Struggle has been our lover for too long. It has become friend, temple, tomb — the one relationship that persists after all the movements, all the battles waged by Black people worldwide to get us to where we are today. It is as if struggle is our only calling, our world, our worth, our future. What we need right now is emotional justice.
Emotional justice is the remedy for the legacy of untreated trauma impacting us as a people. We’re a people of movements, movement babies — from abolition, de-segregation, civil rights, Black Power and women’s rights in the United States, to the independence movements of Ghana and Nigeria and the anti-apartheid movement of South Africa —all of the spaces where Black people battled, bled and died for freedom; for the right to breathe, vote, live; for the right of economic equity, land, self-governance. The names of some of our warriors are iconized: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Nelson Mandela and Winnie Mandela of South Africa, Wangaari Mathai of Kenya. Unknown names hold equal weight, for their work helped to build movements that created those whose names are now revered. For all of this, a price was paid. Emotional justice deals with some of that price.
The battlefields meant scars and wounds, not all of which could be tended to and healed. My father was a politician, a man who wore three-piece suits and a part in his Afro with the same passion that he bled and fought for an independent Ghana. In 1957, he was a man who cried for Africa’s first post-Colonial Black president, as many of us did in 2008 for Barack Obama, the first Black U.S. president. My father’s name is in Ghana’s history books. He tells some of his stories and some of his stories are told: About the economy, colonialism and its legacy. Some of the stories of his fellow politicians are also told. They don’t know my mother’s name, Esther Yaa Ageymang Armah. It was 1966, the night the tanks came. Ghana’s first military coup. Boy soldiers in battle fatigues and wielding guns crashed into our home and into other homes and waged war on those inside. A soldier put a gun to my mother’s head, her daughters, me included, by her side. She remembers how scared and untrained the soldier was. He pulled the trigger, stumbling as he did so. Incompetence saved my mother’s life. She never spoke of what happened. From 1966 until 1997, she was silent. We were, too. The untreated trauma of that night lingered over my family like the smell of good jolloff on a Sunday. No one spoke of the hurt, the terror, the screaming that came afterward. Silence didn’t heal the hurt. It protected the men. As poet and novelist Audre Lorde said, “Silences will come to testify against us.”
Silence from trauma, though it may have been necessary at the time, isn’t necessarily courage. Emotional justice means dealing with those hurts so they no longer impact how we treat our families, communities, nations and ourselves. Silence from untreated trauma creates walking wounded — hurt warriors moving through the world behind shields of silence, rage and meanness. They cater to that hurt and build from it, creating fragile leadership and institutions. Our wounds must be healed.
I’m a daughter of the Diaspora, born in London to Ghanaian parents, now living in New York. The histories of African-Americans, Ghanaians, Black British and Caribbean people all walk with me. The legacy from wounds sustained in the movement-battles of those histories must be tended to so the next stage of growth can occur. Untended scars create fresh wounds. Wounded people then hurt other people because they are not fully developed emotionally. That lack of emotional development impacts your sense of self, security, confidence and relationships. In leadership, it creates an emotional fragility that corrodes our institutions.
At this moment, in this time, emotional justice is the logical next step for a people whose battles have humanized nations. We’ve earned the right to heal from the untreated trauma. We owe ourselves an emotionally healthy world. Without emotional justice, short-term solutions continue, old formulas that serve a few but neglect the many flourish. Without it we continue to give away pieces of ourselves, our nations, never ensuring that the next generation can do better. Our story is not just blood, death, sacrifice, struggle, violence and pain. It’s also resistance, power, success, evolution, revolution, victory, dignity. We got here. We made it. Survival is no longer our story. Emotional justice can be.
Esther Armah is a New York radio host of Wake Up Call on WBAI 99.5FM, playwright and award-winning journalist. The ideas in this article are part of her upcoming book, Emotional Justice: A Kiss Goodbye to Struggle. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow her on Twitter@estherarmah.