Grief is an everlasting emotion. We encounter it in a myriad of ways, sometimes not even knowing grief is what’s consuming us in the moment. Throughout the day we are subjected to multiple instances of loss, negligence to different pockets of our lives, and most substantially, triggers that set off the internal mental and emotional dialogue that we’re too ashamed of to broadcast to others. Like the family member who just gets prayers sent in the midst of a mental health crisis, or the student that faces more suspensions than meetings with a school counselor, I’m starting to recognize grief as one of the cultural elephants in the room we’ve been told doesn’t need space for discussion. We’ve been taught that the “bad” feelings are a waste of time to sit through, and that if you just press your palms tightly enough they disappear.
For generations, we’ve passed down the act of deflection. Why sit and cry over one thing, when we have a checklist of stressors to get through? What makes one disappointment more life altering than the next? Instead of taking the time to process something, we choose to ignore everything. We will ourselves to just trust in the universe that the following days will take an elevated change in direction and that somehow the baggage that’s rested untouched for months will unpack itself. But there’s nothing more discouraging than feeling like that lonesome fallen tree in the forest, so caught up in our own misfortunes that we don’t look around and see the exposed roots of everyone else. We force ourselves to find comfort in isolated mourning because we fear we’re the only ones unhappy.
At the same time, we so eagerly want to share moments of celebration. You can easily formulate a list of people who can plan the best baby shower, the most abundant trunk party, an unforgettable birthday, or the most touching wedding. You have a yellow page book worth of calls to make when you find out the news of a college acceptance, a new job, or even just to tell your friends about the occurrences in your day that made you feel good. Sometimes we hope that telling someone our good news will make them hopeful it’ll be their turn next. We cling to the hope that when one person is finally coming up, it’ll be a relief to others that their bad luck is ending, too.
We’ve come to a place in life where gathering makes sense only if we’re discussing the light, that what we do when the switch is turned off doesn’t concern others: how we feel when that letter displays a rejection instead, or being notified that layoffs are happening next week is something we deal with on our own time. We’ll find out how to sort through these emotions without seeming like a bother to the same people we would call for our more appealing moments. Do you find yourself reaching out more when your cup is full or when a drought is present and you need the water?
In her book, Jambalaya, Luisah Tesh touches on the importance of community and matriarchal figures when it comes to mending personal wounds:
“Now I began to take special notice of the women in my community. It seems I had a mother on every block. This, of course, was a double edged sword. On one side, I would not go hungry or fall down sick without ‘Auntie, Cousin, Sister, or Big Moma’ So-and-So doing something about it. On the other hand, if I committed a transgression six blocks away from home, I could get at least five scoldings and two whippings before I got home to receive the final one.”
Tesh shares this story from her childhood to highlight how much of a difference it made to have people present in her life through the lows, the mediums, and the highs. While this is a distinct memory from her youth, age should not be a restriction on receiving and giving in-depth communal care. At what point in our lives do we lose the ability to empathize with someone? Why is it that once someone reaches adulthood it’s an innate societal norm to leave them to fend for themselves? The answer is that we’ve started to assimilate ourselves to the white supremacist vehicle that is individualism.
I often reflect on how the westernization of our livelihood has drastically impacted how we view leaning on one another. Black people across the diaspora are birthed from tribes. Our bloodrite and our first instinct is to make sure that everyone around us is supported; that everyone eats in the morning, the middle of the day, and at night–no matter how big or small the portion is; that everyone has clothes on their back and a place to lay their head when the sun goes down. When someone is sick, we have people blessed with the knowledge of healing herbs and their properties to come and tend to their needs. When someone is injured and cannot fulfill their responsibilities, people step up to allow that person to rest.
A foundation of mutual aid and collectivity has existed long before its revival within the most recent uprisings. The groundwork of checking in with one another, stepping in to allow someone to step back, and community programs that not only show you that you aren’t alone in your struggle, but that there’s people there to help you get back on your feet, has always existed throughout time.
Learning about the intention behind the work that members of the Black Panther Party (BPP) produced is what really started to shift my thinking toward a more collective way of living. From their widely known programs, such as providing free breakfast for children, and their community pantry, they cultivated over sixty survival programs. They offered health clinics that provided free medical and dental services, employment referrals, GED classes, martial arts classes, a maintenance program, tutoring sessions, legal aid and education, and—one of my personal favorites—the Intercommunal Youth Institute, which challenged the failures of public school system by providing proper care to young Black students. The BPP used these programs as not only a vehicle of political education, but to gather and tend to their community members.
