On Being Not Okay

By Sam WashingtonJune 2, 2020

On Being Not Okay
It was a moment of clarity when I realized I was not okay. I had thought I could push it down, stay aware of what was going on, but still function. The police car on the opposite side of the road, however, showed me the truth of matters.

I wasn’t speeding. I didn’t have anything illicit on me, but for those brief moments when I was in the cop’s line of sight, I felt guilty. Anxiety painted my mind in ugly strokes. I checked the rear view mirror; expecting to hear the sirens, see a swift u-turn, and the flashing lights signaling my fate.

My hands began to tremble as I saw myself at the mercy of someone who could possibly kill me.

It took three more mirror checks before I could really allow myself to exhale and accept that everything was okay. Slowly the shakes subsided. The music returned. I could hear my family talking again. Someone said something that required a comment and I replied. We laughed, we talked more, life continued. No one else in the car knew that I had just envisioned my own shooting.

It was then I knew I was not okay.

The nature of encounters between black men and police is a danger I have understood since “The Talk” I had as a teen, a warning every black teen receives. The Talk teaches us to understand we are seen as a intrinsic threat, and that any little things we do or don’t do could result in arrest or getting shot. It gives us the lowdown on them so that we can help them ensure they don’t kill us. Black mothers and fathers day after day, year after year have this talk with their kids, not to scare them, but to simply to try and keep them alive.

But it failed as much as it worked. I managed to make it into adulthood but far too many did not. My encounters with police were humiliating, but they were not fatal. Just by the grace of God am I here.

But I am not okay.

I have seen too many of people who look like me shot and killed by police often in dubious circumstances. Each and every time I watched and waited for justice. For murder to be avenged legally. For grieving families to have a sense of justice. For a death so senselessly doled out to have meaning. For examples to be made so it does not happen again. Each time, it didn’t happen. Charges against murderous officers were dropped and killers were allowed to go free.

Watching the last 10 minutes of George Floyd’s life pressed out of him by an officer kneeling on his neck was too much for me to bear. He was not running away or resisting arrest. I watched him die in the most ignoble way possible, handcuffed, no ability to fight back, slowly suffocating. His last breaths were given to the asphalt. He called out for his deceased mother. Onlookers pleaded with someone to check him when he stopped moving. The officer with a knee in his neck didn’t seem to have a care in the world.

I’m not okay because I saw my face. In those last moments of life, George Floyd became me. My death in those encounters would have been explained as being my fault. Mainstream America would have insisted that they can’t make a judgement because “there may be more than the video showed” or I just should have “complied.” Someone would have dug up something silly I said in my teens and use that to bolster the argument that I hated authority and was a danger. They would have been satisfied and gone about their business.

I’m not okay because George Floyd’s death showed me how little people who look like me matter.

That crushes my soul because I like to think of myself as a pretty decent guy. I’m a nerd to my core: I’m obsessed with Star Wars, comics, toys, fantasy, and sci-fi. I have my favorite superheroes. I want to build a lightsaber at Disney.

I try to be a good father and husband. My wife is adamant I owe her 50 years, and I want to give her that. I want to see my kids be successful. I want them to outlive me. I try to be a good son.

I like all kinds of music and can engage with anybody of any background on any topic that holds my interest. I just finished my second Master’s degree. It’s in Theology and my dream is to teach at a seminary to help equip future pastors to be lighthouses in this dark world.

But I’m not okay.


Sam Washington is a pastor who lives in San Antonio, Texas.


Photograph by Jennifer Croft.

LARB Contributor

Sam Washington is a pastor who lives in San Antonio, Texas.


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