Under the Overpass: Activist Burnout

Under the Overpass focuses on politics, current events, and social commentary from a black, crunchy, granola perspective. Myshell chooses the topics. Michael writes the commentary. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the writer and not endorsed by myshelltabu.com or its owners.

You have just walked under the overpass and, down here, some of the sickest healers, are the sickest healers. Some who do the most work, are the most unwell, most worn out.

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, the stimulating mix of brilliant intellectualism and concrete activism spoke to me. Brainy idealism meets pragmatic organizing. This was something I could feel. Be a part of. Believe in.

The campaigns, the rallies, the Big Brother programs, the activist art gave me an arena to put my heart into action. Make love a verb. I learned this from my mentors.

The older activists in our circle were both larger than life and the people who sent me on Blue Mountain Jamaican rum runs to lubricate talk of life and politics. They saw me as a sincere younger colleague. I saw them as a roadmap. They were slowly creating a new life arc for me. Without really trying. They were just living their lives by their convictions. I just happened to be there to watch. My two main mentors were the great poet and activist June Jordan and the legendary literary critic and activist Barbara Christian. Theirs souls are light now as they were when their bodies were alive. It’s emotional to even type their names now. They lived their love for justice out-loud and I listened very closely. Learned. Then began to recite chapter and verse through my own activism.

I can still recall the day that I called my mother after class to inform her that her baby wasn’t gonna have that corner office in the sky. No Brooks Brothers auction block for me. The expletives that left her mouth were a new experience. This Southern woman, of Southern manners, put some Miles Davis in her MFs.

I could not be swayed. I was smitten. Learning about myself and the world had made me want to think for myself about the world and my place in it. I was rolling with the people who wanted to leave the planet better than when they arrived. Folk who wanted to do something to help people help themselves. Activists down for the get down.

It wasn’t just professors Jordan and Christian. Berkeley’s bench went deep. I still have not encountered another squad of committed activists with as many numbers as Berkeley. Although I would stack my undergraduate education against anyone, I actually learned more out of class than I did in class. One cautionary teaching: heal yourself as you help others heal themselves.

It would take more than the digits on my fingers and toes to name the people I personally saw burn out in the beautiful struggle. Good people who got tired of engaging the bad that the world can put out. People exhausted from giving to causes and people who were often indifferent. Or simply didn’t want a bleeding heart cramping their dysfunction. Underpaid activist who were worn down by the crises in their own lives, as they dove head-first into global crises. Organizers who got sick of the misogyny and post-rally booty calls. Community leaders who medicated on alcohol and the praise of others. So many gone when we needed them most.

My college experience convinced me that activists have to work as hard at building our internal infrastructure as we do at building external infrastructures on the planet. We have to make the time to do what Michel Foucault would call engaging in technologies of the self. Find ways to undergird the spirits that place these worker-bee bodies into action. I agree with Foucault that art, culture and the sensorium are edifying technologies, but I would add a heavy dose of some type of consistent spiritual practice (art, culture and sensorium can certainly play a role in spirituality). Spiritual practice in the broadest possible sense: some practice that uplifts the spirit. Daily. Life happens every day, so it behooves activists to have a daily practice. We give so much of ourselves that not to give to ourselves is foolish and irresponsible. For Black activists in particular.

In my life time, this era marks the most challenging time for the African American community. From self-inflicted urban violence to cop propelled bullets to the roll back of civil rights to the prison industrial complex to HIV-infection rates to crack’s stubborn refusal to disappear to failing schools to the rise in suicide rates to Clarence Thomas, Black people are catching major hell. We need all hands on deck. When activists don’t take care of themselves, we let our communities down when they need us most. Like so many before us, we will fall if we don’t build our internal infrastructures daily.

Maybe you need to go back to Jesus. If Jesus is working for you, don’t let your Marxist homies negative-dialectical you out of a healing.

Others need to find something new. Something that wasn’t passed down from their families. The work is in figuring out what it is. Yoga, running, meditation, Tai Chi, Tantric sex, ocean-swimming, art making. Do something. But we first we have to figure out what that something is. And do it. Daily. A beautiful ritual but it doesn’t have to be a beautiful struggle. It can simply be a beautiful healing, here, under the overpass.

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