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our privilege is addressing black trauma our elders had to bury

May 2, 2019
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When I lost my mom at the age of 14, my dad did the practical thing and made the whole family go for group therapy. It was a nightmare: a cringey, hour-long traipse to hell that felt every bit as cliched as the trite therapist mantra, “And how did that make you feel?” Angry. Alone. Confused. Lost. Sad. So unbearably sad. Like any other teenager, I didn’t need anyone else to guide me to my feelings. I’m a Cancer — I soak in them every morning for shits and giggles.

It took me 5 years for me to enter another therapists office — unfortunately, the therapist was a university psychologist in the whitest university town in Africa. I remember it vividly because it was right after Michael Brown’s murder and I was incapacitated by the snuffing out of this teenager an ocean away. There were little or no Black psychologists so I was forced to try and communicate my unraveling to this old white lady who told me that a walk and some white hot chocolate (Ha!) would be a great start to cure my racial crisis. The dam broke the next year – I dropped out of school in my final year, going home to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder and chronic anxiety.

The two years that followed my leaving school were, in a sense, my new schooling. With no school, job or motivation to guide me, I could look to no one but myself for the way forward. I had been gifted a chance to look inward. What I discovered was that I was no longer the baby of the family but an adult who was waking up to the complicated dynamics of family and my new, adult-ish, place within that gene pool. With my new grown eyes, I saw an environment that pushed me to the realization that my healing would be solitary but, more than that, I had grown a new understanding of family members that I had cast aside in my youth-bred naivete — characters like my own “Druncle” (drunk uncle).

We all have one or a version closely resembling what we consider to be a dysfunctional family mascot. The earliest memory I have of my Druncle was at a family gathering in the Eastern Cape where my family is originally from. After embracing my dad with a wobbly hug, drink in one hand, he turned to me and in slow motion, planted the wettest kiss I wish I could not remember. I had to be around 8 years old. This was an affront to my autonomy. I played that day back every time I saw him and remembered to keep my distance. It wasn’t until after I had undertaken my journey to heal that I wish I had known better.

Substance abuse is something we have come to understand as the easiest form of escape from scars that are often too deep to reach and attend to without an immense amount of unpacking and empathy. When I went home, I sought out the opportunity to engage with both in a way that would finally begin to attend to the wounds left by my mother’s passing. What I had learned from the experience was how lucky I was to even be able to go on that journey. I had lucked out by being born into a generation that had more tools to pinpoint and address the hurt that traumas imbued within us and generations passed. I can only imagine that growing up as a Xhosa man in the hills of the Eastern Cape, the closest my Druncle came to therapy was men nursing beers around an open fire.

It can be harder for younger generations to communicate that the attitudes instilled for mental survival of the Black community no longer serve our longterm healing. “Taking it” will no longer do in all facets of Blackness, especially the mental space. Trying to drive that point home while making space for the people who didn’t grow up with any of the mental health language and tools that we have access to is the space in the Black mental health conversation where empathy needs to exist at its most extreme. Extreme empathy is what is needed amongst Black people and the many ways this world seeks to break us down, in and out of the structures of race.

Depression is only just peeking out of the shadows of taboo and now that we continue to grow accustomed to giving each other the space to navigate the mental trauma inflicted by anti-Blackness, we can also look to the figures in our Black lives that we project our worst selves onto, as a form of ingrained white supremacy — figures like my Druncle, and yours and so forth. When empathy rules our interactions, we can see each other drowning instead of misconstruing it as making a splashy fuss.

We can no longer treat Black trauma as some unspoken taboo, in all its forms. It is the poison we swallowed that weakened us against the mental onslaught of subjugation. We all deserve to heal and that includes the opportunity to try. I did not understand how privileged I was to be able to just try. I do now.