A friend and I were discussing the heroics of Bree Newsome this weekend when I ran out of things to say. Driving in the rain, attending to the life chores that are demanded of us, I was at a loss for how to describe the light that filled me when I saw the video of her climbing that flag pole, descending with Scripture on her lips, calmly informing the irritated men on the ground that she was prepared to be arrested.
The image of her holding on to that flag like a New Age Lady Liberty gave me chills. But it was something else. It felt like permission to breathe after a series of stories in the news that have left me breathless. It was not unlike President Obama’s eulogy for Rep. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, which was not only one of the most beautiful speeches I’ve ever heard, but also a pointed affirmation of the power of black love to restore back to us our humanity.
In a world where black women are too often invisible, Bree Newsome was and is a symbol of renewal. She gave me life with her act of rebellion, a symbol of how the resilience of black womanhood sometimes eclipses detrimental symbols of hatred. The echo, was “She did it herself.” #WeHelpOurselves, indeed.
Has it been a year, or several months, or an eternity that these headlines have been assaulting us? In the aftermath of Charleston, Dylann Roof, Rachel Dolezal, McKinney, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Marissa Alexander, Rekia Boyd, and the other names of the dead, dying, racially infused, racially polarized or racially symbolic, I have found myself more weary from the news than ever.
There was a time when I felt adrenaline coursing through my veins logging on to social media, to see what news the day or night had brought. Now, I feel a sense of dread and mourning on first glance and it only takes a few minutes for me to feel like I should crawl right back into bed and forget the day.
I have, for all of my adult life, been tethered to the news as a journalist and a writer. Newsrooms were my first sense of community, after the context of classrooms and schools. Even before I became a journalist officially fifteen years ago, I inhaled newspapers and sometimes local TV news in the Bronx. When I was just a consumer, I had the leisure of controlling my consumption. I could put down the paper or magazine; I could turn the TV off. I could create some distance.
I still have that choice but the game has changed. Writing is not just who I am and what I do but it is how I survive in the world. To be a writer, now, is to also be considered a journalist, especially if you are a black writer. These are not problems in and of themselves, but they present special challenges.
When I was researching my new book, I read a line from a journalist of color who said that she was expected to be both a witness to the struggles in her community and an interpreter for her white editors. Though I no longer work in a newsroom, I experience this same conundrum, along racial and political lines. Reaction is considered reporting.
My friend told me what she had read about the Confederate flag, about Dylann Roof, too, and she started to share. I appreciated getting the filtered version from her, I said, but I told her that I had stopped reading the glut of information that came in. Because it was painful. It was too much. I needed time to process and to feel and to see my own emotions, to grieve. To regain some sense of power. To breathe.
Research affirms that black women react differently to witnessing traumatic events than other groups and that includes experiencing the news. There is something about our double jeopardy, our doubly oppressed status that triggers a response in us that is similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We lose our appetites. Our sleep is disrupted. We feel anger, fear, despair.
I thought about this again when I watched What Happened, Miss Simone? which chronicles the life and demise of Nina Simone, the high priestess of soul who was not only undone by manic depression but also her political expressions of rage against racism and racial terrorism. In the film, you can see how systemic racism squelched not only her voice but her spirit.
What black women know, what we feel, at all times, is that there are multiple prices to pay for acknowledging our truth and speaking it. We have seen it over the decades. Strange fruit, swinging from the trees. Literally, figuratively.
As a black woman writer, I pay two tolls when news of racial terrorism breaks: the first is the impact it has on my body and spirit; the second is the weight of expectation that I perform my reaction, that at the very least, I publicly process the act of witness, making that more of a priority than reconciling a deluge of images, commentary and reporting over my internal, personal processing.
To be black in America is to know that few people care about your health or safety or well-being.
It is to live daily with the reality of a horrific, skyrocketing suicide rate among little black children who do not have the luxury of believing we care about a future that affirms their lives.
It is to be told outright or by silence that even when you have nothing to say, even when you are too tired to react or respond, you stand in the gap. But for grace, you might be dead now, so speak, in spite of weariness or fear or dread.
There is truth in that. It is also true that self-care is a political act. An assertion of worth. An assertion of the belief that you deserve silence and time. You deserve your love and attention as much as anything or anyone else.
Sometimes, when I am silent, it is not because of apathy, but an abundance of feeling. An acknowledgment that I need to step back before lashing out. To rediscover joy. To heal. To witness. To hold symbols of hate in my hands and work to dismantle them while praying the consequences that unfold will not destroy my life.