by Reagan Jackson
Let me preface this with one important point of clarity: Mary and I don’t owe anyone an explanation about what we chose to do. We are accountable solely to and for our community and to the call for Black healing to which we are responding. However, as a commitment to my greater calling as a healer, I have decided I will gift you with the additional emotional labor required to provide folks with more context. This is so people can educate themselves about the necessity of Black healing spaces and possibly expand their understanding of this work and our framing of it. You’re welcome.
On Monday, June 15, 2020, Mary Williams posted an Open Letter to the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) on Facebook. In it she expressed her longing to take what started out as a powerful protest in services of defunding SPD and protecting Black lives — and has since devolved into a tent city encampment co-located with a quasi-political street fair — and make it a space of healing for Black folks.
She issued an invitation to co-create such a space in Celebration of Juneteenth and I said yes. In three days the two of us raised over $25,000 and made June 19, 2020, a day to center and prioritize Black healing at the CHOP.
Our event lasted for 12 hours. From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. we held the central field at the CHOP as Black people came and went, made flower crowns, prayed for dead loved ones, wept, connected, laughed, lounged, painted, sang, danced, stretched, and released. The crowd ebbed and flowed as people left to attend marches and rallies and other various celebrations throughout the city. In the evening the field filled up as music began to play.
We enlisted the support of the entire community. We hired Mulu Abate to provide us with nourishing and delicious food as well as several Black facilitators and healers to share their expertise and healing modalities. Abiola Akanni led morning yoga. I curated two altars: one to honor and connect with our ancestors and one for forgiveness and to release our burdens. I also led a grief ritual.
Aramis Hamer curated an arts space and encouraged participants to make cards and write letters to their ancestors. Naa Akua led a sound healing meditation. Natasha Marin invited us to engage in Black imagination through conversations with strangers. The Black Femme Collective, which has been instrumental in organizing the CHOP, spoke about their work, and the day culminated in a dance party with DJ Dark_Wiley.
Myisa Graham set up a Storyorp style project and filmed Black people talking about their experiences of freedom and healing. Taylor Freeman was our logistical intern and Hunter Grier supported with sound and tech.
We also reached out to our non-Black allies for the support necessary to protect the space for our healing. Our allies of every ethnicity showed up beautifully in a variety of capacities. So many folks contributed to our gofundme page that we quickly exceeded our goal. Allies also showed up with an overwhelming wealth of donated supplies: snacks, cases of water, masks, hand sanitizer, homemade fans, musical instruments, sound equipment, sage, art supplies, and flowers. (Shout out to Alyssa Trinh for creating our flyers.) They also showed up with their bodies and formed a physical perimeter to deter non-Black folks from disrupting the space and to do the emotional labor of educating non-Black folks about the necessity of Black healing.
This was incredibly courageous and demanding work as individuals with white supremacist groups showed up — some of them armed. The majority of the people who showed to agitate were large white men, and the majority of the people who held the perimeter were women, so there were some very risky dynamics that presented themselves throughout the day.
When I spoke with my co-workers, the entire staff of Young Women Empowered unanimously agreed to support this event and provided a generous donation of staff time, money, and coordination. I can’t express how much this loving display of solidarity and care has meant to me. Rose Edwards, founder and Co-Executive Director of Y-WE, became the point person for coordinating allies and even hosted a Zoom call the night before where folks were trained in conflict de-escalation.
Why did we do this at the CHOP?
The CHOP itself has its origin story rooted in a protest against Black trauma and police brutality. In the first weeks of June, police used tear gas and rubber bullets at the intersections surrounding the CHOP in an attempt to silence crowds of enraged, outraged, and grieving people responding to the gruesome murder of George Floyd. On our minds and hearts also were Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Abery, Tony McDade, Charleena Lyles, and the ongoing list of Black people who have been victims of the systemic genocide committed by the police — the very people we are told will protect and serve us.
