After hearing that Sandra Bland “committed suicide,” I meet every accusation that followed with unapologetic speculation. News of Cheslie Kryst’s untimely death, however, brought my mind to the ambiguous ending of Nella Larson’s Passing. The novel’s final scene leaves readers to inquire whether a beautiful corpse along the city sidewalk met her end by push or fall. These inquiries reflect the complexities of a friendship across the color line. Yet, the ending sentiment also demonstrates the ambivalence of being black in America and subject to fictions constantly relayed as fact.
Nevertheless, beyond the intrinsic speculation that it engendered, Kryst’s earthly departure yields a notable discourse on race and the illusion of progress.
Before I continue, due to the ways of the web, I feel compelled to state the obvious. I did not know Ms. Kryst, and I make no effort to speak for her. I also make no assumptions about the case or its details. This post strictly comments on the social impact Kryst’s death imbues and what it means for ideas of blackness in contemporary culture.*
I also understand that some may contest Kryst as a black woman in detachment from the colonially imposed “one-drop” rule, but this post operates with respect to how Kryst identified herself, and in acknowledgement to her societal projection and functionality. America propelled Kryst into the media stratosphere to foment an illusion of black progress, and this figure of black progress is the core contention of this post.
Amidst the outpour of shock, outrage, and heartbreak that followed news of a beautiful, intelligent, and accomplished woman leaping to her death from a New York City high rise, were the banal reference to Kryst as a “trailblazer” and her being one of three black pageant winners in 2019. Kryst won the honor at 28, with an MBA and JD in tow. At the height of western success as an academically decorated pageant queen who won with natural hair, Kryst embodied what many would consider an evolved country. Kryst seemingly embodied a new America where natural curls are crown-worthy and where a triple threat gives way to the nation’s highest honor. Her image conveyed a societal portrait that dispeled myths of racial oppression and black people, to paraphrase James Baldwin’s phrase, hitting their heads against the low ceiling of expectation. She illuminated that education and authenticity open doors, but the conclusion to her brief life provide cause to question whether these images are “opening doors” or if they constitute that fatal step over the edge.
Particularly, the illusion of progress, pertaining to black people in particular, is often discussed without accessing its danger.
Images like Cheslie Kryst, like those of Kamala Harris, Michelle Obama, and Beyonce project an unconsummated space for black women in America as culminated by the “generosity” of an “evolved” culture. They suggest that boundaries have been broken, that the hot coals to which our ancestors walked have blistered into the pedicured present, and that we have finally attained the freedom for which they dreamed. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. These opened doors have merely expose the depths of racial terror and underscore that so-called elevation is not equivalent to escape, and that even if handed a title, grammies, or crown, the only victory a colonial culture grants is for itself.
This image posit perfection as attainable and suggest that there is a raceless space beyond the glass ceiling of possibility. This glass ceiling is only a ceiling by way of perspective, and those who supposedly “break through” it realize that the glass ceiling is glass floor bound to break with the heavy load the figure of black progress is to carry.
Additionally, those caricatured into symbols of progress often experience that which does not live up to the expectations of a superficial showcase of evolution. This superficial showcase, marked by a polished and revered physical appearance and culminated in status, veils the politics of colonial culture that continue to revolve around a systemic sun.
What I am saying here, is that black figure of progress, whether a black pageant queen, black first lady, or black superstar, exists not to empower us but to vindicate them. The illusion of western evolution suggests that a generous society upheld Kryst for the greatness she possessed but her choice prompted her life’s conclusion. This logic individualizes Kryst’s actions without acknoweldging all the ways the world pushed her over the literal and figurative edge.
Moreover, the illusion of progress is an overt and absolute threat to the mental health of African-descended people, and it does not empower the collective self to succeed at anything but self-destruction. As Dr. Bobby Wright declares in essay “Black Suicide: Lynching by Any Other Name is Still Lynching,”:
“For political reasons, Blacks are being programmed for self-destruction and ‘Black suicide’ is one of the results. Lynching by any other name is still lynching.” ( Wright 17)
Though seemingly bringing the sky closer, these images project a false reality that foments both the African-descended and the African-adjacent to hold the black person to unrealistic standards that dangerously posit black inadequacy as fact. The result is too often a death labeled as “self-inflicted” due to a coerced belief in free will (See Bobby Wright for more on this as well).
I want to be clear about what I mean about “unrealistic standards.” My use of this phrasing is not to posit black greatness as fiction. Rather, by “unrealistic standards” I speak to the belief that accomplishments, education, or status thwarts racism. That being educated means that people won’t question or deny your intelligence; that being lauded as beautiful will stymie critical comments about African features, or that money and status will take you further than being one phone call away from arrest or murder. Or, that you won’t be expected to be twice as good to be seen as worthy of accompanying the sub-mediocrity of the African-adjacent. The world is a lot colder to the black person who dares to dream and possesses the audacity to accomplish. Conversely, the world remains instrinsically more comfortable around those who embody what the racist or systemized gaze deem sufficient for the presumed low stature of the African-descended.
Nonetheless, the illusion of progress precludes the pursuit and application of freedom by suggesting that it already exists. How are we free if we do not even possess the freedom to select our own heroes on a national level? Instead, we remain expected to comply and embrace who a racist country projects as formidible to implement their beliefs but embodying a black aesthetic of varying degrees.
On a slightly tangential note, I am quite perturbed by how quickly Kryst became the portrait of one of the contemporary moment’s fixtures: mental health. Her experience, though individually bearing a collective pain, quickly became universalized just as her victory aimed to do for ideas of success and the black trajectory in America.
This reality elucidates that even in transition the figure of progress is still to do its job, to universalize what is singular and invite the masses to overlook the depths of race and identity in America. So while the suicide hotlines and mental-health expert opinions appear efforts to ensure that what happened to Cheslie Kryst does not happen again, in actuality, the aftermath of her departure underscores a pervasive effort to ensure that it will.
Furthermore, a poignant message dwells somewhere in between shock, heartbreak, and the reality that we are to accept a partial narrative or fiction imposed as a fact. The message is chilling yet concise: if a colonial world takes you to the elusive top, it is not to enjoy the view.