Dancing By Myself (Smile!)
Iam tired. Lately, this tiredness has begun to penetrate not only my mind but into my bones. There’s no medical diagnosis, but surely living in this world at this time is making me sick. Looking at me, one would not discern how I could walk around breathing and smiling, but still, feel sick. This sickness seeps into the crevices of my skin and invades my thoughts, my dreams, and my hopes. And yet no one can see these maladies, and no one can see me. Even more problematic is the fact that I have become numb to my own sickness. Instead of looking for a salve for this pain, I lean towards survival even as it becomes clear that my own survival is fleeting.
Then Atatiana Jefferson was murdered.
Then Dominique Clayton was murdered.
Then Breonna Taylor was murdered.
Then George Floyd was murdered and my soul broke open.
I watched the world go up in smoke this weekend. It wasn’t the first time and probably won’t be the last, but this week-it hit different, as the kids say. I saw my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky enter into a Civil War for peace that had long been overdue. I watched Atlanta, my spiritual home begin to emit flames like a scene from Gone with the Wind. The world was turning, and I was getting motion sickness.
And yet, in the back of my mind, I knew that my experience and even my twitter feed would look different from my white colleagues. I was living in a world where I was “free-ish” fighting to decolonize my mind and body, and they were…well having brunch or mad at the governor for the state lockdown as part of a COVID-19 protocol intended to keep residents safe. While Black people were protesting social injustice, racism, and police brutality and risking their lives for freedom; some white citizens were complaining that their freedom had been denied because they could not get a haircut.
These events like those in Fergurson, Cinncinati, and Los Angeles didn’t matter to them and never would. It was simply background music and a theatre of unnecessary violence that disrupted everyday life. As I watched social media friends post accounts of challenging white privilege and/or deleting those people who called all protestors “thugs derailing America,” I pondered my professional life and the double bind of working while Black and working in spaces that WERE predominately white.
The weekend the protests began, I wrote an essay poem that began to unpack some of the pain that I experienced. And yet, I knew just as the sun rises, I would have to face people in my professional life who would undoubtedly be non-plus regarding the pain that I was feeling. Then, I read Shenequa Golding’s insightful Maintaining Professionalism In The Age of Black Death Is….A Lot, and a lightbulb went out. I was not alone in the Sisterhood of Tired as Hell:
Forgive us if our work isn’t up to par, we just saw a lynching. Pardon us if we’re quiet in the Zoom meetings, we’re wondering if we’ll be the next hashtag. Spare some grace if we’re not at the company happy hour, because the hour of joy that most adults look forward to has been stolen from us due to the recent string of black death.
We’re biting our tongues, swallowing our rage and fighting back tears to remain professional because expressing that hurt caused by witnessing black death is considered more unprofessional, than black men and women actually being killed.
In this article, Golding exemplifies the politics of respectability, and how Black folks are forced to sit on their feelings even as they are in mourning and clearly suffering from PTSD.
So while our white colleagues complain about their temporary confinement during COVID and how they yearn for a relaxing vacation out of the country, we are silent. Exhausted. Disengaged. Disinterested. We know the truth of this situation. We are given conditional admission into these conversations — -just as long as we don’t share our Black Pain.
Even though a majority of Americans are working from home remotely, we are locked into Zoom upon Zoom upon Zoom meetings. In these meetings, casual conversations will surely take place. How was work for you on Monday? Did it go anything like this:
White Colleague: Hello Lisa. How are you? (dry ass tone)
Me: I’m okay. (tired) I’m just tired…couldn’t sleep.
White Colleague: (feigned interest) Oh? I’m sorry to hear that. Have you tried taking sleeping pills? What’s wrong
Me:(typing feverishly in the chat window) I’m upset. I am pissed! I feel so alone. I don’t feel safe in my home or on the street. My entire community is under siege by white supremacist police. My hometown is ablaze and the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd remind me that I don’t matter. I am disposable. And if I’m being perfectly honest — -I feel oppressed and unappreciated at work. I am the most educated person in our company, but I make only 62% of what my white male co-workers make.
White Colleague:…………………………uhm oh…….uhm….The world sucks. Have you tried yoga or meditation?
Can you imagine? This would probably be the reaction that most of our white colleagues might have. A lack of words or inability to express empathy or perhaps discomfort in me bringing my whole Black self into the room.
The last time I brought my full Black self into the room was when I worked in Atlanta. I had moved back to the city to work as a History instructor while I finished my Ph.D. I was excited and elated to move back to my spiritual home, a place that I considered to be the Black Mecca. Long before Hollywood, Mona Scott-Young, and northerners re-discovered (ya’ll late) Atlanta, I called it home. As a Black Queer woman who loved and embraced her blackness, it felt like an island in the midst of so many storms. I was comfortable and felt affirmed.
When I accepted the position at XXX, I also felt that my identity and work would be affirmed. I had just left a position teaching African American Studies at a university in the midwest. All of my graduate work focused on the lives of Black people and I was a strong proponent of cultural competency and inclusionary practices as it pertains to teaching. I was Black and my work was informed by Black radical traditions as well as intersectional lenses. This background helped me introduce students to nuanced epistemologies and also made me an instructor whose work was powerful and transformative for students. I thought that I had finally found my safe (work) place. And then, reality reared its pretty little head.
