Brown Girls Don’t Get to be Sad

Key Ballah

Key Ballah

“Brown girls don’t get to be sad,” she said, her face marked by disgust and disbelief.

I put my head head down, looking at my hands, too ashamed to make eye contact with her again. She was a woman who was beautiful, but not pretty: strong jaw, long, thick jet black hair falling loose over her shoulders, eyes so dark you wondered what might be lurking in them, skin deep and rich like sweet dates. She wasn’t a small woman by any means – tall and full, her delicate green and gold sari juxtaposed the boldness of her outlines.

When she got onto the southbound train heading for downtown, everyone stared at her. She was the kind of person you want to understand as soon as you see her, she draws you in simply by existing. You find yourself wondering where she is coming from and where she is going.

I watched her scan the train for a place to sit. I remember wondering how old she was. She could have reasonably been anywhere between the ages of 30 and 50. When she chose to sit beside me I was almost flattered. I am a person who makes a habit of avoiding most people most of the time, but when I saw her I wanted to be close to her. I wanted to touch the intricate and ornate deep green sari slung over her shoulder. I wanted to touch her thick hair, each strand reminding me of a vine.

She sat beside me, smiling with perfect white teeth. When she spoke, her voice was husky and deep, like it was tempting you to her, like she might at any moment break out into a silky blues ballad. I had always wanted a voice like that. I remember being a preteen and wanting to be sultry and mysterious in the mirror.

“Salaam ‘alaykum,” she said, turning to me.

“W’alaykum asalaam,” I replied.

“How are you sister?” she asked, jutting her had out, indicating that this chance meeting should be consummated with a handshake.

I reached out and took her hand into mine, her skin wasn’t soft, but it was tender. She smelled of almond oil.

I thought for a moment, unsure as to whether it was better to lie and say, “Alhamdulillah, I’m fine,” or if this woman was to be a friend who could listen and hold my truths for me. It is not often that we women share our truths like this, on a city bus or train or in a grocery store. Often we’re struggling with the complexities of our own selves but are unable to really name them for ourselves. But on that day, this woman felt like a woman I could not lie to, and that was why I told a stranger my sadness.

“I’m sad I think. I mean, I’m not sure but today it was difficult to get out of bed. Actually, most days it’s difficult. Last week I called into work three times because I was afraid that I’d have an anxiety attack at work,” I confided.

“Today, I was walking to the bus stop and I had to stop and lean against a fence for fifteen minutes because the thought of sitting next to someone on the bus made me feel nauseous. I can’t stop crying. I hadn’t cried in almost three years, and then, the other day, BAM!, out of nowhere while typing up an essay on mitochondria. I know there is something wrong with me, I just don’t know what to do. I’m sad all of the time.”

She sat for a moment looking at me.

I watched her smile fade and confusion appear in its place. Then I watched the confusion fade and disgust appear, before the disgust turned into pity.

Shame crept into my skin. I wanted to facepalm myself into oblivion. What did I expect? It was a truth I could barely admit to myself, and here I was discussing it with a stranger.

I wondered If I had committed a violence against her. I had not thought of her triggers or her ability to absorb and hear everything I said. I questioned my intentions. Was I selfish? I began to apologize, when she interrupted.

“You know, brown girls don’t get sad. We aren’t supposed to. Sadness is for white women whose husbands sleep with the maid. We are the maid. Sadness isn’t for us. We are too busy for it. We don’t have time to be sad and small like mice.

This country will beat that out of your brown skin quick quick. See, your generation has it easy. You think you have time to call in sick to work because you want to stay home all day and cry. Cry about what? You have food? You have legs? You’re pretty? You have a job?

Still sad? Get married. When you have a husband you’ll be too busy taking care of him to be sad. Have children. Don’t fall into this white people’s trap of sadness and depression. May Allah forgive you.”

With that, she got up and moved to another section of the train away from me. Everyone watched, their eyes searching me, wondering what I could have done to upset her into leaving. All secretly hoping that she would sit next to them and give them a chance instead.

I waited for the onset of an anxiety attack. I braced myself. Placed my backpack on my lap and held it tight to my chest, crossed my legs at the ankles, locked my fingers and buried my face into the top of my backpack.

I waited for it, but it never came.

And all I could think was, “If brown girls don’t get to be sad, who does?”

When my stop came I contemplated apologizing to her before I disembarked, but the doors of the train don’t wait for sad brown girl apologies.

