“Pain is important: how we evade it, how we succumb to it, how we deal with it, how we transcend it.” —Audre Lorde
I’ll never forget Valentine’s Day my sophomore year in high school. My social status had been uplifted from chubby black kid to chubby black kid who does sports. And with my freshly minted uniform, I inhaled a whiff of life within the rankings of school athletes, which lifted the veil of my former status as a social pariah.
With this elevation in culture came the attention of one of the school’s most popular cheerleaders; let’s call her Shirley. Once Shirley learned that I was an athlete for the school, we instantly began to connect. She gave me her phone number, we hung out whenever all the athletes did, we did homework together (well, I did the homework and she observed), and I was beginning to feel like we had a real chance at love. So as Valentine’s Day approached, I planned to declare my love for her during lunch for the whole world, including all the people of color who had the same lunch period I had, to see.
After purchasing a $20 necklace from Claire’s, a 2-foot teddy bear, roses and chocolates the night before, I barged into our lunch period with all the confidence of Muhammad Ali in the “Rumble in the Jungle.” I marched to the table with gifts in hands, moved her friends’ lunches out of the way, climbed on top of the table, and proceeded to stop time as I read my poem to her and then asked her to be my girlfriend. After a few moments of palpable silence, probably due to shock, Shirley firmly looked into my eyes, and as my heart pulsed wildly in her hands, she crushed it and said, “What is wrong with you, Jonathan?! I have a boyfriend!”
In that moment, as the deafening shrills of laughter shook the foundation of the cafeteria, I felt that I had hit rock bottom. I was in so much pain, I was numb. Up until that point, I thought that being an athlete would get Shirley to notice me. I thought that although she had ignored me all freshman year, maybe now she would cherish me. I thought that buying her things would make her value me. I even thought that the academic labor I contributed could appeal to her. But it didn’t. She just didn’t like me. And to grapple with that realization was painful.
Though my adolescent trials are not worthy of being compared to the institutional and systemic issues facing this nation writ large, I would dare say that a similar sense of pain and loss was something many of us felt at 3:30 a.m. Nov. 9, 2016, when most, if not all, major news outlets confirmed who the next president of the United States of America would be.
In that moment, for some of us it wasn’t just the weight of a nation whose past is riddled with disenfranchisement and violence against the poor and marginalized denying us, but that America did it out loud, in the lunchroom, for every one to behold. No more covert discrimination, racialized crime bills and dog whistle policies, but brash racism, sexism, xenophobia and bigotry for the world to see.
That moment hurt, and it still does. And right now is a ripe opportunity for all of us to breathe, smell and taste what this pain feels like so it is etched into our memories. So we do not forget that we need not vie for the gaze of those who tell us that our lives don’t matter. So we don’t forget that executive orders cannot keep people from willfully neglecting our existence. So we don’t forget how consistently the labor of poor and marginalized communities goes overlooked, unappreciated and underpaid.
I believe that this is not a moment when we can ignore the pain or paint broad strokes of colorblind “peace” in the name of a pseudo unity that further marginalizes and erases those most affected by our current state of affairs. This pain is real, this pain is deep, and we have to sit with it. We have to grieve. And although the rallying cries such as #NotMyPresident are valid calls of opposition to the blatant racist, sexist, xenophobic, elitist, ableist and bigoted platform of the president-elect, we must wrestle with the reality of who the president-elect of America is and the work that will be necessary for the cause of freedom and justice in the days to come.
So in this space, cry, pray, grieve and take time for self-care, but never forget the pain. Because when we understand our collective pain, that is the moment we can begin to transcend it.
Jonathan Butler is an activist, follower of Jesus and a self-proclaimed blerd. When he isn’t writing, he’s adding to his personal collection of books and obscure quotes from his favorite authors. He enjoys writing about human rights and foreign policy while enjoying herbal tea and all things Harry Potter.