Beyond the simple and agonizing grief of these tragedies, there is the deep and traumatizing fear of being next. Black people showed up to yoga at the CHOP on Friday in tennis shoes in case we had to run away from an attack. Re-read that sentence and let it soak in: the depth of our fear for our own safety even when doing very ordinary and everyday things. Feel that in your adrenal glands: the sweaty-palmed, heart racing panic attack of being vulnerable anywhere at any time simply because of the color of your skin.
Every Black person I know is soul tired and rubbed raw. I don’t think this is a secret. I am stating an obvious thing. However, it is necessary to state the obvious because there seems to be a cognitive dissonance. Almost anyone I have encountered understands how hurt Black people have been in this country over the course of the last 400 years and in this year alone. Yet for some reason when two Black women decided to host a healing space for other tired, angry, traumatized, and grieving Black people in the epicenter of a space that was literally created in the name of centering Black lives, we were met with resistance, racial slurs, condescension, rage, indignation, questions, obstructions, and general fuckery.
Why? The answer is because the space we chose to curate did not center whiteness. I had a white man scream at me for being “a segregationist” which I find hilarious, offensive, and historically inaccurate to compare Black people conducting a grief ritual in the park to a whole-ass system that oppressed, marginalized, and harmed our people for decades. “We should all be together,” I was told repeatedly. “What you are doing is wrong.”
The Caucacity (this word is a contraction for white audacity) of white people thinking they have the right to dictate what my Black healing and grief should look like after a racially motivated murder is another side effect of the deeper mental illness of white supremacist conditioning. Imagine planning a funeral for your loved one and having someone crash it in order to center their needs because they didn’t understand or approve of your customs. Imagine if someone came into your therapy session to scream at you that you had no right to heal and they were the only ones who could tell you what healing should look like.
Just stop. We didn’t ask for your permission, your opinion, or your approval. In the same way that CHOP was taken, we used civil disobedience to take our healing to the CHOP. We responded to the needs of our community because that is who we are and what we do as Black women. It’s what our mothers did and their mothers, and this is how we have survived. The difference is that this time, we chose to do publicly what we have been doing for generations in private as an act of freedom on Juneteenth, the very day we celebrate our freedom.
Why can’t we all be together?
In this city especially, we are all together. All the time. We also have affinity groups that serve specific purposes. For example, I live in the South End in a community where there are many Orthodox Jews and East African folks. Due to their cultural norms, many women from both of these communities don’t feel comfortable exercising in mixed company, so the gym and community center provide them with access to a female-only space in order to accommodate their safety and comfort. The gym and the community center are not segregated. They serve the entire community, and they are also responsive to specific needs that arise in the community, and no one is harmed through this process.
There are also groups like European Dissent. They are white people meeting to do the work of dismantling oppression and learning to become antiracist with other white people. The work that they do helps to create inclusivity because they unpack the things that make whiteness dangerous. And also, in doing so without requesting Black presence in the space, they are shielding us from doing the unnecessary emotional labor of retraumatizing ourselves for white education.
Even when we are “together,” the experience I am having as a Black person in America is very distinct from the experiences other people are having. And my Black experience is different from that of other Black folks. We are not monolithic, but in this current political climate, in the wake of so much tragedy, many Black people are in pain. The specific Black experience I am having right now is trauma-filled and requires support, healing, attention, and space.
Here is another analogy. Would you ask a female-identified victim of rape by a man to process their assault in a therapy group with men? Probably not. Why? Because in that situation there is a high risk she would be uncomfortable and retraumatized. The fear and anxiety she would likely experience when surrounded by men would not be an indictment of the moral character of men generally, but a reflection of the trauma she experienced with a specific man. This does not mean that she will never engage with, love, or trust men again. It just means there is some repair work that needs to happen in order to create a space for her to be in community with men again. This is simple and intuitive.
But if Black people, who have just watched other Black people be murdered by white people, want to claim a healing space free of white people, it is seen as saying all white people are bad. That is ridiculous.
