By Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.
There is so much unmitigated pain and suffering in the Black community. Who among us doesn’t know or have a loved one – someone we know to be capable, talented, and smart – who is substance dependent, experiencing domestic violence, or in an otherwise abusive relationship that features mental cruelty or emotional mistreatment? What about the sister, brother, cousin, or friend with a child who is underperforming in school, or, even worse, who has attained the age of majority but continues to be a terror to the parents by draining their financial resources, conducting “thugs” in and out of their homes, or cooking crack in the basement and selling it out of their residences. (The “Jennifer Hudson trial” spotlighted, once again, how so many African Americans are living with horrific situations that are so beneath us as a people.)
Many sisters are struggling alone trying to raise children without meaningful contributions, emotional or financial, from the kids’ fathers, and it is really taking a toll on these mothers, as well as on their children. Many Black men are ashamed of their inability (for myriad reasons) to be effective and protective parents, so they assume the “cool pose” that has been written about extensively in scholarly articles and books. That is, they pretend to be impervious to pain or shame, all the while descending farther and farther into substance abuse or dependence, illegal activity, and, seemingly, incomprehensible behaviors.
What about the once sparkling young Black girls who have been sexually violated by a relative or family friend, or gang raped by neighborhood boys, and there is no one around who cares that these young girls have experienced what some mental health providers call “soul murder.” So, now on some level these beautiful, once innocent, young girls are spiritually dead and unable to live up to their greatness, because now they mistakenly believe that their already physically exploited bodies are to be used to gain the things they want in life. Alternatively, some of these sweet, but abused, young girls shutdown emotionally and suffer in silence, unable to access their vast potential because, now, most of their energy is consumed trying to deal with the depression, anxiety, hurt, and shame they feel. Indeed, if the abuser was a family member, or a family friend, those aforementioned negative feelings don’t even begin to address the confusion a young girl will most likely feel because someone close to her, someone she loves and had a right to trust, was the perpetrator of the unspeakable.
Meanwhile, other Black children with immense potential are being shot down in the streets with such devastating regularity, and apparent impunity, that it’s almost numbing. Those cherished children leave behind crushed family members and a castrated community, desperately trying to pick up the shattered pieces. In those situations, family members’ lives are altered forever and identities are instantly transformed. (For example, if the gunned down child was an only child, that means his parents are not “parents” anymore. Their child is gone.) Moreover, Black people of all ages are being killed indiscriminately in their own communities by stray, random bullets that pierce Black flesh as people sit in their homes, play in their yards, or simply walk down the street.
Furthermore, we have children who don’t understand the intrinsic value of an education, and schools that are not educating. This is true even though, as a society, we accept the idea that education, as Malcolm X presciently noted, “is the passport to the future, for the future belongs to those who prepare for it today.” Many of our children attend schools that are little more than “killing fields.” They are psychologically trying to kill our kids before they can grow. (On of our greatest artists, Bob Marley, called it in one of his songs – ironically titled “I Shot the Sheriff.”) That is exactly what is happening, literally and figuratively, to far too many of our youths. Today, instead of education, it is mass incarceration for a huge segment of the Black community. And the list of problems negatively affecting Black people’s lives goes on and on.
Pain. Sadness. Suffering. Anger. Powerlessness. Psychological paralysis. All of those adjectives fit what so many Black people feel. Yet, as a community, we have been taught to never, ever, under any set of circumstances, display vulnerability. Historically, that was sound advice because everything we did, and everything we felt, was pathologized. To illustrate, if a Black slave was tired from picking cotton in the hot, blazing, sunup to sundown conditions under which she labored, she was considered lazy! If she was bold enough to run away from the plantation, because she had the audacity to act on her perfectly human impulse to be free, she was branded “crazy.” (A runaway slave was often “diagnosed” with “drapetomania” a so-called “mental illness” (runaway slave madness) that supposedly afflicted runaway slaves.) If a Black enslaved mother was found rolling around the floor in hysterics because her baby or young child had been sold away, her powerful maternal emotions did not mean a thing because, as one White enslaver wrote, Black people “don’t love the way we do” so “she’ll get over it in a couple of days.”
