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Johnson, Brianna, Breaking Tradition: How the Black Body Can Heal After Centuries of Destruction


Brianna Johnson
Age: 17, Grade: 12

School Name: Berkeley Carroll School, Brooklyn, NY
Educator: Erika Drezner

Category: Critical Essay

Breaking Tradition: How the Black Body Can Heal After Centuries of Destruction

       In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates claims, “In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” (Coates 103).  In many ways I’ve felt this tradition upheld. I am only 16, and while other teens my age are youthful and jovial at heart, I drag. My legs and arms feel like they are attached to iron chains. My heartbeat is sluggish and prolonged. My head and all the thoughts within it weigh me down. Daily I hear, “Unarmed black man shot by police,” “Unarmed woman makes a police call and is shot in front of her four children,”, “12-year-old black boy shot by police with toy gun in his hand.” These constant reminders that I am not safe here in the world hurt me more than reading an obituary with my own family members’ names in it. With every shooting, protest, and vigil, I begin to feel unsafe. I begin to feel drained.
         Recently, this feeling has followed me as I walk through the hallways of my school. Countless race conversations and meetings, tears fallen in front of the head of school, feeling and seeing the clear self-segregation and isolation of students of color from their white peers. The week was trying, tiring and taxing. I could barely keep my head up in class as it was too heavy with the events that had occurred and the recurring words that were said. I could barely open my eyes because they were so puffy and red with the mixture of a deep need for a recharge and tears. I could barely show my face with the familiar smile everyone loves as it was too difficult to try to mask the anger that was so apparent. I was too shaken to speak, too broken to be mentally present in class, and too apathetic to assume and accept my role as a leader and help others navigate through their emotions. 
          In many ways, Coates’s claim resonated with me this week as I felt destroyed or felt that the events were the last straw on my back, the final incident after years of witnessing America follow its tradition of destroying the black body. The events that I have witnessed in the country as a whole and on a smaller scale in BC have led me to ask, Why is it traditional to destroy the black body? In what ways have I seen and observed the black body destroyed? I looked to Roxane Gay and Toni Morrison to help me answer these questions. Toni Morrison offers an answer to the questions with her novel Beloved, an allegory about the slave experience and the beginning of the tradition of destroying black bodies.
           Although it was published in 1987, Beloved opens our eyes to the atrocities of slavery from a first hand experience. With complex family trees and stories, even more complex characters, and a non-chronological plot line, Morrison gives us the resources to unpack the deep story of the system that set the foundation of our nation. We listen in as the main character, Sethe, tells her daughters and old friend about her experiences at Sweet Home, the plantation she lived and worked on. She references her traumatic experience being assaulted by the nephews of the schoolteacher on the plantation. Sethe gives context as to why she made the rash decision to attempt to kill her children—to give them the opportunity to escape the atrocities of the plantation and the horrors she lived through as an enslaved person.  Sethe states that she reached her limit “after they stole it; after they handled me like I was the cow, no the goat, back behind the stable because it was too nasty to stay in with the horses. But I wasn’t too nasty to cook their food or take care of Mrs. Garner “ (236-237). Sethe is alluding to the main paradox of slavery, the paradox of dehumanization and exploitation. Sethe compares herself to the animals of a barn in this scene and uses language describing the treatment of such animals, “they handled me.” Sethe was treated like an animal—dirty and foul. However, the language here tells us that she was treated even worse than animals as she states, “it was too nasty to stay with the horses.” Sethe is pointing at and solidifying the dehumanization of her body as a black woman. She is not like the animals of the barn or “stable,” she is dirtier and unkempt. Sethe, a black woman, was “too nasty” for even the animals to be around and live with. On the contrary, her body and her existence was not “too nasty to cook their food.” In other words, she was not too black or filthy to be used for labor and the slave master’s or schoolteacher’s own care. 
          This is the paradox of slavery and the beginning of the tradition at its most apparent state. Slavery was direct control and abuse of the black body. Enslaved people were degraded, dehumanized and detested by their white masters and their families as white owners believed the pseudoscience that said slaves were subservient and inferior species. In most instances, they were not regarded as humans at all, which Morrison makes very clear in Beloved in scenes that describe black men and women as “creatures”(176) that could not be “mishandled” (176). Enslaved people were property, like cattle—they were inventory. They were expendable bodies, black bodies that had no value outside of labor and monetary gain. The process of dehumanization and disposability of black bodies began this  tradition of destroying them and has since been carried out centuries later, affecting the descendants of the enslaved people: people like me.
