How to Kill Yourself and Not Die: Blackness and the Desire to Overachieve
I’m a young queer black woman, I’m the ceo and founder of Thurst, and I’m working myself to death. I left a toxic apartment with an anti-black roommate in Brooklyn, attended tech conferences and gatherings in several cities, found out my mom was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian cancer, and spent my birthday in a hospital chair, contending with the haunting reality of my mother’s mortality and the pressing needs of a seedling tech start up.
I come from a long line of black women who have practiced the ritualistic cycle of overworking, a symbolic and emotional death, and finally an expected resurrection. Black women in this nation are expected to be supernatural and overachieving, silently succeeding and carrying the emotional burden and stress of our own lives and communities. My maternal great-grandmother, from what little I remember about her, was a silent yet stern woman from the south who is perhaps the direct link to all of my genetically inherited tension and spirit. My grandmother, a hardened woman who loves through swift critiques and forced smiles, picked cotton and tobacco on a plantation in South Carolina and eventually received a Masters from Columbia University. My mother, a warm and energized woman who regularly emphasizes her growth from an inner-city youth to a Yale educated physician, also carries the uniquely sharp and particular spirit of her fore-mothers. Acceptance into elite white academic and/or corporate spaces does not beget the spiritual and emotional healing necessary to successfully navigate the world as an individual being, especially for black women who are regulated to social positions that require too much of them.
What my grandmother never told me but that I always knew was that black men can fail you, that a woman’s back can be a portal to another life, that a woman’s hands are rarely seen as a receptacle for nourishment but mostly as a source for free healing. What my mother never told me but I learned is that sometimes hard work leads to more hard work, that ivy league degrees are great for paying the bills but really horrible for assuaging the wounds of internalized oppression and deeply racist capitalist workplaces. What my very black, very educated, and very respectable family has taught me is that there are many ways to say you’re afraid to die, there are many ways of staying alive and hiding in public, and that, “How is school?” can really mean, “I want to love you but it is all contingent on how long and well you will live as determined by our elitist white supremacist educational system”. I consider myself an intelligent person and naturally, I learned well. I turned 23 in Johns Hopkins Hospital, tying away vigorously in the dark, my face illuminated by the blue hues of my computer screen. My mother slept in the bed beside me, her intravenous machine pump making soft whirring sounds to harmonize with her breathing. In the morning, she would ask me how my work was coming along, and praise me upon hearing a satisfactory answer.
Only in this moment could I see how much I was like my mother, a semi-religious and very glamorous woman who insisted on traditional Christian normative views despite an Islamic black radical upbringing. Here I was, crouched in the corner of a hospital room, designing the beginnings of a queer hookup and dating app while my mom was battling an aggressive cancer. My mother laughed when one of the staff failed to read her charts correctly, yawning, “What year of residency are you? Gosh it’s been so many years, but when you reach my level, it becomes natural,” as she proceeded to modify her own medication schedule to a blushing nurse.
Here, in this moment, is when she was most confused yet proud of me, for learning and inheriting well. I inherited the ability to do what all black women know how to do when necessary — I've been taught how to die. I've been taught how to bend the architecture of my soul to fit a family, a man, a community, unrealistic expectations and high hopes, lost loves and forgotten daughters. I've been taught how to swallow tragedy and spit out seeds, soil, and sunlight. Unfortunately, the understanding of godliness exists only in the realm of service and charity when it comes to black womanhood. Ingrained in the very cells of my skin resides perhaps a sequence of matter that stimulates my desire to overachieve, to defy in any small and conceivable way, the cages of a world fueled by black bodies and anguish. Perhaps colonialism and slave trauma is woven so deeply into the fabric of my family lineage that in attempting to extract it all, I will shred myself apart. Disgustingly, the same fear of death is also the same drive that keeps so many, pushed beyond the limits of human comfort and spiritual reconciliation, alive.
I understood that as a black woman, I would face the darkest of dark, the most sad of sadness, the most bleak of horrors and be expected to deliver day to all those who begged it from me, from those who wanted to tear God from my skin. What’s most harrowing about it all is the journey, a nearly indescribable transformation as a consequence of blackness, that forces every black woman to fight for her life, in some or many ways — to suffer the thrashes of a multi-pronged oppressive system and to continue, as both an act of resistance and revolution. I like to think that my technical skills are a reincarnate trait inherited from the women before me, callous hands picking cotton and tobacco in fields, akin to these hands now, typing in the dark and anxiously answering emails about my app, pausing to check the weather, hovering over a keyboard in between thoughts.
Through all of the revolutions of myself and the rebirths of my spirit, I feel equally blessed and burdened. I sit and stare at emails regarding Thurst, noting which ceos and Forbes staff follow me on Twitter, running through the pitch and spiel in my head incessantly. Black women, my black women, my mothers have taught me how to kill myself and not die — to resurrect. Back to work.