Risë Kevalshar Collins graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University with a drama degree and has a history as an actor, including on Broadway. She did her graduate studies at the University of Houston, earned a master’s degree in social work, has been licensed and has worked in Texas, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and has served in mental health, oncology, hospice, the prison system and in extended care. She is a student in the creative writing department of Boise State University where her focus is creative non-fiction and poetry.
I am Risë Kevalshar Collins, an American woman of African ancestry born in Texas, where my sister, my mother and, to my knowledge, my maternal grandmother were also born. During the last days of May and first days of June, in the midst of a pandemic and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s wrongful death, I feel as if my steps are shackled, my movements weighted. I’ve been stumbling. It’s hard to sleep. My head throbs. I’m afraid to check my blood pressure. I take frequent breaks while writing this. Everything hurts.
For a time, I lived in Houston’s 3rd Ward neighborhood where George Floyd grew up. Before I bused across town and helped to integrate M.B. Lamar High School in elite River Oaks, I also attended Jack Yates Senior High from which George Floyd graduated.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, an unarmed black man, was murdered by a white police officer, Derek Chauvin, who pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds, as Floyd lay face down on the street, hands cuffed behind him, nonresistant, while two other officers, Thomas Lane and J. Alexander Kueng, pinned down his back and his legs. Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe” — echoing the 2014 death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man in New York, who repeated, “I can’t breathe” 11 times while locked in a chokehold by a white police officer, Daniel Pantaleo.
On May 25, 2020, in the presence of and with the assistance of three of his police peers, including Tou Thao who, said of Floyd to bystanders, “He’s talking, he’s fine,” Derek Chauvin persisted for over eight minutes, kneeling into Floyd’s neck, past the point when Floyd lost consciousness, in broad daylight, before God and country, in front of bystanders, in full view of onlookers taking cellphone videos; in Minneapolis, Minnesota; in America on May 25, 2020 — a commonplace modern-day lynching, another in the long litany of American black people who have been lynched by American white people with impunity, for 400 years. No crime against humanity, no apology, no recompense — just white supremacy.
Think: What would have happened if a black man knelt on the neck of a white man for nearly nine minutes, and the white man died?
Although President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, that proclamation was not enforced in the slave state of Texas until June 19, 1865. Depending upon one’s relationship to colonialism, one might appreciate this: I live in a nation stolen from the indigenous, built for 250 years by the enslaved, by and for the profit of the dominant group — white people — who have passed the profits down to their progeny for generations, all of whom have benefited, whether consciously or unconsciously, from structural supremacy.
Depending on one’s relationship to colonialism — on whether or not one has been served by colonialism either viciously or blithely — one might recognize that we live in a nation structured on the supremacy of one group, this supremacy maintained and bolstered by systemic racism and the institutionalized oppression of non-white groups — especially blacks. One might also see that this is done through predatory capitalism and a predatory legal system. It has been further undergirded by predatory religious doctrine dating all the way back to the Doctrine of Discovery. An article, “Five Hundred Years of Injustice” by Native American scholar Steven Newcomb sheds light on this.
After U.S. slave laws, there were Black Laws governing the conduct of blacks, restricting the freedom of blacks and compelling blacks to work for low wages. In his youth, my father saw white men bind the wrists of a black man, hitch him to the back of a truck and drag him through town. My mother earned $25 a week for training white women to do her job, while the white women trainees earned $50 a week.
Following Black Laws, there were Jim Crow Laws — enforced racial segregation. My family and I paid the same fare as whites, but we rode the back of the bus. We drank from colored water fountains, we lived in segregated neighborhoods, we attended separate and unequal schools.
In our country, racism, born of white supremacy — the conscious or unconscious belief in the superiority and rightful privilege of whites, as well as in their destined domination of others — especially blacks — is systemic. What people miss is that racism is an effect of the cause — structural white supremacy — an ideology and practice, the purpose of which has always been to make white people rich. No one touches that. The resulting oppression, historical despair and social terror are a day-to-day aspect of my black American landscape.
I was alive when white men murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till in America. As a child, I watched television after four black girls were killed when the KKK — white supremacists — bombed an American church. I watched when Bull Connor ordered white policemen to sic police dogs and turn high-pressured water hoses on nonviolent black American protesters, some of whom were children.
As a teenager, I was aware that a black student leader, Lee Otis Johnson, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for passing one marijuana cigarette to an undercover officer. Later, as I waited for the city bus to drive me across town to Lamar High School in River Oaks — where blacks were allowed to work as servants but were not allowed to live, even if they could have afforded to — a white Houston police officer slowed his patrol car and repeatedly shouted at me, “Are you a boy or a girl?” while other people at the bus stop looked on and while his police partner looked away. At Lamar, I boycotted an American history exam because the American history textbook excluded contributions of people of color. That day, I was also suspended for fighting after a classmate said, “It’s too bad you’re black, girl.” Once, I was called into the principal’s office, thanked for winning 14 consecutive first place trophies in state and regional speech tournaments, and told by him, “You are a credit to your race.” Because of his relationship to colonialism, he considered this a high compliment. He didn’t get it that each of us is a credit to the human race.
When I arrived at Carnegie Mellon University, young white men slowed to throw eggs at me from car windows while I waited for the traffic signal to change. When I later entered a local church, the Christian congregation collectively turned to stare.
