Families keep secrets, and the ones in mine follow the women. The men pass in and out of my grandma’s stories like ghosts, never quite touching the ground. My mother has buried the hard parts of her childhood, distorting the timeline of abandonment and death.
What’s more, my own secrets, and those of my blood’s past generations are colored by who we are.
Black, female; for these irreversible characteristics, we suffer silently the side effects of our hidden truths: depression, anxiety, etc. These maladies fester inside of us, as we tell ourselves that we must hide our suffering and stay strong.
I did not grow up in a segregated neighborhood as my aunts and grandmothers did. But when my parents moved us from a mostly black county to one where we were solidly a minority, my insecurities blossomed. From the white bodies around me, I found unique material for self-criticism. I was not just fat and weird. I had the wrong hair, the wrong proportions.
Even as an adult, I scratch at my flaws. I can’t avoid the blonde eyes and blue hair advertised on TV and in magazines. As I remind myself that beauty is subjective, I find myself out with friends watching them live a dream I remain locked out of. Men look past me or see my body as leftovers waiting to be thrown out.
Even without looks, I know that one can get far on charisma. But extroversion hasn’t come naturally to me. As I’ve taken cues from others on socializing, I’ve realized that I have to adapt to my audience. With people of color, there is an ease; a kind of cultural understanding that gives warmth to our conversations. But with white people, I feel behind and outside. I observe more than interact, withdrawing as I realize they are making no attempts to bridge the cultural divide between us. I’m not sure they even realize it’s there.
Though I’ve got brains, and ambition, I can find something lacking in those too. I don’t know whether it’s from a personal insatiability or the fact that the higher I rise on the professional ladder, the more I meet people who cannot understand what it is to work four jobs while studying for a degree. They live without debt or savings. I tell myself I had to invest in my future, as we all do. But I can’t help but think lately that it isn’t just my restless energy that has me running myself ragged.
These maladies fester inside of us, as we tell ourselves that we must hide our suffering and stay strong.
Those who suffer deserve relief. Whether it be from hunger, from abuse, or from their own minds. But the thoughts that plague me have a tinge of something much bigger than a personal illness. For this, I cannot trust in chemical solutions for a disease that spreads not through saliva or blood, but by word of mouth. Why should I have to endure therapy sessions for a sickness that is in my society’s DNA? How is it that I have to pay the price to remedy the malady of hate?
Amongst many other factors, it is this hypocrisy that stalls me against help. I do not exist as I do today, with all my self-criticisms, without a system that tells me to seek help while crushing me under its heel. I know I am not the only one who suffers in silence, having seen friends crash and burn with no notice, then carry on as if nothing happened. I’ve done the same, then learning that succumbing to the pain only invites panic from family and friends. They handle its presence as a foreign object to be expelled, and hardly as an emotion demanding to be felt.
My non-black friends suffer from memories that I can hardly imagine, and I don’t doubt the depth of their scars. But I know that certain stains on my sadness are not shared between us; they are not due to a chemical imbalance or personal trauma. They are marks left simply because of the color that I was born.
Black women have had to carry the past and future of our race largely in secret. It is our men who are most recognized for the progress we as a people have made, while we raise and support them. For this, we are rewarded with prejudices not only pressed upon us for our color, but doubled down on for our gender. African-American women have had to live with the theft of our children. We have endured the theft of our sexuality when the masters who fathered so many of those children stole it away from us. To this day, our very being is seen as an accessory—a fact that we have to accommodate so that others can be comfortable. We take this balancing act from our childhood, through college and on (earning more degrees than women of any other race) only to face one of the nation’s widest pay gaps. We are told to overcome, yet reminded that society views us as unattractive, unintelligent, unhuman.
It is our men who are most recognized for the progress we as a people have made, while we raise and support them.
We largely keep the demands of this burden from each other, alluding to our hurt more than healing it. To survive, we have to defend ourselves against so much that our natural reaction to many phenomena is just that: defense. So why should we seek help from the culture that is also the cause of our distress? Isn’t it better, after all, to escape from under the boot than to keep listening to its words?
But how do the scarred heal the scarred? How do we find a treatment away from the shadow of prejudice? And how do we bring ourselves to that and away from the comfort of our own fortresses?
I hardly have the answers to these questions, I can only admit to what I am trying to do.
I acknowledge my unique strength and its unique costs. I let myself feel my hurt. But I still do not know where to go when I can only think of all that I have lost by virtue of my blackness. What has been stolen from me—taken even before I was born—cannot be restored in any humanly fashion. There is little worse than suffering without reason, and there was never any reason for that theft.
My hope is that while me and my sisters celebrate the slow-coming gains against hate, we find the time to rest, and to mourn. And that we renounce silence. I hope that as we demand equality and recognition, we demand the right to cry and to scream and to hurt.
We demand the right to be human.
Virgil Saunders is Maryland native with a mind for investigating language, literature, and how both influence and express culture. As an obsessive writer since childhood, she found her creative home at the University of Maryland’s Jiménez-Porter Writers’ House. Via the twists and turns of life, she has recently left France for Hawaii. Virgil’s poetry can be found in The Fem, The Voices Project BLACKBERRY: a magazine with more work coming in Loud Zoo and The Potomac. Her blog, The Alvearie, can be found at www.thealvearie.wordpress.com. She can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.