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Facing Black Fear

By Jaila C. Mabry, Crimson Opinion Writer
This piece is a part of a focus on Black authors and experiences for Black History Month.

“Seeing my people in pain.”

It’s my go-to answer to the classic “biggest fear” question — whether it’s asked in a group of friends, during an intimate conversation, or as an icebreaker. It’s also the reason why, for most of my life, I refused to engage with media that emphasizes Black trauma, like “12 Years a Slave” or Toni Morrison’s oeuvre.

For years, I avoided such works — despite their cultural significance and global acclaim — precisely because they raise questions I didn’t always want to ask, let alone answer.

More recently, though, I’ve learned the power of engaging them head-on.

Take “The Strange Thing About the Johnsons,” a short, satirical drama on sexual assault — a taboo subject, especially within Black families. While disturbing, the film has equipped me with many of the tools necessary to have nuanced conversations about uncomfortable truths of the Black experience.

Engaging critically with these issues has given me the space to decide where I stand, what I will tolerate and what I must speak out against, and who to surround myself with. Ultimately, engaging with Black trauma — as much as it scares me — is the best way to learn how to protect myself from it.

In the movies, books, and now too at Harvard, it is only by facing these fears that I snap out of complacency and grow.

My first field trip at Harvard brought me to the Royall House and Slave Quarters, one of the last preserved freestanding quarters for enslaved people in the North. The best way to describe how I felt upon arrival was unsettled. I’d spent my entire life actively avoiding spaces like this one; I was overcome with an uneasiness in the presence of a history I had always known.

The enslavement and systemic oppression of Black people in America are inextricably intertwined with everything else I know about my people’s history. Neglecting this history for years made it all the more glaring when I finally confronted it.

From “Selma,” a historical retelling of the 1965 voting rights campaign in the South to “Get Out,” a horror film which explores benevolent racism — Black trauma, including my own, transcends genre.

It was not until I watched these films that I gained insight into a narrative deeper than any abstract history textbook could offer. It was not until I entered the Royall House and Slave Quarters that I could place myself within the treacherous history I once thought I could know without truly confronting.

By facing these often terrifying narratives head-on, I have learned to navigate the realities that plague the world I inhabit. Racism is alive and well, and while I attend an institution that has implemented initiatives to combat this truth, there is still much work to be done.

It is easier to leave history in the past if you choose not to recognize it staring you in the face in the present.

By engaging with generations of Black trauma, I can more clearly identify and cope with it in my own life. Fear, while often valued for its crucial role in survival, should also be celebrated as a motivating, empowering force when faced and overcome. After all, it is from grappling with fear that we learn some of life’s most valuable lessons. And by fears I don’t mean roller coasters or the mice in our dorm rooms — I mean the intangible fears that we so often choose to ignore under the guise of protecting our peace.

For those who may not relate, allow me to illustrate:

I am afraid that my physical appearance creates a preconceived notion of inferiority so I feel pressure to either speak with eloquence or remain silent indefinitely.

I am afraid of not being able to afford my current or future education, so I work throughout the semester and during breaks.

I am afraid of being looked down upon by those I care for most, so I strive to prove myself to them in any way I can.

I don’t aim to suggest that fear should dictate our lives. Rather, I present these examples as proof that fear instills a vital sense of urgency in each of us, reminding us that complacency can kill. Confronting fear is ugly and sometimes unhealthy but often necessary. Fear is raw and real; to suppress it would be to deny human nature.

In fact, facing my fears — especially those that stretch generations — has helped me realize the truest version of myself: Fear has driven me to seek change, achieve goals, and strive to better understand the world around me.

If engaging with generational trauma is my greatest fear, then my greatest hope is that doing so will not only be an instrument for my individual growth, but also one step in a journey toward collective improvement and societal progress.

Jaila C. Mabry ’27, a Crimson Editorial editor, lives in Wigglesworth Hall. This piece is a part of a focus on Black authors and experiences for Black History Month.

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