The summer I taught myself to run was probably the most frightening of my life to that point. I had graduated from college without a job offer, nor any likely prospects after two interviews that had each ended in kind but final rejections. My boyfriend was in a country halfway around the world, without reliable cell phone or internet connections. My friends were interning and working in various cities around the country, and I had three more months on my lease in the small town where I went to college. The school year ended, and the town shrank. I was alone. The two weeks after my graduation, I spent almost every day in my apartment applying to jobs and reading one or two novels a day. When I looked out of my bedroom window, I could see the inside of a dumpster. Before, I had found this perfectly fitting for a first apartment and even quite funny, but now the sight of it confirmed how I felt. I was literally, it seemed, in the dumps.
There are details about how I started, but they are mostly only interesting to runners. I walked, I ran, I walked, I ran, and within a month, I just ran. And it made me feel powerful. I discovered in myself the same discipline for running that I had used to study in school. The control I now had over my body was new to me. Today, you will run three miles, I told my body, and so, it did. I will not deny a vain joy in seeing muscles appear where I had not seen them before, but the true pride I found in running had to do with control over my stride, my breathing. I had found a new way to move myself through public space, and I used this to my advantage, exploring parts of town that I had never been through before, giving a polite runner’s wave to new people. I never thought about the limits of where I could run or even how far I could go. As many have said before me, I just felt like running.
Around the time that I could run two miles without stopping to walk, George Zimmerman’s trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin began. By the time I could run four miles without stopping to walk, he had been found not guilty on both of the charges brought against him. In between these events, I followed the New York Times‘s coverage of the trial from my bed, where I still spent most of my days, continuing to apply for jobs and reading Ernest Gaines and Alice Walker. Even though I remember following the trial, I am sure that I did not grasp the gravity of the testimonies, the arguments, and finally, the verdict. I do remember that I went for a long run that day or the next during which I talked to myself about it. Is it moral? No. Is it legal? God help us, it shouldn’t be. Trayvon was running. I am running. I ran, crying salty white tears that mixed with my own guilty white sweat. It stormed that evening, and the heat choked the lightning so that it bolted bright and wide across the sky.
Last month, I interviewed a man who told me what he did the night that George Zimmerman’s verdict was returned. It was raining, he said, and I was so upset I didn’t know what to do. I knew I needed to read something that would help me understand how this could happen. So I drove to Barnes & Noble in the rain and everything and I found Martin Luther King Jr.’s Why We Can’t Wait, and I just sat down and I read it and I thought, he is speaking to us now. At this moment in the interview, I had to stop myself saying, yes, I remember that summer, that storm, that feeling, that search for some sense. Of course, we were not the only two people in our small town who felt lost that summer, but in the interview, it seemed we might have been.
The penultimate chapter of King’s Why We Can’t Wait is titled “The Summer of Our Discontent,” and it describes the events of the summer of 1963: the protests in Birmingham, King’s Good Friday jailing, George Wallace’s theatrical stand in the schoolhouse door and the integration of the University of Alabama, and the March on Washington on August 28. King also outlines the newly engaged fight for Black Americans’ right to vote, and calls on the “white community and the political power structure of our nation” to pass a Civil Rights and Voting Rights law. Fifty years later, in the summer of 2013, and he is speaking to us now. That summer, the Supreme Court decided Shelby County v. Holder, overriding the power given to Congress in the 15th Amendment to enforce the Constitution’s ban on racial discrimination in voting, and hollowing out a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The summers of 1963 and 2013 both rolled with racial violence, some overt and some intentionally embedded in the intricacies of government.
I got over to Raleigh three or four times that summer to attend Moral Mondays, but that was the extent of my involvement in the second summer of discontent. In retrospect, I spent most of my time taking care of myself. I ran and cooked for myself everyday (an easy feat when you have no job), and focused on applying to jobs and researching graduate programs. I didn’t feel it, jobless and alone, but I was the representation of privilege, which I enacted by spending my time planning the route for my weekend runs instead of getting out in the street to protest for Trayvon. I didn’t have the language for it yet, but as I ran for self-care, it was also a way to practice my own privilege.
By the end of that summer, I had a job offer. My boyfriend came back to town, and we moved in together. I kept running. Things were getting better. I worked the job, and I saved money for graduate school. I applied to graduate school. I kept running. I got into graduate school, and enrolled in the program I am now in. I kept at it through my first year, but by the time exams rolled in, I had quit running.
This morning, I ran a little over seven miles. As I sit here in the library and evening rolls in, I can feel the dull ache move through my thighs. I recognize in this ache a sense of pride in how well I had controlled my body’s breathing, direction, pace, and stride. I was running down Franklin Street when the 8:30AM service bells chimed from the Episcopal Church, then the Presbyterian, then the Methodist. I thought then, feeling the still of the air after the bells had stopped ringing, how good it is to feel powerful in my own body on this street, where usually I am just another figure making their way to the CVS to buy a packet of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. Today, I learned from Twitter, Trayvon Martin would have celebrated his twenty-second birthday. Somehow this surprises me, because he remains seventeen years old in my mind. When we recognize an alternative time in which Trayvon is still here, growing older along with us, it is an act of life.
But it is not truly life-giving, the same way that running does not give me complete control over my own body. I began running again in early January as a new year’s resolution to stay healthy, but also as a conscious way to practice ownership of my body and my self. It is my form of personal resistance, to use the byword of our moment. I run to feel powerful, and to feel as though my right to bodily sovereignty is not threatened with every footfall. Martha Nussbaum defines bodily integrity as “being able to move freely from place to place; being able to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.” I feel this, or at least, the hope of it, when I am out for a run.
And even as I run to enact self-ownership, I know that others cannot do the same, and are punished, brutalized, and killed for the same act. Running as a white woman can be my personal resistance, but of course it is not sufficient action. Even as I write that last sentence, it feels weighty in its own self-evidence. And yet, I need to write it and repeat it. Self-care is not holistic resistance. Audre Lorde called self-care “an act of political warfare,” but white women should be careful at how they invoke this practice in service to our shared resistance. Self-care is a radical feminist act for all who consciously practice it, but it is an outright subversive act for women of color to center their own needs, which historically, they have been unable to do.
What I am asking, especially from my white peers, is that we reconsider how our acts of self-care affect others, and keep us from the acts of resistance that tie us to others who are unlike us in one way or another. This doesn’t mean that you ought to throw out your sourdough starter or sleep in on your long run day, but that you evaluate your practice and rethink how it helps you, and thus, how you can help others. Self-care is not a crutch on which to rest your white tears or prop up your feet. For me, running is self-care and personal resistance, a way to feel powerful in my own body, but I cannot delude myself into thinking that it is sufficient action. I run alone to gain the power that helps me to join the march together. And that power then engages me in my communities, and strengthens my resolve to listen, to write, to show up for black lives.
Tomorrow is my rest day, which will give me an extra hour of my morning. And how to spend it? Phone calls, I think. To my representatives and to my friends: do they need a ride to Raleigh on Saturday?