Black feminist writings gave me the will to live, pushed me towards collective thinking, expanded my capacity to love, and so much more.
By Breya M. Johnson
TW/CW: This essay contains discussions of suicide
Black people are all survivors of some type of violence. I have survived many unspeakable acts of cruelty in my own life. I am one of those Black women who lost the majority of their childhood to deep-rooted grief, to the type of pain you can barely understand as a child. I am one of those Black girls who lost the majority of their childhood to politics of appearance and the desire to be beautiful. I am one of those Black kids that grew up knowing what it feels like to be unwanted by a parent.
When I was 14-years-old, my mother and I were held at gunpoint during a home invasion. Two men entered the wrong house asking for the “drugs and money.” Something we did not have and something I did not understand because I was just being picked up from school early for a dance recital. That day turned into one of the worst days of my life. What I remember most vividly about that day is how grateful I was to still be alive, to still have my mother even after I watched someone hold a gun to her head.
I survived. We survived.
It wasn’t until years later that the grief of my life and the trauma from that day had become unbearable. It was no longer enough that I had survived. Surviving meant nothing to me when I did not love myself. Life meant nothing to me when I did not love myself. And those emotions of sorrow led me to waking up in a hospital bed knowing that the night before I had given up on everything in the worst way possible. But, again:
I do not often speak about my personal near-death experiences. I am only generous with my pain when it’s time to express that my very life depends on me living to love. When living to love, I must undertake love as a series concern. My ability to live depends on loving my life and my community with every fiber in my being; to love enough to move beyond pain and survival.
The National Institute of Mental Health collected data revealing that for people between the ages of 10-34, suicide was the second leading cause of death. These numbers are highest for Black youth in america. But, I do not need to throw numbers and statistics at you. You know your pain. We know our pain. We know what has had us lying in despair on bathroom floors.
And if you never actually tried to take your own life, you still know the moment you wished “it would all just stop” or when you wished “to feel nothing at all.” We know why we are losing Black youth. What if I told you that even these suicides are murders? That these are Black people we lost because of imperialist-white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy. People we lost because of an unloving world.
RECOMMENDED: RE-LEARNING RADICAL SOFTNESS AND MY CAPACITY TO LOVE
To be a practitioner of love in the time of mass death and extreme isolation only exacerbated by COVID-19 (because these were problems long before this pandemic) means I must be generous with my story. More importantly, it means I must continue to teach love.
Love is an action.
Love is a state of being.
Love is an organizing principle.
Suicide ideation is like a ringing in the back of your ear. It is sometimes so faint you can live and hardly notice it’s there, and then there are times when it is so loud it sends you into circles of sorrow.
To be a survivor means you must be inwardly and outwardly loving. Inwardly loving requires us to sit in our grief in order to understand what we feel. To name those feelings and come into conversation with our deepest needs. Emotional courage is the pathway to inward love. We use emotional courage as we ask ourselves to trace the pain—where is it coming from? We use emotional courage when we look in the mirror and speak to our fears.
We are taught to turn our backs to our own pain, grief, and sorrow. We keep it behind us under the illusion that we are moving forward, when instead we have turned into something haunting. Instead we should use emotional courage to turn to those “negative” emotions and say, “you are a part of me and I want to understand you.” Practicing tenderness and emotional courage with the worst parts of you is what practicing inward loving looks like. You are bearing witness to your heart and practicing empathy with your very self.
In The Temple of My Familiar, Alice Walker reminds us:
“It is against blockage between ourselves and others—those who are alive and those who are dead—that we must work. In blocking off what hurts us, we think we are walling ourselves off from pain. But in the long run, the wall, which prevents growth, hurts us more than the pain, which, if we only bear it, soon passes over us. Washing over us and is gone.”
And bell hooks reminds us in Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery, that “the art and practice of loving begins with our capacity to recognize and affirm ourselves.” Again, emotional courage is the pathway to this affirmation we need. You will ache every time you ignore your innermost feelings. Once you know what you feel, you move into love as action, and you begin the work of undertaking love—of the self and others.
Love challenges us to build boundaries instead of barriers around our hearts. When we truly practice love as an action, our hearts are able to expand and our capacity to love and be loved expands. We will know what is a boundary and what is a border every time something blocks or cages our hearts. We will know we are not loving when we turn away from how we feel because of shame or fear.
We see our negative emotions as inner conflict and we are taught that conflict is inherently negative. But, my time organizing with BYP100 has taught me that conflict has the power to transform us. Malidoma Some teaches us that “conflict is the spirit of the relationship asking itself to deepen.” When you are in conflict with yourself it is simply your heart asking for the relationship to deepen.
When you engage in this practice with yourself there will be moments when you have too much to bear or too much to hold. It is in these moments where you must practice loving outwardly. Trust in the people in your life to carry you with you. Use emotional courage to ask for help in some way. And if there is no one in your life, turn to your ancestors, turn to your foremothers, turn towards community, always.
Black feminisms and womanism have taught us many lessons on love, from Toni Morrison, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Layli Philips, Jennifer Nash, June Jordan, Nina Simone, Jamaica Kincaid, and more. Turn to them. Turn to their words. They loved us enough to write it all down.
We live in an unloving world, however, James Baldwin in conversation with Nikki Giovanni said, “it is not the world that is my oppressor only, what the world does to you, is that the world does it to you long enough and effectively enough does to you long enough you become a collaborator and accomplish of your own murders.” Only Black feminisms and womanism have the power to sever that collaboration with death. Only Black feminisms and womanism have the power to shape and mold the moral imagination; the Black radical feminist imagination is what makes radical love possible for us all.
Black feminist writings gave me the will to live, pushed me towards collective thinking, expanded my capacity to love, and so much more. It is the reason I am alive.
I no longer fear the depths of my emotions and I no longer fear moments of unhappiness. This is because writers like Jamaica Kincaid teach us that “[unhappiness] comes to you. You come into the world screaming. You cry when you’re born because your lungs expand. You breathe. I think that’s really kind of significant. You come into the world crying, and it’s a sign that you’re alive.”
I am alive. I have moved beyond survival.
Love is written into my flesh. It is a part of my being.
I want us all to wake up every day and decide to love.
My sister and restorative justice practitioner, Bilphena Yahwon, shared a beautiful quote by Sharon Salzberg that stopped me in my tracks the moment I read it:
“Love is inside me. Other people might awaken it or threaten it, but as a capacity, it’s mine.”
I believe that all Black people have love inside of us. I am deeply committed to doing whatever it takes to awaken that love because I love us all.
When you feel moments of painful isolation during these times, know that I am with you.
Know that I love you. I will continue to be generous with my heart if means you can get closer to yours.
Love heals. When we do not know love we are still in death.
“Understanding love as a life-force that urges us to move against death enables us to see clearly that, where love is, there can be no disenabling, disempowering, or life-destroying abuse.”- bell hooks
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