Essays as group therapy | Essay | Chicago Reader

Essays as group therapy 

How are Black writers coping? We’re chanting, fact-checking history, and envisioning a tiny future.

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click to enlarge RACHEL HAWLEY
  • Rachel Hawley

Karen Hawkins

The difference in the texts I got over the weekend from Black friends and other folks of color versus the ones I got from white friends is a good place to start for why I reached out to this particular group of writers for essays.

White friends: OMG, are you OK? I can't imagine what you're going through, I'm sure this is hard for you, the world is burning, let me know how I can help, I'm so sorry, white people are the worst.

Black friends: I'm not going to ask if you're OK 'cause I'm not OK. We're all not OK.

I get it, white friends. I know you're trying to help, and I know that you care. But sometimes, I just can't. I can't spend any more time easing your white guilt, I can't keep explaining why proclaiming #BlackLivesMatter while you do nothing to address your own biases is meaningless and offensive, and I can't pretend that I don't resent that after this is all over—whatever "this" means to you—your whiteness will continue to protect you in ways you don't even realize.

Last Friday feels like a year ago. In the e-mail I sent that morning asking for these essays, I put it this way:

You're getting this e-mail because when I made the mistake of doomscrolling Twitter at 5 AM today, I found myself wondering what you're all thinking about this awful effing moment in time. Yes, I'm enlisting you to be my group therapists.

The request: we're looking for essays (you're all Black folks, btw) about how you're coping. You can write about COVID-19, police brutality, the exhaustion of white supremacy, how much the mainstream media absolutely gets things wrong sometimes—or not. Write about what music is getting you through, how Zoom therapy is going, how much you miss your mama's mac and cheese (omg I miss my mama's mac and cheese). I'm really just trying to put together a package that captures voices we frankly don't hear enough from in the Reader.

I will admit that this request was as much about journalism as it was about my personal sanity. I wanted these thoughtful and witty Black writers to tell me how to feel. I wanted to know how they're coping, both as an editor and as a Black lesbian journalist who's been in this unforgiving business for way too long. I wanted to compare notes on how we're getting through this.

And they didn't disappoint.

As I edited these essays, I cycled through all of the stages of grief. I laughed and cried, felt hopeless and despondent, dug in on my commitment to making Chicago a better city, and fantasized about moving into a custom tricked-out van down by some distant river. We've arranged these essays to reflect this emotional journey, and I hope you read this package from start to finish, from Derrick's palpable anger and delete-button self-care to Terrence's Buddhist chants as a way to channel the rage we all feel.

The only author missing is Energizer bunny Matt Harvey, who started his new gig with our friends at the TRiiBe by providing the city's best on-the-ground coverage of the protests with nonstop reporting from midday Saturday into late Sunday. I really hope he's still asleep somewhere. If you, like me, hung on his every word and image over the weekend, consider this: coverage from a young Black reporter working for an independent Black media outlet is something many of you have never witnessed in your lifetime. His passion and perspective are what's possible when people of color have the power to tell our own stories in our own way.

I am so grateful for the voices of these writers and their willingness to share their thoughts. I hope they bring you as much solace and insight as they've brought me.

As for how I'm coping, I'm taking things one day at a time while trying to plan for the future. I spent Saturday watching and listening to crowds break windows up and down my street, setting things on fire—including a police SUV less than a block away—and fearing for both my own safety and everyone else's. The streets momentarily felt lawless, but I knew the law was never very far away. While the heavily armed police may have been outnumbered at times, they were never outgunned. The image on this week's cover was taken from my balcony. It's one instant in a confrontation that felt like it went on forever, that is going on forever.

I don't know where we go from here, Chicago. But I do know who I want to lead the way. And who I hope will document it.

Derrick Clifton

I woke up lighter.

The early evening before, in my own little act of calm resistance, I took a stroll at a forest preserve, marveling at nature within the cityscape to clear my own mind, if only for a moment. I'd been exhausted while processing the brutal killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police department, and frustrated at the news of Amy Cooper weaponizing her white womanhood to lie to New York police all because a Black man, Christian Cooper, asked her to leash her dog in Central Park.

But then I checked my Instagram. After seeing news that an Afro-Latinx CNN journalist was unjustly arrested by the Minnesota state police, I came across a message in my inbox from a white man who demanded I educate him about how race and privilege operate in America.

"The way you talk about white people is counterintuitive," he wrote, referencing work of mine he encountered from six years ago: a crash course on simple yet meaningful ways that white people can challenge everyday racism in themselves or in their environment. One of the ten main points from the listicle asked white folks to "educate yourself about racism as much as possible before asking people of color for help."