        One hundred and fifty years later, slavery is legally abolished and the tradition evolves. The tradition becomes the routine killing of unarmed African Americans by police officers. Black bodies are not only being physically destroyed as bullets pass through them but mentally and emotionally destroyed with the constant live streaming of the killings via body cameras and repeated news stories. I was only 13 years old when Trayvon Martin was killed and even then my questions echoed Ta-Nehisi Coates’ claim about America’s beloved “tradition”: Why has this tradition been carried out for so many decades? What are the new ways I have seen and observed the black body being destroyed? 
        Roxane Gay explores the answers to my aforementioned questions with her 2015 article, “On the Death of Sandra Bland and Our Vulnerable Bodies,” showing us how the tradition has continued and evolved over centuries. Gay attacks the culture of police brutality and its effect on the black community. In her argument, police brutality is the harsh reminder of living injustice after the eras of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and Civil Rights. Gay states, “One of the greatest lies perpetrated on our culture today is the notion that […] body cameras on police officers are tools of justice […] but rarely does this incontrovertible evidence keep black people safe or prevent future injustices.”. Gay debunks the myth that these body cameras give a sense of security and hope for an equitable future to the black community. In reality, the cameras document the killing of black men and women like 28- year-old Sandra Bland, and continue to show African Americans that they are worthless and expendable, eerily reminiscent of slavery, during which our bodies were only valuable for profit and labor. Mosab Hamid, a student at my school and a treasured friend, makes a similar claim: “When we think about the broadcasting of police brutality…it feeds into the mass consumption, commodification and popularization of black pain.” It has become more evident with each killing—and there have been hundreds—that this is a normalized part of American society. It is popular and normal to watch blacks being brutally murdered and the police getting acquitted because black bodies mean little to society. We are expendable and worthless—mere commodities to be reported on and capitalized upon. When blacks are killed, our bodies stay in the street for hours like Michael Brown’s did, and the perpetrators of our killings, the white officers, receive paid administrative leave and an 11 o’clock headline story explaining why they felt threatened by the intimidating black bodies they effortlessly killed. This is done as a reminder to all blacks that we are inventory—that we are just bodies on a checklist bound to a similar fate of an early death, white compensation and pity for themselves and in the end, white capitalization on our pain and existence. To America, black pain is not human pain and does not require empathy or sympathy. It’s just another black killed. Another n*****r dead. Hence, America carries out her tradition. 
         This twisted circle of life blacks face and the tradition America cherishes, comes with detrimental psychological damage. The destroying of black bodies is not complete without the destruction of the black mind. Gay expands on this idea when she explains, “I don’t want to be ‘accidentally’ killed for being a black man. I hate that such a thought even crosses my mind. This is the reality of living in this black body […] living in a world where I am stripped of my femininity and humanity because of my unruly black body” (Gay). Gay’s primary reaction to the shooting of Sandra Bland was the thought that she would be killed by accident as she is physically large and tall. Her physical being forces her to live in fear of her existence, fear of living in her “unruly black body”—a fear I know and understand all too well. Like Sethe in Morrison’s novel, Gay internalizes the pseudoscience that defines her as “unruly,” needing to be controlled, “stripping her of her femininity and humanity” and dehumanizing her. Gay mentions that she “hates that such a thought even crosses her mind”±hating that her physical being and inherited fear of her blackness in this society is her primary thought. My interpretation of Gay’s claim is that as America carries out its tradition of destroying black bodies, they also destroy the mind and soul. The three are connected on a deeper level than we can fathom. When one is broken, the other two are equally damaged. Gay closes her article challenging Coates’ quote by claiming, “It is also traditional to try and destroy the black spirit” (Gay). Reading this led me to ponder in my own life, If it is traditional to destroy the black body and spirit, can the two be healed?  I looked back to Toni Morrison and Beloved to answer the question. 
In Beloved, Baby Suggs, Sethe’s mother in law, preaches a powerful sermon to a group of formerly enslaved African Americans. However, her message is not about the sins and shames of slavery, a message she could spend hours on having lived through it. Her message is one of healing and reclaiming the black body from the firm grasp of slavery’s hands. Baby Suggs exclaims,

