A Conversation with Keesha Charles

Keesha Charles, born and bred in Brooklyn, New York, is turning 50. After studying arts administration, she currently works in freelance brand management in Queens where she and her husband live.

2020 has been a pressure cooker for everyone, no one has been immune, but when you have a compromised immune system, this year has been all the more precarious. Keesha is one of those people, living with MS, and as the world closed their doors, she had to close hers tighter, warding off the possibility of further illness.

She’s someone I admire. This year, as America’s long-standing racial inequality bubbled over, I’ve watched and followed and learned from her lead as she’s shared her heart through social media. She was kind enough to share more with me to share with you.

Ryan: Where have you spent the pandemic?

Keesha: Mostly in my apartment and in Connecticut. When things started to open up slowly, I wasn’t trusting of my neighborhood. There were a lot of people taking off their masks, especially young people, so my husband and I have been driving to Connecticut to go antique shopping. Everyone there is wearing a mask and I feel safer there. I spoke with an employee at Burlington who said, “We have no desire to go back into full shutdown mode so we’re doing what we’re supposed to do.” I appreciated that because I haven’t felt that was the attitude in New York. Also, John and I are an interracial couple and we are used to people staring at us. When we’ve been in Stanford, Fairfield and Danbury, we haven’t been stared at as we walk around. It’s made it so comfortable for us to spend this time together.

Ryan: What was the last thing you were doing when the world shut down?

Keesha: Every year, I do my friend’s taxes. I went to meet him and was waiting in Union Square, walking around, trying to enjoy the day. I knew people with compromised immune systems would have to stay inside but I never imagined everyone and everything would shut down. I was walking through the farmer’s market looking for green and purple radishes and couldn’t find them so I told myself I’d come back on Saturday to look again but that never happened because by then, everything was shut down.

Ryan: How long did it take you to acclimate to being at home?

Keesha: I have MS and it’s a disease that can isolate you very quickly. When you have MS, you’re a person who has to cancel plans when you get sick at the last minute. Then of course, in the morning you can feel terrible and at night, you can feel great. It’s isolating because people get tired of plans being canceled so my socialization is with my husband or at church. All of that to say, I was used to being by myself because I was already shut in. I don’t have the freedom to be a shut in by choice, I must be a shut in.

I was aggravated when people started saying, “I can’t deal with this anymore, this is the worst,” after having been home for only two weeks. It made me angry. Do you know how many people are disabled and this is their life? Yet you’re complaining about two weeks? Give me a break. My Christian side goes, “Have mercy on them,” but my human side goes, “Whatever.”

Ryan: I’d like to talk about your faith. I’d like to know what “faith” means to you because quite frankly, that word means different things to different people, even among people who, like you, would say they have a “Christian side.”

Keesha: I’m struggling. My faith is: I can only rely on God and the Bible. But not the Bible that’s interpreted by others but what I see and study for myself. I study translations and what rabbis say and what the ancients have spoken on it, but I’m divorcing myself as much as I can from American Christianity. This year cemented that. I’m trying my best to ask God to love and to have mercy but I’m running out of mercy. I’m leaning on God so heavily to act out the greatest commandment, which is to love, but it’s hard to love in this situation. It’s hard to love people who say they are pro-life but won’t wear a mask. It’s hard to love people who support the president who is out there lying right now.

You know, I say I believe in Jesus and I know the greatest commandment is to love, so that means I have to value the life of Donald Trump and I have to value the space my fellow Christians who are Trump supporters occupy. I have to believe in their right to life and their right to their terrible decisions. That’s a hard place to come to. So when I say I’m relying on God, that’s where I’m at.

I’m also relying on God that I don’t get sick. I’m relying on God to help me understand why, yet again, Indigenous, Latino, and Black people are being jackhammered so hard. I ask, Where are you? I’m trusting God to get me through the difficult questions I have. I’m having a hard time loving His people in America right now.

I pray, God, give me the eyes to love people the way you love them, and that means I have to see them the way He sees them. I’m seeing the ugliness of humanity and I have to remind myself that God loves us in our ugliness. I am included in that.

I’m not going to truly understand why this man is president. I’m not going to understand why Indigenous, Latino and Black people are suffering yet again. I’m not going to understand why women may lose the right to their own bodies. My trust is that God will get me to a place of peace in my not knowing. It’s been a journey to find the fullness, the shalom, the wholeness of it all.

Ryan: You talked about the ugliness of humanity. What are your thoughts on how this year, the racism in America, and the fight against it hit a fever pitch? 

Keesha: What’s the plan? What’s the strategy in all of this? Is it just to march? When MLK, Malcolm X and Jesse Jackson were affecting change, they had a plan and a strategy. When they boycotted buses, that was planned out, so what’s the plan today? Because everything happens so fast now, we had the moment of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor but it’s a two day cycle for everything. Two days and it’s out of our minds. That is, until someone else gets hurt or shot or killed. Until another Karen is on video. I just don’t know what to do anymore.

I was talking to my mom who was very upset about the looting. She had a tear in her voice. “I went through this already and we don’t deserve to go through this again,” she said. “We don’t deserve this unrest.” She doesn’t have any problem with the protesting but her generation already went through the looting.

There are days when I’m angry, days when I’m sad. I know some people are trying to be allies but I think the way white supremacy has been built into this country, many white people don’t know that being an ally means taking a back seat. True allyship is being supportive of the movement, not driving it. There’s been quite a bit of, “I get it now! How can I help? Let me do it! Let me take this over,” and I have to wonder, how long before white young people get bored and do what the hippies did and go get a house, get married, have kids, and forget they ever protested.

Ryan: During this year, during this pandemic, what have you learned about yourself?

Keesha: I’ve had time to sit and really think and I’ve realized there are so many things about my life, my childhood, and my upbringing that I look at so differently than perhaps how it actually happened. When I started looking at life truthfully, I’ve realized it’s not bad to look at things the way they actually were. To see them realistically and to process how they really are. I’ve learned it’s okay to see the world the way it really is and not through rose-colored glasses.

Ryan: The truth is the most powerful thing at our disposal. We’ve been at this for months and months. When we’re able to do so, what are you most excited to come back to?

Keesha: Oyster Bar. I want to go back and be uncontrollable about Dollar Oysters. It sounds trivial but I used to go with my girlfriends and we’d sit at the bar and yes, eat a ridiculous amount of oysters, but it was really about the companionship and conversation. I miss that. And I miss talking to random people. In New York, so much of being out and about is talking to other people. You can have a fifteen minute conversation with a stranger about anything. I miss that.

Ryan: What will you consciously leave behind?

Keesha: The concept that “I have time to do that later.” Procrastinating. I don’t do something because, “I have time, I have time.” But you know, we don’t. We never know when something is going to shut down our ability to see our family or a friend. So instead of saying, “I have time,” and putting it off until later, I’m just going to do it.

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