This Is What Black Burnout Feels Like

If the American dream isn’t possible for upwardly mobile white people anymore, then what am I even striving for?

The truth is, I don’t feel like I am allowed to be tired.

My great-great-grandmother, Freelove, named after her mother’s master, was a single parent with twelve children in Lenoir, North Carolina. During the Great Depression, she cultivated a farm in her backyard so that her children wouldn’t starve. Everyone called her “Boss,” because of her rigid rules and demeanor, and my grandmother and mother were no different. I come from a long line of strong, stern, single women who did not have the luxury of ghosting on their responsibilities — if they did, people would die or suffer greatly. No breaks. No time to play. No helicopter parenting. Providing basic survival needs was the currency of black love in my family.

I enjoyed a large chunk of Anne Helen Petersen’s viral millennial burnout article and its attempt to define our current anxieties and stasis, but it wasn’t a mirror in which I saw myself reflected. An article about burnout that discussed the feelings and behaviors of a generation — my generation — didn’t include my dead black batteries.

Yes, we are all so damn tired and in debt, but that pain and exploitation are stratified across various identities, which is why we need more diverse voices in this conversation. I’m glad to see there was a broader follow-up to Petersen’s point of view. I understand that one article can’t speak for us all. Because for me, black burnout is different.

In journalist Reniqua Allen’s new book, It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America, she writes, “I wanted to explore what the world looks like to young Black Americans and what aspiration and mobility means to us. I decided to focus on Black millennials because our experiences are different, the stakes higher, and the challenges unique. Yet so many don’t understand our plight.” Allen adds that “43 percent of all American millennials are non-White. But discussion about millennials and their ideas of ‘success’ are often deeply rooted in the experiences of privileged White men and women — think more Lena Dunham than Issa Rae.”

Burnout is not a new concept; we just have a new way of describing, or rather marketing, the particular anxiety of our age.

If the stakes and obstacles to the elusive American dream are different for black millennials, then isn’t it reasonable to assume that our brand of burnout would be different, too? So many of us are weary and worn down. Burnout is not a new concept; we just have a new way of describing, or rather marketing, the particular anxiety of our age. I wonder if this zeitgeisty phenomenon — this attempt to define ourselves as the spent, frazzled generation — has become popular because white, upper-middle-class millennials aren’t accustomed to being tired all the time? Aren’t used to feeling bedraggled, as blacks and other marginalized groups have for a long time?

No matter the movement or era, being burned out has been the steady state of black people in this country for hundreds of years. There’s too much to cover, and my buffering, black millennial brain is short-circuiting the litany of inherited trauma — or should I say inherited burnout? I’m thinking about slave ships, sharecropping, the school-to-prison pipeline, a steady state of mental and physical collapse. I’m thinking of Fannie Lou Hamer — who joined the civil rights movement after a forced sterilization by a white doctor in Mississippi — declaring, “All my life I’ve been sick and tired. Now I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired,” which makes me think about Oprah Winfrey telling us that we need to vote as a duty to our ancestors at a rally for gubernatorial candidate Stacy Abrams last fall in Georgia. I'm thinking about road trips through the South when my husband and I stop at a gas station, how I don’t go in to use the restroom if there are trucks in the parking lot bearing Confederate flags. Because I am scared, I hold my piss for miles. This is what my black burnout looks like. And while Petersen’s article discusses “errand paralysis” at length and describes not being able to take her shoes to the cobbler, I clench up and freeze every time I see a cop car driving behind me. I carry a different weight that stalls me.

I grew up poor, watching my mom live paycheck to paycheck, working two, sometimes three jobs. All her uniforms blur together in my memory: IHOP, Red Lobster, Rainforest Cafe, Shoney’s… My mom was constantly worried about making rent, making a pizza last all week, making sure I had what I needed for school. When we went to a restaurant, I was trained to look at the prices — not the meals — on the menu. I grew up in scarcity, never knowing if we were financially safe. Today, I’m afraid to decline professional opportunities even when I don’t have the bandwidth or the mental capacity to take on more projects, because I’m scared that the extra gigs will stop coming.

So how does a black woman combat burnout? Black girl magic, right?! I love this phrase. I use and repeat it often. I love the song by Janelle Monáe that repeats this phrase even more. But I can’t stop honing in on that word, “magic” — the idea that black women have had to subsist on their mystical powers to persist. Black women have had to rely on wizardry to make it through this tumultuous life. We must harness magic to succeed and thrive through this bullshit. After all burnout for black millennials is not just tiresome, but deadly.

The data is bleak. Not only are we paid 61 cents for every dollar our white, male counterparts make, but our telomeres (the ends of our chromosomes, which control aging and other key biological functions) are literally shrinking due to excessive oxidative stress factors like everyday racism. According to the Study of Women's Health Across the Nation, “black women are 7.5 years biologically ‘older’ than white women.” Couple that with rising black maternal death rates, especially for black academics. If I succeed and push myself harder, I will increase my chances of fraying at the seams on a cellular level. Not only will I age faster (see: portraits of Obama before and after his presidency) and get sick faster, but I will also increase the difficulty of conceiving and then giving birth — all of this while hurtling faster to my death with more debt than any other group in American history. Burnout for white, upper-middle-class millennials might be taxing mentally, but the consequences of being overworked and underpaid while managing microaggressions toward marginalized groups damages our bodies by the minute with greater intensity.

