Intertwined in Black Grief and Joy
By: Alishia McCullough
Content Warning: Mention of Murder, Enslavement, Trauma
Black folks have been going through trauma in relationship to America since the first ship arrived to capture and enslave Africans over 400+ years ago. When slavery was abolished in 1865, it was tranformed into modern day systemic enslavement, which touches every part of our lives today. Beginning with the criminalization of Black bodies that funded the Prison–industrial complex resulting in disproportionate mass incarceration of Black men, and increased free labor from those who are incarcerated in the U.S. To laws that lead to housing discrimination that left Black folks overrepresented in the experience of houselessness. The “white supremacy” system works 24/7 to oppress Black people in a futile attempt to preserve the social construct of “whiteness” and superiority. When we deconstruct the idea that “whiteness” as something that is supreme or superior, we being to dismantle the ladder of human heirchy. When we dismantle the ladder of human heirchy, we consequently must dismantle the idea of ownership over people and land, and therefore we begin to uproot ideologies that led to global colonization. Dismantling “whiteness” and colonization also requires for us to examine our relationship to resources, which begins to pull apart capitalist ideas that have taught us that we must overconsume resources and overwork ourselves to obtain material things for our survial and self-worth.
Black folks were stolen, labeled as chattel, and brought over to be a commodity in order to benefit the system of capitalism. Once slavery was abolished our oppressors saw no need for us anymore, they did not consider us as people, and therefore have done everything since then to get rid of us. These tactics ranged from Black Codes, Jim Crow, Segregation, Mass Massacres, and the war on Black bodies and minds that is still present today. Even with strategic systemic barriers in place that our oppressors created as an attempt to bury us, Black folks have continued to rise. Despite the system being so insidious with “white supremacy”, the majority of Black folks have managed to persevere using our ancestral wisdom and cultural resources to carry on and continue to fight for our freedom and collective liberation. 2020 continues to depict this story, as Black communities have had to survive through grim circumstances, attempt to live the lives that we deserve, and be placed in a position to be the backbone of America.
2020 kicked off a series of traumatic events within Black communities. When the global pandemic, COVID-19 began to spread throughout the world, Black and other racial minoritized communties were hit the hardest. Those with multiple marginalized identities were neglected and pushed further into the margins. While the death tolls throughout America continued to increase daily, the data and statistics were more grim when we realized that Black people were being overrepresented for contracting COVID-19, due to the ways in which systematic racism had impacted education disparities, high poverty rates, housing discrimination, barriers to employment, lack of access to healthcare, and mass incarceration. Not only were Black folks more likely to contract the virus due to the concerns previously mentioned, but they were also less likely to survive the virus due to systematic racism within the medical profession.
As the majority of world was frantically trying to navigate a “new normal” of COVID, grieve the loss of employment and the lives of family and friends lost to the pandemic, while coping with the way that our political “leaders” were responding to the public outcry for help. We began to see an influx of hashtags for justice within our communities, one of the first to gain more global attention was Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man going for a jog (a presumably safer activity to engage in during the pandemic) when he was fatally guned down by two white terrorist. What followed his murder was an increase of lynchings, increased media coverage and unwarrented and nonconsensual sharing of Black folks being murdered, with a string of hashtags, #GeorgeFloyd #BreonnaTaylor #TonyMcdade #WalterWallace and unfortunately the list goes on. This Black genocide was followed by increased organizing, uprisings, demands for justice, increased engagement in global movements such as Black Lives Matter and a nation of people full of rage, grief, despair, fear and hope that things were different this time and that radical change was finally upon us.
Many folks question if we were naive to hope for better, or if we were wise for protecting our spirit from being broken again, but as customary for the system, Black folks were failed again as white supremist within the system were sympathized with, offered paid administrative leave for murder, or acquitted under the justice system all while finding ways to justify the murder and war on Black bodies. In response to this injustice, we contiued to fight and demand justice even when they released pepper spray and rubber bullets, violently assaulted and arrested us, and threw our bodies on hard concrete and claimed that we were resisting arrest. We fought while the media blamed Black folks for “looting”, but pardoned white folks with confederate flags and guns standing in front of government buildings demanding that their states prematurely open back up from the pandemic. Black people were still collectively grieving and feeling alone in the fight for justice, as the initial “allies” of June/July 2020 posted their black squares, donated $5 to an anti-racist cause, and decided to return back to their regularly scheduled lives after experiencing their first sense of tiredness and/or hopelessness. A’lot of white and non-Black POC jumped off of the Black Lives Matter Movement as soon as they realized that it wasn’t just a trendy sign to put in their yard or a facebook filter on their profile picture, but could potentially require for them to put their actual bodies on the front lines, hold themselves accountable, and sacrifice some things for the liberation of Black people. Others became apathetic to the movement when they realized that it was not another outlet to center whiteness. Meanwhile Black folks were still encountering the Karen’s of the world who seemed to have 911 or some other “authority figure” on speed dial at grocery stores, while walking outside, or on their jobs. Black folks were hyper-aware that existing in a public place in melanated skin could result in being harmed, and potentially lead to police being involved, which could subsequently result in our death. We were still navigating and sometimes being required to hold space for white and non-Black POC as they were confronted with the realization of both micro- and macro- levels of racism for the first time. We were still calling out passive allyship and white fragility, and experiencing harmful white folks targeting us and falling apart in our email threads, work meetings, and social media inboxes. White folks were still demanding that we teach them “how to be a better ally” and were struggling to grasp the concept of paying us for our labor as a way of showing up in a substantial way to support us, and then the 2020 election season happened.
