On Finding Speech

Hasani Baharanyi

Hasani Baharanyi, M.D., is a psychiatrist and psychoanalytic candidate at the Emory University Psychoanalytic Institute.

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Hasani Baharanyi

On March 29, 2020, my grandmother died at the age of 93 after a long illness. Originally, I intended to write about my unexpectedly muted grief during her funeral. At the service, we were required to stand six feet apart and cover our noses and mouths with masks. The spatial and physical barriers attenuated my sadness. However, an article about muted grief feels hollow now. After reading about Covid-19’s disproportionate impact on African-Americans and the ongoing deaths of unarmed African-Americans at the hands of police, I am overcome with sadness, worry, and anger. These feelings are visceral, lodged in my chest, stomach, and throat. At times, over the past few months, I’ve felt an urgent need to do something. Other times, my feelings are assuaged by fantasies of a better world. Underneath lies a terrifying thought: Our suffering does not matter and our bodies are viewed with suspicion. It is disorienting to fear racism’s impact so many years after the victories of the civil rights movement. In the aftermath of these disheartening reports, I thought about my grandmother. What would she have said if she had lived two months longer? How did she cope with the feelings that consume me now?

At her funeral, several attendees commented on my grandmother’s smile and gentle nature. This pleasant demeanor belied internal distress: She had been taking anti-anxiety medications for decades. This revelation shouldn’t have surprised me. She had many reasons to be nervous. She was raised in the rural South at a time when racial prejudices were embedded in the law and enforced with violent zeal. Consequently, she endured daily assaults on her humanity ranging from assumed inferiority to the threat of physical harm. As a mother to African-American children in the mid-20th century, surely, she constantly feared for their safety. My grandmother’s composure ensured her and her family’s survival; she warded off racist projections with it. She felt the impact of racial inequities but did not talk about it. Yet anxiety that is suppressed in one generation finds expression in another one. I am now holding on to the powerful feelings that she felt but could not express.

Context matters, and my grandmother’s experience differs from my own. Many members of her generation risked their lives to fight racial injustice. As a result, I did not live under Jim Crow laws or attend segregated schools. In fact, diversity and inclusion were touted as virtues. Still, these messages were countered by people who made me feel undeserving or out of place. High school classmates dismissed my acceptance to an Ivy League school as an example of affirmative action. In college and medical school, I was questioned when I walked into buildings or stood waiting for the school shuttle. Witnessing racism stung just as much. I cringe when I think about how my white colleagues in residency doubted the symptoms of an ill Black colleague who needed time off. Faced with these insults, I did not react and focused on moving forward. Recent events have shown that in silence there is no progress.

My grandmother had to wear a figurative mask to survive. Fortunately, my feelings do not need to be muted and their expression has been my lifeline over the past two months. Candid conversations with colleagues provide validation and respite. Reading helps me contextualize my reaction, and activism helps me turn strong feelings into meaningful actions. Unlike her, I do not have to contend with transgenerational trauma in silence. Because of her sacrifices then, I can and must speak out now.