Years following, after the nation watched California police beat Rodney King to hell and back, I looked into the pleading eyes of a black boy — hogtied, chest on the ground, wrists and ankles bound together behind him — while a white police officer stood above him, billy club in hand. I circled the block several times in my car until the officer noticed me and glared. This happened in my 3rd Ward neighborhood. I could not sleep.
On the day that a relative announced his bid for political office, we returned home to find seven rifle shots had been fired into our living room window, leaving bullet holes in the walls, bullet holes in the ceiling, bullet holes in my peach leather chair. I remember seeing the KKK, in full regalia, marching and recruiting in Houston streets. While driving, I’ve seen a sign that read: “Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On You.” Such signs alerted blacks that they must under no circumstances be caught in that white county, city, town, suburb or neighborhood — whether in the American North or South — past sunset.
Sometimes, when I am under duress, like now, such images return to me. I have never slept well.
In January 2016, we heard this statement from a presidential hopeful: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
In June 2017, while driving from northern to southern Idaho, I stopped to walk my two leashed dogs at a public rest stop and, without cause, was detained by a white police officer.
In August 2017, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, notorious for racially profiling Latinos and convicted of criminal contempt of court, received a presidential pardon.
In 2018, we heard current leadership decry non-white immigrants from “s—hole countries.”
In 2019, NFL players, during the national anthem, were not allowed to kneel in protest of police brutality.
In 2020, a white police officer knelt for just short of nine minutes, with his knee in the neck of a black man, causing the black man’s death, for the entire world to see.
Also this year, the February “hoax” that morphed into a March pandemic inordinately kills black people and disproportionately impacts other people of color; the Navajo Nation, per capita, is now the epicenter of COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S.; in March, as she lay in her bed in Kentucky, a black female EMT, Breonna Taylor, was shot eight times by three plainclothes police officers; a video taken in Georgia in February — which was leaked in May—showed the murder of black male jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, carried out by a white father and son.
I’ve never slept well. The only time I’ve felt safe in America was the time I spent in a convent — though my great-aunt had previously been housed in a segregated convent. I’ve moved 51 times seeking a sense of safety. I’ve lived in historically anti-slave states, which were also historically anti-black states — such as Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
Due to work, I’ve moved to American cities where white friends feared for my safety and where family members were afraid to visit. I decided against a move from North Idaho — known for hate groups — to South Carolina when nine black people in a church were killed by a white supremacist. Nor did I move from North Idaho to North Carolina, after a white man killed Muslim students over a parking space. I will never again walk dogs at a rest stop near White Bird. Last year, I heeded a warning and did not go to Whitefish, Montana. I didn’t have a good reception in Whitehall, Montana. I’ve learned that up to 13,000 cans of beer per day were sold to tribal members of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation by liquor merchants in the tiny border city of Whiteclay, Nebraska.
Michelle Alexander has written “The New Jim Crow” concerning mass incarceration of black people. Today in America, a low-wage workforce is maintained through for-profit prisons and prison plantations, incentivizing abuse of a loophole in the 13th Amendment to disproportionately arrest and convict black men of trumped-up charges.
Ava DuVernay has chronicled the case of the Central Park Five in the Netflix Series, “When They See Us,” in which five young black men were falsely convicted of charges including rape of a white woman. At that time, a white male billionaire and future reality-show host bought a full-page ad urging the death penalty for these innocent young men.
Community activism assisted in the freeing of a black man, Clarence Brandley, who spent nine years on Texas death row after being wrongly convicted of the rape and murder of a white woman.
In May of this year, on the heels of the murder of George Floyd, a white woman in Central Park called police and reported, falsely, that an African American man was threatening her. The call was made after Christian Cooper, a bird watcher, asked her to leash her dog, a park rule.
The good news: As a Boise State University student, I am grateful for this space to share some of the ways inequality affects my lived experience. And, although my experience is likely not that of many at Boise State, I acknowledge Boise State for allowing a safe space for my black American voice to be heard and to make part of my black American experience known.
The good news: Even in the midst of a pandemic, there are diverse American protests, global outcries, individuals holding their own feet to the fire, mourning and protesting together, uniting online and joining forces in the streets in protest against centuries of inequality — the racial, legal, political, social, educational, health care, housing, job, economic and criminal justice inequality imposed — in particular — on black Americans.
The good news: The young Jewish mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, spoke out against the killing of George Floyd, though not yet loudly enough.
The good news: Some white police officers are kneeling with, praying with and walking with protesters. Kneeling, walking and praying are good, yet that is not enough to stanch centuries of bleeding.
The good news: One of the first people I looked to for connection and solace after George Floyd’s murder was Boise State administrator and professor, Richard Klautsch. For me, Richard is a touchstone for what it is to be a human being.
The good news: We can launch people into space, even amid a pandemic. We are also capable of shifting the axis of consciousness, embracing a zeitgeist of equality, transforming our culture, making appropriate policy changes, ending police brutality and eliminating voter suppression.
I stand for dismantling ALL oppression. It will take love and more.
It takes love and it takes more than love.
I write this with all the love that I am, and more.
This is the The Blue Review’s special series On Racial Justice, which features publications from students, faculty, and community members who seek to further our understanding of systemic racism, social injustice, and policymaking.