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Life while Black, as told by one St. Petersburg couple

‘All of the small things that build up can make you feel like you’re drowning.’

For all of St. Petersburg’s progressive bona fides, Tori and Khyre Edwards come home at least once a week with stories to unload, experiences of being profiled, pulled over, discounted, dismissed. In their liberal-leaning circles of advocacy and faith, they find solace and momentum, but also exhaustion.

Now, as protesters march again for Black lives, the days feel heavy, hopeful and too familiar.

Both are 28. Tori is director of engagement and children at Allendale United Methodist Church, and Khyre is a case manager for Pinellas County Human Services. They have three daughters: Makena, 5, Naomi, 2, and Emelia, 19, whom they adopted in 2019.

Naomi was 6 weeks old when her parents brought her to the March for Our Lives protest against gun violence. Makena likes to chant, “No justice, no peace!”

Tori makes sure their childrens’ books feature Black girls, that the kids see a Black pediatrician on TV and in real life. She wants to flood them with affirmation, she says, so that their Blackness is not defined by slavery and oppression. Self-love can be their shield.

But she knows they pick up on her anxieties. She reads them books about managing emotions, like A Little Spot of Anxiety and Bear Feels Scared. They practice breathing exercises. Emelia’s fears can be harder to manage. Some days, she clings to Tori and Khyre, knowing what could happen when her parents leave the house.

At protests against police violence, where tensions can run high, the two littlest stay home. Even so, friends sometimes worry Tori and Khyre’s activism is too loud. The couple sees some friends flinch more at burning buildings than lost lives. They hear friends say, “Well, this won’t happen to you.”

Alongside the overt injustices are painful realizations and the everyday slights, the microaggressions Tori finds something of a misnomer.

“I don’t think there’s anything micro about them,” she says. “All of the small things that build up can make you feel like you’re drowning.”

At least when racism is blatant, it can be named, seen, condemned. But the never-ending moments — when people try to explain a comment away, when Tori is told she’s oversensitive, or that Khyre is pulling the Black card, or that “that’s not how they meant it” — those add up.

Together, Tori and Khyre hold up a mirror to these moments, affirming: No, you’re not overreacting. That’s real.

They know Black peers have just as many stories, and worse.

“But,” Tori says, “When we recall these back to back to back to back to back, you cannot explain away all of them.”

Tori and Khyre built a timeline, based on their memories, of some of these moments.

KHYRE, 7

On the playground in Akron, Ohio, Khyre tagged a friend, who fell and broke his glasses. In the principal’s office, the boy’s parents started to yell. “This is stuff that you guys always do,” they said. It was why they had wanted their kid to go to school “without you people.” Khyre didn’t understand. What kind of people?

His mom tried to explain to her second-grader, starting with the transatlantic slave trade.

Khyre started playing more carefully, so as not to hurt anyone.

Khyre Edwards, 6, left, with his brother, Treveon. [ Tori Edwards ]

TORI, 8

In third grade, researching her family crest for a class project, Tori learned that Whitlock meant white hair, as in blonde. Maybe she was a descendant of English royalty, like Queen Victoria, like princesses. Reading on, she learned what was more likely: That the Whitlock name belonged to the white slave masters who’d owned her family. That that was her history.

TORI, 9

She was the only Black student in her magnet class in rural Kansas. One girl bullied her relentlessly, mocking her skin. Once, she followed Tori into the bathroom, pushed her into the stall just to call her hair ugly.

Tori Edwards, 9, as a cheerleader in Kansas. [ Tori Edwards ]

KHYRE, 9

A replica of the slave ship Amistad docked at the St. Petersburg Pier. Khyre’s class toured its underbelly. They learned how many people had been held there in chains, how many thrown overboard. His mostly white classmates cracked “get over it” jokes. The chaperones, their parents, laughed along. Some people are just silly, his teachers said. Khyre thought, maybe if I can pretend this history doesn’t apply to me, it will be less painful.

KHYRE, 9

His father got shot in a robbery. When the police came, Khyre remembers, they treated his dad like he was the suspect. His dad sat, bleeding. At the hospital, he was interrogated. Officers told the family they shouldn’t live in that neighborhood.

