Public Displays of Black Emotion

By Jamila Osman


We carry such heavy burdens. Grief and guilt and pain weigh heavily on our backs. We swallow our truths, we choke on our tears, drown in our own blood. We live in a world that compartmentalizes the private and public sphere in such a way that anything that does not adhere to traditional white European standards is made Other. In this process our grief is made Other and rendered peripheral. We must mourn in private, weep over our losses when there is no one around to see us. There are an acceptable range of emotions, an acceptable display of emotions. If a white soldier dies in your respective city flags will fly at half-mast. If innocent children are shot in their classroom the country and media will go into a whirlwind. How are you? Did you hear what happened? How are you coping? American pain is generalizable pain—America’s pain is the world’s pain. But those of us who live within the borders of this settler colony and experience pain at the hands of the State are not allowed to make spectacles of our suffering.  We come from cities on the other side of the world that are burning. Our respective countries are on fire. Through drone strikes and sanctions and a myriad of imperialist interventions we are subjected to the whims of a ruthless empire.

I walked into class today and my teacher asked “How are you?” And in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, I paused. What did I say? I wanted to say I was furious. I was heartbroken. The sheer disposability of black bodies had once again been affirmed. I’m okay, I said. I hedged. I stopped myself from burdening my white teacher and classmates with my grief. I have learned, as we all have, to keep our feelings to ourselves.

But I was angry and exhausted. It had been a trying weekend. After a few offhand remarks made by classmates about the trial, I erupted. In an explosive display of tears and rage I let them have it. Initially I was horrified. Here I was yelling and crying in a room full of white people. I was making them uncomfortable; I was doing everything we have been socialized not to. But I fought my initial urge to apologize. I have no apologies for speaking my truth, no apologies for my radical display of vulnerability, I will not perform ‘sorry,’ I will not pretend to be sorry. I am livid and heartbroken. I am tired of crying and feeling in quiet, in shame. There is no shame in heartbreak. There is no shame in surviving.

We live in a neoliberal capitalist nightmare. This world is cruel to our Black and Brown bodies. This world is equally cruel to our children. We exist at the intersections of many different political realities. We are exploited and disenfranchised and marginalized. Even our grief has been castigated:  when we openly emote we are called angry and hysterical. In the wake of the Zimmerman trial Obama called this a nation of laws and asked those of us who were upset to “respect the call for calm.” Even worse than the fact that a racist killer is now scot free is the fear of the public display of Black emotion. Even in our grief we are dangerous.

Our grief is dangerous. Our grief is political. Our grief is radical. When we mourn in public and force America to listen to our wails we are ignoring the relegation of our emotions to the private sphere. Our rage is defiance against the myriad of systems that oppress us. It is in defiance of our Othering. It is in defiance of our coerced docility. The reclamation of public space to weep openly and without censor is an act of revolution. When we practice radical vulnerability we are altering master discourses on the universality of White American pain.

We must weep openly and without shame if we feel moved to do so. We must yell and throw things if we feel moved to do so. We must speak our truths when we feel moved to do so. There is no shame in sadness. We cannot bear these burdens in private, we must refuse to bear these burdens in private. If we are to truly organize and actively work to dismantle the interlocking systems that oppress us there is no room to perform bravery and staidness. We must be hard and soft in equal measure. There is difficult and painful work to be done. We cannot carry on with this work if we are too busy performing at strength. Strength and suffering are not in opposition to each other, and neither are strength and sadness. We must roll up our sleeves even as we wipe the tears from our eyes.