Even our tears wear shackles: On knowing and needing to be Black and Emotionally Well, part 1: Faking Good
I can recall wanting to scream, that was first. I was quite in a rage, but was well across that bridge, somewhere between frustration and panic. I was breathing ever so shallow in that small human space where you know and live the feeling, but can’t quite find the words. I had, through lived and repeated experience, learned how to create a self at those times, divorced from that near rage and panic, and guided it through a performance to keep those around me safe, so I thought, and comforted, so I believed.
This was around 2003 or so. I was firmly into my graduate school career at Fordham University. I was to be a Clinical Psychologist soon. I was to make those who i loved most, many who lived near that campus, proud, I hoped, beyond measure. I owned those expectations, and felt talented and able conscientious enough to navigate those seas, most of which came with nothing in the way of a map or compass, not then anyway. See, I had fallen, early on, into an angry contemplative meditation about the nature of “imposter syndrome”, and in speaking to several of the few Black and similarly “other” graduate students at Fordham, we each had concerns about whether these feelings were native to us, or had been introduced to us in our contact with our programs, fed to us like some novel poison, offered with a smile and disguised in some narrative from above us about necessity and shaping and preparation.
There was always something that didn’t quite taste right in the elixir of that instruction. Mixed in with the investment in my development, and instruction, and guidance, were instances, increasing over time, making reference to my politics, and the volume of my voice, and “fit.” Perhaps, these were generally offered as a means of aiding me in navigating work and career politics. Rarely did they feel they way. Rarely was my perspective on these asked or offered to those providing them.
I would suggest that these simply made me more of a bulldog, and they typically did, but they also emotionally exhausted me, and I came to believe that that was the goal of several of those offering their counsel. There were parts of my spirit, worn all over my skin and hair, that they wished to file and break. Something about my unwillingness to avert my eyes and heel when given these gems was offensive to elements of that system. I came to learn that I was not alone.
I can recall having to pair that with being taught about how to best understand and treat psychiatric disorders within my own family community. I can recall some of those instances of anger and helplessness, being reminded that personal experience cannot be substituted for science, and having all of those pairs of eyes venture over to and resting on my person whenever my community was the brief focus of instruction. I recall remaining defiant, and wondering if the reactions of some of those tasked with stewarding my development were about my ability and not my questions. I began to spend time with that new friend, imposter syndrome, shouting within the walls of the cell I had constructed for my doubt, about whether or not they were silently telling me that I wasn’t built to be like them, and thus would never be.
I was questioning myself, and reading every email and remark on an assignment with a rubric that I felt they had psychically crafted just for me. My doubt bloomed, blue hot, feeding other parts of my life outside of my schooling. I was suffering, certainly. I also, in those days, many of them back in ’03, pulled a voice from some artifact in my childhood. I dug deep and unearthed it, and was immediately chastised by it. It spoke clearly, and brutally, directly and concisely.
This voice, some part my own, and some part my parents, and theirs, and neighbors and the ether, suggested to me that I had grown soft like my White classmates. It suggested that hurting, and sensitivity, and breaking and needing assurance and kindness were the purview of my neighbors from afar. Those of us born Black, and having the audacity and opportunity to be groomed for these many professions could not afford to be hurt. Hurt, emotional pain and vulnerability, were dangers to our progress, and were to be placed in isolation, monitored, and lobotomized. For us, emotional pain was meant to be treated as the adversary, considered with disdain, and executed on sight.
I took that remnant, that echo in my head and heart, to be gospel. I placed the anger and lash marks behind a firewall of willingness and aggression. For those kept at arms reach, I could do more and take more, because I simply had to. All of that frantic shouting within me was to be muted, and held for a time more convenient, such as in prayer or when it could be burned away with humor or a casual shrug. I was not allowed suffering. Not while being Black, and present. Not while being Black and knowing the stakes. Were I to call it suffering, I would have had to show others where it was bleeding.
When I became aware of the cries of the parts of me that had been incarcerated, and how those around me processed this silence in those of my tribe as ambivalence, I set those parts of myself free. And began to push back. I treated parts of my schooling as a staging area for my personal revolt. I stopped, for longer and more developed periods of time, faking good, though the urge to draw that skillset to the fore nags on occasion.