TORI, 12

In middle school in Hawaii, Tori’s friends joked that she wasn’t really Black. She was a cheerleader, liked country music and practiced ballet — Black people didn’t really do those things. That made her more like an Oreo: Black on the outside, white on the inside. Tori thought, something must be wrong with me.

Tori Edwards, at right in pink shirt, with middle school friends in Hawaii, age 13. [ Tori Edwards ]

KHYRE, 12

At Best Buy, Khyre flipped through the GameCube games. Too expensive. He played around on one of the display consoles instead. As he was leaving, employees pulled Khyre aside. “We see you on the camera,” they said. “You’re standing there for a long time.”

“I didn’t do anything,” Khyre said. They made him turn out his pockets and empty his bag. Finding nothing, they banned him from the store. Customers stared. In the parking lot, a white stranger loomed over him. “You’re lucky they didn’t arrest you,” he said. “You need to shape up. Take this as a chance to turn your life around, so you don’t end up like all these hooligans.”

KHYRE, 14

After scoring well in middle school, why did Khyre find out about Boca Ciega High School honors classes from friends and not teachers or counselors? Getting into AP classes like psychology and environmental science required two recommendations. He got those. Why wasn’t that enough? Two more letters, and he was allowed in.

Khyre Edwards, back and center, in a pale blue tie, at Boca Ciega High School Homecoming in 2009. [ Tori Edwards ]

KHYRE, 15

There were times a friend would be playing basketball at Khyre’s house, and his friend’s parents would find out where in St. Petersburg Khyre lived, and suddenly, his friend had to go.

There were times Khyre went to a friend’s house for a sleepover, and that friend’s parents would talk, and Khyre would learn he couldn’t spend the night.

TORI, 15

Tori’s dad drove in front, a mile or two from home on MacDill Air Force Base after a Sam’s Club run. In the car behind him, Tori, her mom and her siblings saw a driver cut him off. Her dad started shouting and gestured with his middle finger. When police came, having been told Tori’s dad drew a gun, they pulled him from his car, threw him to the ground and handcuffed him. Tori’s mom leapt up to record. “He didn’t do anything!” she yelled. “He doesn’t have a gun!” Stay back, officers said. All Tori could do was watch — her mom, panicked; her dad, on his belly; the cops, searching his car. She listened to her dad plead that he was an officer in the military, that the family was almost home.

KHYRE, 15

Khyre had volunteer hours at the nursing home where his mom worked, cashier experience at the high school concession stand and summer plans that required a little cash. But he couldn’t get a call back. He couldn’t get an interview.

His mom told him to go to Winn-Dixie, where she had just talked to the manager. The manager said she’d hire Khyre on the spot. “Why didn’t you ever apply?” she asked. Khyre said: “I applied here three times.” “I just missed it,” she said. Khyre thought: I don’t know how you missed Khyre Dominic Alan Edwards — It’s a name that sticks out.

KHYRE, 16

Khyre’s girlfriend feared what her dad might do if he learned his white daughter had chosen a Black boy. She and Khyre decided to meet halfway and show up at the movie theater at staggered times. When her dad eventually found out, he threatened to kick his daughter out. He cut off her money. If her grades slipped, or she missed school, he believed, Khyre was why.

Once, at a Gulfport diner, Khyre and his girlfriend waited half an hour to be seated. They were the only customers. His girlfriend said it normally wasn’t like this. She went with her family all the time, and the servers knew her name.

TORI, 16

Tori drove to gymnastics practice, one car in a train of Robinson High School cheerleaders. On Dale Mabry, she braked for a light, but a teammate behind her, reaching for her cheer bag in the backseat, crashed into Tori’s car. A police officer saw it all. The teammate, petite and blonde, cried hysterically. The officer said: “I’m not going to write you a ticket. It’s OK. You don’t have to cry.” Tori’s parents, on the phone, said to make sure to get the girl’s insurance and a police report. But he didn’t write one. Tori wondered, would my tears have gotten me out of a ticket? Later, Tori’s family’s insurance wouldn’t cover the damage.

TORI, 16

Leaving school after a football game two weeks later, Tori got pulled over on that same stretch of road. Her window didn’t roll down all the way, so she tried to get it down enough to let the officers know. One officer yelled at her to keep her hands where they could see them, and the other demanded her license and registration. Crying, fumbling, with her big cheerleading bow bobbing atop her head, Tori handed them a bundle of papers from her glove compartment. Stepping back, the officers laughed. They wrote her a ticket for expired registration — though her current registration was buried in those papers — and a ticket for a broken light above her license plate, where her teammate had rear-ended it.

