Black Humanity Month & The Exhaustion of Otherness
First Published: February 2022 by Nextions LLC
Ian Alexander Jr., Musician, Died: January 21, 2022, Age: 26, Cause of Death: Suicide
Kevin Ward, Mayor of Hyattsville, Maryland, Died: January 25, 2022, Age: 44, Cause of Death: Suicide
Cheslie Kryst, Attorney, Miss USA 2019, Extra Correspondent, Died: January 30, 2022, Age: 30, Cause of Death: Suicide
It is officially Black History Month. I’m sure that each of your organizations has planned various events and celebrations to learn about, discuss, remember, and honor the history and achievement of black people in the US and around the world. For this year’s Black History Month note from me, I started writing on how to make Black History Month more meaningful in the context of the absurd and asinine attacks on teaching black history — also known as American history — in schools. But I never finished it.
While I was writing on Sunday, I received a text from a friend that Cheslie Kryst had died by suicide that morning in New York. I’ve known Cheslie for about three years. The last time I spoke to Cheslie, we joked about how tired we were and that we were discovering new levels of exhaustion every few weeks.
Exhaustion is a common topic of conversation these days. But Cheslie’s death has left me wondering if we have diluted and relegated exhaustion to the casual topics zone to the point of us being unable to hear when exhaustion means more than just exhaustion.
In January 2022, three successful, well-known, outwardly smiling, young black people took their own lives. We know about Ian Alexander Jr., Kevin Ward, and Cheslie Kryst because they were in the public eye. How many other deaths occurred last month that do we not know about and will never learn about? The suicide rates of black people, especially black young people, have been on the rise for about a decade, but the rate of increase has sharply intensified since the beginning of the pandemic. The uprisings in 2020, following George Floyd’s death, made America confront the ugly truths of how little black lives seemed to matter to those who swore to serve and protect those very lives. Black Lives Matter signs sprouted in residential and business windows, organizations redoubled their efforts on diversity, equity, and inclusion, educational institutions reexamined their curricula and teaching methods through the lens of racial justice, and there was a burst of discussion about racial trauma, white fragility, and other terms that had never managed to penetrate mainstream American conversations before.
What we didn’t talk about then — what we desperately need to talk about immediately — is the impact of “not mattering” on the human beings whose flesh and blood lives make up the “black lives” on the Black Lives Matter signs. The real physical, emotional, cognitive, psychic costs of navigating a world where you have to work harder than others to fit in simply because you are the “Other” everywhere you go. Even when you are at home with family and friends, it doesn’t stop feeling like you are the other. It just feels like you are safe with other Others.
Most days, the cost of navigating Otherness is heavy but bearable. It just has to be done; however, the cost of navigating Otherness may be the final straw that pushes someone over the bearable edge. The pandemic and all of its ensuing realities have been difficult and exhausting for everyone, but they have been particularly dangerous for those who were already exhausted. We don’t all mean the same thing when we say we are exhausted. There are layers to exhaustion that are not adequately captured by the words we currently have available in day to day vernacular.
It’s Black History Month, but January 2022 has served up a profoundly tragic warning that this Black History Month has to be about more than just black history and achievement. This Black History Month has to include focusing on black humanity, specifically black exhaustion.
Without connecting black humanity to black history, we will never learn what history can truly teach us. We will never recognize that human history is the story of how humans saw and treated each other. We will never grasp that we are making history right now by how we see and treat each other.
This year, focus on the humanity of black people’s experiences — the day-to-day stuff that becomes an exhaustion that cannot be described — in addition to the history.
Be more present. Listen more actively. Ask more questions.
What can you do differently as if this February was Black Humanity Month instead of Black History Month?