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Racial Justice

How can we heal in a society when there is no time or place to rest?

Healing is reserved for those who don't have to dodge the mental and physical wounds of living in a racist society.
Shanta Lee Gander October 5th, 2020
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This summer, I received an email saying an online gathering for a poetry event was canceled to allow everyone space for healing when George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis. The following week, the gatherings resumed as if the mourning was complete. As a person who grew up having to navigate the world to mask the dysfunction of home—physical abuse, homelessness—I always questioned the idea of the space between healing, dealing, and doing. What does that look like when this space continues to collapse within our culture? 

Think of the healing that I am sure some of us have undertaken after a surgery. Usually, there is space, rest, and other steps that one must take place to encourage actual healing to take place. 

We are stuck in a loop of tragedy, the wounds that occur as a result, and reacting. How does healing take place when there is no place to rest? When steps can’t be taken because the layers of trauma continue to accumulate?

When it comes to race, the need for rest and recovery from trauma, alongside the concept of the space between tragedy and continuing one’s life, takes on a different meaning. If you are Black in America, what does healing look like between COVID-19 and the ongoing body count of lives lost due to racism?

Communities of color are most impacted by COVID-19 due to population density, alongside health disparities and other factors. With limited ability to take space from the virus or race in America, how does one take a moment of pause within the continuum of healing and doing?

Historically, Black Americans were not allowed access to grief or healing. Éva Tettenborn  addresses this in her article,“ Melancholia as Resistance in Contemporary African American Literature.” Tettenborn takes a closer look at Freud’s concept of melancholia within the context of the Black experience stating, “Both mourning and melancholia presuppose the existence of a subject who has lost an object. Without subjectivity and the subject's attachments to an object, neither mourning nor melancholia are possible. However, the slave system sought to obliterate any idea of the African American subject.” 

Tettenborn shares another example from Harriet Jacobs’ 1861 Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: “I thought I should be allowed to go to my father's house the next morning … I spent the day gathering flowers and weaving them into festoons, while the dead body of my father was lying within a mile of me. What cared my owners for that? He was merely a piece of property. Moreover, they thought he had spoiled his children, by teaching them to feel that they were human beings.”

To be Black in America co-exists with this history of erasure in relationship to healing, grief, or experiencing the pain of loss. It is like constantly swallowing a glass of shards and not being able to tend to the internal bleeding while trying to create your own first aid kit to tend to the constant wound. In this moment, true healing is reserved for those who do not have to continually dodge the endless mental and physical wounds of living in a racist society.

With these realities, how do we find space amid the pressure to act?

In America, we treat healing as something to check off a to-do list. A perfect example is our bereavement policy in America. These policies imply two things: that a mourning period is finite and business must go on.That time for rest and recovery is considered valid only within the context of employment policies as a result of the pressures created by our class system. Paid time off for vacations, giving birth, or mourning is based on having an ideal benefits package. However, according to a recent podcast episode from the Center for Investigative Reporting, some companies purposely find ways to thwart injured employees from taking the proper time off.

These kinds of policies loudly reinforce the idea that having time to grieve, rest, or take any kind of mental respite is reserved for those who can afford that option. They fit within a culture that has commodified the very concept of rest. For example, let’s say one wanted to opt for taking some downtime through an R&R retreat at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health. Without applying for one of their scholarships, one of the R&R packages start at $85 per day, in addition to private room accommodations that start at $212.

The idea of paid time off exists within a system where Black Americans are still faced with obstacles of getting through the door to get hired for any job, let alone one that is stable and attached with the aforementioned kinds of benefits. I’ve witnessed close friends who were new mothers needing to choose between time off and the potential loss of wages. And of course, the idea of healing after a surgery would be based on whether someone had access to health insurance. With more than 27.5 million individuals lacking health coverage, most are going to work with whatever ails them.

The toxic loop evaporating space or pause between the things that happen in our lives, healing, and the need to react is further supported by our technological advances. Social and information sharing has been accelerated by platforms like Facebook, which was created in 2004. Newsworthy events have become instantaneous and we all have the power to broadcast everything and anything with friends or family, regardless of how traumatic repeated exposure to images and stories about violence, abuse, and bigotry without respite can be.

The space between what happens in the world and our response to it has collapsed partially due to our technological advances. These advancements are situated within a culture that has placed a  financial value on rest in the form of benefits packages and places where one can purchase R&R. This all exists within deep inequities across many categories altering our concept and understanding of who gets access to taking rest or pause and for what reasons. 

It is time to take ourselves back in radical ways, even for those of us whose bones carry the memory and current reality of not having had access to such a thing.

What this culture considers to be a luxury for some—based on access to a good job attached to benefits and the ability to pay for R&R—is the very thing we can’t afford not to take back for ourselves. A pause or small space between a recent tragedy and the pressure to respond or act.

Technology and our culture will continue within this toxic loop of collapsing a much-needed pause. It rests in our hands to take ourselves back from this loop, even if taking ourselves back requires radical action.

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