Our summer of stress, as told by Doc Rivers and Faith Evans
How a Faith Evans hook nearly a quarter-century old became my soundtrack for an unprecedented year
There were the weighted tears in his eyes. The frustration in his voice. The generations behind his anger. Everything about last week’s postgame news conference with LA Clippers head coach Doc Rivers felt familiar to Black America.
“All you hear is Donald Trump and all of them talking about fear,” Rivers said in the wake of Jacob Blake’s shooting by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “We’re the ones getting killed. We’re the ones getting shot. We’re the ones that we’re denied to live in certain communities. We’ve been hung. We’ve been shot. And all you do is keep hearing about fear.”
I feel a personal connection to Rivers, one that has stayed with me since our first encounter in 2015. (More on that later.) Listening to him speak, I heard a song that encompassed his emotions and mine. I really know how it feels to be, stressed out, stressed out, Faith Evans belted. When you’re face to face with your adversity. She sang this on A Tribe Called Quest’s 1996 single, “Stressed Out.”
It’s an unfortunately evergreen single that catalogs the elixir of emotions that brought Black America’s rage front and center on the international stage this year. For me, it’s become a soundtrack for the summer that changed life as we know it. If we’re lucky enough, God willing, to make it out.
Summers in Black America are traditionally hot. And humidity isn’t just a Fahrenheit or Celsius measurement. It’s the humidity that arrives from societal oppression.
Saying 2020 has been emotionally taxing is almost a cliché by now. Since January, there’s been a presidential impeachment trial. The helicopter crash that claimed the lives of nine people, including Kobe and Gianna Bryant. Then the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and less publicized, yet equally tragic stories, such as those of Davon McNeal and Secoriea Turner. Breonna Taylor’s name remains on our lips, though justice doesn’t appear any closer to our doorsteps. George Floyd’s death in late May was Emmett Till with a visual. The 8 minutes and 46 seconds Derek Chauvin wedged his knee on Floyd’s neck are the longest and most heated this summer, because it feels like a knee’s still there. The same knee that’s always been there.
All the while, the country battled two viruses at once. One that crippled our way of life and one that’s always been a way of life in this country. The number of people lost to the invisible clutches of the coronavirus moves steadily toward 200,000. On top of those, we bid farewell to John Lewis and we Marched on Washington again. Blake was shot seven times by police in front of his kids. And then we lost Chadwick Boseman and John Thompson, two North Stars whose lives stood on the highest levels of principle and integrity.
We awake to this trauma every day. We go to sleep with this grief every night. But Zoom calls still have to be taken. Jobs still had to be done — and that’s if you’re blessed enough to even have one. There are kids to raise and grandparents to stay away from. Behind those exclamation marks in emails or “happy to be here” messages on conference calls lives a pain that feels like the world cares little to address and even less to eradicate. We’re stressed out.
A friend of mine told me he cried holding his daughter. She changed his world long before she was born. He cried because the world he and I live in isn’t conducive to the success of Black parenthood. I watched, this week, as many of my friends attended a virtual memorial service for Quinn Coleman, a senior director of artists & repertoire at Capitol Records who died last month. He was 31. Grief is never easy. Isolation is debilitating. Combining the two isn’t just unfair. It’s inhumane. But it’s 2020’s most undeniable theme. We’re trying to keep our worlds together while the world around us falls apart.
Upon moving to Los Angeles in 2015, I started covering Clippers and Lakers games. I was learning how to carry myself as a media member in the locker rooms, on the sideline and at practices. And I was also learning how to get by, having dinner in the media center before tipoff because I didn’t have a ton of money for groceries. Following one of my first few games, I mustered the courage to ask Rivers a question at his postgame news conference. He had made a defensive adjustment in the third quarter that ignited a run that eventually gave the Clippers the lead for good.
“Damn, you noticed that?” Rivers asked. “I didn’t think anyone picked up on it.”
He explained his reasoning, but I’d be lying if I said I could remember it now. What I do remember is that in the hallway after the news conference, Rivers walked by and tapped me on the shoulder saying, “Great question, young man.” Rivers, I’m sure, has no recollection of this, and that’s fine. But the validation of that night propelled me in my career from that moment on.
That memory plus the emotional weight we’ve all been living with is why I heard Evans’ hook and A Tribe Called Quest’s Beats, Rhymes and Life in Rivers’ trembling voice last week. Rivers’ plea called to mind generations of Black folks who lived and died awaiting and demanding freedom. Not only were Black people expected to wait for freedom, we were blamed for the conditions that held us back.
“How dare the Republicans talk about fear? We’re the ones that need to be scared,” Rivers said. “We’re the ones having to talk to every Black child. What white father has to give his son a talk about being careful if you get pulled over?”
In my mind, I could hear Evans sing: I really know how it feels to be stressed out, stressed out/When you’re face to face with your adversity.
And then Rivers again, channeling a seldom-used Martin Luther King Jr. quote from the last speech of his life: “It’s just ridiculous. It just keeps going. There’s no charges. Breonna Taylor, no charges, nothing. All we’re asking is you live up to the Constitution. That’s all we’re asking for everybody, for everyone.”
I really know how it feels to be, stressed out, stressed out, pleaded Evans. We’re gonna make this thing work out eventually.
The truth about “eventually” is that none of us know when that is. So many Black lives have been lost waiting for the change to come that Sam Cooke promised us. We told ourselves even after King’s assassination that his dream would come true, and had to painfully accept it wouldn’t happen for Lewis. We watched Kentucky attorney general Daniel Cameron use Taylor’s name as a talking point at the Republican National Convention, even as his agency’s investigation has yet to bring any charges. Black folks can’t compartmentalize because we’ve run out of compartments.
Remaining positive is vital to surviving the Black experience in America. Stay the course and life will work itself out. Giving up isn’t an option, because it can’t be. All of that is true, yet it’s really hard to invest hope in making this thing work out.
That’s all Rivers was saying. That’s all we’ve been saying for generations.