• Audre Lorde with color bars added. Photo by K. Kendall. Wikimedia Commons License: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Audre_Lorde.jpg

Reclamation of Self: Navigating Shame and Healing

By |2021-02-25T13:50:56-05:00February 22nd, 2021|Opinions, Viewpoints|

I am because we are. I come from a lineage of mothers – Black mothers, strong mothers. Mothers that have made a proverbial way out of no way. Mothers that have stared down the barrel of structural racism, misogynoir and colorism.
When I asked my 90-year-old grandmother, “Are you satisfied with your life?” she empathically replied, “Yes! I’m the reason you’re here.” Undeniably, in the literal sense, had she not given birth to my mother I would not have been born. I had a feeling that there was deeper meaning to her proclamation of satisfaction, and, being the curious person I am, I probed for more.
She continued, “Everything that I’ve done has made it possible for you to be where you are and who you are.”
Again, undeniably so. I sat with the decades of decisions, sacrifices, pride and joys in her voice. Knowing only a fraction of what it took from my lineage of mothers for me to be who I am today. I give thanks to them all and give my adoration to Rosie Harland — the matriarch of my family.
As far back as I know, acknowledging there is so much I do not know, my maternal lineage has its roots in Alabama. I do know that my grandmother was a sharecropper, forced to discontinue her education in order to pick cotton, okra, sugar cane and more so that her mother could care for the other children. She recounts being in the fields until moonlight and fireflies guided her back home. Having not experienced this firsthand, it was easy to romanticize how beautiful it must have been to be able to see the stars and the flickering of moonlight. Yet, she reminded me of the terror and tragedy of the conditions with a quick rebuttal, “I was 6!”
With her laboring hands, she saved enough money to change her conditions. Her journey led her to Detroit with her children.

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
— Ancestor, Audre Lorde

I grew up mostly on the west side of Detroit — a city that has been majority Black since I was born, and it too stares down the barrel of systemic oppression. My experiences are rooted in the culture of Detroit — a culture of community and fighting for liberation. I grew up in the aftermath of Reagan’s war on drugs coupled with massive job loss and industry cuts — I witnessed in my childhood the political criminalization of my community. During high school, I fought against privatization of public education and helped organize student voices to fight for our schools and our city. During this time, I was also quietly navigating shame and fear around my sexuality.
I do not intend to tell my coming out story, rather the story of how I realized “the personal is political.”
Though the feminist theory is critiqued for focusing on personal issues rather than systemic issues, it summarizes that the parts make the whole and it illuminates the personal impact of systemic issues. I was terrified of the potential violence, abandonment and impact that my attractionality and sexuality may have had on my livelihood, which, in turn, impacted my mental health.
Navigating shame around marginalized identities is deeply individual and also collective. The messages of shame come through a myriad of channels like media and religious figures, therefore, being internalized by us all. It is the response that differs. Had it not been for the healing that started when I began to question “what is” to find out “what is true,” I would indeed have been “eaten alive.” I know what the bite of shame feels like and find it sometimes still trying to nibble away at me. Shame encourages you to turn away from your own knowing — who you are, what you deserve and how you want to show up in this world.
I have vowed to reclaim myself and my knowing! The “reclamation of self” calls for the unlearning of the mistruths I was encouraged to believe in and opening the pathway for my joy. Being joyful can feel like a tiny revolution itself. Shedding the knowledge that does not serve me in service of what makes me feel whole has undoubtedly made some people uncomfortable, even those close to me, but I owe it to my grandmother to change my conditions if they do not suit me so that one day, when I am asked, “Are you satisfied with your life?” I can empathically proclaim, “YES!”
Being myself, unapologetically, has made space for others to be their authentic selves.
Defining yourself is truly a liberating act of revolution in a world that is constantly trying to shape you for the benefit of others. The conditions that we in my lineage have lived through were not determined by us and while they have shaped us they have not defined us. I have taken the lessons in my DNA and made them into my very own tapestry.
I am the lesbian daughter of a lineage of mothers — Black mothers, strong mothers.

About the Author:

Rhiannon Chester-Bey
Rhiannon Chester-Bey is a cultural visual artist, writer and healing arts practitioner born, raised and educated in and by Detroit. She is a longtime activist, advocate and contributor in the Detroit LGBTQ+ community. Headshot photo credit to Nick Hagen.