Healing is Essential to Liberation

By Mayowa Sanusi, former Research Associate. The article below originally appeared on Medium.com on 6/13/2021, reprinted and lightly edited with permission from the author.

As I learn more about the teachings of Black feminists like bell hooks and Audre Lorde, I see the importance of healing to the liberation — freedom of oppression and constant presence of self-determination — of Black and other persecuted peoples. I define healing in the Black liberatory context as the intentional process of reconciling internalized trauma and conflict to position oneself physically, mentally, and spiritually to address continuing challenges in daily life, especially those brought on by varying forms of oppression. Healing is also a liberatory political practice — the politics of emancipation, self-determination, dignity, participation, and equality — for all. Lastly, healing can happen in solitude or community. In the Black community, healing is something that is talked about, sometimes, but infrequently put into practice. We talk about the constant trauma that we face on a physical, mental, and spiritual level, but not often enough do we make time to seek out healing and peace. I think this is largely because we never have an opportunity to heal. We are constantly having to function in “survival mode” because of the constant obstacles we face in society. If you are someone like me, when you do seek out healing, it is to heal others and not yourself. It is important to realize that before we can truly heal others, we ourselves must undergo a critical examination of self to understand how trauma in our lives has affected us. We must find the source of that trauma and undergo a long, constant, and intentional process of healing.

In just the last year, I have faced regular trauma from the death of loved ones to the constant reliving of Black death portrayed in the media. Even the work I do on a regular basis, though satisfying, can be traumatizing. To constantly see the inequities in the Black community and have those around you settle for comfort at the expense of liberation is a traumatizing experience I undergo every day. To circumvent this trauma, I have begun an intentional process of healing where I center myself and my needs before overextending myself to others. Some may see this as selfish, but I have realized that the best way for me to help others is to heal myself. When we undergo a process of healing, we can see clearer. Our bodies become lighter, our minds sharper, and our spirits lifted. When we undergo healing, we are more equipped to help others heal since we are going through the process. We can speak from places of love and light more fully instead of just places of trauma and despair.

I used to believe that my only motivation for the liberatory fight was trauma. I found that with every traumatic event — the death of an uncle from diabetes, the death of a friend by police brutality, the death of another uncle from crime, and the death of a brother from sickle cell — I was motivated to address injustice and make sure that others did not have to go through the same suffering that I had to endure. I found that I constantly turned my pain into my strength, but one day, I realized an important lesson. In the act of me turning my pain into strength, I forgot to do the most important thing—heal. I forgot to process the trauma I was feeling and truly heal from it. I jumped right into fighting injustice without healing my mind, soul, and body first. In doing this, I suffered. Over time, my mind, body, and spirit were weakened, and eventually this would lead to massive burnout. I believe that the reason I did not take the time to heal is because like other Black people, trauma and controversy are things I face constantly. Part of me normalized this trauma without even thinking about the effects that it had on my body, mind, and spirit. It took some time, but eventually, I took it upon myself to do the deep introspective work required to heal. As I continually go through this process of healing, I have found another motivation for the work that sits beside my pain—the motivation to heal others. This motivation is purer in the sense that it comes directly from a place of love. This motivation, unattached to trauma, has allowed me to see things differently, and I have been able to bring more of my full self to my anti-oppressive work. I feel that with my mind, body, and spirit being healed, I am more equipped to help others in this constant struggle for liberation.

When I say that healing is the essential to liberation, I mean that we cannot ignore the role healing has to play in the revolutionary battle for liberation. Even if systems of oppression are brought down, what does it mean if the people that are oppressed are not healed? Can we truly say that we are liberated if we are not healed? Can we maintain the fight for liberation without healing? My answer would be no, and the sooner we see healing as an act of resistance and a part of the battle for liberation, the sooner we as oppressed people can walk around and truly say that we are free. Before I thought that the greatest motivation came from a place of trauma and pain. Now I know better. I know the motivation can come not only from the desire to tear down oppressive systems, but also the desire to build community and help others heal from the trauma that holds them down in dark places. I know that motivation can come from a place of healing and love.

There’s one last point to make clear—no one is ever fully healed. Like a scar left from a cut, trauma remains, but the scar still provides value. It serves as a reminder of where we have been, and the strength it has taken to persevere.

Mayowa Sanusi is a Research Associate and the co-chair of the Equity and Inclusion Committee at HRiA. As of August 2021, he will transition into a new role as manager of success measures evaluation services at Neighborworks America in Washington, D.C. HRiA is incredibly grateful for his many contributions during his tenure with us and wishes him all the best in his professional and personal endeavors.