Tori Edwards' cheerleading portrait her senior year at Robinson High School in Tampa. [ Tori Edwards ]

KHYRE, 17

His mom let him stay up all night to watch the results. It felt like the whole neighborhood was awake, riding the tide of hope and change. Barack Obama had won.

At school, white friends echoed their parents: America is going socialist. Some honors teachers grumbled: He’s lazy. He’s entitled. Khyre’s U.S. history teacher, whose favorite president was Abraham Lincoln, said Obama was not fit to clean the Oval Office, let alone reside in it.

Khyre Edwards, 18, at his Boca Ciega High School senior prom. [ Tori Edwards ]

TORI, 17

In Tampa, driving her best friend home after cheerleading practice, the girl said the only reason her parents let her hang out with Tori was because Tori was “good Black, not regular Black.” Tori made her walk the rest of the way home.

KHYRE, 18

He dropped his girlfriend off in Pinellas Park and waited at a red light on U.S. 19 in his mom’s old sedan. Three police cruisers pulled up behind him. When the light flashed green and Khyre turned, their sirens blared. In a nearby parking lot, officers evaded Khyre’s questions. They wanted to search his car. Khyre’s government class had just studied the Fifth Amendment, so he declined. They stalled. When they let him go, it was with a warning for being suspicious in the area.

KHYRE, 19

He rode his bike to withdraw cash from an ATM, and once again, got pulled over. Khyre had to show his debit card and ID to prove he had an account.

TORI, 19

At the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, Tori joined a progressive Christian ministry. Tori found friends who cared about social justice the way she was learning to. She also found white peers who acted like they knew it all. It grew exhausting, hitting walls with those who thought their self-growth was complete. Confronted with biases they needed to work on, these white friends melted down. They got defensive. For Tori and the few other Black members, it could feel like playing Racism Tour Guide, while swallowing their own pain.

Tori Edwards, center, in a red sweater, 20, among college friends at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. [ Tori Edwards ]

TORI, 20

The ministry led an urban theology course, which for the first time in Tori’s life laid bare systemic racism: redlining, voter suppression, the history and intent of injustice. They learned about the Black neighborhoods of St. Petersburg razed for Interstate 275. How many history classes had she sat through? Who had kept Black history from her? She looked at the world through changed eyes, and it hurt.

TORI, 21

In a psychology class at USF, Tori learned how certain common measurements can be inherently racist. The Body Mass Index, for instance, based its health judgments on white, college-aged men. Some students bristled at the idea that bias lay in innocuous tools: “Wait a minute — That’s not racist.” “Black people need to just...” Discussing a tool used in processing 911 calls, a white student broke down and started spewing shockingly racist complaints. Tori’s eyes found the only other Black person in the classroom: Can you believe this is really happening? After class, they got coffee and ended up talking for three hours. Which is how Tori met Khyre.

KHYRE, 21

When Ethics let out early at St. Petersburg College, Khyre joined the students and teachers at the TV, to see coverage of the George Zimmerman case. He hadn’t understood why there was a trial in the first place. There were witnesses, no dispute — right?

Students offered color commentary: Trayvon Martin shouldn’t have been loitering, shouldn’t have been wearing a hoodie, shouldn’t have been a thug.

His parents used to talk about the rifts the O.J. Simpson trial revealed. Khyre thought this would be different. But on the day of the not guilty verdict, some people cheered.

Khyre Edwards, center in the back, as a student at St. Petersburg College. [ Tori Edwards ]

KHYRE, 21

In a sign language class, Khyre was asked to say where he was from. He signed, America.

No, the instructor said, where are your people from, before America?

I don’t know, Africa? Khyre said.

No, she wanted to know the region or nation.

Khyre thought: Couldn’t this go unsaid? Didn’t everyone know slavery’s legacy?

The instructor called Khyre lazy.