Here,” she said, “in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it […] No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them.  You got to love it, you […]Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again […] And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up […] The dark, dark liver—love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too […] hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize” (103-104).   

Baby Suggs preaches to a crowd of broken bodies. She speaks to a sea of lost souls and dozens of dismembered beings. Out of everything her sermon offers, the main point is teaching the group of destroyed people how to love themselves and love their bodies. After enduring slavery and living through the trauma of not being in control of your own body, Baby Suggs finds it of the utmost importance that the people she preaches to gain the ability to reclaim their bodies and by doing so, heal their bodies by actively healing the soul. Baby Suggs helps them through this healing process by acknowledging parts of the body and telling her audience why they must value them. She speaks of the body parts in the context of the way they would be handled in slavery, such as hands that are to be “tied, binded, chopped off and left empty.” This active reflection on how their bodies are treated during slavery alludes to having no control of their bodies during enslavement. Yet she tells her audience to “love it hard” and to “raise them up,” active signs of admiration and celebration. Baby Suggs is offering healing through self love and repossession of the black body. The final thing Baby Suggs preaches is: “hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” She knows and believes that the soul holds the body and mind together and that only in the fullness of the body, mind and soul can you be healed—you can be one again.   
            After reevaluating my body and observing where my soul has been torn asunder, I have found that healing is necessary for me to survive in this world. As a young black woman with little life experience, I have witnessed and experienced a great deal of things that can easily tear me down and destroy my soul. However, I choose to break the tradition of destroying my body for America’s consumption by learning to heal the way Baby Suggs encourages. I take joy in loving myself, looking in the mirror and acknowledging what makes me beautiful and proud to be in my body. However, it isn’t always easy healing on your own. Through the plethora of experiences, heritage and stories, I found that coming together as a community of blacks has helped in the process of mending my broken bones and sealing the cracks in my soul.
         In Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary’s controversial book, Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, she touches on the spirit of community as a form of healing: “there was a time when black people would learn to trust and rely upon one another […] with the reconstruction of family and community, the process of healing had begun” (211).  In the past, joining together as a community helped us get through the hardships of slavery as the diaspora and feelings of kinship gathered us close together. Today, blacks across the country join together physically through protest but also across the internet through social media in solidarity with one another after police shootings and other taxing issues in the black community. At my own school, the gathering and overwhelming support of faculty of color and students of color has made the healing process so much more bearable and possible. Dr. Leary also mentions, “There is much to be angry about […]This anger contributes to a shortened life span. […] It’s like a pain we’ve adapted to and accepted” (195). This anger and frustration is common in my life just being a black woman and it can be difficult to navigate through.
      However, Dr. Leary pushes me to heal and control that frustration: “Here is the question that is at the core of our esteem: Are you destroying or creating?” (191). I have made the conscious decision to create. America has already made the decision to destroy my black body, mind and soul. I choose to break that tradition and create a sense of security, an environment of healing and a community of unity to restore our broken bodies and bridge the gap created between the world and me centuries ago.