Content Warnings—death by suicide, gun violence One morning a science teacher at the high school found the window of his lab smashed and a dead possum on the floor. In my memory, the teacher is all gray: gray pants…
“The Stoics” is an excerpt from Protocol (working title), a memoir about Black survival and Black success in the postintegration South. The narrative pivots on my mother’s death by suicide in 1992, nearly thirty years after the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. In those thirty years, my father, a professor of chemistry, and my mother, an office coordinator, met at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi, a hotbed of Civil Rights activism regularly visited by the likes of Medgar Evers and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. My parents married and settled in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the mid-1970s—a largely white, middle-class community with high property taxes and excellent public schools—in the hopes their children would be spared the vicious brand of racism they had known in Mississippi. “Achievement” was reduced to a simple formula: I had only to excel and make them proud. They would make possible anything I wanted to do or be as long as I held up my end of the deal.
None of us realized that my mother—even as she gushed with unfettered pride about her children—was being quietly consumed by an invisible illness. The year she succumbed at last to her depression, 1992, was, paradoxically, according to Joe Sean, a time when the suicide rate among African Americans in the United States appeared to be on the decline. A part of me believes my mother’s abandonment was an extreme intervention, her way of blowing a hole in the great American myth of meritocracy, so I would come into my womanhood with no illusions as to the struggle that lay ahead.
“The Stoics,” like much of Protocol, diffuses a single theme—in this case, the stigma around suicide loss—through memories intended to contextualize and nuance the central narrative. The narrative I chose to center in “The Stoics” was a comment I suspect many suicide survivors have heard from others or thought themselves: suicide is an act of cowardice, a personal failure, rather than the result of mental illness left untreated. By tying in related memories—the introduction of a firearm into our household, the trauma of racialized violence, and my father’s many strategies for protecting his family—and integrating research as well as the benefit of hindsight to reflect on the past, I aim to make something of a case study of my experience, a tool for exploring the how and why as well as the what. I hope this approach engages readers and allows the very personal genre of memoir to become a vehicle for a broader conversation about the social experiment known as integration and its unexpected legacy.
AMY EVANS is a writer and educator based in New York. Amy is an alumna of Hedgebrook Writers’ Residency, BRICLab Performing Arts Residency (2008 and 2015), 651 ARTS Artist Development Initiative, Kulturlabor Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Willapa Bay AiR Residency, Quest Writers’ Conference, and Interstate 73 Playwrights’ Group. Amy is currently developing a memoir, Protocol (working title), the title essay of which was joint winner of the 2020 Thornwillow Patrons’ Prize and published in October 2020. Find Amy on Instagram at @amyevans040924.