Atlanta, Georgia

I Have Never Known Peace

By Yves Jeffcoat

I have never known peace because my blood and bones have never known peace.

Not 200 years ago, when the deep welts on my skin swelled like black licorice and my babies were ripped out of my womb like pages out of a book, ruining my narrative. Not 100 years ago, when my body hung lifeless as spectacle and warning, a scene of white and black fragility. Not 60 years ago, when not even the sacred was sacred, and I watched steeples crumble and my children explode into a million holy pieces. Not 50 years ago, when my city burned and bullets bore holes in my back. Not 40 years ago, when I strapped on my rifle and decided to shoot back. Not 20 years ago, when my brain was turned into fleshy pulp by city-issued nightstick. Not last year, when my anger was quelled and invalidated by pepper spray and a curfew, a state of emergency declared 200 years too late.

Because I’ve never had a Pax Americana.

I’m formed by all that has come before me and all that I endure now. Here, I speak through my ancestors because I am their living legacy. My nostalgia, if you will, looks like white noise and darkness, not sepia tone and film grain. Some people say, “those were the good ol’ days.” I say, “When was that?”

I was born into a river of mud. Spit on, dragged, stepped on, mugged, raped, ignored, ran over, preyed upon, squeezed, feared, whipped, pitied, underestimated, demonized, tied up, tied down, strangled, castrated, drowned, shipped out, hunted, buttered up, bought, shamed, hurt, soul-crushed, drugged, assaulted, buried, hosed, burned, sold, greased, lynched, chased, beat, intimidated, trapped, tortured, forced, vilified, cut, stereotyped, barbarized, silenced, brutalized, shunned, robbed, appropriated, torn down, lied to, pawned, suffocated, fought, bound, attacked, tricked, captured, shackled, returned, broken, assimilated, groped, held back, aggravated, incited, maligned, enraged. A river too thick to swim through and too deep to walk.

As long as the privileged continue to float across on rafts of racism and supremacy, I cannot be silent. The supposed keepers of the peace inflict and incite violence, and the law protects them. Hostilities between races run deep, and centuries of black subjugation mean reparation can’t be a dove with an olive branch. To end a war so devastating and so familiar, if I can even fathom it, could not be nearly as beautiful and easy.

I, today, am the culmination of years of fighting for peace. Let me explain: I have a bed in an air-conditioned apartment in a gentrified neighborhood in a city where I can take a trolley that goes nowhere, but at least I sit in the front. I enter the Fox Theatre, under its glowing marquee, without the threat of violence. I am paid and not punished for my work. I have a gravestone with my name on it. I’ve known long, quiet summer nights in large houses and picking pecans off the ground and gathering them in a cup of my shirt. I’ve slept under downy, white bedspreads in hotels with Michelin-starred restaurants. I am the so-called “leader of the free world,” in the wake of admired and exalted white men.

But individual accomplishments don’t negate my struggle, and I don’t confuse progress for victory. Just because I live in comfort does not mean I live in peace. I am a product of hatred, discord and rebellion. Disruption is a compound of my DNA — years of challenging norms have built my thick skin, hardened heart and loud voice. Complacency has no place in my blood, because I am never satisfied and won’t settle for “good enough.” My existence is an ouroboros, warring for peace from war. How could I be at peace when change is my only constant and revolution is my only option?

Complete harmony between white and black seems so impossible, like a surprising episode of “Law & Order” or a McDonald’s with a working shake machine. I can’t comprehend something so abstract and inaccessible, a distant planet that can be seen but never reached.

Most of what I know of peace is its disturbance: the Ludacris music label, the charge I got for playing said music too loudly. I also know that peaceful assembly is a constitutional right that I’ve exercised — but that isn’t guaranteed to be met with its equal. I know too that it’s the state friends and family will wish upon me when I no longer have the breath to utter the word “peace,” which I was doomed to never attain while I was alive. Liberation from oppression has always seemed out of reach. The phrase “freedom from fear” has never been in my lexicon.

I embody a history that is rooted in agitation, protest and uprising, not for its own sake, but because my debasement and dehumanization have made it necessary. My dissent of this condition is tolerated when it’s quiet and denounced when it’s roaring, a policing linked to the idea that I am strong when I am silently oppressed and respectable. But passive acceptance of injustice will not grant me tranquility; only its absence will — and that I’ve never known.

“There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice,” Dr. King said in a speech against the Vietnam War, at a time when he called for nonviolent protest to be more “militant.” Whether you view the statement as fact or threat, one thing is certain: I want for peace, not war.