But he didn't want to do his own work. Instead, he wrote to demand I "explain myself" to him, questioning the validity of a 1,500-word article that had already explained quite a bit. He couldn't be bothered to even politely ask for further reading, which I might have obliged, even though I'm not obligated to offer titles that could be found within a few Google searches.

I was already exhausted by the week's news. His message drained me of anything that was left from the little bit of joy I woke up with. But then I decided to reclaim my time and my humanity. I hit "decline" on his message request, rendering the message automatically trashed without Instagram notifying him that I'd interacted with it.

Black people, and other people of color, encounter enough exhaustion from having to fortify against white supremacy and racism on any given day, in addition to the usual ups and downs of life. When news about racist policing and vigilantism dominates social media, trust and believe that Black folks are checking in on each other, processing their anger and disappointment at yet another act of injustice, or simply trying to give each other moments of levity.

When struck with grief, if not terror, the sadness and exasperation may take hold, but Black people are often left with little choice but to either numb themselves or find a way to choke it up while continuing with work and other daily obligations. We may not even get as much as a moment to cry, even though we feel like it. Some of us don't have the health care and money to take our troubles to a therapist, either. And with stay-at-home orders still in effect, even with a partial reopening, Black people can't even take out their frustrations on a gym's punching bag. We may be even bobbing and weaving through social media and TV stations trying to avoid seeing footage of a white police officer fatally kneeling on a Black man's neck.

So, then, what would compel any white person to think that Black people—especially people they do not know—owe them the time and energy of explaining how race and privilege operate?

It's called entitlement.

It's the literal definition of pulling a "Karen" and demanding to speak to the manager. It's an act of privilege in itself to demand free labor from people whose ancestors were ripped from their homeland and forced to build the nation's economy on their backs, with no reparations yet to be given to their descendants.

Pay us our respect by, at the very least, respecting our space to grieve and process without having to assume the responsibility of entangling white thoughts and feelings about racism.

As the Menominee poet Chrystos wrote about the tears of white women, like those of Amy Cooper, "Give us our inch & we'll hand you a hanky."

Princess McDowell

Tiny homes. I'm coping with our current darkest timeline by researching absolutely everything tiny homes. Shipping container homes, tiny homes on trailers, skoolies, converted vans, sprinter vans, adult treehouses! Off-grid living, homesteads, convertible furniture that turns walls into tables, and couches into beds and storage. I've fallen down so many YouTube rabbit holes of TV shows and DIY builders that I'm determined to buy a school bus and "start my build process" soon, even though I haven't seen one builder of color.

Exploring the tiny living lifestyle started as a fun way for me and my partner to imagine ourselves somewhere else, surrounded by trees or water or mountains, instead of inside our 800-square-foot apartment. Tucked under trees or poised on a cliffside, we wouldn't need anything because everything we owned would always be right within reach, in a home that's paid for, that we designed and built custom. With the next big economic depression barreling toward us, I suspect more people will try to "go tiny" when they can't pay rent. I've seen some pretty beautiful spaces that, by house standards, are cheap as hell.

Be clear: I've been talking about tiny homes nonstop for three months. If I'm sitting too long, I start designing rooms around the furniture I own or think through how I can convert shelves into tables. I take inventory of all my stuff in my mind and decide what I'll sell or attempt to downsize. I look for perfect storage for the things I plan to keep.

When the virus hit, we were finally settling on our plans for 2020, and savings meant we could actually follow through with them. I used to tell people we were lowkey prepared when coronavirus grinded life as we knew it to a halt because our routine didn't need to drastically change, and our plans for finances were still pretty solid. But the past four days, as cities across the nation have burned, my friends have been shot with rubber bullets and have needed to seek shelter from police dogs and canine units. More people have been murdered by police officers, and I'm terrified to join the rebellions in the streets because I don't want to die from the virus. My moms called me to tell me not to go to a scheduled protest I hadn't even heard about yet. Because I was watching tiny home videos.

Thinking about life on a piece of land, building community with my partner and our friends and chosen family (who I'm slowly convincing to go tiny too) is how I survive. It's my escape from a world that rejoices in telling Black people that our pain and death and lives don't matter, that we are so small and insignificant, even when we say every name and lay it alongside 400 years of racial injustice.

When I'm scrolling through Craigslist looking for short buses, or watching videos of clever design tricks in small spaces, I'm transporting myself to a future where I can live free. How ironic it is that I desperately want to go tiny, to shrink the footprint of everything I've been working toward, in a country that already makes me feel so small.

Evan F. Moore

In 1773, frustrated at the British crown's taxation and tyranny, American colonists—disguised as Mohawk Indians—boarded docked British ships and dumped 342 chests of tea imported by the British East India Company into Boston Harbor.

One of the colonists who participated in the Boston Tea Party, George Hewes, said this about the British reaction to their civil disobedience, which took nearly three hours to accomplish: "We were surrounded by British armed ships, but no attempt was made to resist us."

