For Vanessa Anyanso, to be black in America is to constantly mourn lost sons and daughters.
It’s a sentiment that Anyanso, a 26-year-old graduate student studying for a doctorate in counseling psychology at the University of Minnesota, has felt since the release of the video of George Floyd, a black man, dying while being restrained under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer for nearly nine minutes.
Amid the resulting widespread unrest across the Twin Cities, Anyanso was tired of scrolling up and down Twitter but did not want to go out to protest. Her parents pointed out the dangers of her going out during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Because I’m a black person in America, every time I walk out of my house there is a possibility I won’t come back, and because I’m a black woman unfortunately my death may not be as mourned or remembered as others,” Anyanso said. “If I’m going to be in danger no matter what I do, at least I want to directly help some people that are suffering right now.”
That’s why Anyanso decided to start “running supplies for the revolution” by collecting money and buying and donating items to help protesters and other organizations in north Minneapolis. For Anyanso, it was considering what’s more dangerous: The pandemic or being black in America?
The digital graveyard of viral videos depicting the killings of black people by police and others has become a recurring source of trauma for black people in America. There are the hashtags, the decision about whether to watch the video, the televised pain of mourning families, the swarming media, the protests — if the death gets enough traction on social media — and calls for justice.
And each time, black communities have to find ways to cope with the grief, anxieties and fears stemming from violently losing black men, women and children. Nationally, the number of black people experiencing anxiety or depressive disorders rose from 36% to 41% in the week after the video of Floyd’s death circulated the internet and unrest began, according to a joint Census Bureau and National Center for Health Statistics survey. A 2017 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found black people were more likely than white people to experience feelings of sadness, hopelessness, worthlessness, or that everything is an effort, all or most of the time.
Marlee Dorsey, a licensed therapist in Minneapolis who sees clients through her Reviving Roots Therapy and Wellness practice, said for her clients “almost every session” has been about George Floyd, police brutality, racism, their anger toward the police, participation in protests or feeling validated by seeing others share their rage.
Dorsey said part of the problem is that people misconstrue trauma as “something that breaks you” and that can make people feel ashamed or hold in their feelings about it.
“The way that the mainstream culture talks about it is that ‘we experience something bad and here are your symptoms and these are the things that happen for you,’ because we have to put things in a nice little box,” Dorsey said. “But trauma is being pulled over by the police and all of the thoughts that go through your brain. You have that wave of fear, you think about the story your cousin told about how they got pulled over, your parents, grandparents, their stories. … It’s not just your experience that you’re holding, it’s your entire network’s experience too, and that’s what makes it more powerful.”
The first time watching Floyd die on screen was “the equivalent to seeing a black man hanging from a tree,” said Korey “XROSS” Dean Sr., founder and executive director of the Man Up Club, a Roseville-based organization focused on mentoring black males, teaching them how to process their feelings and how to interact with the police. “To see the foam that was around his mouth, my heart kind of jumped out of my chest at that point,” he said.
The key thing Dean said he tells young men is that they’re valued and that their voice matters, and he gives them space to talk about mental health, abuse and embarrassment. Any sense of hopelessness could lead them to destructive behaviors, he said. He said the group was out in the community helping with cleanups in recent weeks, but they’ve also talked about ongoing fear of the police. Dean said he watched the video of Floyd’s death multiple times because he “had to watch the evilness of it.”
“The only reason I stopped watching it was because my eyes kind of opened up to the reality of if I continue to watch it, I’m really going to be traumatized,” Dean said.
Anyanso hasn’t watched it. The last time she watched a video of a black person dying was Philando Castile, whose death was broadcast on Facebook Live in 2016 after he was shot by a St. Anthony police officer.
Her thinking is, “The people that need to see videos in order to understand that it’s a problem won’t even care, so what are we doing besides traumatizing our people all of the time?”
She knows the names of so many more black people whose deaths sparked outrage: Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and most recently Ahmaud Arbery, a jogger who was chased down and killed in Georgia, and Breonna Taylor, killed by police while she had been sleeping at home in Kentucky.
Anyanso knows the wave of fear when she sees a cop car or remembers trying to prevent police encounters on her jogs back home in Gaithersburg, Md., by wearing a shirt from her high school or her Columbia University undergraduate shirt. She’s been in the car when her own father has been pulled over and remembers that fear.
She has found solace in action. She has organized donations of more than $17,000 worth of food, diapers and other supplies to organizations and got to help the protesters in her own way. She’s also been trying to check on her friends to see how they’re coping amid the pandemic and the aftermath of Floyd’s death.
“I know if I allowed myself to feel the depths of the situation, I would probably not be able to get out of bed,” Anyanso said. “I would say my coping is through doing these supply runs, but I fully realize I have not been able to give myself space to grieve properly.”
For now, Anyanso plans to keep raising money and making donations to organizations in need. But as she looks ahead, “it’s not about the deaths that have happened, it’s about the deaths that I fear will happen.”
“Every time one of these murders happen, when people are protesting they’re not just protesting that murder,” Anyanso said. “It was influenced by all of the names known and unknown.”