I Will Be Black and I Will Tell

I watched the documentary “Cracked Up” and watched a webinar based on the same. Darrell Hammond, the longest tenured comedian on Saturday Night Live, tells his story of how the abuse he suffered as a child hid in his mind until one day the memories erupted like a flood. This eruption of the memory of the trauma was sudden and sickening. The memories revealed the why of his drug and alcohol addiction and of his cutting himself.

During the webinar, Michelle Esrick, the creator of the documentary and an abuse survivor herself, told us the story of what prompted her want to do a documentary. She told how Hammond explained to her what his therapist revealed to him, that he doesn’t have a mental illness, he has a mental injury. For Michelle, this revelation put her whole life into a perspective that suddenly made sense. It was an epiphany for her.

A mental injury is not the same as a mental illness. In mental illness, something goes wrong internally with the brain’s functioning. In mental injury, something happens that causes the brain to react. The reaction mimics mental illness. However, mental injury is something that is caused by something outside of the brain.

Near the end of the webinar, Hammond and Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, stated that part of the process to healing the mental injury is by telling what happened to you and being heard. In fact, Dr. van der Kolk said that telling is “the beginning, middle and end so to speak.” In other words, telling is of the utmost importance in healing this mental injury. Hammond stated that when he was finally able, he told. The telling of his story got him on the road to healing his mental injury.

The idea that trauma is a mental injury and that telling about it is healing got to me to thinking about the experience of racism.

Racism is a mental injury and like victims of childhood trauma, we’re expected not to tell.

When we begin to learn the African American history that was never told, we are mentally injured by the truth and brutality of it. When we understand that we stand here today because our ancestors endured that brutality, we are mentally injured. When we see another Black person brutalized and/or killed by the police today, we are mentally injured.

We are, as African Americans, mentally injured. And this injury doesn’t stop with history or the killings. The mental injury comes from simply Being. We are born into a world where mental injury is a norm.

Time and again, we are told to “get over slavery, it’s in the past.” We are constantly told, like the child of trauma, that telling about it will bring dire consequences. We are constantly confronted with “color-blindness”—our own invisibility. We are constantly confronted with the fact that we are the “minority.” We are constantly confronted with discrimination, barriers to “white” success. And we are always confronted with just being Black in an America that desires to be white.

We, African Americans are mentally injured by the racism, discrimination and the white supremacy that this country was founded on.

We’ve been told not to tell. That’s how we know it’s abuse. Abusers don’t want to be exposed in their abuse. The abuser is an upstanding citizen with a good reputation. If you tell, you will be punished.

This has become more than evident in this pandemic. The protesters of the lockdown are white, armed to the teeth, carrying confederate flags with some dressed in camouflage. No arrests that I’m aware of. In our Black neighborhoods, however, the police presence is heavy and any gatherings, or coming out of doors is met with violence.

We see this in the fact that Black Americans are more likely to be on the front line as essential workers AND that they are more likely to get and die from the virus.

These are mental injuries. Collective mental injuries. But many of us are defying the order not to tell. We are telling. Because we see the mental injuries being perpetrated upon us and our fellow Beings. We see that, collectively, we have been and continue to be mentally injured. And the knowledge of it is erupting like a suppressed trauma memory.

To be African American is to be mentally injured.

To be Black is to tell.

I will be Black.

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