Why We Must Center Healing in the Movement for Black Lives

A memorial at Oscar Grant Plaza for Black lives lost to police violence.  (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On Aug. 22, 1964, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer spoke before a live televised audience at the Democratic National Convention. Her harrowing account of police brutality was so powerful that President Lyndon B. Johnson interrupted the broadcast for an impromptu press conference. Still, she could not be silenced. Hamer would go on to become an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement, once calling America “home of the grave.”

Sadly, Hamer died of breast cancer and hypertension 15 years after dedicating her life to organizing. Perhaps most recognized for the phrase “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Hamer’s brave fight for justice is both a testament to the kind of exhaustion that can spark uprisings and the urgent need for intentional, radical healing.

It is true, the national and global movement for Black lives has many (Black folks, non-Black people of color and white allies alike) energized to take action. But this year has already stretched our collective emotional, spiritual and physical capacities. We remain in the midst of a pandemic hitting Black and brown communities the hardest. And many organizers, especially locally, have been marching since the police killing of Oscar Grant more than a decade ago.

Furthermore, as new folks enter the fold, some of us become weary from the lack of awareness of interlocking systems of oppression that include gender and sexuality as well as race. These systems make it difficult for all Black lives to matter. We find ourselves repeating, like a broken record, that we must care as much about the killings of Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade as much as we do about George Floyd. We are weary because we can’t bear repeating the traumas of the past.

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Racism, in particular, is complex in its assault because it functions in four main ways: ideologically, institutionally, interpersonally and internally. We are often taught to react only to interpersonal anti-Blackness and racism, as we definitely should. A white guy saying the n-word, a white woman calling the cops on a Black man for bird watching—these can all escalate to heinous violence such as Ahmaud Arbery’s death at the hands of white vigilantes.

But there are layers to this stuff. Anti-Blackness is prevalent within this nation’s institutions, which dictate where we do or do not place value. Ideologies have a kind of invisible power, and oppression also festers within our hearts and minds. Sometimes we internalize oppressive frameworks, adopting notions of overworking ourselves to burnout and holding onto harmful concepts like shaming ourselves or one another for not doing more. Often we engage in unhealthy coping mechanisms to mask our grief, forgetting that exploiting substance addiction was often used as a tool of warfare against Black resistance. We normalize being cloudy when we should be clearheaded. We feel off balance when we need to keep ten toes down to run in the right direction towards significant change.

A friend of mine recently observed that spirit and strategy often get pitted against each other. This thinking should shift. Fortunately, many people are embracing intergenerational healing, often examining their personal histories in order to bring that understanding back to the collective. This can help us get free. Taking care of our bodies as well as going to therapy, embracing ancestral spiritual practices and unlearning harmful notions should continue to be more common.

Let’s support organizations such as The Nap Ministry for promoting much-needed rest. Or Black Healers Connect, Kindred Medicine and The Goddess Commune as they promote healing-centered approaches to daily life. Black women, especially those who are part of the LGBTQ+ community, are also expanding on what it means to live shame-free, sexually liberated lives as evidenced in the amazing work of adrienne maree brown, whose book Pleasure Activism advocates for centering joy in social justice work.

Sometimes, in photos, I see trauma trapped behind the eyes of Fannie Lou Hamer. But I have seen her smile also. I know she would sing often. I’m sure her laugh could fill a whole room. What she reminds me is that the fight for freedom is no joke. She was unafraid of her rage. She named her sorrow and refused to bypass the agonizing feelings. Anger, for one, is a map. It tells us where to look, it demands attention.

Black women, like the struggle, are intricately beautiful. Audre Lorde said “self preservation” is also an “act of political warfare.” In the days, months and years ahead there will be a lot of work to do. We must remember to also prioritize our wellbeing so that we can have difficult conversations about equity. We must live healing-centered lives, the opposite of what we may see on television, on social media and even within some of our homes. Many are remarking that we need more than a moment—we need a movement for the long haul.

Indeed, we do. And we deserve to heal along the way.

Maddy Clifford, aka MADlines, is a musician, educator and activist in Oakland.