He was trusted to listen in on some of the most confidential conversations between some of the most powerful men in the world.
Cecil Gaines was also a black man, born into slavery on a cotton plantation to slave parents, who went on to become head butler at the White House.
He is also the fictional character central to the film The Butler.
I recently watched the film and I bawled. I mean gut-wrenching crying.
I cried in a way that initially seemed irrational.
It’s not the saddest film when it comes to the black slave/domestic help narrative and the scenes are nowhere near as graphic or harrowing as those in films such as 12 Years A Slave, yet I wept almost as much.
There was one scene in particular that set me off.
Cecil requests a few minutes of his white superior’s time to express his concern about the salary inequality between the black and white staff and the non-existent opportunities for progression for the black staff.
As you can imagine, considering this was at a time when black people were still unable to vote, he was told that if he didn’t like it, he could look for alternative employment.
No surprise there.
So why was I so affected by it?
Because in that moment, in the manner Cecil was dealt with, I felt the humiliation and dehumanisation that many black people have had to experience solely due to the colour of their skin.
I felt the pain that my ancestors endured.
I recognised that I too had felt this way on more than one occasion and too many times I had not allowed myself to acknowledge what had been done to me. I just swallowed it in the same way Cecil had to.
I invalidated my feelings. I didn’t speak up. And my silence made me complicit in my own dehumanisation.
“Silence is consent. And silence where life and liberty is at stake, where by a timely protest we could stay the destoyer’s hand, and do not do so, is as criminal as giving actual aid to the oppressor, for it answers his purpose …” – Ernestine Rose
Despite it being a film, in that moment, I felt a piece of Cecil’s spirit break and I heard his soul weep.
And I sobbed.
It dawned on me, that I have deep wounds that are not my own – and yet they are.
The open wounds of slavery are so deeply engrained that the dull ache, which is almost constant, mostly goes unnoticed, yet affects almost every aspect of my life.
There are people who say that slavery happened so long ago that we should get over it and move on, but how do you get over such long-term trauma without any intervention?
If a person loses a loved one or is sexually assaulted, they are encouraged to go to counselling. It is acknowledged that they have suffered something traumatic and the way to heal from it, is through some form of therapy.
So when you and your family have had centuries of oppression inflicted upon you how do you just get on with it?
Especially, when the emotions you feel and the consequences are dismissed.
It took me a long time to watch The Butler because I was tired of the slave narrative. It has become too painful and emotionally draining, especially with everything else happening in the world.
But at the same time, I do feel it is important that our stories are still told.
It is vital that what happened to us as a race is not simply swept under the carpet, dissolved into history and forgotten, without proper acknowledgement and condemnation.
We also need to heal.
We cannot continue to relive the reality of our ancestors without mental, emotional and spiritual tools to support our healing process.
Our challenge is greater because we are still being oppressed, so not only are we carrying the wounds of our ancestors, we are still dealing with the daily attempts to dehumanise black people (as well as other marginalised groups).
Every day I am thankful that I was born into this society and that being a slave or living through legal segregation is not my reality.
However, as black women, we still have similar concerns to those who were in the fields picking cotton decades ago.
I still worry about my young male cousins whenever they are anywhere other than at home.
When I hear about a stabbing or shooting, I immediately listen for the name and pray it is not someone I love or know.
My heart sinks every time I see a hashtag or police brutality story trending.
I get angry and frustrated when I see the complete lack of respect for black women.
My natural features are still openly criticised in society, and to my face, and I am always uncertain about whether my skin or hair could affect my chances of employment.
I could go on, but my point is that although the physical conditions in the UK and US are thankfully nowhere near as oppressive as years gone by, the level of inequality is still high.
I am so deeply hurt not only by slavery but the continuous oppression of black people, yet I don’t feel as though I am allowed to be.
Even in writing and publishing this post, I worry about offending others, making people feel uncomfortable, seeming overly sensitive and damaging my professional reputation.
But I feel how I feel.
My brain just cannot comprehend how slavery or the negative narrative about black people was allowed to happen or how people are still trying to justify, excuse or explain it.
If I’m honest, my heart hurts and it often brings me to tears when I think about it.
I think about what black women had to deal with and it sickens me.
I have an underlying sadness that never leaves and I don’t think it ever will.
So, if you are hurting as though the pain endured by our ancestors is your own, but you cannot find a way to articulate it, or maybe you don’t even feel that you have a right to feel what you feel, this is for you.
Our feelings are valid.
We must find and use tools that not only support the healing of our “past life” wounds, but that also help us to heal from each day lived in today’s society.
There are many therapies and practices that can help you with your healing journey.
For me, journaling has been key.
A journal provides a safe and private space to express any immediate feelings. Additionally, journaling can help you to access and articulate emotions that are buried or hidden at a much deeper level.
I have been journaling since 2009 and now I cannot imagine dealing with life’s challenges, big or small, without a journal.
My journal keeps my secrets, soothes my fears, organises my thoughts and celebrates my achievements.
It helps me to maintain my mental well-being and find peace when my brain goes into overdrive, or when the pain is too intense to keep inside.
Find a practice (or combination of practices) that works for you and give yourself the time, space and permission to heal.
And finally, remember healing is not a one-time event. It is an ongoing process.
Think of it in the same way as cleaning your home. No matter how often you do it, it always needs to be done, but the more regularly you do it, the less there is to do.
What healing tools, methods or strategies do you recommend?
NB: This post was written for Black Girls Book Club.