I once asked a friend who works in the mental health field about secondary trauma. She had posted a video about something called trauma stewardship. A book, of the same title, explains this experience, and is in fact serving people as an institute. Trauma stewardship focuses on the reality of those who constantly encounter and are exposed to the trauma of others by virtue of their work. This could range from the obvious such as soldiers in war, and medical professionals, to the less obvious such as writers and reporters of conflict and violence, to psychologists and psychoanalysts, to teachers who work in populations with scare resources, to volunteers who work with the disadvantaged in some shape or form.
I called my dad earlier today, who in many ways is one of my intellectual mentors. I called him holding back tears, asking him if he ever experienced a certain kind of emotional toll from his political writing. My dad told me that many writers who focus on certain human experiences encounter this toll; he experienced it.
Of course my dad’s most known work is for his writing against the Nigerian government that was a dictatorship at the time he wrote, which eventually led to us leaving the country. He explained that there are moments of depression, perhaps not clinical, but a sense of helplessness and tiredness. I told him that I am personally experiencing an emotional toll, writing about the pains, and oftentimes the deaths of Black people in America and beyond; many which are related to racist, anti-Black systems and institutions.
I don’t know if I am experiencing secondary trauma but after the Charleston Massacre, or perhaps the cumulation of seemingly writing about Black pains and death for the last two years in particular, I can say that my most prominent feeling today is exhaustion.
What can we say about the Charleston Massacre that we haven’t said before? How can I convince people not to position this story as the act of a lone wolf? How can I make it clear not to create a narrative of mental illness surrounding such acts? Because not only is that narrative more than likely false, it harms the true narratives of those who suffer from mental illness, which is already a stigma in many communities. How do people not see that the theoretical and practical constructions of Whiteness, of its power and its privilege, and how those constructions are always and already anti-Black, are harming people to the point of death? How can people not bear witness to the history, the present, to the patterns of systematic racism that result in tragedy after tragedy of Black pain?
The truth is my words are coming slowly; they are few and far between. Indeed this massacre, this act of terrorism – which is exactly what it is – cannot be isolated from America’s, and perhaps much of the world’s sordid history, and prevailing perception of contempt towards the Black body, viewed as less than, for hundreds of years. Of this particular case, to walk into a place of worship – places where Black Americans have historically found comfort in their communal pain of experiencing ongoing violence towards their very existence – is a reminder that nothing and no place is safe for the disadvantaged body in such a system. Even the places created as sanctuary, and for respite.
Let us remember their names and let us discover their stories:
1. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41
2. Cynthia Hurd, 54
3. Myra Thompson, 59
4. Tywanza Sanders, 26,
5. Ethel Lance, 70
6. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45
7. Susie Jackson, 87
8. Depayne Middleton Doctor, 49
9. Daniel L. Simmons, 74
And as we remember their names, let us remind ourselves that these were people who were somebody’s mother or father or aunty or uncle or daughter or son or friend or confidante; these were people who were somebody’s loved one. These were people.
I pick my own assignments and it is a privilege that few people in my field have. I have little to no restriction about what I write about – and it is one of the many reasons I love my work, and the people I work with. It would be too easy to simply say, “I’m done with this race work, this advocacy work, these Black pains and these Black deaths.” It would be too easy to say, “Let me write about only happy things.” It would be easy and a cop-out.
My education in multiculturalism and my specific focus on Blackness, coupled with a personal investment in the African and Black diaspora, fosters my writing. It is a thing that makes people – both this audience – and people who I know personally, uncomfortable. I have ceased caring about such discomforts, however. Because there are far more important matters at hand – like Black lives. Black lives matter. And if my form of advocacy is primarily communicative, then I will ensure that this is reflected in my work; it is a responsibility and a duty.
Still, it is exhausting. As a Black person and as a Black writer, I am exhausted.
There is no joyful way to conclude this piece even knowing that I am a person of hope – it is part of my upbringing, it is part of my faith; it lies at the center of who I am. I will never lose hope or faith or love – these are my convictions. Because to me, living with these things are life’s greatest victory.
Yesterday night, I wanted to post my thoughts on my personal Facebook, which has become a rarity for me to do so. I have taken to mostly sharing my public views on my writer’s Facebook page and on Twitter, for many reasons. But I will share it here and it is the summation of my thoughts:
As I try to write about the events in Charleston, it crossed my mind today that my writing life for the last two years has continuously involved writing about Black death – men, women, and children.
It is exhausting. It takes a toll on the spirit.
But you know what’s worse? Encountering people – on here [online] and in real life – who are vocal champions of justice in every area but systematic anti-Black racism. Your silence is deafening and noted.
And then of course, there are those who will seek to find every excuse under the sun to justify the treatment of every inhumane injustice experienced by Black people. Your words are silencing and noted.
Understanding the plight of disadvantaged bodies in a world of power and privilege, can be a difficult task. The academic language is tricky, the experiences are diverse and sometimes hard to universalize, and doing the difficult work of unlearning prejudice, is a lifetime commitment.
But empathy should not be a difficult task. And denying it to your fellow human beings does not take away their humanity. It takes away yours.
We have a lot of work to do as human beings. In this country and beyond. Of the Charleston Massacre, my words come slowly; they are few and far between. There is hope even as I stare into the abyss of this history that we have yet again created; I believe there is hope. But yet again too, there is so much Black pain.