J. Victoria Sanders writes that black men often struggle with depression and other mental illnesses in silence, with deadly consequences.
When famed soul singer Donny Hathaway was found dead outside the Essex House hotel in New York City in January 1979, the coroner determined it was suicide. For weeks, he had been reading about suicide, and over the years, he had struggled with bouts of depression. But it was 1979, and black people were not ready to acknowledge that.
That Hathaway’s hotel room window had been neatly removed before he “tragically fell” to his death was noted but glossed over in biographies of him. Instead, he was described as someone who liked to sing into the wind from tall heights. The Rev. Jesse Jackson told Ebony that the soul singer’s death “appeared to be neither suicide nor homicide.”
It was as though silence about the real issue would make it go away.
At least Jackson said the s-word, even if his comments were a classic revision of the reality of black men’s often hidden struggles with depression and mental illness.
Before my father, Victor, hung himself in his garage in April 2010, it meant very little to me that 7 percent of black men struggle with depression during their lifetimes. When the suicide rate for African-American male youth rose 146 percent between 1980 and 1995, it seemed like another sad statistic to add to many others.
In an abstract way, I knew it was difficult to be a black man and to be beyond sad. I could hear it in all of Donny Hathaway’s music, even before I knew he had been depressed and learned his story. I felt a wave of compassion for Don Cornelius when he killed himself earlier this year.
As someone who tried to commit suicide when I was younger, I understand the despair. There comes a point in the blues when one feels beyond any kind of redemption or reach. Recognizing that darkness and isolation has given me a well of empathy for how hard it must be for black men to reveal their pain.
Black men like my father, like Hathaway and Cornelius, carry the weight of an intricate layer of stressors on their heads. Racism. Indignities. Bills. Police. Prison. All these are factors before a man even grows up and possibly even after he graduates from college.
My dad was the youngest of eight. He had six sisters but had lost three by the time he committed suicide. He met my mother, Maggie, when he was separated from his only wife. “Marry young,” he would say, “so you can get it out of the way.”
He described their relationship as a constant, since they had their crazy community of two. Maggie had her own clinical depression to avoid after my 12-year-old brother Jose was killed by a bus. Working as a secretary in Philadelphia, she met my dad, a 6’5’’ giant with a long face, sleepy brown eyes and a Barry White monotone. He had extreme social anxiety—likely Asperger’s syndrome and maybe some other things.
I didn’t grow up knowing him, though. Out of the blue, in high school, Maggie gave me his address and said simply, “You should write him.”
I had told people all the stories bitter girls tell people about their missing fathers: “He’s dead,” I would say, flatly. I slept through all Father’s Days, even when I was older, when my mother would call and wish me a good day on behalf of them both.
I was 16 when I wrote to him for the first time. I sent thick envelopes of my grades, pictures I’d drawn, and poems. He did not respond. The following year, I followed up with a one-page screed. I had gone to boarding school after growing up with nothing. I was about to graduate. I was going to Vassar College.
“I will be OK without you but I wanted you to know that I was doing OK,” I wrote. “Fuck you if you don’t write back.”
We finally talked after that. He called. He came to my graduation bearing gold earrings and a bracelet as gifts.
He was old school cool to me, like a heavy Billie Dee Williams. He read a lot, he listened to Gil Scott-Heron, another black man who languished in a different kind of sadness. To a stranger, he might have just seemed detached, like the strong, silent type. A military vet with decades-long service as a civil engineer, he would have never said, “I need help,” or “I’m sad today.” He had that in common with millions of black men. It is what we admire in America—what looks like strength and composure and stoicism in a man … until it kills him.
Our culture emasculates black men, while adoring them for being virile. The list of funny, sexy, seemingly invincible black men is long. It even includes the ones in social purgatory who aren’t in school or trying to get into the school, but haven’t been arrested for simply breathing, walking or driving while black yet. To paraphrase a Chris Rock bit, the ones who do what they’re supposed to do—as men and fathers—remain invisible unless or even until they are dead. It is only the bad asses and thugs who gain fame (or infamy).
Still, they have hearts. I worry about black men’s hearts and minds, probably too much. I have asked my boyfriends, my male friends, and my lovers this question, worried: “How is your heart?” I think it’s lovely that it’s poetic, and I am nothing if not a romantic, but the point of the question is to try to drill down past the superficialities, past the cool pose, to find out what really ails them.
The thing about letting depression hide out in silence is that it makes you guess, leaves you wondering. I hate that kind of wondering.
When Victor died, I was in Texas and did not go to New Jersey where he died. I could not look his death in the face. Reminders of his absence came in the mail: a death certificate, an obituary. The last time I’d seen him alive was the summer of 2000, before I left the East Coast to start working as a newspaper reporter in Texas.
In the span of the four years we’d gotten to know each other, he’d offered me refuge at his Blackwood, NJ house. But when I stayed with him there, he would refuse to talk to me for weeks at a time.
He would make food, or bring some home after work, then look at me, turn on his heels and walk up the stairs to bed without a word. He had invited me to stay when I told him my mother was evicted from her Bronx home. But the way he stared at me, indicting me as an unwanted guest, told me that he extended the invitation out of obligation, not affection.
I never asked him if he was depressed—because I knew. When I left, he handed me a wad of one hundred dollar bills and said, “The bank is closed.” I told him I would write. After years of unanswered phone calls and emails, I struggled to let my relationship with him go.
He did not want closure. He wanted to show up on his own terms. He would call my office, wherever I was, to say he was watching from afar. He always knew where I was, even if I could never say the same about him. Even if I never knew where his heart was.
I will probably always wonder what would have helped him—how my family could have reached beyond his silent desperation, and what would have helped keep him alive. These are questions that extend generally to black men suffering silently with their mental health. Unfortunately, like my question about how black men’s hearts are, they are largely rhetorical.
Photo: varun suresh/Flickr