just because you happen to be Black — is just fucking exhausting.

Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VSB, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, and the author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker (Ecco/HarperCollins)

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As I type this, I'm home recovering from a surgery I had yesterday to remove the rest of a huge infected keloid from the back of my head, that was spreading an infection into my spine and also made a hole in my head. Yes, an actual hole.

I've had so many surgeries that it is normal to me. But my wife, I see fear on her face every time I'm about to go under the knife. I never cared much for my own mortality after a certain point. I've faced death so many times and came out the victor (hit by cars, surgery malpractice, being robbed at gun point, having my head bashed by a metal dumpster, etc). But every moment she is here, I'm forced to realize she depends on my mortality remaining in tact. I was never ready for this realization and I'm still not, quite frankly.

I can only say this. From the moment I wake up until the moment I wake up again the next day, death is always somewhere close by, especially for a Black man. But I'm learning death isn't my main concern. It's leaving her before she gets a chance to say goodbye that concerns me. So I'm trying to live more than ever just because of that fact. And you will do the same Champ. And Panama will do the same for his kids. We can't defy death, but we can give meaning to our lives, despite everything around us that tries to take that away from us