Graduation (The Cocoon that is Grief, Anger, Reframing, and Becoming)
Oct. 27, 2020. 3:56PM. *ooooohhhh there is profanity in this piece ~scary~!
Almost two months ago, I woke up on a cloudy Tuesday morning. It was Graduation Day.
I watched a prerecorded video from my graduate program wishing us the best in our lives and professional careers. Halfway through the video I closed my computer and went back to sleep.
I tasted bitterness in my mouth and slept the rest of the day.
When my friend asked me how I was doing, I told him that this was the first time in the last two years that I haven’t been in a constant state of feeling incredibly traumatized, of fight-or-flight.
It went like this: Get out of bed. Peel back layers of trauma. Grip the steering wheel tighter. Make it to work today. Smile for white people that do not see you as a human being. Make it home. Walk the dog but not after dark. Check the front door lock five times before bed. Close your eyes and try to sleep a little bit in the darkness. Wake up the next day and do it all again.
I am tired.
I am exhausted.
I deserve more.
We deserve better.
There is bitterness in trying to figure out how to navigate my new reality with post-traumatic stress disorder, major depressive disorder, and severe anxiety disorder. I am still angry, because who do you call and what do you do when your experience is not only personal, but institutional?
U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers and State Department officials took something from me. A dream. My mental health. Financial security. Peace of mind.
There is a feeling of pain I have never felt watching my former State Department colleagues pack their belongings and transition to their new jobs at embassies and consulates around the world. While I am happy for my friends, they continue onward, and are fortunately unscathed. I do not wish for anyone to carry weight of my experience. Here I am, month nine of unemployment, seven moves in the last year, a lifetime of experiences of trauma, and I am only 28 years old. There is no way to find a silver lining in any of that- believe me I tried.
That was supposed to be me too.
There are no dreams deferred. There are dreams thrown in trashcans, dreams that are never revisited, dreams that do not reach the power of the subconscious mind.
And there are no raisins in my sun.
To the person that wrote me encouraging me to reapply as a Foreign Service Officer and people that told me that the State Department needs people like me, the hell with you. “You should reconsider! You can’t give up so easily,” the email read.
As children we grow up wanting to be X and in adulthood we put away our childish ways.
You had me. You lost me and because you did not value nor respect me, you do not deserve me. This is your loss. You deal with it. It is institutional racism. My name is a case study of systemic racism in America. My story is a case study of systemic racism in America. Google me.
And it took an entire master’s degree program and U.S. officials fostering an environment and exercising terror on my soul because of the color of my skin to realize- what is international relations, if not white supremacy disguised as promoting American democracy abroad? And how the hell can America recommend improving X country when America is rotten at its core?
If coronavirus was a foreign country of Black or Brown people, America would enter World War III. But when its domestic terror, here is a one-time payment of $1200.
To exist as a Black person or person of color in America is to face human rights violation(s).
After I released my blog post, I got apologies when I wanted justice. I spent days sobbing with my arms and legs extended on my living room floor. I talked to this reporter and that reporter and I recounted my story. Wrote op-eds and essays. I made additional appointments with my therapist. Received emails. Gave this interview. Heard trauma. Horror stories.
My former supervisor in Juarez who had every recourse of stopping the harassment I endured donated $200 for my Durham community’s GoFundMe. Human Resources officials sent me Facebook messages saying they were inspired by me, but they never responded to my emails when I needed help in 2019. “I’m so sorry,” they wrote in 2020.
In 2018 and 2019, I needed someone to help me.
And I learned that some white people will hand you crumbs if you let them.
I wanted accountability, but at the end of the day, nothing happened. The officers that harassed and terrorized me still work at that border. My boss and everyone at that dreadful institution who didn’t protect me still work there. A few were promoted and support an institution that continues the cycle of not protecting and silencing Black people and people of color, until they realize that there is power and joy in self-preservation.
But hey, at least you reading this know that you have a voice. You have power. And maybe that is what my experience is, maybe that is what justice represents, maybe that is why I experienced all of this. For these reasons, I wear my name with pride and keep my blog post up. I am not a victim and I am not my trauma. This is for you to know that someone has experienced the same so you can reference my story and use that to generate change in your institution/ organization/ household and god bless.
Speak your truth. Take up space.
Reform is not possible. It wasn’t the State Department, the U.S. government, it wasn’t that racist software company, it wasn’t the white lady at the store who ignored me, it was America. It was the foundation of this country that I served and that I was born in.
This was the Black experience in America. And okay, so, what will I do with that?
“Tianna,” she says to me. “Think of all the Black women that don’t have the opportunity to heal themselves and rest and do it for them.”
She takes a deep breath.
And in Spanish she tells me, “When you heal yourself, it’s not just for you, but for your community, your family, friends, everything and everyone.”
