Personal essay: Fox Chapel senior Will Generett on racism and being Black

This story first appeared in NEXTpittsburgh, which publishes Kidsburgh.

If racism is worse than it’s ever been, says Will Generett, “it’s not because it was never there but because people didn’t know about it like they do now.

“Racism is like dust. You can’t really see it until you shine a light on it,” says the senior at Fox Chapel High School, referencing an insight he read online. “Right now, social media is shining a light on it.”

Will has never been active on social media but since the lockdown in mid-March, he has spent more time on it and found plenty to disturb him.

The student — who started a Black Student Council in Fox Chapel after the school failed to celebrate Black History Month — was looking for a way to cope with his anger over the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man who was going for a run in his Georgia neighborhood when he was attacked and killed by two white men.

So Will turned to writing. In an essay he calls “Run,” he considers what Ahmaud might have been thinking during the horrific incident. “I can’t speak for him, but he can’t speak for himself,” says Will. All the thoughts expressed in the piece are Will’s.

After finishing the essay and posting on social media, Will was rocked again by the confounding murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer who jammed his knee into the victim’s neck for nearly nine minutes, despite Floyd’s pleas of “I can’t breathe.”

“It is horrific,” he says. He quotes James Baldwin, which he first heard from his father, in describing his feelings. “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.”

What do his white friends say to him about the incidents?

“It’s a great question,” Will says. “I know a lot of my friends are conservative but when it comes to this, they’re 100 percent against police brutality. They’re reposting my essay and spreading awareness.”

On the other hand, he notes, “There are others who are very silent about it. And that’s scary.

“We don’t teach white kids to talk about race at an early age,” he says. “They have no clue how to approach it. Some of them try. But all my friends in the Black Student Union? (There are 25 members.) We have very, very good conversations.”

Often the only Black student in his classes at Fox Chapel, Will is headed to Morehouse College in the fall, an all-male HBCU (historically black colleges and universities) school, “where I can just be Will and just study and not worry about micro-aggressions or if the school will be celebrating Black History Month.”

It’s the same college that his dad, Bill Generett, attended, as well as his grandfather. He plans on majoring in biology and hopes to be a doctor.

Here is Will’s essay, Run:

The news cycle shows the men and women storming the state building. Guns in hand, they are demanding the reopening of America. They stand in front of police officers yelling and waving weapons, unafraid of retaliation. They have no reason to be afraid.

They have the backing of the President and the support of their white privilege. In an odd sense, I agree that the country should try to get back to work as soon as possible. Some individuals need the paycheck they receive from their 9-5 to cover the bills and put food on the table. If I needed to feed my family and the government wouldn’t let me, I would be angry too. Shoot, I would even storm the state house with a few of my buddies as well. Hold on, though: that wouldn’t be an option. A group of black men standing on the steps of a state house with guns in hand would be deemed the black panthers 2.0. Our “protest” would last all but five minutes before the tear gas and riot shields joined us.

Every time I want to sympathize with one of the protestors, I think of the thousands of people dead from the coronavirus. In a country where quality healthcare isn’t available to everyone, people of color have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Social distancing in my family is a must because both my mom and dad have underlying health conditions that could make them more susceptible to Covid. As an escape from all of this, I have been keeping up with my running.

As I put on my shorts and white tee to get ready for my run, I check my twitter account. The very first post I see is from the president. Another President Trump “REOPEN AMERICA” Tweet. I smile because I think of all the people who don’t take this man seriously, but then my smile quickly disappears because I am reminded of all of the people who worship him. I cringe every time I see one of his tweets and I regret that I follow him. He is pure comedy, but it’s the type of humor that makes you giggle but then tremble in fear. He is a symbol of hate and a constant reminder that America still has a long way to go.

Today feels like a three-mile day. Not too short, not too long. I’ll run for two and then I’ll visit the new construction project along the way. I’m curious to see the new progress from the last visit. As I set off for my run, I instantly regret it. The Georgia heat is unbearable and under the scorching sun I have a bad feeling about my ability to finish the three miles today. I’m committed to these three miles, however, and I am determined to finish what I start. Running is a release from reality; it helps me clear my head and forget what is happening in the world. On my run there is no Covid -19 — just the road and the trees. On my run I can escape the burden of being a black man in America. On my run I can leave my mistakes in the past. On my run I can continue towards progress and a goal without interruption. On my run I can forget.