This is how I combat black burnout. I recently ordered a Peloton bike on a payment plan. I’m on WW (formerly known as Weight Watchers) with a life coach, and I have a therapist. Self-care is privilege. It costs a lot of money to stay sane and healthy in this current sociopolitical hellscape. I bought a necklace that says “Anxiety,” which my mom already made fun of over the holidays. My mom doesn’t “believe” in therapy, which is another reason why I’m in therapy. I listen to episodes of Amanda Seales’ Small Doses and Therapy for Black Girls. I try not to feel guilty for bingeing shows on Netflix and Hulu or deep-diving into YouTube clickbait holes for escape. All of these expenses cost me roughly $500 a month, and that’s not even including my bougie-ass bath bombs that I adore from Lush. I justify these expenses by saving and making room for them in my budget, because I work on average anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week, plus travel. I’ve broken down mentally and physically in the past, and I can’t afford to let that happen again. My therapist keeps telling me that everything I want is not upstream. I want to believe her, but it continually feels like both a sprint and a marathon.

Why? Because, Jay-Z said it best: I’m a hustler, baby!

So what happens when the magic stalls out? I grind my teeth at night. I lose sleep. I stop working out. I work while my head is pounding. I develop PCOS. I cancel therapy. I can’t keep up. I stop reaching out to friends. I hustle. I grind. All I know is work, work, work, work, work, which is more a mantra than a hip-hop groove for me. My vision tunnels and my health is the first thing that gets scratched off my unconquerable to-do list.

Yet, for millennials of color, not only do we have to combat endless emails and Slack notifications, but we also get strapped with having to prove our humanity.  

My therapist explains that burnout reminds us of our humanity; exhaustion lets the body know we are not machines — we need to slow down. Yet, for millennials of color, not only do we have to combat endless emails and Slack notifications, but we also get strapped with having to prove our humanity inside and outside of the workplace and classroom, often by circumspectly navigating the tears of white women. It’s doubly (triply?) exhausting. But in all the hullabaloo about burnout, who is really allowed to take a break?

I’m afraid to ask for anything from my friends or employers because I don’t want to be seen as a diva — too difficult or demanding — a stereotype often thrown at black women for asserting their needs. But I was lucky, right? I got a writing fellowship and tenure-track job immediately after I graduated from my MFA program. Isn’t this how the American dream rewards hard work? But sometimes I feel that I have to be so grateful for everything that I can’t talk about how I’m hurting and overwhelmed. Setting boundaries while black can cost you your job or your life. If I don’t answer an email or attend a department meeting at my university, I might suffer different consequences than my white, male millennial counterparts. The sentencing is more lenient and forgiving for Brock Turners than it is for Cyntoia Browns.

What scares me now is that I’m starting to make the transition from middle-class to upper-middle-class, but most days, it still feels like I’m heading to the back of the bus: financially forward, but psychologically Rosa Parks in reverse. No matter how shitty a restaurant’s service is, I’m still compelled to tip over 20%, because I don’t want to exacerbate the stereotype that black people tip poorly. Or remember when Oprah was in Italy and worth billions, but the salesperson wouldn’t show her a $38K handbag, because she thought it was out of Oprah’s price range? Mmmhhhmm. Insert my permanent side-eye, which has been my fixed mood since birth.

Another question I’m afraid to ask myself: Am I burned out because I’m still subconsciously wanting the American dream to be true, despite the odds stacked against my skin color? Do I want to be the exceptional black person who actually makes it out of my circumstances? Or am I wanting to be something I will never be: a rich, white man — seemingly carefree, with a sizeable Roth IRA, unafraid to walk to his car at night without his keys Wolverine-d in his hands?

But if the American dream isn’t even possible for upwardly mobile white people anymore…then what the heck I am even striving for? Where do I actually see myself?

After a full day of teaching, I’m Parseltongued — I’m hissing and no one understands me. I sit in my office and stare at the Carrie Mae Weems pictures I have printed out and framed on my wall, from her famous Kitchen Table Series, a suite of photographs foregrounding Weems’ body at a dinner table. There are pictures with girlfriends, with a lover eating and reading and playing cards; another picture shows a black woman combing back her hair; there are a few stills with her daughter, too. Sometimes the woman is laughing or naked or staring back at the camera with a freighted smile and stare — a whole Toni Morrison novel in her gaze. In another picture, she’s holding herself in a chair, head in lap, with a bottle of wine and a half-filled wine glass. Still lives, splices of a black woman in pain and pleasure, alone and in community. This is the mirror in which I see my life unspooling. It’s not all bad or good, but it’s a body and a string of realities I recognize with nuance and sway.

I often think about the seeds that some black women slaves snuck with them and wove inside their braids before they were shipped like cargo during the transatlantic slave trade. They carried some sense of home, some sustenance to be planted in the future unknown soil. The seeds were carried in darkness, buried in darkness, broken underground; a new plant seeks to find light. I’m currently saving up for my first home, which will take me a few more years, and I can’t stop thinking about those seeds. I can’t stop thinking that whatever the hardship — no matter the bondage or barrier — black women have always found a way to feed themselves. ●

Tiana Clark is the author of the debut poetry collection, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), winner of the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016), selected by Afaa Michael Weaver for the 2016 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming from the New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, Oxford American, Lenny Letter, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

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