Your silence will not protect you. Your silence will not protect you. -Audre Lorde
Those words were rolling around in my mouth as I read through the several blogs posts and articles chronicling the untimely suicide of Karyn Washington, founder of For Brown Girls. Immediately, my bones stiffened like concrete and my heart began to thump briskly behind my breasts. This response is familiar; it arrives as a protective warning and physiological memory of trauma. Karyn and I had never met but in solidarity we carried a kinship of resonant armor. I was distressed by the reality that the darkness of mental health had taken another one of us. A darkness that has also visited me.
Here lies a complicated conversation surrounding silence. It truly demonstrates the abstract space of the individual, the shadow that seals the body in tight, discoloring our vision and making the world appear to exist very far away from us. A scrim used to protect and sometimes hide behind, but cannot always be removed. Her singular experience may never be able to be examined. The private qualities to mental illness. The darkest parts of vulnerability. The depth of repressed pain. These complexities are difficult to pattern or describe. They are real. Real enough that her emotional experience most likely existed like a violent, but familiar enemy lashing out unexpectedly. As we have seen. Some may believe that Karyn had the resources and belief systems she needed to rise above social naysayers and tackle the dense barriers inside of a black female body.
Is this proof of our silence not protecting us?
One will never know exactly what weighed on Karyn’s heart. It is clear that there was a separate voice. Some of us will perceive it to be the consistent intake of obtuse energy towards black woman and the surrounding images that do not validate our experience. Otherness as a black body is frequent and discernable. It is consistently difficult, and inevitably comes within our deeply colonized territory. As a black female bodied individual, our oppression is like emptiness. It provokes a space of nameless importance, where beauty, generosity, creativity, and heart go unexamined. And when something is “left behind”, it can recoil and unleash in challenging ways. One can have the resources to advocate for others. Or one can fight alone. Now, it is difficult as her community wonders how things could have been different. Perhaps there was a missing phone call and lunch date. Or… perhaps there were particles that none will ever be able to understand or describe. I extend support to her community by reminding them that none of this was their fault. Karyn’s life, her work, and the hearts that she influenced will carry on through the spirit she developed within the mission of For Brown Girls.
In a piece by Ty Alexander entitled, I am Karyn Washington: Suicide, Depression, and the Mothers Who Left Us, Ty shares with us several email exchanges between her and Karyn, where Karyn reached out. They were commiserating as they individually and collectively coped with losing their mothers. (thank you for sharing, @allisonrhone) Karyn reached out to her for support and guidance as her mother was dying; Ty was deeply nurturing as she offered suggestions for Karyn to “remember” her mother (On a personal note: I was extremely moved by Ty’s suggestion of photographing their hands clasped with their mothers’ hands. My favorite part about my mother was her hands.) and Ty also checked in on after Karyn shared her mother’s passing. Thank you Ty Alexander ( @gorgeousingrey) for writing this piece.
“What we know is that something went terribly wrong and we owe it to Karyn, and others with similar struggles, to find out what happened and work to fix it.” For Harriet, All is Not Right with Our Girls
Therefore, amongst many things weighing on my heart throughout this tragedy is Karyn’s age– 22 years old. At 22, I had also just buried my mother and was preparing to graduate from college. This left me living a few steps behind everyone else. Losing my mother had taught me to “perform” my life as best I could. It was hard for me to focus on the things that were REAL. My slate had previously been etched with a clear reality, but post trauma, it had been wiped clean. I would wake up every morning, read the script and step out on stage. No one could really know me. And not unlike this very moment, my depression was ripe. On a recent night–I found myself stuck within a tilt of depression where I truly needed someone. Negativity and anguish once again were clutching me so tightly, altering my vision, and luring me with the always consistent bait of self hatred. It was late afternoon, and I felt lost. My heart was full– ushering my trauma in to break the dam of my rising predisposed chemicals. I reached for my phone and sent out text messages to a collection of friends and people that would pause and hear me. I do not remember if I possessed the awareness around “unlocking my silence.” The truth is, I don’t always reach out. I am fortunate that I am healthy enough to share this. I am also fortunate that I believe in sharing. It is privilege that I can articulate these words.
“That asking for help was ok.” – Ty Alexander
When I consider Karyn’s age, I immediately think of the young women identified youth that I work with. They live in a fast paced, technology driven world of objectivity, public discourse, emerging desires, and incommunicable concerns. Their hearts are enormous; they give so much of themselves to their families and communities. These battles are public, allowing for little space to air their personal and inner warfare. These are my little sisters. Their existence is a fight towards justice. I have listened and witnessed so many of their narratives of this war. Thus making the loss of Karyn another reminder to me as a youth worker, that there is so much that will never be seen or heard. This taps into my greatest fear — that my words of love and support may never be enough.
I am left wondering, where does our work begin?
When we look at the qualities of leadership, our perspectives need to shift. Our leaders appear stalwart and resilient to us, making their struggles uneasily accepted. Karyn Washington demonstrated her humanity through fateful actions, but her leadership has not wavered. She leaves us with an empowered vitality and a duty to ourselves and our communities. We are to live our stories. And our humanity has little to do with our skill or representation. Those are only threads within the diverse fabric of who we are. My favorite kind of woman is a complicated one–with a pulsating heart, incredible laughter, and tangled eyes. And after scrolling through #KarynWashington, it is clear that we have the capacity to support one another and share in our complexities.
My [our] task is to explain how black women’s citizenship is shaped by their attempts to navigate a room made crooked by stereotypes that have psychic consequences.” Melissa Harris Perry
For me, our fighting begins with listening. It involves eliminating judgment and developing community spaces that allow for young women to just BE. There are not a lot of spaces even amongst my queer community of color that I feel safe enough to share my challenges with mental health. At times, my fear is a fabrication that is symptomatic of my condition. And, unfortunately, there are other community members within these spaces that are struggling themselves and need to make this conversation difficult for the rest of us. A lot of black folk believe that therapy is just for white people. The young black mental health professionals that I have had the privilege to work with are reminders that not only is this NOT the case, but this IS our issue.
In Karyn’s honor, I refuse to be a “strong” black woman. I don’t want to redefine it or reclaim it, I want to destroy it. I want the courage to be able to say that I cannot handle some things. And that I can ask for help. And I demand for a world that not only will accept this, but will listen.
I strangle my words as easily as I do my tears
I stifle my screams as frequently as I flash my smile
it means nothing
I am cotton candy on a rainy day
the unrealized dream of an idea unborn
I share with the painters the desire
To put a three-dimensional picture
On a one-dimensional surface
Nikki Giovanni (thank you Nadine, @freid_pod)