The Ascension ProjectThe Ascension Project

Lessons Not Lashes

"You don't know what it is like to struggle."

It is one thing to handle life and another thing to be happy in life. It would have been noticeable to anyone that my brother was happy in life but would it have been apparent that my brother had been struggling to handle life? There was something about being a young, 31 year old African American male that I clearly was unable to understand. As his sister, we shared many things; however, Travis’ experiences always seemed somehow more intense and more demanding and beyond my reach to understand and comprehend fully. While we were close, there was a distance between us that often resulted in confusion. At times, I was less forgiving and less familiar with the conditions of Black men. As I look back, there were many things that confounded me about my brother’s life – things that still today remain a mystery.

I thought understood the world and all its inherent diversity and the adversity that often surfaced as I navigated my own life’s path – uncomfortable as it was at times. That was until my brother spoke theses words: “You do not know what its like to struggle.” Suddenly my life didn’t seem so clear and I wondered if I only vaguely understood what it meant to struggle. For years, I thought I was an active participant in social justice work but now it seemed possible that I had simply been a bystander. How could my brother, who grew up in the same household; around the same tragedies, abuses, neighborhood and family , tell me one year before he was to pass that I didn’t know what it was like to struggle? What was it about his experience that would allow him to make such a declaration?

Although he was an excellent swimmer, Travis drowned on the 4th of July weekend in 1999 and we still don’t know how. A Black man, an excellent swimmer with no drugs or alcohol found in his system lost to us forever. How and why did he die? How was my brother’s life impacted and perhaps rendered paralyzed by struggle? How and why were his struggles so different from mine?

I am the middle child of seven and Travis’ death had a profound impact on all of us. When Travis told me that I did not know what it was like to struggle, I was never quite certain what exactly he meant. Did he believe that I had never experienced difficulty? Surely this was not the case. Perhaps he struggled differently. For a Black man in America, the road is far more dangerous and deadly. Perhaps that is what he meant. Perhaps that was what he wanted to shield me from.

Is the world more comfortable, appreciative, forgiving and empathetic towards Black women? Although Black women do not have permission to be openly angry, emotional, overwhelmed or tired, we are still in most instances a more privileged group than Black men – more protected and less vilified. Perhaps Travis was saying just that.

Sympathy translated from the Greek means I suffer with you. Empathy means that one has an understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself. Loosing my brother and watching families across America mourn the loss of their Black sons is an ever compounding phenomenon yielding devastating consequences.

At the time of my brother’s death, I worked for an elite all girls’ school in Connecticut. At the same time, I was completing my thesis on “How A Small Group of Adolescent Girls Uncover Their Cultural Identity. I was determined to make a difference in the lives of girls and subsequently spent very little time considering the plight of Black men in America or its impact on the very girls with whom I was working.

My brother Travis was a very involved member of the greater Hartford, Connecticut community. He was enormously supportive of his family and a wide and growing circle of friends. His causes and commitments seemed to know no limit. He took good care of me. Over the years, I had expressed my frustrations to Travis about being a Black women in America. He never, though, ever expressed his own frustration with being a Black man. At the time, I enjoyed dancing and nights out trying to navigate the dating and club scene. I also could never quite understand how I could connect with someone on the dance floor – moving and grooving, smoothly in step with one another , song after song, after song…until “my man” left for the next “honey” without explanation.

It was hard to admit, but I noticed and wondered did they (the other women on the dance floor) get lighter and whiter as the clock ticked on and as the sun got brighter? Was it me, the darkness, my darkness or the alcohol? Travis always did his best to protect me and to explain that it was better not to have been chosen as someone’s one night stand. In his own way, he was affirming my self-dignity and my self-worth – qualities that Black women in America struggle to hold on to and qualities that Black men in America rarely realize.

As a Black woman in America, there is so much that I could share about the hell that I have lived through. Psychologists and researchers who focus and write about the development of white girls and women state that females are groomed to accommodate men. There is; however, very little research germane to Black girls and women and if so many of our Black boys and men are failing, what would be the appropriate context in which to evaluate the state of Black girls and women? There must be a link.

When I woke up and was mature enough to recognize that my needs should come first, I was better prepared to prevent myself from falling backwards. Why did it take so long to develop the strength I needed to say that my needs in life mattered? My brother’s statement still haunts me. I know that I have suffered but his suffering was someone different, deeper and more desperate.

In healthier environments and individuals, others would not sacrifice in the way that I was trained to sacrifice. The norm for most would be to perpetuate learned patterns of behavior. As a Black woman in America I followed a specific paradigm and fulfilled a role that in the end would not provide personal happiness. While I did follow a script, I was not the author and it was not until I took firmer control over my own narrative that I began to feel completed. How was this process different for my brother? How is this process different for Black men?

I now recognize that what my brother experienced and what Black males continue to experience today is different from what I have experienced. What is it like for an individual to experience struggle? What is it like for a Black man in America? Dr. Howard Stevenson suggests that when some people see a Black man they have the same visceral response/reaction to seeing snakes and spiders. I believe my brother was sensitive enough to feel this and I believe Black men in America are shamed and isolated by the very same.

Without knowing and without me realizing until it was too late for Travis, my brothers and father shared so many things with me – things that today serve as important reminders. The absence of Black men – their physical, mental, and emotional absence from our lives carries a heavy price. I don’t know how men learn to be good husbands (good men) but I don’t think that my own father was able to reach such an expression of manhood. He was taught how to bring home the bacon and he did that well and never had trouble finding a job – something that far too many Black men in America are unable to do today. As I write this, it is so hard to admit that the abuse we often experience when men do not take the time needed to deal with their responsibilities has debilitating consequences. Despite all the good that my father did in schools, with children, family and friends, we missed out on the man who wanted to love well but didn’t know how. And today Black boys who have not known or witnessed an engaged father are destined for the same kind of alienation that was so hard on my own Dad.

Fathers are supposed to love their daughters and train their sons while mothers are supposed to love their sons and train their daughters. I believe Black girls are well trained but are not loved well, while Black boys are not well trained or well loved. Before we can break this cycle and before our children can emerge as competent, loving and engaged citizens and family members, we will have to put aside the sadness, regret, shame, anger and disappointment that years of dysfunction have now yielded. We must in the end view our struggles and frustrations, our blessings and our triumph’s as lessons and not lashes – lessons that can liberate us all.

Treda Collier, Director of Diversity and Community Life University School, Nashville, Tennessee
About Treda Collier