A Recent History of Pain

by Jason Parham

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Four weeks ago, as the sky darkened to a deep blue-black just above East Houston Street and Bowery, I stood in the middle of the New Museum’s lobby and watched the copper in a friend’s face dim completely. It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and he was in town on vacation. “I’m in New York City,” he said into the phone. On the other end of the call was his aunt. She was calling from California to tell him that his younger brother, his only brother, had been found dead in his room.

After the call ended, he stood for a minute, looking empty, alone, afraid.

“Everything ok?” I asked, even though I knew it wasn’t.

“My brother died,” he said.

What I remember happening next is a little hazy: We walked outside, and he tried to hold back tears as yellow cabs sailed by on Bowery; we walked west on Prince in search of shelter and food; V said his family thought the cause of death might be a drug overdose; he suggested his brother’s death was partially his fault, “I could have done more to help him,” he said; temporarily, we found sanctuary at Grey Dog where he ordered apple cider and I ordered a chicken sandwich; he asked me to fill the silence. So I did.

Nine days later, I run into a friend on the train. I am headed to Williamsburg. It is the middle of the day, and the C train is mostly uninhabited save for a few old people and bouncy teenagers. I am headed to Williamsburg in the middle of the day on the C train that is mostly uninhabited save for a few old people and bouncy teenagers because I have just been laid off from my job and there is a coworking space just beyond McCarren Park that was offered to me free of charge for the month. I make small talk about the weather and holiday plans.

“You see this?” my friend says. She points to the subway ad directly across from us. It is a picture of a black boy, no older than seven or eight, who looks as if he is encircled by gloom. Four large words — stacked atop one another — are written to the left of his head. “PAIN. FEVER. CHILLS. MISERY.” It’s an ad for the flu shot, a campaign launched by the city’s Health Department to raise awareness around the seasonal illness. According to Health Commissioner Mary T. Bassett, “The flu, combined with pneumonia — a common complication of influenza — is the third leading cause of preventable death in New York City.” In 2014, more than sixteen hundred New Yorkers died from influenza and pneumonia.

For most of this year, I have considered, again and again, what it means to be in pain — its origins, its ability to cripple the body, the process by which it destroys our capacity to withstand it — and how pain is not a destination, a point at which we arrive, but a road on which we sojourn. Looking at the picture of the unsmiling black boy I was reminded that to be black in America is, essentially, to be in a constant state of pain — physically, psychologically, emotionally.

The pain is everywhere, too. We carry it with us. Tamir was just a kid, we shout. Kalief deserved better, we say. What happened to Bettie Jones can’t happen again, we tweet. And yet history rebroadcasts our deepest horrors with new, all-black cast members each week. “Massacre in South Carolina Church Leaves Nine Dead,” a news report proclaims. The plot is predictably similar every time: Few survive. We wear our wounds in public because we know no other way to live. As Kai M. Green put it in Kiese Laymon’s 2013 collection of essays, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others In America: “What do we do with the scars, those of us who did not die, but still aren’t free?”

In Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, Stokely Carmichael considers the complex relationship between America’s black citizenry — men and women whose shackled kinfolk labored to build the streets they walk, protest, and die on — and the nation. “Black people in the United States have a colonial relationship to the larger society,” he wrote, “a relationship characterized by institutional racism. That colonial status operates in three areas — political, economic, social.” But what if there is a fourth area in which this status operates?

If, historically, racism has operated via the theft of political, economic and social power of black Americans, wouldn’t this unceasing theft, this attack to weaken our core and spirit, have a direct effect on our collective psychological state? If pain arrives when one is powerless to time and circumstance — which, for blacks living under American custom, is the state in which we perpetually exist — then wouldn’t our relationship to the larger society also, in part, be defined by our pain?

Before I exit the train at Hoyt-Schermerhorn, I ask my friend where she’s headed.

“To see my therapist,” she says.