Three years earlier, in 1770, British soldiers murdered Crispus Attucks, a Black man, during the Boston Massacre, which was one of the events that led to the Revolutionary War. Attucks's killers never spent a day in prison.

And let me know if you've heard this scenario before: A Black man was gunned down by law enforcement. The men who murdered him were acquitted on the grounds of self-defense, and their defense attorney went on to bigger and better things—he's the second president of the United States, John Adams.

This is a train that is never late.

Black bodies are discarded, and the people responsible get to go home—sometimes, they build a career off of it.

The colonists are often described in American history as patriots, while modern-day patriots are pilloried by right-wing media at the behest of President Donald Trump.

Let me give whoever reads this essay a deep cut on American history.

The same people we're seeing in the streets of Minneapolis and other cities who are outraged at law enforcement for once again snuffing out a Black life have the same demand the colonists had for the British crown: freedom.

The colonists, like modern-day protesters, were at their wit's end.

Make no mistake, I do not cosign protests that turn violent and stray from the message at hand. However, if there were less police brutality, there would be no riots—except when your favorite ball club wins a championship.

The protests to reopen the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic don't pass the smell test.

And at that moment, "Blue Lives" didn't matter and any and all talk of "We're in this together" was discarded by white people who foolishly believe that their rights are being infringed upon.

This is America; it's what we do when all other means of communication fall on deaf ears.

What took place in Minnesota, Chicago, and other cities last week isn't a surprise to those who've been paying attention.

Why don't we call the colonists "social justice warriors"?

After all, history is often written by the victors, which means they have the money and the power to curate history in the way they see fit. For further clarification, look up the white conservative backlash against the New York Times Magazine's Pulitzer Prize-winning "The 1619 Project."

See how they cut up when Black folks run point on our own stories?

The people in Minnesota are running point on their freedom.

It's the American way.

Terrence F. Chappell

The damaging effects of COVID-19 are symptoms of a much larger pandemic in America—racism. But because it's much easier for me to talk about it, let's discuss my rage.

James Baldwin's quote, "To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time," cuts particularly deep today. Rage is an emotion that I have worked, and worked, and worked to control. While it has gotten me into a great deal of trouble in the past, my rage has evolved over time to inform my coping mechanisms.

When I'm self-assessing and optimizing, I'm really redirecting my rage in a way that acknowledges it, is sustainable, and moves me forward. I don't care to navigate life enraged; that's a life not worth living. Racism will kill you, but so can rage.

Black Americans were already in a state of emergency before COVID-19, the crisis just amplified underlying issues. I won't list all the conditions we over-index in, because I think we could all use less bad news. I'm balancing being desensitized versus internalizing this saturation of police brutality, villainization, and senseless violence.

The murder of Ahmaud Arbery unnerved my spirit. Since shelter-in-place, I've taken up jogging outside as a healthy escape. Ahmaud wasn't granted this escape solely because of the color of his skin. When I jogged that day in honor of what would've been his 26th birthday, I felt a very familiar feeling—rage.

I went to a dark space and almost forgot about my own humanity. But that's not who I am. Just because there are people who have no sense of humanity doesn't mean I forget mine. I refuse to let this world change me, and I attribute this relentless sense of self to my parents and Buddhist practice.

Similar to millions of other Black families, my parents prepared my sister and I for a world that isn't prepared for us. They laid a foundation of awareness and resiliency that continue to serve and course me out of setbacks, challenges, and at times a toxic culture. I also practice Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism.

As a member of Soka Gakkai International, the lay organization of Nichiren Daishonin Buddhism, I chant nam-myoho-renge-kyo daily. I chant for human revolution, which is what Soka Gakkai describes as a "never-ending process of continual self-improvement. It describes a Buddhist way of life that eternally seeks growth and personal development. It is about how much we are growing and improving right now rather than what we have achieved in the past."

Chanting has enabled me to center my energy and prevent it from going to extremes. Saying nam-myoho-renge-kyo rhythmically formulates a personal awareness that transcends what it is aware of.

I'm grateful for the most basic necessities. My family and friends are safe and healthy. I'm still working; I have clean water and food. I take breaks from the daily news cycle because, frankly, it's depressing and repetitive. I just finished an amazing book, The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Singer, which guides readers on sustaining an inner peace.

I chant for this country every day. I chant for compassionate leadership that will unite, not polarize. I chant that America will uproot systemic racism and prioritize our nation's most resilient communities.

Rage taught me to deal with my problems because when I didn't, my problems dealt with me. Right now, racism is dealing with America. And speaking from personal experience and the current state of our culture, racism will continue to terrorize America until the country deals with it on an institutional level.  v

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