As the pandemic stalked us, and racial injustice awoke us, and politics divided us, journalist RitaOmokha traveled the country, listening for unheard voices. This is who she found. They are not eager to forget that 2020 happened.
As the pandemic stalked us and racial injustice awoke us, journalist Rita Omokha traveled the country, listening for unheard voices.
On May 25, 2020, as I watched the video of George Floyd, I wept. I had never mourned for a stranger like I did that day. He could've been one of my four brothers.I was raised in a Nigerian American, ultra-disciplinarian, Christian home in the Bronx, where the maxims were work hard and love your neighbor as yourself. Our skin color wasn’t talked about. All we knew was that mom had three jobs—picking up shifts at different hospitals—and all she asked of us was to do well at school and respect our elders. Simple. We never discussed race or class divisions. Or how to handle discrimination. Or what to do when someone poked fun at my hair. At one point, that was everyday life for me: walking around with African threaded natural hair.
I had thought, as mom had raised us, that if I gave to the world what I wanted, if I worked hard and tried to be a better person every day, somehow it’ll all work out in the end. Somehow, I’ll receive all of that back.Not in America.Seeing Floyd's lifeless body lay there on my phone that evening, something cracked in me. I couldn’t eat for days. Then all I wanted to do was eat for days. I was a mess.
There's this scripture in the Bible, in the book of Matthew, that speaks about wool being pulled over someone's eyes. It warns of being deceived by what you perceive in that state, because when the wool is removed, you'd finally see things for what they really are. You'd no longer be deluded. That was how it felt. No matter what, out in real America, it hit me that it wouldn’t matter how good a person I was working to become. None of it would matter. My inherent value, according to these United States of America, would always be obstructed by my skin color. headtopics.com
Clockwise: Navajo Nation, AZ; Pittsburgh, PA; Memphis, TN; Gallup, NMRita OmokhaThe rage that had risen within me was imprinted on me for weeks. As obvious as it seems now, I realized that America has never lived up to its name—there has never been unity in this country. The United States of America. The incongruity persists. The Trump presidency only unveiled and emboldened race and class divisions. This past year alone, we saw a surge in that once inconspicuous divergence in perspectives and realities.
Insecure and feeling conflicted in one of the country’s deepest moments of reckoning, heightened by a rampaging virus that stalks people who looked like me especially, the gravity of the moment shook me. Even more when I thought about my mom out there every day on the frontlines—a Black immigrant woman caring daily for whomever came through the doors. Taking on more shifts and jumping between her OB/GYN unit and the ICU. Outside that hospital, mom was just another Black face. One wrong police stop, one wrong place, wrong instant, and that could be it. Her dedication, her sacrifice, her goodness—insignificant.
Insecure and feeling conflicted in one of the country’s deepest moments of reckoning, heightened by a rampaging virus that stalks people who looked like me especially, the gravity of the moment shook me.In that place of grief and deliberation, I wondered about who I was in this country as a Black immigrant woman. Was I just a token, an accessory, for the white spaces I had occupied? I wondered how the many others felt. What about white America, how did they view the plights of marginalized groups?
What were their racial experiences and attitudes in present-day America?With one backpack and an oversized MZ handbag, I took to the road on Sept. 12. I traveled by plane and car, using four rentals, to 30 states in 32 days. Traveled 13,559 miles. Twelve flights, 23 gas station stops, 16 hotels, and one bed and breakfast (in Stuart, NE). I drove a black Buick Encore, a red Mini Cooper Countryman, a blue Hyundai Venue, and a black Kia Forte. headtopics.com
I met more than a hundred people. After, I rendered the parts of their stories they revealed to me, and my story of discovery. Some of them felt empowered. Others felt America was built, and would continue to flourish, on a mismatched class system.A few held on to a faith in the ideology of a unified America, where true equity could one day exist, and disparities would be a thing of the past.
America Redefined: Read the StoriesSioux Falls, SD“We're not a perfect country—no place is perfect. But there are things we did wrong. Some of the people [in history] maybe didn't always make the best choices. So that could be a reminder to learn from those people’s mistakes. Learn from that time in our history, and do things different.”
READ THE STORYAlbion, MI"As a Black woman, it's our duty to protect Black men. I feel like anything that I can do to uplift them, protect them, motivate them and keep them going—that's a burden on us."READ THE STORYKenosha, WI"If you had said in 1960 that someday they’d be a Black president? Man, there's nobody in the world that would believe that."
READ THE STORYPortland, OR"Get rid of this nasty system that is tearing Black individuals down. I fear going outside. I fear leaving my dad’s side. I’m tired of being scared."READ THE STORYChicago, IL"We are in a constant state of anger. Even the most well-calmed brothers that I know are in a constant state of some type of anger because we don’t feel like we’re heard." headtopics.com
READ THE STORYTulsa, OK"Let’s talk about 400 years of slavery. Let’s talk about the massacre. Let’s play some Ray Charles. Some Stevie. Let’s have a real talk about why you benefit from a two-pillar system and what that looks like in a white home versus a Black home."
READ THE STORYSeattle, WA"Since we were close, we thought, ‘Oh, we’ll just go up to Kenosha and we’ll still have time to make it over to D.C.’ Except we got arrested."READ THE STORYManchester, NH"The government has kind of abandoned us. Especially Black trans people. I don’t know how many murders there have been because I’ve kind of stopped keeping count. Once a week, there’ll be a post of another trans person or other black trans person killed."
READ THE STORYRochester, MN“My husband is adamant that it’s because we're a minority. They were really on us about things we know that if it was another business, they wouldn't care.”READ THE STORYGreenville, MS Read more: ELLE Magazine (US) »
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RitaOmokha Our babies have better memories now👌