Finding the Courage to be Vulnerable

Growing up, I was taught by my mother that being emotional was a bad thing. Whenever I did something wrong, I would cry and she would yell, “Shut up!” A similar thing would happen if she told me to do something and I made one little mistake. She would yell at me, tell me “You can’t do anything right!” then I’d cry and then she would yell at me more.

It did not matter that I was frustrated. It did not matter that I felt incompetent. Over time, I learned to bottle up my feelings, hate myself, and strive for perfection in my strengths to cover up my weaknesses, and[this needs to be a separate sentence] please others before myself. I would also become depressed and suicidal.

Since I learned of the tragic death of For Brown Girls creator Karyn Washington, I’ve wondered how the black community could prevent more suicides like hers. Then, I realized how black people aren’t taught to be vulnerable about anything. If a black woman is upset, she must be upset about her relationship with her man or how another black woman did something to her. Black men aren’t supposed to be upset at all, but be strong and powerful.  

These images of black women and men are found in books, music, television, and movies. They are superficial and dangerous. I  believe my dad felt he had to live up to the strong black man stereotype, because while he always listened to other people problems, he never talked about his own. It is partly because of most of these images that I have felt out of place, worthless, and alone as a child, adolescent, and now young adult. 

As a teenager, I felt like a freak because I was being bullied by other black kids who didn’t like that I was a nerd. Most of these other black kids were only emotional when they physically fought each other in school.

During my junior or senior year of high school, the faculty and staff had to assemble my class together. They  asked, “Why can’t you all work out your problems verbally?” The response was a murmur of derision.

During high school and my first two years of college, I listened to white musicians such as the band Linkin Park and the singer Pink in order to cope with my pain. It wasn’t until two years ago that I started to see some vulnerability in music for blacks. In 2012, I found out about rapper-singer Angel Haze and her cover of Eminem’s “Cleanin’ Out My Closet”. 

The song is a raw, brutally honest rap about the sexual abuse that Haze endured growing up. While I couldn’t relate to the song, I found myself admiring her courage to be so vulnerable. This song caused me to keep following her music and eventually become a fan. Not all of her songs are vulnerable, but songs like “Angels and Airwaves” have let me know I am not alone and to stay strong.

Recently, I have discovered the vulnerability in the musicians Janelle Monae and Kimya Dawson. Janelle Monae’s song “Cindi” struck a chord with me. It showed me that the android alter-ego and the energetic performer was once a lonely, insecure young woman. A similar message can be found in some of Kimya Dawson’s songs. A particular favorite of mine is called “The Competition”, which tells how Dawson grappled with self-esteem and started to channel her insecurities into music.

By finding the courage to be vulnerable and discussing your emotional pain verbally or creatively, you can give yourself and others true strength.

My father’s death in late 2012 caused me to start putting introspection into my poetry. Currently, I am working on a chapter book that will include introspective and social issue poems. Once I can get it published, I hope that it will encourage discussion and provide comfort. Meanwhile, I hope that others will continue to bare their souls and show that vulnerability isn’t weakness, but strength.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Tonya Pennington is a student at Clayton State University. She also blogs about books, music, and movies on artsandyouthlove using the pen name Serena Zola.

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