I understood this, over time, this reluctance and refusal to process, by my community and family, Black and resolute, to be practiced out of assumed necessity. I came to understand that this generational curse, like so many others, had been taught within our homes and within the safety of our relationships, as a believed means of protection from a wider society and base of neighbors who were always looking for points of weakness, and for reasons to ostracize or remove our skin and life from sacred spaces.
I wept then, and still periodically do, for my ancestors who couldn’t risk exposing their humanity for fear of it being destroyed, and shamed, and minimized and dehumanized. I gritted my teeth, knowing that the history of repeated traumas visited on my tribe and family could not be explored in shared or personal spaces, lest we be found out and prosecuted. Lest we be gaslighted, and bullied, and expelled.
Ultimately, I walked away from those days knowing that my community, Black women, men and children, must see that our ancestors sacrificed their emotional wellness, and their voices, and stowed all of their room away in us, to keep us all here. I believe, without reservation, that they knew the time would come, when all of the rivers of oppression, and the pall of supremacy, would subject to our review. They knew that our spirits, being forced to live with the stink of it all, would need healing, and reframing, and rebuilding, and freeing. They knew that we would need to pick up the task of becoming fully realized and well beings in ways which they were never allowed to.
We are at that precipice, you know. We are on the sheer cliff of wanting to maintain the habits of old, and wanting to free ourselves, not always ready to leap, and crash, and burn, phoenix-like, and be made new.
Ultimately, we need those, like me, like all of those who have studied the workings of the human psychology, and who are Black and other, to join our family round the fire. We are needed. Our experiences, and knowledge, and the indignities we have survived and learned from, are the torch, held high, that our family needs. Many of our tribe experience guilt and shame around parts of their all too real lived human emotions. Many fake good, even in spaces that we should be holding for ourselves, as they haven’t been allowed to feel out loud, and to burst out of that skin that has been beaten into shape around their person. Not being okay, still, even now, is not something allowed our community.
We fake good about how well we understand one another. We fake good around how we rebuke our toxicity with our fellow Black family members. We fake good around the dangers that our unwellness and disturbance pose to our children, and relationships, and health. We fake good around what it means for us to be Black and so-called Americans, and how we too often believe in the value that this land and neighbors places on our lives and flesh. We fake good when we editorialize about how suffering is simply our birthright, and requires that we maintain a staid, somber vigilance, waiting unhappily on the next travesties to be visited on our family. We hold all of it, and have never practiced processing or sharing or releasing it. We have no metric for how much room we need. We find distraction, and isolation, and sedation. But rarely peace. We shackle those parts of our humanity that often feel too bright and large, and those that wish to run away and flee. We don’t feel entitled all of those great and terrible parts of our full humanity, even those that feel closest to the divine.
Even now, while we are fighting so passionately for our space, and while we are projecting our voices and shaping this reality, willfully, we often feel as if we must do so with only quiet purpose.
We must now, train and grow and train even more healers. We must promote our guides to our discovery and emotional wellness from within. They know us, have lived with us, and can shape the approaches and practices we need for our family wellness, for your personal wellness.
I do not wish silence for you. Your inner-self is too grand and eternal for quiet. I want for you to find me, and others like me, and for us to palaver round that fire. I want for you to see your pain, and trauma, and sadness, and to know that you need not imprison it. I want for you, Black and knowing, to see that you can guide it, and speak to it, and heal of it, and be rid of it, and revisit it, and to reassess and examine it, all of it, and that, Black and brilliant, have always had the answers within you, and that you can take all of those feelings of being broken and deficient, and know that that voice is not yours, and you may forgive yourself for ever having believed it, and that we may come together, round that fire, and make new voices, and imagine your next human, and that you may both fight for this world that you are building and may joyously go play, at the same time. I want you to know that you can set goals, and be well, and mindful, and meditate, and reframe, and set boundaries, even with those you love, because you love them, and with yourself, who you can grow to love differently, and that you can be kind to yourself, and you can see these changes, all of them, incrementally, always. It is well past time to be well.