Blackness, Anxiety and Getting Well in a Challenging World

Written by BlackbirdGo February 7, 2019
The People

This Black History Month, like the many that have preceded it, will likely see us regaled with inspiring tales about black leaders, thinkers, writers, and everyday people who called upon a profound strength to beat back the specter of anti-black racism in the name of creating a better world. We’ll be told of their courage, their brilliance, their compassion, and their willingness to sacrifice their immediate well-being in the name of creating a better future for those that would follow in their footsteps.

Some of us will feel shame, or sorrow, as we consider the deeply racist past of the United States and the world at large—and wonder how it is that, while seemingly so much has changed, we still find ourselves combating many of the difficulties nascent to navigating the world while black. We will celebrate the brief life of Trayvon Martin, born on February 6, 1995, and bitterly mourn his death, which saw him murdered by an unrepentant abuser who would go on to be absolved of guilt by a deeply flawed justice system and then go on to continue his life of violence.

What we will not hear much about this month—or ever, really—is what impact the necessity of distinctly black strength and courage must have on the psyches of those who so often have to call on it just to survive. We will not see the F.B.I. posting stories of black healing and recovery as they honor the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., against whom they once infamously waged psychological warfare through a covert harassment campaign that threatened him with blackmail and encouraged him, in no uncertain terms, to commit suicide. We won’t read tales about what anxieties kept Malcolm X poised by his windowsill, ready to fire on his enemies. And for a man like Malcolm X, for a black person, the world is often made up largely of enemies.

To be black in this world—particularly within the context of Western society—is to perpetually navigate and negotiate with sources of danger. While this is true for other groups of people (women and queer individuals come to mind, as do many other people of color), the pervasiveness of anti-black bias is not only a danger in and of itself but also a multiplier of any number of vulnerabilities that a person might have.

Always, there is some punishment lurking around the corner for the apparent crime being black. If you go to the doctor, you might find that doctors are less inclined to believe you when you tell them about your pain, trauma, or anxiety. If you don’t go to the doctor, then you are a drag on the public healthcare system and a threat to productive people everywhere. If you don’t vote in a system that has historically done wrong by your people, you are reviled for your ingratitude—did people not die for your freedom, whatever that is to you? If you do vote, you’ll be told that you—a low-information voter looking for a handout—are being manipulated and shackled by Democrats who want to keep you poor… and the political representative you voted for, a medical school graduate himself, might turn out to be someone who dabbles in blackface, as has been the case with Governor Ralph Northam this February.

Black people know this. Black people feel this. Black people negotiate with, reason with, and pray against this perpetual conflict with reality every day, whether they’re fully conscious of it or not. They choose a variety of ways to do it. Sometimes they overtly rebel. Sometimes they pursue elevations in socioeconomic class as a means of gaining monetary privileges to offset their lack of nascent social ones. Sometimes they compartmentalize their feelings about navigating the world completely, knowing that they must go through life’s motions to support their families and survive and that to focus on the unique psychic positionality of blackness could prove disastrous. There is much joy in blackness, to be sure, but there is also a history of pain and despair… and that history reifies itself constantly in the Western world because much of modern Western wealth—covertly made inaccessible to most black people at first through policies like redlining and now through digital algorithms and social engineering—is built on black blood, bones, sweat, and tears. The evidence of cultural, emotional, and physical violence in relation to blackness is ever salient.

In Voices of the Self, Doctor Keith Gilyard describes this phenomenon as the “invisible debt.” It is similar to “The Mental Load” described in French cartoonist Emma’s You Should Have Asked (women are often invisibly expected to carry in their domestic partnerships, tasked with completing a great deal of labor that is neither recognized nor of any particular importance to their male partners until the work isn’t done, and then there are social punishments doled out for a woman’s failure to do this unrewarded labor).

Black people—as individuals and as a cultural group—must not only do the work of generating income, navigating institutions (sites of education, the workplace, American social life), maintaining a home, and participating in society in general; they must also do the invisible work of deciding how they’ll become more palatable or resistant to the institution of white supremacy, must often code-switch or pay the price of not doing so, must hold their tongue or choose to speak out when all-too-common discussion about genealogy arises(family history is a sore subject for many in the black diaspora who will never know where their families came from), and must regularly decide if it is worth getting into a conflict when commonly held and shared racist sentiments surface in their casual, personal, and professional relationships.

This is what it is like to live in a state of constant, calculating anxiety; many black people are not conscious of this because a variety of socioeconomic factors preclude them from receiving the tools to recognize their mental state. Without that awareness, getting help isn’t necessarily easy. After all, who’s got “therapy” money? Are there pills one can take to make doctors believe you feel pain in the same that they do? Can practicing mindfulness and yoga assuage the rise of anti-black hate crimes and fatal encounters with the police?

Perhaps not, but these things are worth discussing nonetheless. If we don’t include mental health in our conversation about blackness, we omit a significant portion of black humanity and elevate only black labor and the results of it. When we do that, we see black people as mechanisms for change—like the popular “I’ll do it my damned self” meme associated with black women in particular—but not as human beings whose conditions spurred them to take action. From there, it becomes incredibly easy to forget the oppression of the past and to deny the oppression of the present because black pain is invisible. We must not let it be so.

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.