Pleasure is found on the grounds of a garden estate that I frequently walk and photograph. When the pandemic restrictions began to lift, I received a members only invitation to visit; I immediately made an appointment for the first hour on opening day.
It felt strange driving through Rock Creek Park to this best kept secret, an oasis in the city, on my appointed morning. Though I’d taken this same route countless times in the past, my first venture heading north and west from my home in the car since the quarantine began was like a new adventure, my eyes fully seeing familiar territory with a more appreciative vision. Every part of my being began to tingle with excitement!
Once there, I followed a designated route using a social distancing map obtained at the front desk. Slow walking under a cloudy gray sky that briefly christened me with raindrops that hadn’t fallen in an earlier storm, I breathed in the freshness of clean air. Planted all around me were lush green trees, shrubs with white and purple blossoms, pink, yellow, orange, and red flowers. My soul recorded memories as my camera captured photographic images.
Rather than drive back through the park, I decided to cruise through the streets of my hometown. I had watched as disruptors turned peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations into nights of destruction and wanted to see the aftermath for myself. Brown wooden boards, some sprayed with graffiti messages, lined Fourteenth Street and I wondered if these establishments had been hit or were just taking precautions. On any given day prior to the pandemic, parking would have been impossible to find; there were plenty of spaces allowing me to pull over, hop out, and capture history. Back in the car, I remembered feeling triggered two nights before as I watched businesses burning on my TV screen.
I was ten during the riots of ’68. We lived just one town over from Plainfield, NJ, close enough to hear the unrest, the sounds of gunfire, to see the sky lit up from blazing fires. I wedged myself between my bed and the wall each night, wondering when and if rage would cross the bridge, descend into the park and arrive at our cul-de-sac of seven homes, all but one occupied by Black families. Fearful that our homes would be destroyed, not knowing if a bullet might come through the window, night would sometimes turn into a day when sleep deprivation silenced my anxiety. Though our block went untouched and life moved on, a part of me never got back in my bed.
The uprisings following George Floyd’s murder had brought my past into the present. I sat unable to turn the key in the ignition, my soul now shaken and disturbed. A moment of reckoning was happening right then and there, so I got still, allowed the suppressed emotions to completely surface. I scanned the photographs I’d taken at the gardens, searched for that sense of peace I had felt as I strolled the grounds, began to release the childhood angst connected to without erasing the significance of the riots that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I did some breath work, took myself back to a delightful exchange with a stranger that I had experienced maybe ten minutes before just blocks away from where I was parked.
My car slowed to a stop beside a van as a traffic light turned from yellow to red. Windows already rolled down in both vehicles, I heard music in the lane beside me that made me start to sway. I looked up to see a woman swaying too. I stuck my head out of the window to sing a few words to Alexander’s O’Neal’s “Never Knew Love Like This.” She looked over, smiled, joined me in the chorus one hand up to emphasize the groove of this oldie still a goodie. We bonded in a way, separate yet Black together in a socially distanced moment eclipsed by a sign of the times. “Take care, girl!” she shouted when the light turned green, “Have a fabulous day!” I replied. As she turned north, I headed east.
A calm energy was moving within me when I started the car to continue down Fourteenth Street. Somehow I ended up on Fifteenth across from the National Museum of African American History and the Washington Monument. When the light turned green, rather than proceed south in the direction of home, I turned right for some reason. I turned right again at Eighteenth and again at H Street. It was as if my car was on automatic pilot and whoever was driving was guiding me to the making of another memory.
My skin tingled with a feeling I couldn’t name or understand. My soul seemed agitated once again. I didn’t really realize where I was until the message, “Why do we have to keep telling you Black Lives Matter?” written in black on a beige wall came into view. A picture of this very spot had been posted online and I knew without question that my chance to photograph it for myself was being gifted to me. I pulled over.
Nobody seemed to care that I had parked illegally on a street that still had moving traffic. I didn’t care either because I was no longer in control of what I was doing. Close to the wall, the spirit of this movement jumped from all of the written messages placed there to find its place in my body. My soul snatched memories for internal storage as my camera captured still images for external review. I lingered with others, all of us in our masks, reading and absorbing.
Turned and across the street was the restaurant I had watched burn just after someone set it ablaze two nights before as the news commentator nervously contemplated what he should do while continuing to broadcast. I had felt his being conflicted then paralyzed with indecisiveness as people scattered around him bashing windows. Knew he was uneasy being caught in the midst of something he had never experienced before. Listened as he mentioned not yet being born in 1968, of having to educate himself on my past before heading out to cover his present.
As I moved back towards my car, I noticed the sun had come out in a sky that was now a shade of blue that it takes on after a storm. A tense electricity was mingling with the acrid smell in the air, its toxicity filling my eyes and lungs. Beneath my feet were the remains of whatever the police had been firing into the crowd, pops of something red vivid against the black pavement. An already existing feeling of “enough” was reinforced by whatever stuck to the bottom of my sneakers, the movement further seeped into my pores. I climbed behind the wheel and as centuries of tears blinded me, I looked ahead before pulling out of my spot. There before me was more of the historical intention behind why I had been directed to this block on H Street NW.
Protestors for the day were beginning to gather at Lafayette Park in front of the fence, behind it a line of who knows what troops armed with guns and bullet proof shields. Across the street was the yellow church where that occupant of the White House had emerged from the cage he had built for a staged photo op the day before, his forces firing some sort of irritants into the air and using excessive tactics to move back peaceful protestors for a reality TV, ego-driven indulgence. I carefully maneuvered my car so I could take pictures from my window seat letting those in view know that I was one of them. I so wanted to be out there demonstrating, however corona concerns had kept me away. This would be the closest I would get for now and I was grateful to physically be a witness even if just for a short while.
That child between the bed and the wall, now a woman in her car, drove away from the wall of metal and militia feeling no fear this time around even when surprised by a long convoy of military trucks and vehicles as it sped towards me just blocks from my doorstep.
On urban ground where I had stood, people were planting and would continue to plant themselves daily to take a stand. The last breath of a man whose name is forever etched had been blown into the souls of Black folks and the world would never again be able to look away from our pain.
Tina Scott Lassiter, MBA is an accomplished artist, photographer, author, professional speaker, workshop facilitator, and holistic health practitioner. Her essays have been selected as features in Midnight & Indigo, Solstice Literary Magazine, and the International Women’s Writing Guild’s online publications. Her first book, “morsels of peeps” was published in 2018. A lover of words since the age of six, she co-edited her campus literary magazine, served as Art Editor/Columnist for an aspiring multicultural arts magazine in NYC, has been blogging for over ten years, and is a former Adjunct Professor of Creative Writing for LaGuardia Community College. Ms. Lassiter also served as Director of Creative & Therapeutic Arts at Children’s National Medical Center for fifteen years.