In a long, moving essay on race in America, in which he details his own fraught encounters with the police and prejudice, the black poet Ross Gay reflects on the cumulative force of suspicion and fear in the lives of black Americans:
Isn’t it, for them, for us, a gargantuan task not to imagine that everyone is imagining us as criminal? A nearly impossible task? What a waste, a corruption, of the imagination. Time and again we think the worst of anyone perceiving us: walking through the antique shop; standing in front of the lecture hall; entering the bank; considering whether or not to go camping someplace or another; driving to the hardware store; being pulled over by the police. Or, for the black and brown kids in New York City, simply walking down the street every day of their lives. The imagination, rather than being cultivated for connection or friendship or love, is employed simply for some crude version of survival. This corruption of the imagination afflicts all of us: we’re all violated by it. I certainly know white people who worry, Does he think I think what he thinks I think? And in this way, moments of potential connection are fraught with suspicion and all that comes with it: fear, anger, paralysis, disappointment, despair. We all think the worst of each other and ourselves, and become our worst selves.
He ultimately appeals to mercy and forgiveness as the only way forward:
It seems to me that part of my reason for writing this — for revealing my own fear and sorrow, my own paranoia and self-incrimination and shame — is to say, Look how I’ve been made by this. To have, perhaps, mercy on myself. When we have mercy, deep and abiding change might happen. The corrupt imagination might become visible. Inequalities might become visible. Violence might become visible. Terror might become visible. And the things we’ve been doing to each other, despite the fact that we don’t want to do such things to each other, might become visible.
If we don’t, we will all remain phantoms — and, as it turns out, it’s hard for phantoms to care for one another, let alone love one another. And it’s easy for phantoms to hurt one another. So when the cop and I met that night, how could he possibly have seen the real me for all the stories and fantasies that have been heaped on my body, and the bodies of those like me, for centuries? And how could I see him?