So, yes, in general, Black pain has rarely been acknowledged with any degree of humanity, sensitivity, or compassion. As Jesse Jackson, Sr. noted, during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina debacle, this society has a high tolerance for Black pain and suffering. So, we continue to walk around acting like we are impervious to pain, and nothing could be farther from the truth, because if one is incapable of feeling pain, one is either inhuman or sociopathic. Therein lies one of the biggest, unacknowledged tragedies of Black life; all too often dimensions of our humanity get cut off because, in the face of insensate racism and injustice, we have been forced to accommodate searing pain and act like things that hurt — or even devastate — us, don’t. We still believe that disavowing pain connotes strength. There are times when it does, but many times it doesn’t. So, we walk around deeply wounded, fractured, and highly vulnerable to negative interactions and situations that reduce us to leading lives that lack authenticity, purpose, and power, and, consequently, happiness. Moreover, and this is important, we LIVE the trauma we feel by engaging in self-destructive behaviors, and sometimes we don’t even understand why we do what we do, but we are unconsciously trying to medicate or deal with our sorrows. So, we make a mess of our lives even as we walk around trying to convince ourselves, and others, that we’re “good” and that we have everything, including our bruised psyches and emotions, “under control.”
I have gone to forum after forum after forum about the pitiable state of Black relationships (romantic and familial), as well as forums about our schools and communities, and, all too frequently, those interactions degenerate into confrontational yelling, screaming, and blaming matches, characterized by tremendous misunderstanding and frustration. Many people are talking and attempting to articulate their pain – but few of us are listening with any real degree of respect and sensitivity, or with a desire to push beyond our pain to discover some solutions. Most of us are so fragile and defensive it’s hard to concede that some of our behaviors are counterproductive and self-defeating, as well as antithetical to who we really are. So, let me confess something to you. I’ll go first (because I am not afraid to talk about some of my pain): It hurts, really hurts, to see so many beautiful, talented, incredibly smart Black men, women, and children in so much pain. Moreover, we must vigilantly guard against getting to the point where we become desensitized to this high level of pain and suffering and accept it as normal or completely intractable.
Therefore, after a great deal of assessment and analysis, I have developed a framework for analyzing the pain and suffering of Black people, and for attempting to help us arrive at solutions that allow us to act from positions of personal power. I conceived this framework out of an intense desire to be of service – a desire to do something meaningful in our community. It is called SHE (Surviving, Healing, and Evolving)TM and it is the framework that I use to address problems in our community, because I recognize that many of us are in survival mode – acting and responding as best we can given our respective, often meager, resources (human, emotional, and financial), or our lack of resources. We are just trying to survive the constant assaults hurled our way; we are living without much time to think and reflect about how to realize and access our brilliance. From my own personal observation and knowledge of history, I know that there is immeasurable intelligence, talent, and creativity in our communities. All too often, however, those great attributes are “trapped” in a manner that makes it difficult for all that extraordinary energy to find positive expression.
Originally, I conceived the SHE (Surviving, Healing, and Evolving)TM concept to work with Black women when I was a psychology intern at Harvard Medical School. Since then, I have expanded its use for working with Black men, adolescents, and children, as well as with other communities. Hence, what I would like to do with this blog is talk to the beloved community about some of the things that ail us, and address some of this pain within the SHE framework with compassion and sensitivity, and with a belief that we can have intelligent interchange and emerge from our conversations – each with his or her dignity intact – and with something meaningful to think about implementing in our personal and professional lives to bring about some healing. Hopefully, engaging in that process will lead, eventually, to evolution and personal liberation such that people can harness their genius and emotions, tap into their power, and pursue their purpose. Moreover, perhaps people can get started on the task of finding the fulfillment and contentment they deserve. Goodness knows, we have the ability, and the right, to access “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” if we can just get free mentally. Hence, I encourage dialogue with readers of this blog as we look at some of the problems of our community through a prism of love and compassion.
Let’s get free!
Update (August 17, 2012):
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