I am now far from home. The houses look the same, but the atmosphere is less familiar. There is a new vibe, one that I cannot explain. I don’t know anyone in Satilla Shores but for me unfamiliarity does not breed contempt. America is going through this pandemic together and I hope the people in this neighborhood are doing well and staying healthy during this crisis. As I round the corner to the street with the construction site, I see an older woman watering her plants. I smile gently at her as I enter the construction site.

The house has changed a lot since the last time I was here, but it still has a long way to go. They put up a new wall and what appears to be a staircase. A sink! God is on my side today. Lord knows I needed that drink. As I sip the uncomfortably warm water I looked around at the unfinished house. It will be a beautiful house. There is so much potential for growth, and it is not even close to the finished product. As I look around the barren site I succumb to a moment of self-reflection. At the age of 25, I am also an incomplete product. I am the unfinished house. The sky is the limit.

One more mile to go. My feet are sore and my calves ache, but both pains are a small price to pay for the runner’s high I will receive after mile three. My head is clear, and the sun is bright Like Kendrick said, we’re gonna be alright. I chuckle. Kendrick needs to drop another album ASAP. I’ve been fiending for the goat. I used to listen to music while I run, but my mom said I should not wear headphones when I run because I always need to be aware of my surroundings. She always claimed that I wouldn’t be able to react or hear a car if I needed to. She was probably right, and I agree with her — being in the moment and listening to my surroundings isn’t a bad thing. I am able to get a sense of the mood around me. Today, this neighborhood feels different. Usually Satilla Shores is very quiet and peaceful, but I feel a strong sense of fear. Something is awry. More people were outside than usual..

The light buzz of chatter turned into yells. Multiple house doors opened simultaneously as if it were coordinated. Out of the corner of my eye I see a man hop into the trunk of a white pickup. More yelling. Wait. Why is the- is that a gun? Why are they armed? This is Georgia, so seeing a shotgun or two isn’t out of the ordinary, but the men entering the truck reminded me of the armed protestors. They were angry, determined, white, and ready for some type of conflict.

The man in the truck yelled in my direction. I wanted to distance myself from whatever situation is
brewing, so I continue to run. The white truck pulled out of the driveway and came down the road in my direction. A tinge of fear crept into my body as I realized that something wasn’t wrong — somehow, I was wrong. The yelling was directed at me. I am the only one on the road. The two armed men are after me, and I don’t know why. What do they want? The truck made a left on a side road, and the comforting thought that maybe they weren’t after me floods my brain.

Relief overtakes my body. Georgia is notorious for bigotry, but I cannot let those men ruin my run. The Apple Watch my mother gave me as an early birthday gift says I’ve run 2.23 miles. My goal of three miles is in sight. Further down the road I could see that my path was blocked off —the same white truck. My stomach twisted into knots as I watched them stare at me. It was a trap, and they were waiting for me. I’m only running, I reassure myself. I don’t have to stop. I know how to conduct myself with police; every black man has the talk with their parents about how to handle getting pulled over. However, this situation is one I am not equipped for. This situation is new to me. I know I am allowed to run. I have done nothing wrong.

“Stop” the man yells near the driver’s side door.

“We are making a citizen’s arrest.”

“Stop running.”

The fuck is a citizen’s arrest? I keep running in the direction of the truck. I plan on minding my own business and finishing my run. They were between me and my three-mile goal. Who are they to stop my progress? I am allowed to run on this road. As I reached the truck both men were yelling at me, but I could barely understand them. My newfound stress depletes any energy I had left from my run. My t-shirt is drenched in sweat from the Georgia sun, truck, the shotgun was pointed to my head. The man with the shotgun showed no emotion in his face as he pointed the gun at me. He had the look of a hardened soldier who believed so much in a cause that he is willing to risk his life. His face showed his conviction that what he was doing was right.

I never thought that the gun pointed at the state building would be pointed at me. The same white Americans who so desperately stood on the steps of the state building and protested for their freedoms are the same Americans who are quick to place the job of the judge, the jury, and the executioner into their own hands. The average white American is so blinded by their own quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that they trample on the basic rights of the person standing next to them. A million thoughts ran through my brain. But the one that rose above the rest was FIGHT.