From Hannah Black’s “Crazy in love” in The New Inquiry.
B was not my first encounter with paranoid thought. In my father’s house, intense young men pontificated at length about white devils and black ancestors. The symbolism and codes of this strand of black radicalism make up an elaborate structure of thought that is partly a mocking parody of academic “paranoid readings,” and partly a serious effort to interpret a world, this world, that appears from the perspective of blackness as formally insane. The everyday beliefs and activities of what we could call white supremacist capitalism, or perhaps less precisely life as we know it, are all, from this perspective, more deeply disturbing than the craziest fantasy you’ll find on a high-security ward. But how is a person supposed to live this knowledge? Unlike me, B was quiet, absorbing everything. Could a white-passing boy even picture the black world that animated his father’s dreams? By the time they all settled down to a quieter middle age, we had spent years steeped in this atmosphere of pain and conspiracy.
In psychosis, no event or thing is small enough to escape the tightly woven net of personal significance. A clock means a bomb, a sunset is a message, and so on. But how do you live in a world in which everything signifies? How do others who live in this shimmering, terrifying world treat you? One time B was found cowering in the restroom at a café, too afraid to leave, and was arrested. Just as much as they are implacably hostile to blackness, for reasons both mysterious and self-evident, the police are also structurally fated to hate the mad. Arrests, harassment, and lucky escapes punctuated the acute phases of B’s illness. Now, every so often, another story of police hurting or killing a mentally ill person surfaces, and I am momentarily gripped by the kind of intense, helpless pain that must be what people mean when they talk about being triggered. Still, it’s important to not overindulge in other people’s trouble, even where it affirms your own. The duty of a crazy person’s friends and family is far more practical: Our duty is to appear, as much as possible, not crazy, so that our loved one will be allowed to live.
We had to act a certain way in the hospitals, to show the doctors that B was not trash. I would put on the smooth neutral suit of sanity, which is smiling politely, listening carefully, and in all ways acting as bourgeois as possible. Those times when my mother forgot her armor, when she begged and cried, I saw how the doctors looked at her, as if she were the really crazy one. But B too knew how to put on the smooth and neutral suit; he knew how to answer the doctors’ questions with enough of an appearance of sanity to escape imprisonment, even when he was in desperate need of help. In an emergency ward, my mother cries and B shouts. We would be a spectacle if anyone cared. I adjust my dress and smooth down my hair, momentarily wishing myself whiter so as to be better able to resist the implications of the doctor’s sneer, which is on the verge of becoming impossible to ignore. I see we are all in danger of falling out of the hole in the skin of the world. Come on let’s go, let’s just leave. I remember my mother crying in the car but I don’t remember what we did next.
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