Guest post by Jillian Ford
Folks have called me crazy much of my life. For the first two decades, “crazy” was a term of endearment: a way to signal my individuality and creativity. In my 20’s, “creativity” slid into “eccentricity.” Now in my third decade, “eccentricity” has morphed into “just plain ol’” crazy, or that “not-so-cute” kind of crazy, or the “go take your meds” type of crazy. After years of trying to convince others I’m “normal,” I am changing course to embrace my crazy. Because who, after all, is assigning that label to me? Who, more generally, gets to call who crazy? What does it say about those pointing fingers? About their positionality, their power, and their apparent ability to remain “sane” in the midst of such unrelenting state violence?
Grappling with Franz Fanon’s psychosocial theories (that mental illness emerges in colonial contexts) has allowed me to step out of the torments and paralysis of depression. Western psychiatry rests in part on the understanding that mental illness is individual and chemically-inherent. The possibility that mental illness could result from the conditions in an oppressive state allows me to surface from isolation. In asserting my craziness, I am learning again the power that accompanies reclaiming words meant to shame. This renders powerless those people and forces that seek to extinguish my light.
I became a high school social studies teacher because I was appalled by my public school curriculum as an adolescent. I enrolled in graduate school because I became sick when I realized the extent to which the curricular lies were systemically entrenched. In addition to the Grand Narrative of American Progress central to social studies curriculum and the glaring omission of countless histories, I continued to resist the embedded insistence that “America” was “the land of the free.”
It was impossible for me to honor my freedom-seeking journey through civic participation; a truth contrary to every message in school-based civic education. In fact, my journey toward mental wellness could not commence without deliberately untwisting the promise of freedom and public sphere action. Once I did this, I was able to see that replacing “freedom” with “justice” might make more sense. Perhaps I am better able to fight for justice within the state instead of freedom granted by the state. This country was not created with my freedom in mind, and telling Black kids that they can find freedom through its systems can set them up for spirit-breaking craziness. Fanon’s influence led me to investigate my wellness as relates to actions of the state. This is what I found.
There is a particular way my skin crawls when people try to engage me in a conversation about the minutiae of what “actually” happened when George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin or when Darren Wilson murdered Mike Brown or when Daniel Pantaleo murdered Eric Garner or when the Beavercreek police murdered John Crawford or when the Los Angeles police murdered Ezell Ford or when the San Bernardino police murdered Dante Parker or when the Saginaw police riddled Milton Hall with over 40 bullets. Or when – the week before the grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson – the Cleveland police murdered Tamir Rice. Rice was 12 years old. He was playing on a playground when cops gunned him down.
I use the term “my skin crawls” because I am not aware of language to more effectively convey the sensation. Physiologically, the origin of my crawling-skin condition is deep inside my heart. I see images of my heart riddled by bullets, with cartoon-like blood gushing out of the holes. It happens in an instant. As though the blood from my heart is oil, my legs and arms ignite instantly when the small flame that usually keeps me steady bursts into a blaze upon contact. It happens in an instant. It is the flames under my skin that make it crawl. It feels awful: hot and cold and tight and lose and angry and sad and disgusted and afraid.
I know from what some others tell me that my internal chaos manifests just as chaotically on the outside. Those are the folks who call me crazy. But it is hard explain my bullet-riddled heart and the oil-like blood and the flame turned inferno in an instant. Being called crazy used to rub salt in my heart’s bullet hole wounds. As such, I silenced myself for a long time.
On August 9, 2014, Darren Wilson murdered 18-year-old Michael Brown. The St. Louis police saw to it that his body lay in the street for four and a half hours. The ensuing script was too predictable. A day or two after the murder, the White-controlled local government and the White-controlled police department and the White-controlled media commenced their all-too-familiar character assassination of the youth that had just been assassinated for real. They said he stole some cigarillos and choked somebody out. Somebody said the tape was fake, and somebody else said it wasn’t just one cigarillo but a whole box. As and attempt to evade skin-crawl, I avoided media and conversations that delved into those details. Because how I really feel about that is who. the. fuck. cares. Folks engaged in those discussions can keep those respectability politics to themselves. Mike Brown is now a young person who is no longer alive. His life mattered.
But Wilson saw the monster that has been living in The White Imagination since Europeans first invaded Black and Brown peoples’ spaces in the 1490s. The monster is big and angry (“…[Mike] said, ‘what the fuck are you gonna do about it?’” – Darren Wilson, in ABC interview with George Stephanopoulos. 11.26.2014.), beastly and menacing (“…he slammed the door shut on me”), monkey-like and uncontrollable (“…[I] was like a five year old, holding on to Hulk Hogan. That’s just how big this man was.”). Most of all, the monster is sub-human. The monster’s life does not matter.
Through public school curriculum, the legal system, news media, and numerous other sources, agents of the state are trained to believe that Black lives don’t matter. That is the most concise way to explain why a Black person is killed every 28-hours in the United States by a cop, a fake-ass cop, or a vigilante. That is the only way to comprehend why the St. Louis police would come out to a set of peaceful protesters in full riot gear. That is the singular way to fathom why we were promised 40 acres but got instead 40 shots; why we were promised a mule but instead are treated as mules. Zora Neale Hurston already told us black women are the mules of the earth. Echo.