I pictured myself as a Foreign Service Officer. This degree would give me access to career opportunities that I only dreamed of. This was an investment in myself. It was representing America abroad, traveling the world, and meeting new friends. It was breaking through glass ceilings and taking my family’s legacy further in ways that my ancestors could only dream of.
I started working as a Consular Officer in Juarez on October 29, 2018, almost two years ago. I met colleagues who became friends. There was the friend that invited me over for weekend tea on her couch. The friend that was kind and told me I was a great writer. The friend who met me at the border and who I always think of when I smell eucalyptus. One discovered a rosemary tree in my backyard. The friends I attended yoga with that and had glow-in-the-dark spoons. The friends who were Luna’s mom and dad. The knitter. The one with the great advice on being a woman. I met friends at the Consulate who said good morning con un beso y offered pesos in the cafeteria when I forgot my wallet.
I adopted a puppy in Texas and watched her grow in Mexico.
I flipped through thousands of pages of personal stories of grandparents I interviewed, along with photos that detailed the personal experiences like weddings, birthday parties, and all the in-betweens. I made decisions based on U.S. immigration law. In Juarez, I met DACA teenagers, applicants my age, and those who had never seen someone who looked like me. I have positive memories that dance with trauma and in that is internal conflict.
On Monday, January 6, 2019, I started a Master of Science in Global Studies and International Relations at Northeastern University with a concentration in International Consulting and Economics. 13 days later crossing the U.S. border, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer threatened to shoot me in secondary inspection. When I emailed my professor the next day, detailing that I was in the middle of a difficult personal situation and needed an extension on an assignment, he encouraged me to withdraw from the master’s program.
Guess who ignored that email?
What is education, if not the paradox of privilege which is something I am grateful for yet something that does not define me? I did not find my voice and my pen while working or studying.
My lived experience is more valuable than any degree or any job.
So, what is graduation?
It is taking a deep breath.
To me, this degree is relearning and unlearning. It is releasing and unclenching and ungrasping. It is growth, pain, all the in-betweens, and all arounds. It is completion and expiration of a traumatic time stamp in my life that contributed to who I am today. It is gratitude.
It is a fuck you to the institution.
It is letting go.
It is moving on from trauma. It is moving on from only sharing my trauma with the world.
I have other beautiful things to share.
It is processing, pain, and joy.
It is reclaiming. It is a mastering of my own personal experience. No one can take credit for what I bring to the table. There are tables that I now know how to build. There are resources that I build upon to redesign and recreate. And with nothing I can create something of my wildest dreams. There is compassion and empathy in me that you cannot learn in a book.
There is vulnerability in my mouth and in my pen.
There is a better world. I will no longer wait for someone to hand it to me, I will create it and reimagine my world as I see fit.
And from this, I gained more of myself than I ever could have imagined. I know how far my voice carries when I whisper or scream and how that is the same thing. I am not the same woman from a year ago or two years ago. I’ve grown in ways that I cannot see yet and ways that I absolutely love. I am planted, growing, peeling back layers, growing vines, adding an assortment of seeds to my soil that I may not yet discover or comprehend how to visualize or water.
I am emerging and overcoming and asking for help when I need it. I am giving and for the first time in my life I am receiving. I now know how to say thank you when someone gives to me. Giving is not always tangible but it is words of affirmation and things that I cannot explain.
“Thank you for seeing me. Thank you for pouring into my life.”
And it is quite a profound experience when you look in the mirror and no longer see a young woman, but a martyr. In that is graduation.
“But you know what, Tianna?” my uncle tells me in the driveway. “I don’t spend time with people who have only experienced smooth roads. I like people that come from roads with gravel, with curves, from roads that are rugged.”
“That’s how you learn.”
Oh, to be a monarch in this metamorphosis of the motherfucking raw experience called life.
2 thoughts on “Graduation (The Cocoon that is Grief, Anger, Reframing, and Becoming)”
Tianna, your latest essay brings tears to my eyes not only for you, but for myself as well. I am a white male who spent his childhood in the Foreign Service and then had his own career at the US Information Agency and at the State Department from 1968 to 2009. Growing up in Latin America, Europe, the South Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt that all of us are worthy individuals and that each person has the potential to enrich the life of another. I brought that feeling with me into the Foreign Service, and it pains me to look back and realize that my coworkers did not necessarily share my perspective and that those who were “male, pale, and Yale” could make life miserable for those who were not. That I did not sufficiently recognize that was going on around me pains me to this day.
Tianna, your latest essay brings tears to my eyes not only for you, but for myself as well. I am a white male who spent his childhood in the Foreign Service and then had his own career at the US Information Agency and at the State Department from 1968 to 2009. Growing up in Latin America, Europe, the South Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa, I felt that all of us are worthy individuals and that each person has the potential to enrich the life of another. I brought that feeling with me into the Foreign Service, and it pains me to look back and realize that my coworkers did not necessarily share my perspective and that those who were “male, pale, and Yale” could make life miserable for those who were not. That I did not sufficiently recognize what was going on around me pains me to this day.