Khyre Edwards in his Walgreens uniform in his early twenties. [ Tori Edwards ]

KHYRE, 22

By now, tired of getting pulled over for his dark windows, Khyre had stripped the tinting off of his beat-up Jetta. He didn’t speed. He passed the same officers every day, heading to college or to his night shift at Walgreens. Still, police cruisers often tailed him. Until one officer, a regular at Walgreens who sometimes joked with Khyre, walked up at yet another traffic stop and told his colleagues, “You can let him go.” To Khyre, he said: “It’s nothing that you did.”

KHYRE, 22

Khyre loved those James Patterson novels about Alex Cross, who specialized in criminal psychology. In his last semester of criminology classes at USFSP, he took an elective on convicting the innocent. “This is something you guys might struggle with,” his professor said, “but the criminal justice system is inherently racist.” As they examined the 1964 crime bill and death sentence disparities, Khyre fumed. He had believed problems lay in individuals, bad apples. He had believed he could right wrongs. He thought: If my job is to enforce the law, but the law is racist, then I can’t do that.

Khyre Edwards studied criminology and psychology at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg. [ Tori Edwards ]

TORI, 22

Pregnant with their first child, her hands swelled up so much she couldn’t fit her wedding rings. In store lines, people noticed, sighing about another single mom.

Khyre Edwards poses with Tori Edwards, pregnant with Makena, the couple's first child. [ Tori Edwards ]

KHYRE, 22

Live feeds showed masses in Ferguson, Mo., streets. Newspapers ran a photo of a Black man in red, white and blue, clutching a tear gas canister, ready to hurl it back. Then came another Monday at Khyre’s mostly white workplace, where the brief attention would soon flicker out.

TORI, 22

Shopping for pants at Sears, Tori overheard two employees talking about Mike Brown like he wasn’t even a person, simply a problem to be solved with six bullets. Carrying a Black baby, Tori swelled with the rage that this was the world her child would inherit. She told the employees: “We can hear you. This is disgusting.” They turned their shoulders and kept talking.

At the register, Tori shook with tears. This is what she would think of every time she came here, she told the manager. He called the employees up, and while Tori spoke again, they just stood there.

TORI, 22

Every other day, it seemed, the news carried fresh footage of a Black person-turned-hashtag. In her sleep, Tori saw herself as one of the grieving mothers in the newsreels of women mourning their sons. The nightmares repeated, a brutal loop. When the sonogram showed that their baby would be a girl, Tori felt relief — then guilt, that she had been so afraid to raise a Black man in America.

KHYRE, 23

One overnight shift, a co-worker confessed. When he had to work a construction job with a Black person, he would try to quit or get reassigned. Black people brought trouble and were always asking for more than they deserved, he said. “You’re not like that,” this co-worker told Khyre. “You’re a good Black.” Except that wasn’t the word he used.

Khyre tried to reason with him, but his co-worker kept saying the same things.

KHRYE, 23

He had been to that park, growing up in Akron, where Tamir Rice was shot.

“He looked older than 12.” “That toy gun looked real.” “It was a mistake.”

He had thought his kids would get to have their whole childhood before they’d need to be prepared.

Would the officer ever get prosecuted? Would the family get compensated? Would they even get an apology? What could a father do to protect his kids? Anything?

KHYRE, 23

Makena was born lighter, like many Black babies, but this confused people at Publix. Some would ask Khyre if he was the father. Some congratulated him for sticking with a kid that wasn’t his.

TORI, 23

Holding down their first post-grad jobs, Tori and Khyre planned to drive their beat-up cars as long as possible. But within a year, Khyre’s car got dropped by a tow truck and Tori’s got totaled by a drunken driver. A dealership salesman talked up a rebate program that would carve $1,000 off Tori’s new car if they both had bachelor’s degrees.

“I’m sorry,” the Black salesman said later, after chatting with his white manager. His boss, though he had not asked for this before, wanted proof. Tori and Khyre brought their degrees the next day. Still, no discount. They filled out forms. Nothing. The salesman confessed, “I’ve never seen them do this before.”

Tori Edwards poses with her new car. [ Tori Edwards ]

KHYRE, 24

After a mentorship visit to the home of a kid who’d been in trouble with the law, Khyre found his back windshield smashed in. There were cameras across the street, so he called the police. Nothing came of it. He paid for a police report that spelled his name wrong and said: No other actions justified. When he asked why, the police said: This is just a high-crime area.