Once at a faculty meeting, the head of my department pulled me aside and stated their appreciation for my work, but requested that my content be more “balanced”. As I contemplated what balance they were referring to. I wondered: Were they referring to the amount of work that I assigned to students? Was the work to rigorous? Should I incorporate more reading assignments? Should I calibrate the class for differentiated students?
None of these questions were related to the actual topic at hand. Instead, my supervisor was concerned that the students felt that my classes focused on race entirely too much. Well, actually they didn’t state it as bluntly as I wrote it. This is the South after all. I think the comment was, “You should be more balanced in your content. It’s — “ Actually, I think she did say it like that. As I sat there adding the data up in my head, internally, I sighed.
I was so tired and confused. I was hired to do a job, and that’s what I was doing. I was teaching courses to high school students that required we discuss class, ethnicity, imperialism, colonization, power, subjugation-and yes race. Ironically, I was also teaching an advanced seminar on Atlanta that required we dig into the systemic causes of racism since the end of the Civil War. There was no way to get around talking about race, and specifically Anti-Blackness.
My students were growing up in a city that was Black facing but controlled by white economic power structures. My students came from two different sides of town: the Black students were primarily from Southwest, and my white students came from the Northside. The roots of systemic oppression and residential segregation in Atlanta resulted in these students (both enrolled in public schools) having two very different educational experiences in high school. As the instructor, it was my hope that I could help students understand their positionality as the future leaders of Atlanta. However, based on my conversations with the department head; this was not the right environment to do this work. They wanted me to give the students a Crystal Light version of history.
As a faculty member, my expertise and pedagogical praxis were viewed as divisive and slightly problematic. I sometimes wondered if they realized that my lens was shaped by my educational training in Geography, Critical Race Studies, and Cultural Studies; not only by my identity as a Black Queer woman. And yet, my presence was needed and consistently leaned upon to carry out additional emotional labor as a therapist, disciplinarian, parent, and mentor. In the words of Mary J. Blige, “…and your secretary, working every day of the week. Was at the job when no one else was there!” So I was expected to bring pieces of me to the table, but leave others at home. Black people are expected to do this daily.
Another time, I was attending a faculty meeting that happened to take place after Alton Sterling was murdered. I was frazzled and knew that I was on edge as the meeting began. As we went around the room providing updates on our classes, I felt tears begin to form in my eyes and blood race into my face. All of the rage that had been building up since the murder of Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice was spilling over. My cup runneth over with pain, sorrow, and an indescribable emptiness. I remember when I started working at XXX and they said that we were a family who would look out for each other. We could be transparent and honest. I remember telling my supervisor about the crushing stress that I felt as a Black woman who was expected to “wear the mask.” But HERE was supposed to be different. THEY were supposed to be different. WE were supposed to be different.
“Are you okay?” My supervisor looked over at me with both concern and questions in her eyes. My mouth started to move as I tried to articulate what I was feeling in a way that would be perceived as respectable, reserved, and rational. Even with her show of support, it was compulsory for me to maintain my facade-this inner sanctum of Black womanhood. As I tried to bite my tongue, my confession fell out of my mouth onto the table.
“When I come to work, I don’t feel safe. Everytime I drive to work, I wonder if I will make it here alive.” I felt the tears spring from my eyes. “I am so sick and tired of the police killing us. I am scared and I can’t handle it anymore…”
I don’t remember the rest of what I said, but I do know that I felt an undeniable feeling of relief which lasted for 60 seconds. And then I saw their eyes. As I tried to regain my composure and anchor myself in the fact that I was speaking a truth that Black/Brown folks are not allowed to verbalize, I could feel the temperature of the room change as my white colleagues settled into the fact that I was Black. There was a look of horror, sadness, and despair in their eyes, but they remained silent.
Speaking my experience of oppression out loud was a splash of cold water on their face. The myth that we were existing in some multi-colored vintage TV ad selling soda pop had been shattered.
I had committed a cardinal sin. With these tears, I had removed the veil of post-racialism and uncovered their white fragility. I had brought my dirty laundry to work and made the private-public. It was not planned; I only expressed grief in such a public way because the deaths of Black people were too much for me to handle.
Over the past three days, I have woke up crying and feeling overwhelmed. After enduring psychological terror and racial trauma from watching continual replays of George Floyd’s death, I finally went back to work only to find that something in me is broken. I am operating on two different planes of reality. I am both working and carrying on as if nothing happened (cruise control), and drowning in the everyday narratives of Black death. I am both free and contained. I am both living and dead.
As I live in a fairly rural area, I enjoy a modicum of protection — -I think. The closest protest to me occurred 25 miles away and consisted of 50 protestors. I know my neighbors and they know me. So I feel safe. And yet, the safety that concerns me is my psychological and mental-emotional well being. My soul is not at peace. It’s hard to work and concentrate and the sadness feels infinite.
How does one document this? I want to sleep and cry and repeat. I want justice. I want to wash this pain out of my scalp. I need time to heal, not more meetings via Zoom. I want the world to acknowledge the atrocity of these Black Deaths. But I also need restorative time. As Chyna Yvonne Davis lamented on a Facebook post, “You can allocate PTO days to racial trauma.” Is anyone listening?