Morgan Parker: How to Stay Sane While Black

I wish I could point to the moment when I first understood I was a thing to be hated. The first “I’m just not attracted to black girls.” The first “Do you work here?”

When I was 15, I was told I have major anxiety disorder and moderate-to-severe depressive disorder.

“Black people don’t go to therapy,” my dad said.

I had been told to pray, but it wasn’t working. I was told to be strong. How strong do you need to be to want to die, and to be certain the world wants you dead, and yet to keep on living? As a little black girl in a little white suburb, trying to smooth down my hair and lick the ash from my elbows, I wondered, do white people have these thoughts? Is something wrong with me?

Thirteen years later, still plagued by the exact same garbage — and worse, used to it — I tell my therapist I never stood a chance of loving myself.

“Look at the ads in the subway,” I plead. “Look at my Tinder inbox. Look at the news!”

Across from me in a wingback chair, a few feet above the panic attack of Union Square, she nods. We both know there is no solution, but even her agreement is more than I’m used to. I’m lucky to able to articulate what hurts.

At the end of our session, I pay my therapist $1,800, a sliver of which will be reimbursed by my insurance. The bill covers several months of biweekly cognitive-behavioral talk therapy and medication management. I then pay Walgreens $77.54 for two of the three psychopharmaceuticals I take regularly. I’m privileged to almost be able to afford this. It is an expense I will always have.

On the internet this year, I saw a poorly photoshopped graphic that read: “I didn’t own any slaves, you didn’t pick any cotton, case closed.” I caught myself cackling — while factually true, it assumes a dangerously limited definition of “slavery” that black Americans know is completely beside the point. American slavery, the event, begot American white supremacy, the psychology. That psychology provides white Americans with privilege, power and the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, black Americans don’t and will never know our real names; commercials for Ancestry.com feel like a personal attack; we are expected to prove to our government that we “matter”; and we fear that, in the event of our death, our life will be scrutinized and we will be presumed guilty.

Sometimes I think my depression is the most normal thing about me. We should all get free therapy. We could call it reparations.

It isn’t just that I’m tired; it’s that my mom is tired, my nana was tired, her mom was tired (whoever she was). It isn’t that I’m single; it’s that society believes that black women are not beautiful, and so maybe I believe that, too.

In a study they did with mice, researchers concluded what we already knew: that trauma lives in our blood. Every time I tell myself that I am worthless, how do I know whether it’s me thinking it, or the white voices I’ve internalized? Or it — my broken cells.

It would be inhumane to quarantine assault victims in a room with their abusers for hundreds of years and demand they act natural. Comparisons, of course, are cheap and unfair. I have come to understand my body as an argument, a site of proof and contention.

I try to use therapy to unload my specific personal demons, but anytime I dare to self-indulge, to be the center of my own story, I am reminded of my skin. My symptoms flare. I’m inundated with my insignificance. This is not the work of my disorder. It’s my Twitter feed clogged with hate speech. It’s nigger jokes. It’s that scene in “Malcolm X,” in the library, when he discovers that even our dictionary, our language, insists on our inherent evil.

And then there’s the way it all compounds: average number of times a day a white person walks right into me on the street. Number of mornings a week a white girl flips her wet hair into my face on the subway. Number of black women with speaking roles on “Girls.” Number of police convictions. Number of times I have been mistaken for another black woman. Number of days between the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and Juneteenth, when slaves in Texas were finally informed of it. Number of ways in which this is a metaphor for contemporary black American life.

Some nights I turn over and over in bed groaning to myself, “Why do I feel this way? What can I do to feel better? How can I think my way out of this?” I realize I am in mourning. For the people I never got to be and never will be. I mourn my own possibility.

I had one therapist who told me that every neurosis and blockage could be traced to a locus of fear. She would ask me, again and again, “What is the fear?” and though I never liked my answers — alternately “death” and “abandonment” — I became obsessed with asking the question. For white police officers who commit murder, for white politicians and heads of television networks or publishing houses or universities who — though they admit their inefficacy in protecting, promoting and celebrating minorities, do not step down from their own posts to make way — the answer, always, is the fear of relinquishing control.

What is the fear? Is it that you worry we will treat you how you have treated us? There are two neuroses that I consider particularly American: the habit of forgetting, and the inability to imagine what has not been. We are even afraid to imagine our own rehabilitation. We have never been free, in that we have never been given the chance to define freedom for ourselves. When we love ourselves, it’s a revolution.

In regard to restitution, I submit to the American government an invoice totaling fees incurred for medical treatment. I believe you will find the bill reasonable and fair, all things considered.

Source: How to Stay Sane While Black -By Morgan Parker | New York Times


Morgan Parker is the author of the forthcoming poetry collection “There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé.”

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