This story was originally printed in DoubleBlind Issue 4 (December 2020).
The national antiracism movement notwithstanding, this is a terrible time to be Black in America. The pandemic has suddenly worsened everything that’s always ailed us, notably high rates of unemployment, sickness, and death. Hanging over it all is a new ailment: loneliness. The stay-at-home orders and shutdowns of public spaces which, as I write this, continue to some degree all over the country, have created a person-to-person disconnectedness that Black people aren’t used to and can ill afford. Feeling apart from society is distressing, but familiar; feeling apart from each other is devastating and disorienting, not least because being together has always been the main bulwark against racism and social alienation. Whatever troubles you’re having, however shaky your job prospects, you could always look forward to visiting family and friends and hanging out, talking it over—but all of that’s no longer. Zoom meetings and FaceTime are stopgaps which are better than nothing, but they only underscore the looming absence of the places where Black people regularly gather and gain sustenance, from churches and hair salons to hole-in-the-wall restaurants and living rooms. Worst of all, the disruptions that started as a result of the pandemic are dragging on, with no clear end in sight.
The new crisis of loneliness complicates an already complicated aspect of Black struggle— the struggle for mental and emotional health and well-being. The pandemic is creating anxiety for all Americans, but for Black people, anxiety is just the beginning of how they’ve always felt about living at the bottom of the American caste system. There has long been frustration, rage, resentment, and despair, emotions repressed out of necessity that have been coming to the surface and fueling rising rates of depression and suicide in the last decade or so amongst Black people, especially young Black men. (A 2019 Congressional Black Caucus report notes the suicide rate among Black youth nearly doubled from 2007 to 2017—during the years of a Black president, no less—and that Black children under 13 are twice as likely to die by suicide than their white peers.) The epic street protests against police brutality that have burgeoned into a wider antiracist movement are an encouraging development, and have provided much-needed affirmation for Black people as a whole. But the protests also highlight a longstanding paradox: how to feel consistently good about yourself when you’re always trying to convince the rest of the world that, on the most fundamental level, Black lives matter.
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Mattering, of course, is key to mental and emotional well-being. Even at their most stressed and depressed, white people tend to retain a coherent sense of themselves, a sense of inherent significance—what clinical psychologist Adia Gooden calls unconditional self-worth. It’s a positive, foundational feeling about yourself that isn’t up for negotiation, that isn’t moved by circumstances like jobs, money, or even health, and it’s especially important to have in times of crises. But maintaining a sense of unconditional self- worth in a country hard-wired with racial hierarchy is a challenge for Black folk, to put it mildly. “The problem for Black people is that in our society, there are hard and soft ways that messages communicate Black people aren’t worthy,” says Gooden, who has a practice out of Northwestern University. “Ultimately the messages say, you’re not worthy not because of what you do or say or how you look. You’re not worthy just because you are.” Such was the hard message conveyed to Black people, and many other people, by the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other Black victims. The killings stirred empathy and action, but they also deepened a Black emotional crisis that was already playing out with COVID. “On top of COVID and job loss, we have this racial trauma, this witnessing of the lack of justice,” Gooden says. “It’s all grief, and loss. It’s a lot to carry.”
We are certainly used to carrying such burdens, and thinking of it as normal, even as our lot in American life. The upside of this moment may be that we are realizing it is not normal at all. My father, a career racial justice activist and lifelong touchstone for me, died in May, just before the Floyd murder. He didn’t die of COVID, but COVID still deprived my family of him—we couldn’t visit him in his last days in the hospital, nor stage a funeral after his death. For a man known and revered by so many people in L.A., and who extolled the virtues of family and community as remedies for oppression, the separation imposed by COVID felt like injustice of the worst kind. He—and we—deserved a gathering, a mourning over, a proper repast, and he got none of it. I understood and followed the COVID restrictions, as did everyone else, and yet the restrictions felt like racism itself. The emotional burden of a million restrictions, absorbed and endured by generations, suddenly felt like too much.
‘Self-care’ has long been a cultural mandate in this privileged, individualistic country, but what does it really mean for Black people? Gooden says the very notion can feel cognitively dissonant, because “we’re not part of that community that centers individual problems.” That’s not a bad thing, but we need balance between prioritizing community and prioritizing ourselves. The Ancestor Project, a Black-led organization that promotes psychedelic use and education for people of color, says ‘self ’ is key to the balance. It believes that without freeing the mind, there is no freeing society of racism. Liberation is collective but it is ultimately achieved one person at a time. And the liberation for Black people must be dramatic, a total break from the self-obscuring norm. “I had high anxiety most of my life, and eventually I thought, ‘What would it feel like not to wake up that way?’” says Charlotte James, creator of The Ancestor Project. “I didn’t know I could be any other way.” Discovering psychedelics, which she calls ‘sacred earth medicine’ with indigenous traditions that go back to Africa, was a way out from under the burdens of history, a “game- changer.”
Her fellow Project co-creator Undrea Wright says mental liberation is the basis of social transformation. “We have to get out and get away from pressures of whiteness first, be our ancient selves, then things will change,” explains the 52-year-old Wright, who has practiced mind-opening disciplines such as martial arts and yoga. “How do you use the knowledge that you gain for greater good? It’s all about doing that deep work. Black people are constantly carrying around a huge burden, and sacred herb medicine helps to put that burden down.” The best part is that “finally, we can feel what it’s like to be a spiritual being.” That is, we can truly feel what it’s like to matter—to ourselves.
U.S. News & World Report theorized in August that Blacks may indeed be in the midst of a mental health crisis. The trend of rising Black suicides was driven home by four deaths by hanging within a three-week period in late May and June, within days of Floyd’s killing: One in New York, another two in California about fifty miles apart and a fourth in the Houston area. All looked to be suicides, but the deaths couldn’t help but recall Jim Crow-era lynchings and the belief, still widely held, that Black lives—to say nothing of inner Black lives—are expendable and worthless.
Loneliness for Black people can be disempowering on top of disempowerment, a rug jerked out from under our feet. But being alone can be the opposite. Being alone may not feel familiar or pleasant, but it can help reveal who we are and how we really feel outside the reassurances of community and physical contact. Aloneness can lead us to that all- important sense of unconditional self-worth. Yet aloneness can feel problematic, too. Talking about his own use of psychedelics, Nicholas Powers, an assistant professor of literature at the State University of New York, said the mind-opening properties of these drugs are intimidating to Black people, chiefly because they ‘melt masks.’ Emotional masks have become so second-nature to Black people, so central in our multifaceted fight for survival, so subconsciously donned, it’s hard to imagine not wearing them, or who we are without them, even when we’re alone.
Wright believes it’s critical to detach from the narrative the masks represent, and to detach from the survivalist self forged by the constant pressures of whiteness and assimilation. With the aid of psychedelics, he says, “instead of seeking approval of an oppressor, you are in control.” That control is key in combating loneliness and everything else, and in refuting racism and all of its crippling spiritual effects. Control is where the surviving ends, and thriving begins. The middle of a pandemic may seem like an unlikely moment to take control, but given the brutal clarity it’s offering, and the down time we have to reflect on the clarity, it’s also the best moment. This is one paradox that may turn out to be a good thing.