Charles Stephens: Because being resilient isn’t enough

Late last week, I had the opportunity to lead a discussion with a group of young black gay men in Dallas, Texas. Though the conversation was focused on HIV criminalization, we also landed on the subject of resilience. I made the point, a point I often make, that any black boy who makes it to adulthood has already been resilient, and is probably in fact an expert on resilience, so discussions should focus less on developing resilience and more on healing from its inescapable consequences. When I think about my own resilience and its costs, I think about my early activist years.

In my third semester of college, I didn’t owe a bunch of money, maybe about $700 or so, but to me at that time it might as well had been a million or a trillion. I didn’t have the money and had no way of getting it before it was due, which was in a few days, and not paying my tuition balance would mean I’d be dropped from my classes. This fact had not been communicated to me, or I don’t remember it being communicated over the summer, so it came as a surprise that I owed so much and had to pay up in a matter of days or risk being cast out.

My father didn’t have any money and struggled to keep himself together while enduring the stalking grief of my mother’s death two summers before. To even ask him, and I had asked him for money before, would mean subjecting myself to his judgment. He was one of those self-made black men from the South who had been on his own since he was 13 or something, and though my homosexuality was not necessarily worthy of his condemnation, begging for money was, so I resisted, knowing that he probably couldn’t help anyway.

Resilience, when you have to exercise it, feels like dragging yourself across broken glass. And often, particularly when encountering institutions from health care to legal to academic, you always feel like you’re dragging yourself across broken glass, and that’s just getting from the entrance to the elevator. The glass is racism and homophobia and classism and the parade of micro-aggressions that we as black gay men are faced with and must triumph over daily.

But what of this notion of resilience? I share this story because it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve been able to reflect back to that period in my late teens and early 20s when I was the most vulnerable, structurally and personally, that I had ever been. That daily parade of micro-aggressions coupled with never having enough money, never being quite sure how food was going to happen, the feeling that I could at any moment get blown away into nothingness and never ever feel a sense of self-possession or agency.

And so, for those of us who survive our 20s and make it to our 30s, who have been what one might describe as resilient, we sometimes find ourselves broken and looking for meaning or collapsing under the weight of the shield we develop to protect ourselves from white folks, straight folks, cops, STDs, preachers, predators, and ourselves. Thus, resilience tells us nothing about who we are and what we need. We must turn our attention to personal and collective restoration.