Keeping Shelter: Why We Need Community Safe Spaces in the Wake of Charleston

by Neisha Washington

In the wake of last month's Charleston church shooting, in which six women and three men were gunned down mercilessly, black people across the country have felt increasingly unsafe. The event demonstrated the lack of security black bodies have in even sacred spaces. An attack on the black church is an attack on the very heart of black society. It seems there is no place to be safe and black in this country, no place in which we’re free from having aspersions projected onto our melanin.

The days after yet another tragedy found black women in various stages of mourning, anger, and shock. “I cried myself awake three mornings in a row,” said my sister. “It felt like I was continually exposing myself to people who believed they're above race, but never had to live this continual grief.” My sister’s reaction was not unique. Many of us found ourselves bowled over by immense sadness or shaking with rage at an insensitive comment from a friend or coworker.

Now more than ever black women need spaces safe to express their genuine hurt, pain, fear, and hopes. As Audre Lorde says, “We are Black women born into a society of entrenched loathing and contempt for whatever is Black and female.” Where can we go, though, when the most devout of us are shot down? Where is it safe to rest our spirits, rejuvenate our hearts, and collect our sanity for the next day? The answer is rather complex. As Lorde says, there truly are few safe spaces in this world to be black, to be a woman, and to be both. However, here are a few suggested locations for those searching for solidarity and relief during hard times.

1. Protests and Community Actions

In times of crisis, protests serve as a form of political activism, but also provide a space for collective mourning. Scholars Ralph Catalano and Terry Hartig describe communal bereavement as ''the widespread experience of distress among persons who never met the deceased.'' Protests provide the opportunity to scream, cry, and say all of the things we have bottled up in silence. Our deepest wounds no longer remain private. Words that are unwelcome in office spaces, government buildings, or even family homes are released for public consumption. Protests are often the best way to see our own frustrations reflected in others, and promote a sense of unity between participants.

2. Concerts, Clubs, and Social Gatherings

During stressful times, be sure to frequent your favorite clubs, indulge in concerts, and splurge on your favorite music. While we’re not advising a form of escapism, a night out may be the perfect answer to stress. Studies have shown that dancing and physical activity can boost endorphin levels and actually help the grieving process. The gym isn’t for everyone, and music has been central to Afro-descendent communities as a form of expression and emotional renewal. If you need that endorphin release, there’s no better medium than music.

3. Shared Spaces with Other Black Women

Whenever black women come together, great collaboration emerges. As the Combahee River Collective expressed during their first meetings, there was “the overwhelming feeling… that after years and years we had finally found each other.” During times of crisis, black women continue to bolster each other, raise consciousness, and validate each other’s identity struggle. We remind the other woman that she is not alone, that she is important, and encourage her to continue. The most revolutionary spaces are often the most reaffirming ones. Reach out to other black women and dedicate some time to catering to your needs, wants, and desires. Vent the frustrations of the day, and take time to replenish each other’s reserves.

4. Places of Worship

Although places of worship may no longer seem safe, the Black Church will always hold special significance. “It’s not just a church. It’s also a symbol … of black freedom,” said student of Southern history Robert Greene in a Washington Post interview. This is not the first time black churches have been targeted. Black churches have been subject to violence from the time of the Underground Railroad to present day. However, the church—and black freedom for that matter—has always survived. So too will the spirit of its parishioners.

Even after such a disruptive tragedy, Black women may still find peace within the walls of the church. This reality must be respected. Faith can be central to an individual’s grieving process. If you are not religious, you can create your own sacred space in a bedroom or another part of your home. It is just important to have some place of your own to reflect, meditate, and connect to something larger than oneself.

In a world that is often hostile to our presence, the most important thing a black woman can do is take up space. Times of grief merely emphasize the need for spaces in which we can channel anger into action or sorrow into resilience.

Where are some places you like to go to reflect, recharge, or retreat from the world?

Photo: Shutterstock

Neisha Washington is a regular contributor to For Harriet. She believes firmly in Audrey Lorde’s conviction that “poetry is not a luxury”, and strives to engage with this truth in daily life.

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