Dear white people
No one was even talking to or about you. The need to center whiteness is so relentless and habitual that when it doesn’t happen, people lose their minds. We said Black people need a space to heal with Black people. Your inclusion or exclusion was never the point. However, we thought about it and decided there was a way that we could include you. We even gave you roles to play because we wanted to believe that the same community that has been screaming, “Black Lives Matter!” everyday, all day, for the last three weeks, might actually mean it. That you might support Black people not just in surviving but in thriving. We gave you the opportunity to make allyship a verb: to protect, defend, and support the full humanity of Black people.
Some of you showed up and did exactly that, and to you we are deeply grateful. Some of you really blew it. I’m talking about the white man who came into the space screaming the word “nigger” and had to be removed by no less than eight allies (thank you friends) and the Brown-skinned man who came up to me furious that Black people needed something he didn’t understand or couldn’t be included in. The “You Blew It” list is long. I was regularly challenged to account for my authority to name, claim, and organize my own healing. It is telling how reluctant people were to recognize, collaborate with, and/or yield to Black female leadership.
And then there was internalized oppression
Black people have been told for so long that we don’t deserve to take up space that some people felt uncomfortable to enter a space that was designated as theirs. Some mixed-race Black-identified people expressed trepidation to enter the space for fear they wouldn’t be considered “Black enough.” Blood quantum is a colonizer mindset. If you identify as Black you are welcome. Black people come in every shade and we are here to heal together.
Some Black people chose to bring their white family members to Black sacred space. They chose not to acknowledge that, while that white person may be their safe person, their presence could make other Black people feel less safe. I met Black people who invalidated the safety concerns of other Black people and centered the white fragility of their family members instead.
I also met one Black woman who showed up with a megaphone to announce a protest and framed her invitation as, “You can heal later, we need to go to this protest now.” It felt shitty to have to pull her aside and inform her that, while she was welcome in the space both to announce the protest and be Black and heal, she was absolutely uninvited to decide for other Black people when and how it was appropriate for them to take space for their own healing.
I know some Black people are cringing reading these words, but I said what I said. And I said it in mixed company because we all need to start unpacking the ways in which the toxic culture of white supremacy is negatively impacting our lives. This is another conversation that usually centers whiteness, but the truth is none of us are immune, and oppression and discrimination are no less problematic when coming from other people of color. We all have a lot to learn. There is a huge amount of spiritual and cultural growth that must take place in order for us to even begin to have a new vision for a better society and it starts by telling the truth, calling out harm, making amends, and understanding one another.
For 12 hours straight, in addition to holding the spiritual and physical space, Mary and I coordinated facilitators and food, connected with media, answered questions, welcomed participants, and met as many needs and requests as we could. We did this while being disrespected, verbally attacked, threatened with physical violence, shamed, belittled, and dehumanized. And we will do it again if it means even one Black person is able to find a bit of healing, solace, and joy.
We did what we set out to do. I cannot count the number of Black people who thanked me with tears running down their faces for the moment of reprieve they were able to receive. “I can’t breathe,” is not just a protest slogan commemorating the dying words of Eric Garner and subsequently George Floyd, it is a whole-ass mood that aptly describes this experience of navigating the spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and psychological terrorism currently suffocating Black bodies. But there we were. It was Juneteenth, our day of freedom, and despite every threat, we were breathing, loving, and living. And it was beautiful. Black people loving themselves. People of all colors showing up to support and affirm Black healing. This is what is needed NOW and always.
Should we all be together mourning the deaths of Black people slain by the police and working every day to make sure not one more life is lost?
Can we all be together and feel safe given what has happened?
Do Black people need a space where they can process with other Black people about what surviving this genocide is like?
Are we asking for permission?
Are we doing it again?
Yes. Next Friday and Saturday. Come through for another fire lineup. In honor of Pride weekend there will be a community ofrenda for trans and queer Black folk so that we can center our most marginalized. There will be a grief ritual, a writing workshop, art, delicious food prepared by Black chefs, flower crowns, music, dancing, and double dutch. We will be passing out safety kits created for Black trans femmes to protect themselves. Find more information on our website here.
Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, activist, international educator and award-winning journalist.
Featured image by Marcus Harrison Green.