I had been on suicide watch for two days.

Every hour on the hour, a female floor attendant knocked on the metal frame of the bed to make sure I was still alive. The bed smelled of urine and sweat. Faint murmurings of fairies and blood came from the bone-thin woman sleeping on the cot next to me.

I wasn’t supposed to be here.

Just weeks before, I could have been the poster child of every “you go girl” meme. I was a rising star in North Carolina’s political arena, where I worked for the past decade. I was part of a power couple, the James Carville/Mary Matalin, in black and white, and in reverse.

I remember the day I had a “nervous breakdown.”

It was a Sunday afternoon in April. I began crying and I couldn’t stop. I went upstairs in search of comfort from my boyfriend who was in his man-cave nursing a cold. I kept telling him something was wrong and I didn’t know what it was. He sent me home.

I cried all night and the next day. I cried as I explained to my friend who came over during her lunch break to check on me. I cried as they checked me into the mental ward. While the evening news blared in the background, I cried as I tried to explain to the others who were in the ward why I was there and found that I couldn’t.

I wasn’t supposed to be there.

The Price of Black Girl Magic

There is a price for black girl magic.

Black girl magic is a concept and a movement popularized in 2013 by CaShawn Robinson. In its most positive form, it celebrates the accomplishments, perseverance, and resilience of black women through extreme adversity. It recognizes our special destiny to bend the arc of justice toward the freedom and well-being of all people.

In its negative expression, black girl magic has become the expectation that black women will continue to emotionally, physically, and politically support those who don’t have our best interests at heart. It is the expectation we will stop and dry the fragile tears of a racist white woman who doesn’t understand why we “can’t just all get along.” It is the expectation that we will keep the edge out of our voice as we explain to our bro co-worker why certain words aren’t appropriate even if Dave Chappelle said it. It is the forced smile we give to our children as we zip up their coat and send them out into a community in which men and women who were sworn to serve and protect them may kill them at the slightest twitch.

More than 20 percent of all African Americans are more likely than the general population to experience serious mental health problems such as major depression, ADHD, suicide, and PTSD, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health.

In my case, what people didn’t know was that I was in an emotionally abusive relationship. Simultaneously, I was dealing with my mother’s successive health issues as she battled brain cancer and breast cancer before finally succumbing to stomach cancer. My stepfather’s heart attacks were due to undiagnosed congestive heart failure and the amphetamines he took to work double shifts to pay for my mother’s medical bills.

At work, I was expected to keep tap-dancing toward success even though figuratively my feet were bleeding and numb.

There was nowhere to turn for help.

We shame people in the black community in emotional crisis. We tell them to pray instead of “airing your dirty laundry” with a therapist. We tell them how much worse our ancestors had it. We tell them to buy a new pair of shoes or get their nails done. We tell them to bury their pain because it’s far easier than facing our own.

Is it any wonder that a 2016 study found that black children aged five to 11 are twice as likely to kill themselves as white children, and suicide is the third-leading cause of death of young black men ages 15 to 24?

Even if suicide rates are low among black women compared to other demographics, African American women are more likely to die in childbirth, more prone to get cancer, and die about four years younger than white women, according to various health studies.

We don’t die of heartbreak. We die from life. Our bodies store the hurts we cannot voice and converts them into diseases like high blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. The myth of the “strong black woman” is literally killing us.

Once again, black girl magic is being called to collectively save a nation bent on self-destruction.

Whether it’s the 98 percent of black women voters in Alabama who prevented the election of a man who allegedly sexually harassed teenage girls while holding public office or the soothing words of a media icon who used her powerful, global platform to call for an end to sexual harassment and violence, black girl magic is in demand.

Black women are answering the call because the stakes are too high to sit on the sidelines. We must resist and persist. But it will take more than anemic notions of self-care to ensure we don’t burn out.

We must listen to each other and create safe spaces in black communities where women, especially, can be vulnerable, uplifted, and supported. We must decide we are worthy of our own care and protection and call on others to do their fair share.

White people must do their own work to educate themselves and their communities about racism and take pro-active steps to eliminate institutional racism.

Through the support of friends, my faith, and trusted therapists, I have come a long way in the past decade. I reinvented myself multiple times and now live in a small beach community near the Caribbean Ocean.

Along the way, I discovered the source and power of my own black girl magic. It is fierce, valuable, and precious. It is not to be sprinkled lightly.

Kerra Bolton is a writer and filmmaker based in the Mexican Caribbean. In a former life, she was a political columnist; Director of Communications, Outreach, and Oppositional Research for the North Carolina Democratic Party; and founder of a boutique strategic communications firm.


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