Read more by Key, here.

Key Ballah is a Toronto-based writer and Hip Hop enthusiast. She is the author of the poetry collection, ‘Preparing My Daughter For Rain‘, she melts faith, love and her experiences of being a woman of colour navigating the western world in her writing. She believes in empowering the brown girl to reclaim her selves and her body, by connecting and healing collectively, over borders, oceans and time zones, through story telling and poetry. She is currently working on a new project due out this autumn.
contact her via email:
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6 Comments on “Brown Girls Don’t Get to be Sad”

  1. nina says:

    If anyone should have been apologizing in this story, it should’ve been that woman and not you. I don’t disagree with the message she conveyed (being thankful for what you’ve got, taking the steps to remove yourself from the source of sadness), however the manner in which she conveyed it came across as rude and judgemental. You never invited her to sit with you, she approached you herself. Each one of us is fighting a different battle everyday, and with her leaving your side to move to another seat (she should’ve been well aware that it her move would give the onlookers something to stare about) she just acted like she never does.

  2. richpoorgrad says:

    I agree with Nina. She should apologize to you, and maybe she will one day experience the emptiness of distraction through setting up her life to revolve around a fully capable man. Maybe on that day she will reflect and realize the immaturity of her reaction to another human being’s plight for understanding. I’m kind of sad for her to think that seeking a deeper understanding oneself is not a viable option for women.

    It is easy to say be thankful and distract yourself, it’s harder to do it when the sadness and depression are real and happening.

    If brown girls don’t get sad and depression is a Caucasian construct, then why do so many people of all colours commit suicide?

    I’m 1st gen Chinese-Canadian and East Asian cultures also are strongly adverse to discussing mental health and depression. I tried to tell others about my depression, and got the same rejection. Fortunately, I’m a health researcher and know better than to believe others who tell me this is a made up white problem. This source of denial is so harmful, and by denying real help to people who are seeking it, societies are holding us back from achieving our maximal potential.

    How you feel is real, and people of ALL colours and faiths experience it. If someone won’t help you, know that someone else will. You are not alone.

  3. Jiya says:

    sending you lots of love. Thank you for writing this, I can’t tell you how many of us brown girls with depression or other mental illnesses can relate… my heart feels so heavy typing this, but thank you, thank you ❤

  4. Vera Njambi says:

    Reblogged this on A Bundle of Contradictions and commented:
    “If brown girls don’t get to be sad, who does?”

  5. Kari says:

    First of all, its okay to be sad. Sometimes when our inner soul is not in alignment with our outer self for what ever reason, there’s this unease that we feel. So don’t be ashamed of your emotions, it’s perfectly normal to feel like that. Being a twenty something brown girl living in the US I may not know the exact cause of your sadness but think understand your position.

    It’s hard being a brown girl, it really is. Yes I may have food on the table, roof over my head and clothes on by back and am very grateful for that, I truly am. But that doesn’t mean I don’t face any challenges. I face ethical, cultural, emotional, physical challenges everyday. I am not discounting the challenges a male may face, just sharing my own. One of the most common challenges we face is balancing the expectations in our personal and professional lives.

    Traditionally we are expected to accept, give in or compromise in such relationships. That’s what all the brown aunties boast upon. Because if we don’t we will be that sister who never got married, is divorced or married outside of religion and is the black sheep in the society. And who wants to be that person?

    We live in a very judgmental society and there are challenges to reach to happiness. When we try to forcefully comply to society because we all want to be good citizens in the community, we feel sad. I am not asking you to be a rebel but realize that you can be amazing without being perfect.

    So my request to you sister is to do a little soul searching and find out what’s bothering you? It’s okay not to be proud of your findings. But its not okay to torment yourself like this. Nothing good comes out of it. No need to be upset at the other passenger. Everyone is entitled to their opinion so is she. The way I looked at it, she was trying to be polite, you were honest, she shared her view and then left. She is has a point of view and is content with it, nothing wrong with that. Don’t let her words of action or words make you feel worse. We life in a world with people with different views and that’s okay, that’s normal.

    I really hope you overcome your sadness and find happiness. Happiness is an inside job but I agree it’s nice to get a little help from the outside once in a while!

  6. Tim McEown says:

    Sadness isn’t a privilege to be given or taken away. It is simply as human as breathing. To wallow in it or make it who we are is perhaps a small sin. To deny others their own sadness is monstrous and not to be tolerated.