Mule No More

“ I found god in myself / and I loved her / I loved her fiercely.”           – Ntozake Shange

The struggle of being a cis-Black woman has never confronted me so squarely as in the past week of my life. Over the course of seven days, from November 7th to November 14th, it seemed like the world raged against me.

First, the outing of an alleged neo-Nazi on campus. Davidson College unraveled around me. The illusion of safety and calm that I had built for myself, within the master’s house, was becoming unhinged. Fear grew within me. Then, came my rising up. I felt a spark in my chest; a fire grew. It felt like the igniting of a passion century in the making. Maybe it was epigenetics or resilience or my mother’s wildest dreams, but I was on fire. The fire, however, did not burn brightly for long. After all the talking and writing and crying, I felt the world beating me back. The flames were ripped from my throat.

The issues on campus highlighted my deeper wounds. Surrounding me, everywhere I turned for comfort, there was none. My fire was changing from one I sparked and fed into one stolen and raging against me. Instead of my fiery voice keeping me warm, it was being wielded against me like a weapon. One consequence was my loss of friendships. The homes I had made of the people dearest to me were burning. The warmth that had previously wrapped me in affirmations and compassion was replaced with cruel criticism. The flames spread quickly. Soon my friendships, relationships, and leadership skills were engulfed. It took days for me to make sense of the deeper problem at the heart of the fire—I was being made into a problem.

It did not matter how much I swallowed pieces of myself to combat the growing destructive blaze. The problem was me. The only solutions offered caused me to break down, rip words out of my mouth, and replace the bravest parts of myself with something shiny and new. Shiny and new. In the way that stripping myself of all my passions, expressions, and dreams makes me shiny and new. I was tasked with sanitizing myself for the greater good of keeping other people’s peace.

When DuBois posed his notorious question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” in The Souls of Black Folk, he was not thinking of me. His double-consciousness asserted the hardships of being Black in America, but DuBois failed to nuance the compounded marginalization of Black womanhood. Ours is not merely a double-consciousness, but a constant rewriting of ourselves. Our sanitization as Black women and girls is normalized.

The unsettling truth, however, emerged later. It took days for me to overcome the initial shock of my losses. I was grieving while trying to fight the chaos. It was like I was bleeding and open for all to see while being expected to press on.

The inalienable truth of my existence is that I was born a problem. The world is not equipped to make Black girls anything more than that. Our lives are spent at the margins competing for space amongst gender binary, whiteness, patriarchy, and heteronormativity. Too often our voices, shouting from the terrifying crevasses of those margins, are critiqued. No matter how polite we make ourselves, it is reconstructed into attitude. Our passions framed as anger, hate, aggression, ignorance, arrogance, pride, divisiveness, and hostility. Our tone is policed by people whose identities already force us into the most confined, oppressed spaces on Earth.

Yet, the burden of Black womanhood often goes unnoticed and unsupported. During the protests, amidst the onslaught of academic work and the daily demands of Davidson, my personal life was in shambles. Friendships that I previously looked to for comfort and peace became spaces of miscommunication, distrust, and fear. Nearly everything I thought I knew was up in the air and changing. I felt more alone than at any other moment in my life (and believe me it’s been a long life). The shrinking feeling of isolation enveloped me. All the while the flames of anger grew in my gut. These two feelings pulling me into one of my deepest depressive episodes.

The inalienable truth of my existence is that I was born a problem. The world is not equipped to make Black girls anything more than that. Our lives are spent at the margins competing for space amongst gender binary, whiteness, patriarchy, and heteronormativity.

The beginning of the pain came unexpectedly. Small remarks about my tone grew into attacks on my leadership skills and capabilities. Then, the pain seemed to hit all at once. My personhood was under attack. It was not my output being called into question, but the core points of my personality.

The criticisms held fast to one constant request: be less. I was asked to be quieter, less direct, less visible. This recurring theme caused me to question myself. For days I cried. It was one of the most vulnerable periods in my life. I felt open. My openness, however, was not a self-affirming moment of sharing and vulnerability from within. Instead, I was forced open—bleeding and on display. All the while I was searching for empathy.

My forced opening took an immense toll on me, but I did not allow it to destroy me (at least not for long). Despite the pain, I felt (and continue to feel) I am comforted by my resilience. My mental and emotional bounce back game is strong. In the midst of immense pain and tragedy, I forge onward. My eye and my spirit are always focused on moving forward.

Before I suffered in silence. I swallowed my pain and pushed on to achievement, accolades, and approval. Letting myself feel the full weight of my traumas was not a luxury I could afford. I feared if I sat and reflected on my pain that I would be too broken to rebuild and I never wanted to be seen as anything less than worthy. It was pride, but there was something more there. The pain of my Black womanhood was not mine alone to bear. Black women have been confronting the policing of our voices, bodies, and dreams for centuries.

The pain of Black womanhood lies in the pain of giving all of ourselves to communities that disregard us. Zora Neale Hurston explained it well in Their Eyes Were Watching God when she writes, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Our lives are spent doing the work of upholding communities, while our own needs are neglected. For so long, and still today, the burden placed on Black (and Brown) women is to carry the weight of the world. We are socialized to shoulder the pain, wars, and trauma of the entire world.

I am determined to no longer be a mule. I applaud Black women throughout history who have bared the brunt of abuse and trauma for the sake of saving everyone else as they journeyed to save themselves. They were working for my freedom without ever knowing I existed. As I sit here reflecting on my own pain, I wish to be something greater than a stepping stone left behind in the liberation of others. I want to be my own champion.

I am going to live for myself. I am going to live and not fear the fire within me. There is a fiery passion within me that will not be extinguished.

Bry Reed is a junior at Davidson College originally from Baltimore, MD. She currently writes for her own blog, and other online publications. Bry is an Africana Studies major and Gender & Sexuality Studies minor with hopes of continuing her passions for writing and education after graduation. You can follow Bry on social media @brydapoet on Instagram and subscribe to her site’s mailing list for more!