The Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership. By Jamara Wakefield May 17th marked the start of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition, featuring typically young and lesser-known artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art […]
“We Were Never Meant to Survive”: On Considering Suicide in a World Designed to Kill Us
Content Warning: This article is an intense and painful discussion of suicide.
In light of the murder of Jessica Hampton, the murder of Mercedes Successful, the Pulse Shooting in Orlando, and the murder of Alton Sterling, I sit here feeling empty and lost in my own depression and retraumatization of the same violence I see happen everyday in different ways. I’m tired. I feel defeated all the time, and this only reaffirms my defeat living within a world that is designed to kill myself and my people. I sit here thinking about Audre Lorde’s Litany for Survival in which she says, “It is better to speak remembering that we were never meant to survive.”
This tragedy and my everyday reality reminds me that white supremacist capitalism — and its many facets, systems, agents and ideologies — is the sickness we can never get rid of. We are a product of it, we are operating and navigating within it and we are suffering massive amounts of trauma and violence everyday because of it. We are always being harmed with the intent of destruction of our well-being every day that we attempt to exist in this system.
Operating within this world means inheriting defensive mechanisms and cultivating healing through trauma blocking. Some of us protect ourselves from trauma by not acknowledging the systems harming us. Some of us will not engage with the most recent public tragedy (i.e. #PulseShooting, videos of police brutality and murder, the disproportionate murder of women and femmes, etc.) because it only reminds us of how real our fear is.
Some of us will find healing and self-care in ways that are often stigmatized, such as self-harm, drinking, drugs, sex, turn up and anger. Some of us are silenced so much that talking feels foreign to our reality and reminds us that what’s real for us can always be threatened. Some of us will disappear from social media and social gatherings because we feel so overwhelmed by trauma that it feels like we’re suffocating all the time. Some of us will watch our loved ones sink in the trauma and never be able to save them because we’re drowning too.
I remember how long it took me to engage with the idea that racism was more than a one-dimensional concept. I dragged my feet for years not wanting to push past the fact that my abusive boyfriend, my problematic friends, queerphobic members of my family or my white best friend could be my oppressors. I was apprehensive to speak up when I felt uncomfortable about someone touching my hair, touching my body, calling me slurs, making comments about my blackness that separated me from other black people. I was not only ignorant to the full extent of the violence I was surviving, but I also protected myself from that knowledge and awareness that would change my entire perception of the world.
The minute I became “woke,” I lost my shit. I was hyperconscious and armed with knowledge, ready to drag anyone who was being problematic, ultimately feeling so empowered that I felt closer to “being okay” and not feeling as depressed. Initially, I felt so good finding my roots, finding more answers and more questions, feeling in tune with my truth and that of my people.
That empowerment, good feeling and veil of mental stability (read: performing functionality for those who aren’t mentally ill) began to dwindle after a few years, though. Slowly but surely, I felt more lost than I ever felt when I was sleeping on the realities of white supremacy, patriarchy, antiblackness and capitalism. The more I was awake, the more I became tired without an option to find rest. The more I woke up, the truth was harder to ignore or forget. The more I stayed awake, my mental health started to spiral more than ever. I was living in physical and mental shock, paralyzed by the reality that my life will always consist of a fight I seemingly can never win. I cannot escape the reality that something or someone is always attempting to kill me.
I started becoming sicker, sleeping longer just to wake up more tired, and going from occasional suicidal thoughts since I was 11 to wanting to kill myself everyday of my 20s. Dragging people for their fucked up shit became draining. It became a reminder of the labor I have to exert just to find a false sense of humanity. Talking about the sociopolitical culture and environment became all I talked about because everything is political and I could never find a break from analysis. I could never forget all the things I learned. I could never remember who I was enough to find bliss in ignorance ever again.
Suicide, for many of us, is a response to trauma and way to end our pain. Suicide, for some of us, is a way to reclaim power and choice as oppressed people when we feel like nothing happening to us is within our control. Suicide is often a result of not having access to safety or healing because there’s nowhere for us to put all this shit we feel. Suicide is sometimes not about ending your life, but seeking ways to end the pain when no other options exist. So much about suicide is political. Let me be clear, though — this is not about idealizing suicide as a pretty, artistic, integrity driven revolutionary act. Rather, suicide is a reflection of the violence and trauma we suffer trying to survive a world not meant to hold us, care for us, sustain us or love us.
Suicide is often centered as a “giving up,” a weakness, a sadness to be prevented without question because “survival” is more important. There is a clear hierarchy of violence within our communities when it comes to death and brutality. Many of us would rather fight against murder, the taking of our people in a very specific way, rather than fight against the spaces and sociopolitical environments that take from our people enough to make us feel like suicide is better than this.
