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2020: A Year of Collective Loss for Black America

{CONTENT WARNING: death, COVID-19, trauma, and police brutality. A 10-minute read.}

I think “It” started on January 26th with the news that Kobé Bryant, his daughter and seven others had perished in a helicopter crash. We had just landed for one of two layovers between Shreveport and Las Vegas when the news broke. I recall looking at the faces of other passengers who stared at screens trying to absorb it all. I overheard conversations of those blaming the pilot. Some wondered why they chose to fly in questionable conditions. I sat there in the terminal praying for Kobé’s wife and daughters as I exchanged texts with my own daughter who too was in shock.

“It” gained momentum over the weeks as most of us entered various levels of “lockdown” due to a global pandemic. We found ourselves working from home or laid off and adjusting in ways we never planned or had skills. We soon learned who the real essential workers were and relied on the underpaid who lacked benefits like health insurance. Most of us were dealing with quarantine and working remotely as best we could when the news broke that Black Americans were dying from COVID-19 at disproportionate rates.

Not long after the news of the obvious health disparities, many American’s, primarily white Americans, began complaining about wearing a mask and demanding that businesses “open up” so they can get haircuts and manicures. Still reeling from that, the public murder of George Floyd was shown around the world. We soon went from global pandemic to global protest with the later having nothing to do with a haircut, manicure, or a mask.

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Living with a prolonged sense of ambiguity can create a roller coaster ride of emotion. We can vacillate between giving into a sense of impending doom, to doing our best to wear our emotions like a well-worn shawl as we go about our day. I was wearing my shawl when I learned of my own termination from one of my part-time jobs. I was assured the termination had nothing to do with the fact that I was older, more vocal, and darker than the rest of the staff. But there I was, the one with the most education, more experiences in the field, and the only one with dark skin… fired by my church employer; the very church of which I was also a member. Selah – let that sink in.

Fast forward to August 30, 2020: Chadwick Boseman was dead at age 43. What?! The announcement of Boseman’s death was less a final blow as it was a weighty addition to an already rickety frame. “It” now had a name: Weariness. The feeling of “What now?” that began in January, had gained yet another layer… a very cumbersome layer that was both familiar and tiresome at the same time. Layer upon layer… the constant reporting of more protests, more acts of domestic terrorism, more murders, more reports of police brutality, more hate speech from government officials, more shares of that rhetoric, and more unexpected death of public figures and of those in our personal lives. Oh, and let us not forget the pandemic rages on, wreaking havoc on our financial resources!

In talking with friends, family, and scrolling the different social media feeds; there appears to be an overall cry for relief. A desperation for reprieve if you will. We dare not ask, “What’s next?” There really is no preparing for the rug to be pulled out from under you… again. Tears hover in the corners of eyes that stare out into an unreliable future. Eyes that squint as they search for an almost forgotten horizon… looking for moments of positivity and rest. Secretly hoping for a breather yet sighing deeply because we’re pretty sure it won’t come soon enough.

So, being a full-fledged member of the Black, Indigenous, Persons of Color (BIPOC) Club, I began to think of the many losses Black America has endured since the beginning of the year. I didn’t have the mental or emotional wherewithal to take it all the way back to the 1480’s when the Portuguese first began transporting enslaved Africans to America. I decided to focus only on the first eight months of 2020. Eight. Exhausting. Months.

Photo by Joan Villalon on Unsplash

By the end of August 2020, there were close to 50 well-known Black figures here in the U. S. and abroad who were no longer with us – that’s on average six deaths per month. From Kobé Bryant, to Nichole Thea and her unborn son, to Jas Waters, to Sen. John Lewis, to Chadwick Boseman… there has been a collective mourning by various ethnic communities. But to Black Americans many of these celebrities represented possibility and hope. Many of the celebrity deaths showcased even more of the disparities in the fields of medical and mental health. No matter the music genre, sport, age group, gender, or political affiliation; we could barely catch our breath before hearing of yet another loss.

In addition to celebrities dying, there was also the increasing numbers of deaths associated with COVID-19. The AMP Research Lab, reports by mid-August, out of the 171,000 Americans who have died due to the coronavirus,that over 88,000 were Black. At only a little more than 13% of the total American population, Black Americans made up over half of all coronavirus deaths and was listed as the highest COVID-19 mortality rate. To put things in perspective, if Black Americans died at the same rate as white Americans, there would be almost 20,000 fewer deaths (AMP Research Lab).

Those who died due to COVID-19, were our family members, close friends, colleagues, and community members at large. Adding to this list are growing numbers of non-police related homicides, suicide, homicide by law enforcement, drug overdoses, drownings, chronic diseases, sudden heart failures or stroke, maternal deaths, accidents, death related to complications of dementia and Alzheimer’s, death related to complications due to chronic substance abuse, and old age. (Remember old age?)

Photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash

When you see the memes and the social media posts speaking of Black Americans being tired and emotionally drained, this is not for attention seeking purposes. It is more like a cry for help. It is a desire to link arms with others to create a tribe called rest. Fighting against total resignation, we struggle to stay engaged. But we’re tired. Weary. Worn. As we take a collective sigh, I offer some ways to rest as you plan your next move. And yes, when dealing with trauma related to social and racial injustice, there must be a next move.

Pause:
Without getting too technical, Black America is dealing with what is called compound or complex trauma. The continuous barrage of systemic assaults on the psyche of people of color who live in a society founded on white supremacy and patriarchal principles, takes both an emotional and physical toll. It’s time to press pause.

To press pause could simply look like scheduling periods of time throughout the day to go for a walk or engage in deep breathing exercises. It’s been shown that when we are stressed we take more shallow breaths, not allowing our cells to get the oxygen they need for regeneration and health. Pausing can look like taking time to respond to the new information that won’t stop coming. Instead of quickly reposting things we should first ask, “Am I helping others or merely attempting to offload my pain by dumping it into someone else’s lap?” Pause.

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

UnPlug:
For many of us, the various forms of media serve as a source of escape from what we deal with on a daily basis with work and home. Unfortunately, large doses the disturbing images available to us via these outlets, can also be a cause for distress. Painful and unsettling images are at our fingertips, disrupt our day and our peace. If you find yourself emotionally reacting and not responding to what you see, it’s time to unplug.

To unplug could mean turning off devices… all of them… for periods of time. It could also mean breaking from routines that look more like ruts. By unplugging, we avoid merely existing in a robotic, automatic manner. Instead of just going about our day denying the impact of grief associated with the multiple losses we’ve endured; we unplug to create spaces for real life moments. Unplugging is necessary to be mindful and present as we cultivate a life of gratitude. UnPlug.

Purge:
Of the four ways to protect your emotional space, this may stimulate the most emotion and resistance. Unlike the Cancel Culture that includes public shaming, purging includes cleaning up both your social media feeds and contact list. When I say purge, it could mean an “Unfollow” on Facebook or to “Mute” on IG.

Personally, I will purge when I find myself tilting my head with a furrowed brow as I read posts, or note that I brace myself when certain names pop up in the notifications. Purging also works with those who overshare or post frequently. For those of us who are not concerned about the numbers attached to our name, there are also the “Block,” “Unfriend,” and “Delete” features. Purging in this manner is usually reserved for those we deem as repeat offenders; trolls who attack our peace under the guise of exercising their first amendment rights.

Photo by Claudia Wolff on Unsplash

If you’re like me, you may cry when facing difficult times. When we study the science of tears, we learn that crying is actually another way to purge. Tears brought on by raw and deep emotion have been shown to help the body release stress hormones, excess proteins, and manganese (a mood regulator); all associated with depression and illness. Having a good cry helps us release harmful hormones and leads to being in a more relaxed state. I remember hearing as a child that big girls and big boys don’t cry. What we’re finding out is, emotionally healthy men and women do. Purge.

Pray:
Pausing, unplugging, and purging all help to free up the time and energy we need to pray. In talking to various people of color who are Believers and Christ Followers, many have confessed they just don’t feel like praying. These confessions were quickly followed with statements about how they hadn’t turned their backs on God. Yet, they admit they struggle with what they perceive as God’s silence regarding pain and emotional injury.

Prayer, a conversation between us and Abba, allows us to share our heart without censorship. Prayer is an opportunity to speak of the difficulty we’re having as we try to hold onto our faith. Prayer provides space to acknowledge the confusion that exists from feeling loss while still grasping for hope. When we pray, we soon realize our frustration is really a statement of our faith. See, if we didn’t believe that God was for justice and blessing, we wouldn’t be so discouraged. Instead, we would acquiesce to an existence that is destined to be ridden with strife and suffering. It isn’t. Pray.

Conclusion:

One of the sayings that seems to have caught on this year is: “We’re all in this together.” When we better understand the impact of community and racial trauma, we are more inclined to endorse collective acts of kindness and grace. Hopefully, we are learning to relish the moments that bring a smile to our faces. The births, the marriages, the smiling eyes we see looking at us from behind a mask, and even virtual birthdays and long distanced dates are now cherished and revered.

Many are dealing with things the rest of us will never know. Some of those things have a 600-year history that has forever changed the DNA of an ethnic group’s bloodline. Those things now serve as a foundation for what we now see and experience while living Black in America. This is my attempt to check-in and encourage you to feel what you feel. Y’all alright?

Pause.

UnPlug.

Purge.

Pray.

(9/2020)

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