While the results of the election did not align on the side of victory for the representative of the “proud boys”, it did bring to light the 70 million of Americans that voted for Trump and thought that white supremacy was not a deal breaker. It did bring truth to the 56% of white women who signed up for a book club and read “How To Be An Anti-Racist” and “White Fragility” in July 2020, but decided that their attempts to “do better” only lead them to the polls to vote in the interest of upholding white supremacy by November 2020. It did ignite a fire of hatred and increased need for physical safety for Black folks when word began to circulate that Trump would not resign and accept defeat, as well as talk of a potential race war. It did allow for a number of white liberals and democrats to seek solace in idea that “everything is good now” that Biden barely pulled through, and would not have if it were not for Black and Indigenous women voters.
It created yet another situation in which Black folks were and are currently distrusting of those that benefit and uphold the system. A day after the president-elect was announced there was a demand for Black folks and folks with other marginalized identites to figure out how to embrace those that chose to vote for Trump. Those of us who existed in constant fear and unpredictability for the past four years were now being asked to welcome in those that decided to vote for Trump, while maintaing a spirit of forgiveness and empathy. This request came without an apology, accountability, or a concrete plan for uprooting and abolishing the system of “white supremacy”. Instead we were asked to move on for the sake of a united country as if the election on every level was a matter of difference over dinner preferences than human rights.
As a therapist, I have held space for this whole series of traumatic events within the Black community for myself, my family, my community, and my clients. I have experienced and supported folks through the many waves of despair, I have sat in silence with people as they have cried and expressed frustration and rage, and witnessed them step into their power as they figuratively and literally took back their autonomy to breathe. I have documented increased anxiety, depression, hypervigilence, panic attacks, suicidal ideation connected to the compounding effects of racial trauma that Black folks have collectively experienced just in this past year. As a therapist, especially a Black therapist we have been granted the opportunity of co-creating and reminding clients of their reasons for choosing to wake up everyday in a world that tells them that they don’t have a reason to live. Helping clients maintain their hope and joy has been the heaviest and most rewarding part of the theraputic experience especially when we don’t know when better days are coming for Black people, but we know we can’t afford to not look forward, to not celebrate small wins, or even imagine what those days could be like for our future generations. As a therapist these past few months have been about holding space for uncertainty, grief, and focusing on radical self-care as a form of healing and liberation for Black people.
What I have noticed is that even during our worst storms, Black people have always found a way to collectively muster up the resilience and strength that is neccessary to push us forward. As a therapist, I have noticed that when Black people have intuitive hope that change is not confined to man-made timelines, and when Black people are rooted and confident in where they come from, who their village is, and who they are within a collective system, then they are able to locate their internal power and sense of hope. When they are grounded in their purpose being connected to the tapestry of life, I find that they are more likely to use their voice and to continue to push forward even in the face of pain and opposition. Connection to the core self coupled with a collective mindset seems to foster resiliance and bring about joy, and I believe that joy is a pathway to healing and freedom.
Black joy breathes life into liberation and healing. Black joy is a form of a resistance to the “white supremacy” system that presents us with every depiction of why we should be miserable and distraught, but we choosing to find moments to laugh anyway. Black joy is continuing to raise our fist and boldly emobody our melanin with our heads held high. Black joy influences our culture, it is what is reflected in our art, music, films, literature, sports, entertainment, etc. Black joy is the hum in the gospel hymns, of brown hands in white gloves wearing big fancy hats with loud bousterious voices belting out the lyrics, “This Joy that I have the world didn’t give to me, the world didn’t give it, the world can’t take it away”, It is in the little soft black and brown voices in Sunday school rehersing “This little light of mine I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine, let it shine, let it shine”. Black joy is in our collective song for justice within this country as we honor the sacrifice of those that came before us, and continue to set a foundation for the legacy that follows. It is when our voices come together in agreeance singing:
“Lift ev’ry voice and sing
’Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on ’til victory is won”
This song brings hope and reminds us that much like the earth we are strong and are capable of holding both the complexities of grief and joy. It reminds us that we must continue to let our voices be heard until they blend together and we are singing the same song for our collective liberation.