Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: “The Hum of Fear” – The invisible Legacy carried by Black Americans

In her powerful and moving book, Bearing the Unbearable: Love, Loss and the Heartbreaking Path of Grief, Dr. Joanne Cacciatore draws upon the death of her own child and decades of working with individuals, families and communities to help those in pain learn to bear the grief. One theme she validates is the ongoing terror of it happening again – “ the hum of fear.”

For Black Americans, “the hum of fear” that another child will die, another black life will be taken, persists because for too long, the fear has been entrenched by reality.

The mother and family of George Floyd, whose son was murdered by a now fired and charged policeman while three others watched, just suffered that reality. This time however, people of every age and color brought the “ hum of fear” to a howl as they continue to march across the nation in protest of social injustice that fails to recognize that Black Lives Matter.

While we hope that this will finally plant seeds of police reform, it is worth recognizing that the “ hum of fear” that Black Americans carry is something important for White Americans to understand – It is the fear of being killed because of the color of your skin.

On the night after George Floyd’s death, as many Americans were in emotional turmoil over what they had witnessed,  a friend and colleague, Dr. Hawthorne Smith sent me a post that he asked me pass on to another colleague who had posted feelings of anguish and despair. Dr. Hawthorne Smith’s painful and beautiful post underscores and illuminates “ the hum of fear’ he carries as a black man who has experienced assault by police in the US and Africa and whose terror is even more heightened for his son.

Reflecting that, Dr. Smith shares the story of waiting for his 17 year old, 6 ft son to return home after the young man accompanied some younger friends to their ferry.

With his permission, these are his words…

“As the clock passed 2 AM, my paternal anger at missing curfew (for doing the right thing) morphed into panic. He had no umbrella (because umbrellas and teenage boys don’t mix), and he was wearing a hoodie. The walk along Lenox Ave was only going to be a few blocks, but if it was raining what would he do? He would run, of course. Who walks through a rainstorm?

I tried to call his cell, knowing full well that it would not reach him while he was on the subway, but my panic was fully realized. I needed to send him the message, “Son, no matter what – do not run!” 

A six foot tall black kid running up the street in Harlem in the wee hours with a hoodie pulled up? Grounds for a death sentence.”

Underscoring the visceral fear he carries, Dr. Smith explains that he “ was preemptively mourning a loss that had not yet happened.”  This is the hum of fear. In his words, “It’s an existential fear about those who are still among us (and those yet to come).”

His beautiful son made it home.

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times,“I Don’t Need ‘Love’ Texts From My White Friends: I Need Them To Fight Anti-Blackness,” Chad Sanders responds to the many white friends who, after the George Floyd murder, sent him messages of support – some with the refrain, “no need to respond.” What Sanders tries to clarify is something their emails crash up against, something the senders don’t understand,

As a black man, what I actually feel-constantly-is the fear of death.”

According to Sanders, it is a fear that when going out in the morning to stroll through Central Park, to buy coffee-

“ I won’t make it home.

As he explains, “It’s a resting hum under every moment of my life.”

The reality of social injustice that burdens Black Americans with a legacy of fear is one that screams for change. Will reform be possible? We need to keep trying. Recognizing the specific terror that Black Americans carry, underscores the importance of thousands of every race protesting with them. The injustice contaminates and threatens all of us. It makes standing together a symbol of shared hope in the future.


Read Dr. Hawthorne’s Latest Post from the Director’s Corner of the Survivors of Torture Program.

Listen to Dr. Joanne Cacciatore’s Podcast on ” Bearing the Unbearable” on Psych Up Live.