In To Die For The People, Huey P. Newton perfectly describes the mission behind these survival programs:
“All these programs satisfy the deep needs of the community, but they are not solutions to our problems. That is why we call them survival programs, meaning survival pending revolution. We say that the survival program of the Black Panther Party is like the survival kit of a sailor stranded on a raft. It helps him to sustain himself until he can get completely out of that situation. So the survival programs are not answers or solutions, but they will help us to organize the community around a true analysis and understanding of their situation. When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level, then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.”
These survival programs that the BPP created helped me to gauge my understanding of the integral role collective struggle plays within our liberation movements today. When I learned about these programs, I thought of all the people who once felt they had to suffer in silence but were connected with the rest of their tribe and gained a sense of hope that it is possible to eradicate the problems that placed them in that deficit in the first place. You reach out for help in a world that typically gives you a slammed door to the face and you’re met with every resource you asked for and a community to bask in it with. These programs began to establish and normalize a much-needed culture of feeling comfortable enough to call on others when in need of support.
What we often write off as personal hardships, instances that we feel others won’t be able to even resonate with, are actually shared by many people around us. We seldom notice because we don’t let people know what we’re going through. State entities put an abrupt stop to the programming that the BPP offered. What died with the end of these programs was this newfound willingness to confide in the community when a need arises. We’ve now returned to the indoctrinated capitalist ideology that struggle equates to weakness— once you’re perceived as weak, you’re no longer desirable. We have reduced ourselves to feeling easier to be replaced, to be disposed of, and to be forgotten. That’s what drives us to feel like isolation is our only option.
My own relationship with grief was intensified and tested within this past year. I’ve lost friends and dealt with major life-changing transitions. Communal spaces I once felt welcomed in slowly started to become unrecognizable, and I was finally forced to deal with years of burnout and mental exhaustion that I let collect dust. I resorted to what many of us do in times of despair; I shut myself off from the rest of the world. I began to fall deeper and deeper into my depressive hole and ignored all the hands that were extended to pull me back up because I was too embarrassed to vocalize that I needed help. This cycle of isolation, which would end with a temporary revival, always landed me in the same spot months or even weeks after I tricked myself into believing everything was fine.
Throughout my journey of participating in organizing efforts, I’ve been blessed to read the words of revolutionaries who have helped me craft my own radical thought. I had to decide it was finally time to not just listen to what they were saying, but to actually apply it. Themes of collectivity have been brought up by organizers as one of the anchors we need in order to finally be in the position to truly tackle external forces that are pressing down on us.
Black people are grappling with multiple pandemics at once. In almost every direction we look, there’s some entity that’s preying on us, waiting for a moment of separation so they can infiltrate. At many marches and protests, one of the points myself and other freedom fighters always make sure to communicate to the crowd is that we’re more powerful when we’re together. The moment we’re apart from each other, the easier it is to bring us down. We tell people to link arms when needed, check in on those that are around you, even if you don’t know them, and make a friend. We emphasize the importance of togetherness throughout the entirety of the action.
I used to just apply this logic to address safety concerns, but now it’s something I’ve started to implement in my everyday life. Our problems feel easier to handle when we have people in our corner battling them with us. What we think we’re submerged in by ourselves could have very well been suffocating a loved one for a long time. I believe in the act of collective struggle. Sadly, while we exist in our non-abolitionist present, we don’t have the privilege of being able to grieve alone–it’s not productive. Collectivity is needed to push us towards liberation in an intra-communal sense, as much as it’s needed to help us combat external entities that are driving our need for freedom.
I urge everyone to practice calling on those who make you feel loved, supported, and needed in your moments where you feel most alone. Allow yourself to be vulnerable. Don’t feel ashamed to sit through the emotions we as a society have placed such a negative connotation behind. Learn to be honest about where your capacity is and to not be moved by what you see on social media and let that dictate whether the pace you’re moving on is correct or not. Most importantly, never forget the power that comes with numbers.
In sisters of the yam written by the late bell hooks, in just one sentence she perfectly touches on the importance of togetherness to help us move through challenges that are presented by outside forces: “No level of individual self-actualization alone can sustain the marginalized and oppressed. We must be linked to collective struggle, to communities of resistance that move us outward into the world.”
We achieve liberation through collectivity and all the sides that come with it.
Alycia Kamil is a multimedia freedom fighter from the South Side of Chicago. This is her first contribution to the Weekly.