“What We Do in the Streets Is a Way of Grieving”

On the fourth anniversary of the Black Lives Matter uprisings, author Prentis Hemphill offers a new way of looking at things, and what’s next.


Four years after George Floyd’s murder, I realized that I simply do not have it in me to write another piece about Black pain, patterns and cycles of violent racism, and the endless trauma that continues to course through our bodies and bloodlines. I’ve literally written hundreds of them. I’m tired. And it feels like nothing ever changes. 

But years ago, I asked the late civil rights activist Julian Bond how he managed to stay hopeful in the face of what often feels like little progress. He said, “There are enough victories to keep hope alive, and that’s what activism is.” And so I keep looking for the victories, which lately has meant having conversations with folks, particularly younger folks, who are deep in the work with fresh eyes, bright minds, and open hearts. Prentis Hemphill is one of those folks, one who, right on time, has a new book out called What it Takes to Heal: How Transforming Ourselves Can Change the World. The author, therapist, and organizer spoke with me about the power of collective grief, finding the small openings of possibility, and the necessity of visual longing.     

Rebecca Carroll: Your book begins, “When Trayvon Martin was killed, I had just started working at a community mental health clinic in Los Angeles, one of three Black therapists on a staff of nearly fifty.” How do you hold the grace to write about the fact of yet another Black body being killed?

Prentis Hemphill: The only way is by being in community that can feel, and grieve, and strategize, and celebrate. That’s the only thing that actually sustains me. I can only face things because I’m held, and because I’m also holding. Every time someone in our community is killed in this way, it reverberates. We have memories of people in our communities that were killed that way, people in our families that were killed that way. The ongoing violence against Black people, it reverberates through all of our grief and all of our pain. Even though we as a people have made it this far because we reach for each other, I think we also try to—and have to—shoulder more than is ours to bear. 

I was just having a conversation with a dear friend and organizer, Malkia Devich-Cyril, about how our grief has been criminalized and that part of what we do in the streets is a way of grieving. But because of what is projected onto us as Black people, our actions are never read as grief rituals; they are often labeled as violent, disruptive, inconvenient. 

By “what we do in the streets,” I take that to mean being collectively loud, actively creating movement culture, and just being Black—does it matter whether we know that we are simultaneously grieving?

Protestors in the summer of 2020 marching through New York City. (via Getty Images)

That’s a great question. Having been at a lot of protests and on the ground in so many different places over the last 15 years, I think a lot of people know that their grief is present. But there’s the connective piece—the collectivizing of the experience of “I feel this pain”—that we don’t talk about. We know it’s our grief, but we also narrow it, because that’s what we’ve had to do to get by. I am interested in starting to unlock how [our grief] can be bigger, because that’s the truth of what we’re holding.

You wrote about not being able to know how Harriet Tubman learned to trust her dreams. How did you learn to trust your dreams?

I always felt entitled to my life, to an authentic life. I always felt like, if God made me, then I’m all right. I can see the way that human beings create rankings and structures to take you away from the truth of it all, but there was always something in me that wasn’t confused. I would like to say I was just born with that, but I can feel my grandmother in it, I can feel my great-grandmother in it—[this notion] that the world is telling one story, and I feel something truer. I think it means a lonely path for a lot of people who refuse to dim their light. Sometimes, we have to dim our lights for the sake of safety, but for the most part, I cultivate that light in me. I think life wants to express itself.

There’s this one really striking line from the book: “It’s hard to heal when you’re still being hurt.” How do we lead our way through healing while we’re still being hurt in all ways?

When we get hurt or experience trauma, when we don’t have space to process it, some part of us gets locked in that moment, and we’re replaying and responding to it all the time. When I work with people, [what makes a difference is] the recognition that in each moment, there is a choice. It may not be an ideal choice, but when our stories hold us captive, we’re no longer able to perceive the choices in this moment. It’s the work of finding the very small openings where something else might be possible. That’s a part of healing. That’s what Harriet Tubman was able to do. She was like, “You have me in this world, but now, I can see that there’s a little opening here. I can see a friend here. I can see a path here.” 

It feels like we’re talking about trauma on a national level in ways that we haven’t before—what do you think is on the other side of that conversation?

I’m curious about trauma as a human phenomenon—and knowing this, how then do we structure our societies, our communities? What would we do if we knew that healing was important? I bet we would construct the world in a different way, and it wouldn’t be based as much on exploitative and violent tendencies which we’ve normalized at this point. I’d rather we normalize something else.

In the book, you wrote that visions are rooted in longing—can you say more about that?

I’m not a real churchy person, but “faith without works is dead” is something my grandmother would say all the time. We get sold visions for our lives, sold visions for who we are supposed to be. It’s necessary for us to reactivate that kind of looking around that, again, Harriet Tubman was able to do—looking through the cracks, looking underneath, and activating our own strangeness. No matter what happens tomorrow, we are facing compounding, complex crises. I hope that [my book] is a tool, something that accompanies people through the changes and challenges I think we’re all facing.

My name is Prentis, which means student. I feel like my role is to tenderly offer the questions that I feel need to be posed in this moment. I don’t position myself as an authority. I position myself as someone who is learning, someone whose role in community is to pose questions—and to keep us close as we try to answer them.