Queen In the Wilderness
On a cold February morning, I finally will my body from the slight comfort my bed affords me. Rest does not and has not come easy for an entire year. One would think that letting go of toxic situations and spiked boxes that people tried to confine me in within the workplace would open up some form of outlet for release….for healing. But this is not my truth. Self care for me during trying times as an Black Executive Director was more of a catch phrase and not something that was actually manifested so I could survive or let alone thrive. The closest I came to accomplishing self care or dealing with toxicity was breaking down in tears during meetings or a cocktail or two at the end of the night. The trauma of trying to prove my worth as a Black woman, as a leader, and as a human being is still locked in my bones and in my chest. It taunts me in my dreams and in some ways stops me from dreaming. But as I fully awake on this cold winter morning, the fog that obstructed my vision begins to lift and I am left with the scary truth that the only way I can move on is to speak out about another sort of movement that is at work within social justice spaces…the movement to destroy Black leaders. Whether this is intentional or unintentional destruction is not what matters…what matters is that it’s uncovered and we correct the course immediately.
These are the residual demons I’m at war with from serving as a leader within the social justice community. The war I originally signed up for had a clear enemy and mandate. I signed up to fight and tear down the pillars of racism and capitalism in the streets, courthouses, and legislative halls so that my life and the lives of my Black brothers and sisters would no longer suffer at the hands and vices of white supremacy. I never imagined having to fight a war within…with my own movement family…defending my presence, right to equity and justice, right to be heard, and right to have my human dignity and Blackness respected rather than tokenized, abused, and ignored. Uprooting white supremacy and effects of capitalism from within can be more than you bargain for when you decide to give your life to the movement.
These are the very harmful grey areas that aren’t discussed in the limited training spaces for Black leaders, on popular platforms regularly, or acknowledged fully in philanthropic spaces. This is the real tragedy of the movement from the inside because how do I win a war without the right weapons. What am I supposed to use as defense against program officers or funders saying to me that “Black leadership just isn’t trusted in this space and support isn’t adequate”? Why do these statements come across as ‘ a matter of fact’ and not as a focus of reconciliation and need of change? These types of statements naturally invoked anger and frustration because what I was hearing was that my trauma was good enough to exploit (bought and sold to the highest bidder), to get dollars and media attention but not good enough to lead my own people and own my experiences. How do I deal with the reality that I was merely brought into a leadership space to be a figure head (seen and not heard like a child at the dinner table) or someone that just patched up the holes in a sinking ship rather than being a captain that steered with confidence and had a crew that enthusiastically sought out the horizon of liberation with me? Because of this, desertion and weariness while on the journey to fight for my people and for myself was a regular occurrence and became a solemn companion.
I soon learned after several months in my Executive Director position at a Black organization that these are the dark cobwebbed corners that snare and trap you; these are the internal hardships that can weaken your drive and drain your desire to keep fighting. It becomes a tug of war between self preservation and laying your life on the line on the battlefield of liberation…alone.
As the days grew darker during my tenure as an Executive Director, my vision became clearer in a sense and my determination to survive and find my way out of the darkness became resolute. I finally saw that the cobwebs which ensnared the scattered bones of Black leaders who gave their lives to the hope of liberation only to be assassinated and broken down by the hands, poisoned waters, and crumbling foundations of social justice spaces needed to finally get cleaned and cleared with fervent fire. This is critical to the healing, sustainability, and fully rounded quest for liberation in the movement and for Black people as well as other marginalized communities. The swiftness upon which change comes will actually tell us as a body just how ‘free’ we actually want to be and if we truly value the lives, labor, vision, and position of Black leadership.
I often ask myself how many bones lie forgotten and scattered all in the name of ‘liberation’? But is it really a well rounded and honest quest for liberation and equity if the very people that are fighting for freedom and the dismantling of white supremacy on the outside, are oppressed and experience those same inequities on the inside?