TORI, 25

Makena was almost 2, tagging along with two girls at the park. “They’re big girls,” Tori told her daughter, trying to give them some space. But Makena, fascinated, followed, until one of the girls pushed her down and said, “I’m not going to play with you because you’re Black.” The girl glanced at her grandparents, and Tori saw their faces, smug and smiling. She looked at the second girl’s mother, who looked away.

Tori scooped up her daughter, hoping she was too young to remember, and both cried the whole way home.

KHYRE, 24

So many times, Khyre thought about those studies that reveal the magnetic pull of white-sounding names. Should he change his resume? Should he go with his middle name, Dominic? Should he talk differently on the phone? He’d been taught education was the great equalizer, but two bachelor’s degrees later, he struggled to get calls back.

In an interview at the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, he was told his afro could scare kids in juvenile justice. When he answered no to questions about whether he smoked or drank, he was told that was hard to believe.

In a different workplace, leaders sent the only Black manager to tell Khyre his afro was unkempt, making him ineligible for a raise. Interesting, Khyre thought, because his supervisor had spiked pink hair, a dozen nose piercings and a habit of pacing the office barefoot.

TORI, 25

When pregnant with Naomi, Tori had trouble with her heart rate. At the hospital, she saw a young white doctor who seemed too self-absorbed to listen to her symptoms. He decided to run a test that came with radiation risks. Tori wanted to know the risks to herself and her baby. The doctor responded harshly, as if by asking questions, Tori had proven to be yet another irresponsible mom.

TORI, 27

Everyone at preschool shared an obsession with Frozen. Makena wanted to play pretend, too, but two girls told her she couldn’t — There were no Black people in Frozen. In the car on the way home, Makena’s little voice broke. “Mommy, why don’t they like me? Why don’t they want to play with me?”

KHYRE, 28

As a community organizer for Elizabeth Warren in Pinellas County, Khyre tuned in to statewide campaign calls. An organizer in Marion County confessed she was having trouble talking to Black voters. “Do you guys have any ideas of how I can get a Black or a Latino on my team, so that I can talk to these people?”

Khyre responded, “So first, you don’t want to refer to them as ‘a Black and a Latino,’ and you might try just talking to them.” Silence stretched out. The leader said, “Well, thank you for your input.”

When it came time to knock on doors in Gulfport, or the Old Northeast, filling shifts was no problem. In Black neighborhoods, the volunteers he could scrounge up sometimes showed up, posed for a photo and left.

Tori and Khyre Edwards poured time into Elizabeth Warren's campaign for president. [ Tori Edwards ]

TORI, 27

Already overwhelmed by the chaotic spring of 2020, Tori avoided the video. She clicked around to read the news, but some sites had set the footage on autoplay. One started playing, and she couldn’t turn it off. She cried. She’d seen it so many times before.

KHYRE, 28

Other deaths, other times, Khyre could have escaped into work or a march or a movie, but this time, George Floyd followed him. It seemed like people — most people — weren’t trying to demonize Floyd, at least. It seemed like more people were starting to see what was so broken. Khyre watched protests bloom here and keep going. Black and white faces, kids and teens, taking up signs and marching well into the dark, not exactly sure what would come next.

TORI and KHYRE, 28

A promising option for a bigger home opened up on their street. Tori had been friends with the old tenants, so she texted one of the owners saying it would be a good fit for their three daughters and cat. “Great,” the woman said. They scheduled a time to meet. The night before, texting to confirm, Tori hit a button that shared her Apple contact, which featured an emoji that looked like her. Immediately, the woman texted to call it off. She said her husband did not want to rent to a family with kids.

Friends spotted moving trucks outside another house. Tori called the landlord and talked money — the house was a bit outside their range. The landlord said, “We can work with it.” They settled on a number and went over deposits. He said he’d need just a couple hundred. They got excited as they drove over — friends nearby, a nice neighborhood, the landlord warm on the phone. When they stepped out of the car, though, Tori saw the landlord’s face drop. He didn’t say a word. His wife showed them around. As they were leaving, the landlord said, actually, the price would be the full amount, and he would need a much bigger deposit, including two months’ rent.

For now, they’ve put the search on hold.

Makena, Khyre, Tori and Naomi Edwards at a March for Our Lives rally in 2018. [ Tori Edwards ]

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