The Movement Needs Us Whole

By Aaron Talley

Movement building is an act of communal healing and collective resistance, it is not a contest, and nor should it invoke shame, guilt, or fear. Like exhaling a deep breath, at its best and most rewarding it should be liberating and cathartic, not a vehicle for over-extenuating ourselves. We must all work for our freedom and the freedom of each other in the ways that feel right for our selves. 

It has been a struggle to come to this knowledge, as I’ve been riddled with guilt about my participation in this current movement. The recent mass mobilization against police violence coincided with my first year of teaching, which has required a shift in how I devote my energy in the ongoing struggle for justice and freedom A dull and restless fatigue has saddled me over the past two years, and I’ve struggled to balance my personal well being and passions with the requirements of organizing. Single-handedly the hardest thing I’ve ever done, my first year was disorganized and my students took advantage of my inexperience. Additionally, I was contending with the disillusionment that comes with teaching, the long hours, the nonsensical bureaucratic demands, and the realities of teaching black children dealing with their own oppressions. After a student with severe emotional needs slammed my classroom door so hard that the glass broke, I found myself on the floor of my living room in tears. Teaching required an emotional, spiritual, and physical effort for which I was not prepared.

This travail was compounded by the death of my grandmother. An event that was expected, but no less jarring. I woke up from a nap to an 11pm call, and when I saw that it was from my mother I already knew. “Mama gone,” my mother said. “She gone.” Sadly, my first thought was about whether I could go to work the next day, which is nothing but a toxic byproduct of capitalism. Ignoring my own heart, I resolved that I was fine, went to sleep, crying soberly, and got into the car the next day. It was not until I turned on the radio and began crying incessantly that I texted my principal and requested the day off.

In the midst of all this, I still tried to continue my organizing efforts with the Black Youth Project 100, but I began only bringing half of myself. The movement work became a chore. The tweets, rallies, marches, and protests seemed an additional burden along with the realities of my job. The work which had previously been inebriating was now suffocating. So I detached myself and I felt guilty. Like I was standing on the sidelines as my dearest friends were making history. And writing, my first great love, was nonexistent. And try as I might, my minimal acts of self-care felt cosmetic. My lack of effort not only made me ineffectual, but it caused rifts between my fellow organizers who were counting on me to meet responsibilities. After a long while of denying the true extent of my limited capacity, I finally decided to take a break from organizing.

It has been difficult to disengage from such a salient and critical part of my life. But I am realizing that my emotional health, my needs, and my wholeness must be prioritized above all things. As Audre Lorde reminds us, self-care is not selfish but a war tactic. We must preserve ourselves if we are to be ready for any fight or any movement. I am no good to anyone tired, frustrated, and incomplete. And how many loved ones can we note that have denied themselves? Who are fighting for the freedom of everyone else, but have neglected their own responsibility to keep their minds, bodies, and souls intact? How many great leaders of our past can we lift up, who changed society while their home lives were burning down? Must movement building require the self-abnegation that an oppressive society thrives on?

I am not perfect, but I do spend a great deal of my life advocating for others. The lives of my students, the lives of my people, and using my writing to help make the lives of others feel less lonely and more possible. I must make room for myself. We all have to do what we need to do in order to make sure that we are self-actualized and capable of continuing this fight. 

I am learning that how we participate in a movement is our choice, and all our efforts are needed. There are days when we will have the capacity to build in the streets, marching, chanting, or doing the slow and rigorous work of organizing, and there will be days when we need to rest, to take a bubble bath, to write, to be with friends and family. We do not need to destroy ourselves in the process of bringing the reality of freedom to fruition. Nor should we invest our emotional energy into policing how people fight for change, or deeming certain types of movement work more authentic and needed than others.

I am at the end of the second month of my second year of teaching. My classroom, due to my efforts, has congealed into normalcy. I enjoy going to work now. And while it is no less taxing, I have re-shifted my energies to deal with the challenges. I feel lighter. For Halloween one of my students dressed up as Dr. King because, as he said, “I want to fight for the rights of my people!” I have a responsibility to make sure that this student, and all my students have the ability to envision their futures. My students need me whole, the movement needs me whole, and I need me whole.