Early December. Various names of esteemed men are etched in gold lettering in the ceiling of the theater at the 92nd Street Y. Emerson. Dante. Einstein. Beethoven. Spinoza. Washington. Shakespeare.

I’m in the second row and in front of me is Claudia Rankine, the award-winning poet and author. She is sitting on stage with Cleonie White and Sarah Stemp, both of whom hold PhDs and work at the William Alanson White Institute of Psychiatry, Psychoanalysis, and Psychology. In the last year, Rankine has offered several public meditations on pain, grief, racism, the black body, and the ways in which they overlap. Tonight she wants to talk about trauma and its relationship to our identities — its significance, its potency. “We go through life kind of doing the next thing,” Rankine says, speaking of experiences we encounter — sometimes small, sometimes not so small — and how trauma, like interest on a student loan, accrues over time and often becomes too much to bear. “We put them away until later.”

I gaze up at the names and think how little these men knew of black pain. I begin to understand that our pain does not exist here, on the Upper East Side, where the racial makeup of the neighborhood is roughly ninety percent white and the average household income is $117,000. According to a 2013 rendering by artist Nickolay Lamm, the Upper East Side is home to the greatest concentration of individual wealth in the city. The average median net worth is around $288,000. Up here, there is no pain to put away until later.

Questions I wrote in my notepad this year: What if, at its root, suffering is ultimately a process of becoming? Is exposure a form of healing? How is it that we are still standing?

A crowded A train careens toward Brooklyn. My stop is Nostrand Avenue, a rapidly gentrifying thoroughfare in Bed-Stuy my friend once jokingly described as “the new Disneyland.”

Without notice, a gravelly voice fissures the racket of our subway car. I look up and see a black man direct his anger — what I presume to be a symptom of his pain, a pain, not unlike my own, he has carried with him for some time and does not know how to accept or properly discard — toward two men, both with turbans, brown skin, and long beards. “Damn y’all stink,” he says. His eyes are red and patches of gray scruff color his face. He clutches an open beer can in one hand. “You know we in America now? Deodorant only costs like two dollars. And they call us niggas.”

A sudden stillness falls upon the subway car. The two men do not respond. The man takes a swig of beer. My first instinct is to look away, to try and avoid the hurt, so I turn to my left; a woman lets out a heavy sigh and shakes her head, as if to say “No, no, no.” I offer a sad, uneven smile in return but it feels incomplete. Others seem to avoid eye contact. A blanket of uneasiness smothers the subway car. We are two stops from Nostrand but it feels like a lifetime away. I just want to get home, I think to myself. I feel ashamed, but in the moment I don’t exactly know why. I feel small. Maybe smaller than I’ve ever felt. I don’t know what to do but feel something must be done or said. I feel powerless. I recognize the pain. I recognize that this man does not want to suffer alone. So I sit, quietly bearing the weight of it all, hoping the silence doesn’t suffocate me.

Most of what I’ve said about black people’s relationship to pain being a constant is conjecture. It may or may not be true. (I like to believe it is.) What I am certain of, however, is this: It was a very tough year for me, and while the last twelve months were not solely defined by traumatic experiences, I’ve never before been in such close proximity to pain than I was in 2015. My pain — sometimes brought on by the realization that my mother has been unable to find a job in the last six months and is struggling financially, or the fact that I hadn’t had a real, honest conversation with my brother in four years — often took the form of deep sadness, full weekends alone without a text or phone call to family or friends. I would often welcome the company of complete strangers to a familiar face, because it was there that I could be who I wanted; it was in those interactions that I could mask the pain more easily.

“It’s okay to be sad,” Maura says to her son Josh in an episode of Transparent’s second season. Josh’s longtime girlfriend, Raquel, has just left him and he is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He’s trying to bottle his pain, but Maura, as parents often do, sees right through it. The brief exchange came to me as a revelation: It’s okay to be sad; it’s okay to let the pain wash over you; it’s okay to be afraid, it’s okay to not know what to do. It’s okay. It’s gonna be okay.

Photo by Dark Dwarf

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.