Author: Abi Canepa-Anson
I went to see Black Fantastic today at the Hayward theatre at the Southbank. The exhibition was powerful. As a psychotherapist and an artist myself, it was interesting to see how black history was represented by various artists.
While I was proud and excited to see this, I was also mindful of how relatively empty it was compared to the number of people outside by the food and drink stalls. Perhaps there is something so evocative about the history of slavery of colonisation that both black and white audiences don’t want to think about. No one, it seems wants to be reminded of the pain and oppression of slavery and the consequential problems of racism. There is a lot to be said for the title ‘In the Black Fantastic’.
The artist were all inspiring, one of the pieces spoke to me as it paralleled my journey and my interest in black feminism. The artist was exploring the possibility of a world beyond the concept of masculine and feminine and a wish to overcome our boundaries so as to be free. This resonated with me because the vision is positive and needed. However, in a world that is so determined to categorise and label, it seems so difficult be what you want to be.
For black women which is my interest in this writing, the challenges are again different. The archetypal black mother is seen as being resilient and strong. You hear comments like ‘don’t mess with sisters’. Suggest a toughness about black women which has its roots as far back as slavery where women were seen as strong and tough no different to men.
Today the portrayal of black womanhood is to be constantly ridiculed for her outlandishness, her physical appearance, or her bad temper while white womanhood maintains the privilege of femininity sexual purity, innocence and modesty as ascribed by the dominant culture.
There is no #MeToo movement for black women survivors. Black mothers are idealized for their devotions, self-sacrifice and unconditional love but not seen. Our feelings don’t seem to count. As black women, we contribute to these stories consciously and unconsciously. We feel we can only depend on ourselves. This inherited place of ‘being strong’ means we feel we cannot be vulnerable or ask for help.
We feel our vulnerability would be used against us and in some situations it has been the case. In an environment that judges performance, we are told ‘there’s no room for mistakes. Being brown or black skin, you’re judged and scrutinized even more closely.
Given the systemic oppression that happens in society, at times it may feel survival is the only option. We internalise the stereotype belief that we need to carry on trying to prove our worth. The psychological and emotional damage caused by taking in the values and beliefs of the oppressor and believing them to be true of oneself is that it continues to erode one’s self-confidence and self.
The psychological burden of the traumas of racism means life is often about just survival. Survival does not allow for curiosity or discovery. We are suspicious of each other, and afraid of each other’s anger, but fail to admit that we need each other because we share a similar experience. This can be a point of healing.
There is work in moving from the self we have been brainwashed to be and the self that we can become. The external issues of racism, sexism, and misogyny are very present. We have to do for ourselves despite the external reality of racism and tame that anger into useful channels rather than deny that it is there.
We are influenced by all sorts of messages from our early life, from what has been transmitted, from important figures in our environment. It becomes difficult to know the ‘true self’. What psychotherapy does is unpack the narratives and reveals what could be possible. As black women, we are left feeling fatigued and exhausted, if we are not just in the task of survival, and not discounting our feelings, what would life look like.
Psychotherapy informs us of the burden we all carry. It aims to open up our perception and nurture the child within to connect with an instinctual life that has undergone years of censorship. If we can reach the child in each of us, we get a chance to offer her what she needs, I feel.
Psychotherapist and Supervisor