Kehlani's Suicide Attempt: A Meditation On Black Girl Sadness
My sister’s anxiety is a fun family pastime. On Sundays when I remember to call, my dad likes to leave me with a report: call your sister, she’s been having it rough. She was in the hospital again, choking through history notes that her friends had to pry away from her. She’s lost her inhaler and the test results came back and, and you should call her…
She doesn’t suffer in silence, and that’s what makes it entertaining. She quivers. She uses all that ballet training to dance on the precipice of an asthma attack. Prima ballerina, her every breath putting us on the edge of her seats. Two weeks ago I was telling her to breathe in through her nose and out through her mouth from four states away. Snapping my fingers when she cut it short. “Again!”
We’re forever locked in a game of opposites. When I start to feel those special feelings, I don’t emote. I speak in memes—too everywhere and too uncool to be slang, wiped clean of the hard edges that endeared us to it in the first place. A safe tongue to defuse unsafe emotions, and a truly millennial pastime.
And if that doesn’t work, I ghost. I vanish for days at a time.
Last week, when news of singer Kehlani’s suicide attempt broke, there was the usual flash of teeth. A certain familiar bitterness that you haven’t felt since Lauryn Hill missed the Grammys. Since you found out your sister was on Zoloft. Since you found out your mother was on Lexapro. Since your dad told you that your people don’t go crazy.
That is because black girl sadness isn’t easily processable. News of it sits on our tongues, as all black tragedies do. We spit it out so that it doesn’t enter us. We don’t want shit like that inside of us. This isn’t the story of a young boy sniped in his prime. This isn’t a red and blue war story. This doesn’t hype up the troops; on the contrary, this shit is bad for morale.
Chris Brown knew. He went on Twitter and testified.
There is no attempting suicide. Stop flexing for the gram. Doing shit for sympathy so them comments under your pics don't look so bad
— Chris Brown (@chrisbrown) March 30, 2016
I wondered at the time if he knew how she vouched for him, did whole interviews declaring that her greatest dream was to write a song for him. But the black woman is a rock. The black woman is the rock. She had no right to do this to us. To all of us.
Look at any book you were made to read in the ninth grade. Any musical top-charter since the chart was invented. The black woman has one job and it is this: to take care of the black man. To raise his children. To put herself in service to a white man if it means she can feed those same children. To rub her husband’s back when he comes home. To sell her dreams so that his can thrive. The men can go off and have mental breaks (so long as they only express themselves through anger), and they get into fights, and they find religion, and they become disillusioned. But we are the caretakers of America’s emotional life. Even when we aren’t in the kitchen, you can find us on ABC Family holding the hand of a crying white woman. It’s the role they have given us, whether we wanted it or not.
Centuries of being forced to watch someone else’s children will turn you into an eternal mother.
My mother is the rock of my household, tethering us where we all would’ve flown off into the brilliance of the sun. We’re flighty; she’s resilient. We’re drama queens; she’s something more regal. We’re deeply emotional—and she is, too. She tells me she has depression while we’re talking about my sister, and I have to keep myself from snarling. I wanted to shake her. I wanted to throw back my head and exorcise every bitter laugh in my body. But all I could think was, same. Samesame samesamesamesamesame. You think you’re the only one who gets depressed every now and then? You think a kid who cried as much as I did hasn’t already claimed that title for herself?
She showed me a side of herself I hadn’t expected. She showed her humanity, a sadness I hadn’t realized was in her too. Perhaps that is partly why we hate to see our mothers cry—in a way, my mother will always be godlike to me. And finding out that she suffers from the same weaknesses I do is hard to recover from.
In middle school, my dad told me that we don’t go crazy. A simple look at the family line totally disregards that entire idea, but the message remains. Craziness is weakness and we aren’t weak. Do you think you are privileged enough to go crazy? That you have the right? Generations upon generations working to put food in your mouth and non-segregated fountains at your non-segregated school, and you think that the sadness you carry is special? We’ve been sad for generations.
You don’t have the right. Your sadness is selfish and it serves no purpose.
We understand the white man’s sadness; we watch prime time television. We go to Comic Cons. We attend talks where Tony Soprano, Walter White née Ozymandias, and Don Draper wind through a charismatic sermon of the ups and downs of balancing family life with raw ambition. A final joke, or else a generations old curse: unable to conquer their emotional lives, the inevitable happens. By Pilot 001, nothing comes as a surprise.
We understand the white woman’s sadness: women’s marches and press meetings derailed by rallying MRAs. Questions about house and home that latch onto her at every turn in her career. She wants to be a conqueror too.
We understand the black man’s sadness: bloody hands beating on a glass ceiling despite the fact that suffocation is inevitable. They only stop when they fall from exhaustion.
And we hold him up. And we hold him up. And we hold him up. And we—
We cry when they get shot. The physical loss is understood, and we mourn like mothers. Not for ourselves, but for a life left unnurtured. Our sadness must be selfless to be recognized as valid. We must remain a mother. Our sadness must warrant a cause.
We will not talk about the high diagnoses that receive no treatment.
We will strip Khelani of her blackness.
At night, I will turn off the news and get caught up in the haze of black Tumblr girls for whom happiness is a void with a warm place to rest.
Images via MTV, Rochelle Griffin, and Vulture.
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