This issue and my experiences as a Black leader hits home even more right now because on one hand we are in Black history month where we are shining a light on prominent leaders that have given their lives to move us closer to the finish line while also being in the midst of this nation’s systemic racial reckoning. Our civil rights leaders before us fought and endured the ugliness of racism and inequity and we still fight it today both outside and inside. We march, protest, boycott, vote, run for office and build policy that reflects just futures for Black, Indigenous, and other marginalized communities of color. We have even called in Philanthropy to adjust their lens of equity to reflect the climate of the movement. But there is still a darkness that lurks within and some stones have yet to be fully turned over inside the belly of our social justice movement.
From this standpoint, it seems that we are only reckoning with what has transpired in front of our eyes with regards to systemic racism and not what is happening behind the curtain in its entirety. An example of my thinking comes from the realization that I don’t believe we are asking ourselves enough or facing the truth of the phrase “given their lives to the movement” when we talk about Black leaders. I truly feel that it is a common notion that the lives of Black leaders are almost nothing more than collateral damage in the fight toward liberation and actually upholding their experiences and traumas and voices while in the midst of the fight is taboo.
Over the last several years, I have heard small groups of people speak out about the significance of Dr. King’s last year and months that led up to his physical death. The film King in the Wilderness gave us insight into King’s mental and emotional trauma and isolation even as he still fought for the soul of this nation. The heartbreak for me comes from feeling that Dr, King’s inward oppression wasn’t reconciled or lifted…but grew heavier with each passing day as he wrestled with his heart for his family, his peers turning away from him and even activists closing their ears and minds to his teachings. Dr. King not only gave his life, had his life stolen by an assassin, but also, from my perspective, walked with a shattered soul all while bearing the heavy cross of liberation.
A few weeks before the first inaugural Women’s March of January 2017, I was serving as the state coordinator for Nevada. State coordinators and organizers from all over got on a very special call with Ms. Bernice King. This is a moment that I will always cherish and never forget. It was sobering and insightful and her words still ring powerfully in my ears. Ms Bernice told us that we must understand what we have picked up…the history and power and blood and tears behind the March on Washington and what her father and other organizers endured. She reminded us that we must be ready for what comes with picking up this torch and get grounded in the responsibility of the moment and history. As an organizer then, it was easy for me to only think of the physical battles that I would endure, but now I also believe that Ms. Bernice King was also speaking of the silent wars that would transpire as well. I believe she was also speaking of her father’s final months and days and the isolation and mental trauma he had to fight..and in most times, fought alone.
All throughout my tenure as an Executive Director, I heard other Black leaders tell me that this was an isolating space/a triggering space. The stories I would hear about Black leaders not having the same opportunities for growth, funding, support, or coming into organizations that had fully functioning boards as their white counterparts seemed almost unbelievable until I experienced it for myself. For all of the movement’s rhetoric about race, equity, inclusion and healing, we have yet to have it fully realized in real time for those leading the fights that come directly from marginalized communities. From the very beginning this ‘as a matter of fact’ tone and way of broken life as a Black leader in social justice spaces worried me. Have we not learned how to have healthy and safe spaces for Black leaders even after learning of the hardship of civil rights leaders before us? Have we not learned to trust the voices and vision of Black leaders or are we still only willing to have them as ceremonial place holders while still keeping their shackles firmly in place?
Until we have collectively reconciled and corrected course, the locked in trauma in my bones and in my chest will serve as a torch to set fire to these injustices against my sisters and brothers. It will serve as a light leading the way in the wilderness.
My hope, even as I prepare to make my own trauma public, is that we not look away from the creative pathways of destruction white supremacy has carved inside of our movement. My hope is that no one else will stand alone in fear. My hope is that we divorce ourselves from power structures that carry on the legacy of white supremacy that keeps Black leaders believing that we will never be enough. I know that these very words will either further isolate me from freedom and keep me bound or these words will set me loose and collapse the foundations of evil within our ranks. I implore everyone to ask themselves if they find more power in holding the keys to Black leaders imprisonment or if they will finally hand them over so Black leaders can freely leave their cages.