Yesterday on Minnehaha Avenue in St. Paul, a bad driver in a big car ran a red light. My husband was driving. He was able to stop fast enough — the precious few seconds it took for the car to zoom in front us. I was sitting in the backseat trying to feed my 21-month old a dinner of sticky rice, her favorite.
Also I am nearly 28 weeks pregnant with identical twin boys.
Picture a small frame, a big belly, feet swinging off the car floor, back against the seat, the seat belt high atop the bundle of babies. I remember I had a water bottle in my hands, and a ball of sticky rice.
When my husband stepped on the brake, the bottle went flying. The rice ball fell to my lap as I lurched forward.
I extended my left arm to hold my baby girl steady in her seat. My right arm went in front of me, to try to push against the passenger seat, to minimize the impact on my bulging belly.
We almost lost each other.
I took deep breaths. I checked my little girl. She was scared but not in tears. I checked myself. I put my hands on my big belly. I asked my little boys to move. I massaged and massaged where the seatbelt had pulled tight across my chest and stomach. When I felt the stirring of my babies inside of me, I willed my pulse to slow down.
I felt the same way on June 18, 2015, when news of the massacre at the Emanuel African Methodist and Episcopal Church in Charleston entered our little house in the heart of the Seward Neighborhood in Minneapolis, I experienced the same tightness of chest, the running pulse, the hopelessness of living in a world where there are people who feel powerful enough to hurt, even kill, others.
There were passing clouds in the sky. It was hot. Outside, the humidity was high at 79 percent. There was a breeze but it did little to lift the heavy pressure in the air. Our curtains were open though the windows were closed. The house hummed with the song of the air conditioner.
I was on the sofa, on my phone, scanning through Facebook posts — one of my least productive but most frequent pastimes during this pregnancy. I have 3,917 friends. I belong to a handful of groups, my favorites being Hmong Kitchen and Minneapolis Mamas of Multiples. I was looking forward to seeing images of spicy, sour food and adorable babies causing minor household mischief. Instead I found myself staring at one post after another, images of black men and women in tears: the Charleston Church Shooting.
Nine people had been killed, three black men and six black women. They were at a bible study when someone, a stranger they had welcomed, opened fire. It was a hate crime. One more in a long series. Some were calling it domestic terrorism. The suspect: a young man, face free of wrinkles, a head of thick blond hair, eyes focused on some vision I could not see. The suspect is a 21-year-old white boy.
I read the initial articles.
I watched the initial news clips.
I felt the words, the actions, the significance of the church, the hate that motivated the killer, the thing that I fight against in my life as a woman of color, raised in a family full of love but no money, a woman raising an interracial child, anticipating two others. We meet the white structure of racism, this wall, unbreachable from one side, engineered on the other by hundreds of years of white superiority to demolish on levels big and small, to massacre groups of people, classes of people, masses of people.
I remember being 7 or 8 years old. We are fishing at an American Indian reservation a few hours from the cities. It’s my favorite fishing spot, the place where I caught my first real fish, a blue bass. The summer sun is glittering down on the long cement pier. I’m sitting on the edge of the pier, a fishing pole in my hand, focused intently on the red bobber in the water. Seven of my cousins and I are on a fishing trip with our father and our uncle. We are spaced out on the pier — far enough away from each other so we don’t accidentally hook each other’s ears.
A truck speeds our way. It stops in front of my littlest cousin. Four white men get out. Truck doors slam. They start shouting. Our father and our uncle run to the men. My uncle has a Hmong knife in its wooden case strapped to his waist, in case he needs to clean a big fish. My father has nothing in his hands. The strangers are pointing and yelling. My little cousin starts to cry. Every few words they say the f-word. My father holds up both hands, palms open, and says, “Sorry, sorry, sorry. We are going now with the kids. Please. Sorry.”
One of the men spits on the ground, close to where I’m sitting, clutching the fishing pole in my hand, heedless of the fact that there’s a fish on my line. The men get in the truck. They zoom away. We watch as the dust dissipates in their wake.
This is the first time I hear my father apologize, not because we were in a place we weren’t supposed to be, doing something we were not supposed to do, but because we exist at all.
I live in a world full of situations and moments like this.
I don’t need to read the think pieces to know what happened in Charleston, or why.
There is no next time — for the nine slaughtered in the Charleston Church Shooting. Not because a single bad driver ran a red light, but because a young man grew up in a culture that allowed him to hate so deeply and believe so firmly in his own power that he took a gun, shot bullets into beating, praying hearts.
We have lost them and we stand in danger of losing each other.
Kao Kalia Yang is a teacher, public speaker, and writer. Yang is the author of the award-winning book, "The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir" (Coffee House Press, 2008) and the forthcoming book, "The Song Poet" (Metropolitan Books, 2016). She is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Kao Kalia lives in Minneapolis with her family.