Violence is not just murder and the death of our physical selves. Violence is also the killing of our well-being. Violence is feeling like your worth and your basic needs for survival are always tied to capitalism. Violence is using disposal as a tool of liberation. Violence is not inviting folks to resources when we’re constantly in need. Violence is ignoring accountability because it means admitting you can be wrong/you can harm. Violence is not supporting your loved ones in living their truth because you refuse to see their humanity. Violence is being complacent within systems of harm and oppression when you benefit from them. Violence is changing your Facebook filter when we die but never doing anything to make sure we can live.
We frame suicide as vulnerability, and often we reject forms of vulnerability because we’ve never been given the space to be vulnerable or explore vulnerability without feeling unsafe. For example, I hate crying in front of people, moments of silence, traditional/respectable forms of healing, or anything that makes me feel like I need to be soft in a world that makes me be hard as a form of protection. Being vulnerable means I’m not safe. It means that my humanity — which is denied to me inherently — is now exposed to the possibility of being harmed even more when I let my guard down, when I lower my weapons of self defense. When we talk about suicide, we are inherently recognizing a vulnerability that makes us uncomfortable. It becomes about acknowledging mental health, our search for safety, and whether healing is actually possible enough to be sustainable — and many of us are frightened in exploring these particular realities and struggling with questions about mental wellness.
Additionally, we often think of suicide as surrender rather than strength or a form of protection. In a world that is already actively killing our wellbeing and access to love, community, care, resources and protection, we are often centering physical survival as the main motivation for our navigation. But we can’t limit survival to the idea of being physically present. Being here doesn’t always equal surviving. Being alive is not inherent to survival. Living in fear, adapting to violence as if it’s normal, and constantly worrying about how to sustain is not survival. This cannot be survival.
Survival also looks like self-perseveration and protection from constant trauma. Survival can include suicide. Yes, there are some of us who navigate suicidal ideation, attempt suicide or have suicidal thoughts that are not clear-headed about what decisions we want to make due to mental illness. These folks may need medicine, support or a change of circumstance to shift or lessen their thoughts about suicide.
But there are many of us, like myself, who deal with mental illness, depression, PTSD and react to trauma with the mindset that ending the pain and perpetual trauma would be better than to constantly feel violated, harmed, scared, worried, broke, stressed out or gaslighted into believing that the things we’re experiencing aren’t real. Many of us don’t necessarily want to die, but actually want to eliminate the power of emptiness, the consistent anxiety of securing resources to live and the constant pain of living in a world that hates you. Dying seems like the only option because there have yet to be sustainable ways of escaping violence without it coming back to harm us some more.
White supremacist capitalism is a plague. We are all sick living within it. The idea that physically surviving it is the ultimate achievement also speaks volumes to the levels of violence we are adapted to and expected to endure because we are “better” than this. If we’re able to tell people that burnout is a reality, why can’t we realize that burnout can also be embedded within constantly living in a world like this. Burnout can actually be our everyday reality. Emptiness can be our everyday struggle. Hopelessness can be our everyday battle that may never end.
Make no mistake: suicide for most people of color will always be murder. Whether it be because we didn’t have the access, the resources, the love, the support, the humanity, the safety … There is such a deep political harming of our well-being and we were never meant to survive, regardless of if we’re alive or not. Survival is not feeling scared and depressed all the time because trauma and death surround you everyday. Survival is not being in the room if the room is a death trap to begin with.
If I kill myself today, it won’t be because I want folks to think of me as a revolutionary or even as a powerful person. I want people to know that the system didn’t fail me — the system killed me on purpose. I want people to know that community wasn’t an option for me because we didn’t have enough time, labor, wellness or resources to sustain love and support in tangibility and accountability. I want people to know that nothing would’ve fixed me. I’m still whole even when I’m broken.
My choice to ever take my own life will always be based in a concept of “strength,” because I had the strength to acknowledge that the system and the world will constantly take from me, drain me, remind me to hate myself, tell me I have to fight in order to live, but that same living will never be safety. Taking my own life would only be a testament of my ability to find survival in opting out of a system that controls so much of my life that all I have within my control is my participation. And if my survival evolves into the option to be here, in a physical presence, it doesn’t mean that my pain or my thoughts of suicide will ever escape me. But the one thing that remains to be true: regardless of my decision, indict the system — not my ability to exist in a world committed to killing me.
Ashleigh Shackelford is a queer, nonbinary Black fat femme writer, artist, and cultural producer. Ashleigh is a contributing writer at Wear Your Voice Magazine and For Harriet. Read more at Facebook.com/AshleighShackelford. Support my emotional and intellectual labor by donating to: PayPal.me/AshleightheLion.