Nicholas: To be Black in America is to be traumatized; not all at once, but little by little, stretched out over every day of your life. Stretched and minimized, because the trauma is not an event; or rather, it’s an event that predates our individual Black bodies, the seismic rumbles of some cataclysm that occured in the dawn of our history and rumbles in the back of our brains. Which is to say that it’s generational, which is to say it forms us in the womb, and we emerge caught up in it. Which is to say that America is a bed of Brown and Black trauma, and to be born Brown and Black in that birthing bed is to be traumatized.
This sounds abstract, but it’s not. This trauma is visceral, and it manifest in daily pain, like so much crystal-cold water drowning us slowly but surely. This is what we want to focus on: Pain, real pain—the real pain of being of color in this country. To bring it even more down to earth: What we’re talking about is mental health, the mental health for which this university purports to be on a crusade. But what it, and this world, fails to understand is that for people of color, mental (un)health is synonymous with racial trauma. And the two of us, as student activists, have a particular relationship with this mental (un)health.
Salma: Trauma experienced viscerally has had noticeable effects on my day-to-day life at Harvard. For most of my time here, I’ve been unable to name those traumas. My freshman year, I came home every day to a roommate who denied my identity as a “real Muslim” because I was “peaceful.” My first-year common room became a space where my existence was transformed into synecdoche for my entire religion or race in the eyes of those with whom I lived. I didn’t realize how much of a toll this would have on me—how much pressure would brew in that room, how viscerally anxious I would become every time I stepped foot into a space or activity that was supposed to be my own—until my lowest days, when the weight of it all crashed down on me and it felt like my body was ceasing to function.
N: In our piece a few weeks ago, we discussed anger in activism. That’s not what we’re talking about now. We aren’t angry—not here. This is what comes before the rage. This is that void that we all live in; this is the “Sunken Place.” Unlike anger, pain isn’t, and can never be, positive (in the sense of creative/generative, not in the sense of “good”). The sadness I feel is deep, destabilizing, debilitating, damning. It does not build. It buries.
The point therein is that, as you say, this is a question of mental health, not activism, and must be answered as any question of mental health. Activists like us must make time and space for ourselves. We must sit in this generational trauma and learn, not to overcome it, but to live in it, just as mental (un)health cannot be beaten, but merely survived.
S: When I reflect on growth, I reflect on how lucky I am now to have gained the ability to name my oppressions. The pain becomes more bearable when I come to recognize that these forces exist outside of me, that my anxieties, my depression, and the hurt that I feel are a direct result of structures and systems rigged against me and people like me—not as a result of my own individual actions or responsibilities.
This vital step—the act of identifying and naming that which causes my pain—has been the most important part of healing for me. It has allowed me to rid myself of shame and guilt around these struggles and given me the space to speak truth to power. It has given me the space to have these conversations publicly, with people like you, Nicholas. It’s made this feel less lonely.
N: Is self-care activism? I don’t think so. Not because it isn’t important, but precisely because of its importance. Self-care doesn’t solve any problems because it isn’t an attempt to dismantle the nation that perpetuates this trauma; it is simply an attempt to survive. Self-care is selfish. And in and of itself, that is a good. That is how the two of us survive. And when I say survive, I mean literally keep our hearts beating: Erica Garner is proof that the pain, the mental (un)health of being Black will kill us long before the police can.
S: Our existence toggles the line between progress and survival. In some moments we invest ourselves fully in social change. We sacrifice everything—time, relationships, happiness, health, sleep—to push for something bigger than ourselves, for some small step towards justice. We welcome in our mental (un)health. We stay in this space for as long as we can hold our breaths, immersing ourselves in a cesspool of oppression—dismantling, destroying, building, converting, as quickly as we can, with as much force as possible. Our lungs collapse under the weight. We break down. We freeze. We drown.
I call you. You pick up. You pull me back to equilibrium. We breathe slowly. Another email pops up in our inboxes—it’s another catastrophe done unto our people, another trauma.
We take our deepest breath. We dive back in.
Salma Abdelrahman ’20 is a Sociology concentrator in Leverett House. Nicholas P. Whittaker ’19 is a Philosophy concentrator in Adams House. Their column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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