To the Black Woman Atlas: Is it Possible to Drop the World?

by Neisha Washington

“I feel like I’ve been robbed, and I’ve been ok with being robbed, because that’s what I’m used to,” wailed the voice on the end of the line. I listened as Aisha told of the unjust treatment by aunts and uncles who had delegated her as caretaker to an elderly matriarch. As I listened to her strained voice I knew that in life wisdom is paid for with the travail of generations. And no one this young should have a voice dripping with such sagacity.

Aisha was a 20 something living a 40 year old life. She like many of us, knew what it was like to live a thousand lives in one---to simultaneously speak with the spring of youth while bearing the eyes of an old woman. Old souls is what they call us. People who have seen too much in such a short time span. Aisha as the eldest had cared for her younger siblings from the time she was able. Her life revolved around the constant care of others, yet it was far from enough. Now with a sick grandmother she was being blamed for not going above and beyond that which was not her responsibility. Aisha was a good woman---a Black Woman Atlas also known as a “strong black woman” or a “super woman”. She was the type who would sacrifice her life for her family, and maybe that was the problem.

There is a morose sentiment echoed amongst the black women I love that we’ve “got too many obligations for suicide”. A gruesome thought that sheds light on the immense load lain upon some of us. As if we are a link in the chain of the universe that must remain unbroken, we feel we are the glue that suspends all things in the firmament. We bear the secrets, shame, broken promises, and trauma of the previous generations, all the while preparing the path for the ones succeeding us. The Black Woman Atlas represents a constant shoulder to those who have been violated, and even those who have violated her. She shields the monsters masquerading within the community, those cut from the same trauma who never heal and in turn bleed out over everything. Her existence justifies the systemic factors of patriarchy and racial oppression at the origin of her construction.

As I consoled my friend I envisioned an alternate reality. What would one day look like without our enduring labor and forgiveness? What would happen if we all came for the blood we so greatly deserve? What if our bodies cried out against our conditioning to be still, be quiet, let go, let god? What would happen if all the secrets tripped out of our mouths? What options should women like Aisha consider when the economic survival of her family depends on her exploitation? Can one simply not perform duties that although unjustly pressed upon them nonetheless save lives? What would happen if the Black Woman Atlas simply decided to drop the world? Perhaps the question is not what would happen, but rather could she live with herself afterwards. Could she stomach the guilt of unfilled gaps?

Such a conundrum between personal freedom and communal survival faces those of us who hold a world that never held us. Toni Morrison says, “Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another”. In liberation there is pain, but no one ever speaks of the loneliness of freedom. What then should a woman in Aisha’s situation do, and is there really any facile solution?

Upon reflecting on Aisha’s words, I encountered a certain peace. The answer lies not only in self-care practices and saying no, but mostly in uprooting the guilt of watching the world fall. No human being is born to save another. No one can coerce another’s sacrifice for the common good. Forgiveness is not obligatory but a gift and a choice. These are resounding truths of the universe. The world has an axis for a reason, and if you find yourself acting in its place do what you must to live as you wish. While others may tell you to shrug, drop the world. If you can live with yourself afterwards. If not, punch a few stars out of the sky to remind everyone of your presence. Then forgive yourself for not going gently into the night.

If you cannot find it within yourself to strike at the sky then maybe begin with telling the truth. Although you may speak through a heap of unacknowledged crimes weighing on your voice box, tell the truth for all the other times. The silent times. The taking times. The times when you sat with your lungs pumping outside of your breast. Tell the truth. Although they will never stop taking from you. Tell it. So another must sit with the discomfort of your ruined heart in their throat. If you lack the courage to shout, whisper it to yourself when you are alone. Say what you long to say. It is the first step toward a solution.

Whatever the case, women like Aisha and I have reached our tipping points. We can no longer romanticize our own exploitation. We can no longer lay down as the launching pad for the wealth of future generations. We are more than our labor. We are more than our identities as sisters, mothers, friends, and womanists. We are human first. And with humanity comes the freedom to unravel the fullness of ourselves outside of loyalty to others.

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