Within the Black community there is already a ton of issues that we carry. From racism, to wealth disparity, to incarceration rate there’s simply no time to be mentally ill.
There’s no time for emotional well-being, no time for mental health checks.
There’s only time for the struggle. The struggle of upward mobility, the American Dream. The struggle to be seen as worthwhile people that matter just as much as anyone else.
Ain’t nobody got time for “feelings.”
We have to work harder, be tougher, “ten times better than the white folks,” as I’m sure many of us have heard throughout the years. “Don’t ever let them see you sweat,” as my grandmother would say.
America is hard enough on its own without the added addition of racism and all of its historical baggage that weighs heavily on each of us.
Is there time to be mentally ill? Is there any time to be depressed? Any time for anxiety?
It seems we forego and ignore these experiences instead opting to look through a pragmatic lens. We dive into our work, acquire wealth, have a family, and we continuously commit ourselves to fighting an uphill battle.
But these battle scars stay with us. They always have. From slavery to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights and Black Panther Movements til now with the Black Lives Matter Movement, we still carry around these chains.
We walk through Hell and bring Hell with us. The pain etched into our skin and even branded into parts of our culture.
We are reeling.
I will clarify that this has been my own personal experience. I’m writing this because I feel many black people (and people of color) might relate. This might also apply in general to these types of households or particular kinds of mental illness.
I do not mean any of this to be disparaging or insulting. Although these things may happen, I am not claiming that we are not loved.
This is critical, but hopeful. This article will be part one of three on mental health.
How Did We Get Here?
I grew up in a small Southern town in the state of Alabama. My experience isn’t particularly exemplar of the black experience, but it is something that I’ve found a lot of black people have dealt with.
The first verse to Kendrick Lamar’s “Fear” captures the issue beautifully. “I’ll beat yo ass,” is repeated over each line coming from the parents of an apparently seven-year old Kendrick. The verse ends with, “You gon’ fear me if you don’t fear no one else.”
Many Black households have an authoritarian parenting style. These are “children are meant to be seen, not heard” households.
“Being smart,” “talking out of turn,” “talking back,” etc. are a few things that require disciplinary action, which frequently come in the form of corporal punishment.
Many of those instances, at least for me, came from speaking my mind or airing a grievance with some situation I was not particularly fond of. As children, however, “respect” was the main concept beat into us and many times respect meant fear.
In poorer households, it could be that obedience is far more important than anything else? There’s too much stress, too much work, and seemingly not enough time to work through emotional issues.
For many of us we’ve heard the various possessive outbursts that are used for justification of the need for obedience and respect.
“This my house!”
“You’re under my roof!”
“You’re my child!”
As Fran from The Friend Zone put it, there’s no dialogue, no privacy, no apologies. It is simply their word and you have to listen or else.
It’s particularly strange given that this possessiveness was usually coupled with the idea that being sheltered and fed was enough and that everything else was to their discretion.
So the nurturing love, reassurance, emotional validation, and dialogues could be completely foreign ideas in some of these households.
I can’t help but find it disturbingly analogous to the various “stories” of slaveholders “caring” for their slaves by housing and feeding them, but it may be a piece of Hell we brought with us throughout the years.
As Black people we have had to deal with a myriad of different hardships and we have persevered, but some ways that we have done so have beaten and battered us.
We stuff down transgressions against us so that we can keep moving forward, but we hold that resentment deep inside and it hurts the ones closest to us.
For many of us, there’s an exasperating “Struggle Olympics” that you’re met with when you’d like to speak up about your own issues. This can be seen across communities, but within ours it can be incredibly hard to tread.
It is difficult to have a conversation about what may be troubling you. It tends to become more of a deflection of what you feel because the parent, guardian, or whoever has had it worse.
Even within the various movements such as Black Lives Matter or even Feminism, the response to traumatic experiences tends to be “what about me?”
However, within our community, a lot of the time family and friends reject your troubles or even more so ignore the harm they may have brought you in particular.
Your first contacts that you should be able to confide in become completely dismissive of what you’re feeling and, over time, you will too. You will doubt that what you feel is actually a “real” problem.
You’ll criticize it, stuff it down deep, and you’ll ignore it. You’ll feel like you’re being “too much” or “sensitive” or “emotional.”
Sooner or later you’ll realize you don’t know how to trust how you feel anymore. You’ll second guess yourself.
After that, you might be numb.
I remember once I had one of these conversations with an adult figure in my life, he spoke about wanting to die and asked me if I knew what that felt like.
Of course, dealing with depression, I have. I’ve dreamt of just driving off and disappearing before, so obviously I told them yes and attempted to empathize.
But what I’ve gone through, to them, was nothing and I had “no reason” to have ever really thought like that. In fact, to him, I couldn’t have.
And I understand that, especially in such an emotional conversation, it could seem like I may have just spoke to console him and he was incredulous.
But things of this nature had happened across my childhood. Currently I watch and hear constantly the same things I heard growing up.
“Nobody cares that you’re mad.”
“Let them cry, ain’t nobody worried about them crying. They should have listened.”
“Stop being a baby. You’re babying them.”
The worst part, seemingly, is always that these sorts of things would come from caregivers. Where you should feel the safest to be yourself and to feel what you need to feel.
But sometimes showing emotion was even met with punishment or derision. Maybe except for anger, at least for the boys.
I recall another situation, maybe when I was close to reaching my teens or when I had. I’m not sure how old I was…but it was when my stepfather had decided to give us long lectures instead of the usual “ass whoopins.”
I think he had decided that they didn’t work, which is true, but it was a little late to figure that one out. The damage had been done.
However, in one of these lectures, I remember him praising my ability to always “stay calm” and to not show any emotion. Obviously I had stuffed them way down by now.
He told me that I never showed what was on my mind, no one could tell what I was thinking. This was a good thing.
He said that he wore his emotions on his sleeve. Albeit, from what I saw, that was mostly just anger and I know now that anger can simply be a mask for other emotions.
This can be a particularly recurring problem for us all. We always have to ignore our emotions and be strong.
As a black man you may be told that acting or expressing certain emotions make you look “soft” and out in the world outside of the family, expressing particular emotions might make you look “dangerous.”
Likewise, black women might be told to be strong, but at the end of the day we all might be suppressing important emotions in our supposedly safest places.
And that’s the crux of the issue for us. We live day to day with the various stressors stemming simply from race coming from the outside world.
We constantly have to deal with it all and we hold so much in, but we continue to fight. However, we bring that battle back home with us.
In a life that’s been about constantly picking our battles, we shouldn’t make our homes another battleground.
So I’m writing these articles to clear the air and hopefully start conversations within the community and within these households for those of us that can’t even imagine where to begin talking about it.
Previously published on medium
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