We Can’t Breathe!

Images courtesy of the author.

My phone was blowing up. Push notifications and texts from friends and colleagues were letting me know that the National Guard was in West Chester, Pennsylvania. I looked up from my phone to see Diego, Eli, and Jio laying out on the couch in my living room, loudly arguing over the ending to the movie Se7en.

Though I have no sanguineous relationship with Diego, Eli, or Jio, they’re part of the family given to me by Westtown School (my alma mater and the school I’ve been teaching at for nearly five years). Eli and Jio, fellow Harlemites and Harlem Lacrosse alumni who are now at Haverford College, spend their summers with me at Westtown while they work, study, and get ready for the upcoming lacrosse season. Diego took my peace and justice class (Westtown’s introductory social studies course) his freshman year and is the son of Jio’s host parents. Their daughter, Daniela, is in her first year at the University of Pennsylvania, took a Latin American experiences class with me last spring, and dates Eli—and hates that she can’t come to the boys’ nights. Our summers are spent enjoying our 600 acres, devouring horror movies, and eating as much grilled food as the weather allows. Their visit that night was particularly special as we were trying to recoup some semblance of our usual summertime shenanigans since the county had moved into the yellow phase of COVID-19 protocol.

The protests catalyzed by the death of George Floyd lay in stark contrast to the fun we had managed to have. Multiple generations of Black and Brown Westonians finding joy in the midst of so much rage and mourning felt like a necessary reprieve and a rearticulation of the mattering of Black lives. However, the uncertainty of why the National Guard had made its way to West Chester pierced through the rowdy mundaneness of having the boys over for dinner and a movie. As they piled up dirty dishes and got ready to head out, I was immediately filled with a suffocating, viscous dread: what if they get pulled over?

The history of racism and its contemporary manifestations routinely remind me of just how cheap Black life is in this country and how little protection the boys’ good grades and athletic accolades could afford them should they get pulled over. Too often, in the face of a state-sponsored murder of a Black American, we point to the victim’s college aspirations, recent promotion at work, or community involvement, as if these accomplishments could somehow give just appraisal of the value of their lives, only to have their killers go unindicted. “No crime,” says the grand jury. The idea of losing any one of these three boys to the thresher of White supremacy at the hands of law enforcement was soul-shattering.

The quest for freedom, for untethering ourselves from the tendrils of White supremacy, requires vigilance, accountability, and a continued insistence on living into the highest iterations of our professed values.

Diana, Daniela and Diego’s mother, and I agreed that the boys would stay the night. As they inflated air mattresses and fought over who got the futon, I wrote a feverish, late-night email to several administrators at Westtown, including the head of school and associate head of school. In it I proposed a course I titled “We Can’t Breathe!: Black Death and State-Sponsored Violence in the Contemporary United States.” Their responses were near-immediate and immensely supportive. Though I was well past the deadline for proposing a summer course, 12 hours after having sent the initial email, I found myself on a Zoom call with the associate head of school and head of summer academics, both of whom made it very clear that we were there to discuss “when and how” and not “whether or not.” Logistics ironed out with immense support from the director of summer academics, the course launched in June with an enrollment that crested over 80 participants. This cohort included upper school faculty members, administrators, recent graduates, parents, and even a few rising students for whom this was their first class at Westtown.

The purpose of the course was not only to inform but also to bring people into community in order to wade through together the history of policing, the complexities of unconscious bias and its relationship to culture and society, and the evidentiary challenges posed by contemporary racism. I wanted it to be a project that challenged our community without dissuading potential newcomers. In a moment where folks yearn for more knowledge but fear saying or doing the wrong things, this called for care and precision. Additionally, given the stresses and constraints of teaching and learning in the time of COVID-19, I figured the course needed multiple points of entry and multiple modes of engagement. I decided that the course might be enriched by a concurrent audio podcast.

The author’s desk as he researched for and prepared the class. Opposite page: The logo/artwork for the podcast.

Podcasts benefit from being accessible, replayable, and portable. Though there were lots of growing pains and learning-by-failing, the podcast sought to offer a summation of the issues and material that were central to each of the six weeks of the class. I designed it so that folks could follow along even if they weren’t enrolled in the course. This growing listenership outside of the course itself became an invisible cohort of participants whose comments and questions came to inform the class’s biweekly sessions.

Since the conclusion of the course in late July of last year, some of these listeners went on to invite me to their church groups, chapter meetings, and digital classrooms. Launching “We Can’t Breathe!”—both the course and the podcast—has been an important turning point in my career as an educator. It has brought me into contact with other thinkers, teachers, and activists all over the country who are committed to the quest for racial justice. As a godparent, this work has been about contributing to building a world that sees the inviolable sanctity of the lives of my boys. They have been and continue to be central contributors to this work and have become bonafide scholar-activists in their own rights. The work that went into We Can’t Breathe! and the work that has emerged in its wake have both served to remind me that teaching is precisely how I best live out both my faith and my politics.

In a moment where a global pandemic continues to keep us apart, as compromised executive leadership exacerbates an otherwise preventable death toll, and where memes and social media posts are insufficient for helping us understand the factors that led to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many others, this project continues to feel necessary for addressing the palpable yearning for justice. It is not lost on me as a Black Westtown alumnus and faculty member that this class launched at the same time Black students and alumni/ae/x began leveraging important and painful critiques of the racism that stems out of our being a historically White institution.

This unfolding reckoning has been at once painful and necessary. However, I continue to be galvanized by the prophetic visions of freedom of Black women scholars, like Jennifer Nash and Christina Sharpe, and I’m reminded that freedom is a struggle and never a finalized accomplishment. The quest for freedom, for untethering ourselves from the tendrils of White supremacy, requires vigilance, accountability, and a continued insistence on living into the highest iterations of our professed values.

The We Can’t Breathe! podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, and Spotify. New episodes will air in summer 2021. The author is also involved in a new podcast, as part of multimedia project PhD Squared, called Office Hours.

Mauricio Torres

Mauricio Torres is a native son of Harlem, New York, and a member of Westtown School’s class of 2008. After Westtown, he graduated from Dickinson College with Latin honors having majored in sociology and Africana studies. He is currently a doctoral candidate in sociology. At Westtown his roles include teacher, advisor, dorm head, and coach.

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