Content Warning: This post contains information about an individual's experience with systemic racism, depression, suicidal ideation, and self-harm, which may be triggering to some survivors.
“We Don’t Quit,” Anonymous
Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain anonymous in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.
We don’t quit.
My grandfather didn’t quit life while growing up in the Jim Crow South. He easily could have been the White man’s pawn, doing the dirty work that was relegated to Black men. Nah son, my granddaddy fought and scraped to build his own house, raise his family, and see a daughter off to an HBCU and a son into the Air Force. My pops didn’t quit life. He easily could have just taken orders and coasted into retirement like many of his peers. Nope, he took every promotion exam he could. Retired at a full 20 years, then got a consulting gig.
Even with this heritage, I’ve tried to quit life. I’ve thought about it more times than I’ve actually tried it, but man, I’ve wanted to give up. Men of color are supposed to be the strong ones, the people families rely on to provide and support when times get tough. We don’t show weakness and we rarely ask for help. Racism is supposed to motivate us, so that we can “overcome” any obstacles put in our way.
Generations had to do it, so there’s no excuse for quitting. But I’m not supposed to admit that in grad school I was diagnosed with clinical depression and a severe anxiety disorder. I’m not supposed to admit that my diagnosis made me feel weak and like I wasn’t living up to the standard society set me up for. And I’m not supposed to admit that for a better part of my life, I’ve wanted to kill myself.
The first attempt was scary. I was at my first professional job that I hated, living in a city I despised, stuck in a relationship that was going nowhere. I had a very bad day at work talking about racism and how it wasn’t an “issue” in my office, then I get into a nasty argument with my ex-partner about something completely stupid. I’m a Black man in a White world, and I knew my colleagues and neighbors looked me like I was a suspect. I existed in a world I felt that it really didn’t care if I was alive or not. I was standing in the kitchen and just said, “fuck it.” I reached for a knife in the drawer and pulled out the first blade I could reach. I was going to cut my wrists and bleed out in the kitchen. But, the knife I grabbed was a serrated steak knife, and my only thought was “this shit’s gonna hurt!” I threw the knife into the sink, sat on the floor, and just cried into the morning. At that moment, I was weak, and men aren’t supposed to be that.
The next day, I dragged myself to work and pulled up my favorite song from A Tribe Called Quest called “Stressed Out.” I sat at my desk and played the intro on repeat:
I really know how it feels to be stressed out, stressed out
When you’re face to face with your adversity,
I really know how it feels to be stressed out, stressed out
We’re gonna make this thing work out eventually.
Since that day, for every thought of suicide I’ve had, I crank this song. For every moment where I think people are looking at me funny, or my mind tells me that I’ll never go far in student affairs because I’ve got more melanin than my co-workers, I play this song. It got me through working in an incredibly racist workplace at my first job, and it’s gotten me through all the other times in this field where an interaction with a colleague or a nasty e-mail from somebody on campus makes me want to quit. When I was running my office this past summer and wanted to drink a bottle of Jameson and eat a bottle of sleeping pills so all the stress of doing my job alone would go away, I put on the song to keep me from getting in my car and going to the store.
Yo I know the feelin, when you feelin like a villain
You be having good thoughts but the evils be revealin’
And the stresses of life can take you off the right path,
Jealousy and envy tends to infiltrate your staff,
We gotta hold it down so we can move on past
All adversities, so we can through fast.
Someone once told me that racism was a disease and it is lethal, and I truly believe it. Combined with my anxiety and depression, I’ve found it damn near impossible to exist in student affairs. Let’s be honest; our field is only a microcosm of our messed up society but with people who went to school for longer. For all the degrees we carry and “intentional conversations” we have about racism, we are incredibly racist and ignorant.
We don’t care about how our marginalized communities feel within the field, and we’re now just coming around to recognize that some of our colleagues have to contend with their mental health as they do their work. For me, as a pro of color with mental illness, it makes life damn near unbearable. It makes me feel like my professional experiences, my past history, and my dreams for a better future don’t matter to anyone.
For as much as I want to quit, I can’t. I’ve got a wife who adores me for some reason I can’t quite figure out. I’ve got a little brother who’s raising his son the best he can. I’ve got a father who’s proud his oldest son is about to get his Doctorate, and a granddaddy who’s happy I’m living a good life. The persistent racism and intolerance I get at work (not to mention the world in large) has made me want to no longer walk this Earth. It has made me feel worthless, despite my degrees, my new house, and loving family. And that makes absolutely no sense.
I can’t quit. I can’t feel like I’m worthless anymore. I can’t let my mental illness rule my life, and I won’t let my racist colleagues and pervasive intolerance in this field stop me from moving forward. Grandaddy didn’t quit. Pops didn’t quit. And even if my mind tells me otherwise, I can’t quit.
Don’t worry we gon make it,
I know we gonna make it,
C’mon baby we gonna make it,
We gonna make it.
About the art:
I first encountered this survivor when we got into a Twitter chat about Pacific Northwest sports, so we were both a little outspoken to say the least. He has always been a vibrant voice of reason in many conversations on higher education, race, and Kendrick Lamar.
Now, when this survivor reached out to me, I was very excited because I knew he would bring a uniquely real approach to telling his story, and he did! I was stoked to read how poetic his words are and how well he weaves his family history and the issues of systemic racism into the piece.
The Quest song this survivor continuously repeats during the song was obviously going to be what I used to influence the creation of his painting. I chose the words, "Don't worry, we gon' make it. I know we gonna make it," because of the clear beauty of progress. With such racial history constantly going against this survivor, it was important to me to create an image that would remind him of the audacity that comes with progress.
I chose the colors to mirror a combination of Pacific Northwest sports teams colors, red for the Trailblazers, and the teal/metallic blue for the Seahawks. Granted, they might not be the survivors exact teams, but that legitimately why i chose the colors. AND I genuinely wanted to see how the colors would look together. They came out great!
I'm very glad this survivor shared his story and i hope it inspires other folks to do the same.