Amidst all the movement in support of Black lives, I had to sit with a deeper question of my vision for what we are fighting for. As this year’s Black History Month ended, I reflected on my commitment to celebrating Black achievement, love, joy, and creativity.
I recognized my own resistance to experiencing love, joy, and creativity in my own life. My own personal trauma as well as our collective trauma had left me believing, somewhere deep inside, below my own level of awareness, that I was undeserving of a life of love, joy, and creativity. In that moment, I acknowledged that I could do little to serve the collective struggle or even myself until I rooted out that toxic pattern in myself and my own life. In order to do so fully, I had to make some difficult choices. I had to decide to let go of bitterness, resentment, and mercilessness. This is no small task. In fact, it requires daily practice and I need to recommit to it each and every day.
The collective narrative of Black inferiority had seeped its way deep into my own psyche, only reinforced by the images and stories that we continue to tell one another and ourselves, and pushing against it was a daily and consistent practice. I recommitted myself to celebrating Black achievement without erasing the lived experience of trauma.
As my bitterness and resentment related to exposure to daily injustice and violence slowly dissolved, space was being created inside me. I saw an opportunity to tell a new story to replace the ones that no longer served my purpose. I recognize that those stories of hope exist as well.
The stories we hold of Black achievement and excellence exist alongside stories of tremendous pain and trauma.
While committing to celebrate Black achievement and letting go of the pain Black people experience in this country, I recognize fully that holding on to the pain of our collective past served me well. In many ways, this memory of pain has been a crutch to lean on in difficult times. I used it as a suit of armor to protect me from being hurt on a daily basis. But that barrier came at a cost. It weighed me down.
That same armor that protected me from the possibility of pain also shielded me from love and joy; it’s not selective—everything was held at a distance.
I’ve known about the consequences of this choice for quite some time. I’ve found myself wincing in pain because my shield was down. Most recently, it was when someone who I admire and respect said something hurtful. At the start of the month of February—in which we would hope to acknowledge the entirety of the experience of Black people in this country, she said, “a few (white) people owned slaves” and in that one statement, aimed to minimize the trauma of our collective past as Black people in America.
There is danger in minimizing our past, glossing over it as if it was not as bad as we once imagined.
What if we told the victims of child abuse that they were only molested a “few” times, or we taught our young girls that only a “few” women were burned as witches, or only a “few” Jews were gassed, or a “few” Native Americans killed.
We may seek to numb ourselves from the pain by hiding the truth, but these lies prevent growth.
And what is not revealed, cannot be healed. We serve no one by pretending that things were not THAT bad—it does nothing to make the present moment better. Pretending things weren’t so bad then, and aren’t so bad now diminishes the glory of Black achievement.
Celebrating Black achievement now does not blindly erase trauma.
What we must learn to do is face our past as a nation of immigrants, Native Americans, refugees, and enslaved people. Our past as it was, without burying the complicated parts. We must learn to experience emotions and listen to stories that accompany the pain so that we can heal, learn, and grow. That work will be ongoing and never-ending. That work does not diminish the celebration of Black achievement in America.
Our resistance to this duality is problematic. Once we can accept both the pain and the glory, we can create a vision for who we want to become and move towards it while carrying with us the truth of who we were. Just as our childhood stays with us for our entire life, so does the history of this country stay with it for all of its existence, and for all of our existence.
Those who seek to bury the past, and sweep it under the rug merely delay the inevitable.
There is so much beauty and love waiting for us on the other side of this time of chaos and grief, but first, we must pass through this dark time. We must shine the light on all that has been hidden. We must make a choice to heal so that we can let go and live. At the same time, we must not ignore the remarkable strides and steps that we have taken. Celebrating Black achievement allows us to honor the past and lean in to hope for the future.
In the meantime, I’m making a daily choice to face the truth of who I am, to heal myself, and keep myself open to love in each moment because I can almost see the woman I am without the pain, resentment, and bitterness and she is absolutely beautiful.
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Guest Author: Kalimah Fergus Ayele
Kalimah Fergus Ayele is the author of “Roundtrip Ticket Home” a memoir of her experiences living in different parts of the world. She has over 20 years of experience as a school leader and secondary science educator in both U.S. and international public and private schools. She began her teaching career as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania, East Africa, and has also taught in South Africa, Lesotho, and most recently, Egypt. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry at Stanford University, Master of Arts in Secondary Science Education at Teachers College Columbia University, Master of Science in School Administration from the College of Saint Rose and Ed.M in Organization Leadership through the Klingenstein Center at Teachers College Columbia University.