Musings on mental illness, our collective joy of "firsts," and the spaces in between.
There are so many things I'd like to discuss in this inaugural article! But first, let's talk about, well, "firsts." Recently, I heard that Jessica Watkins will be the first black woman to have traveled to the International Space Station. The first! Props to a sistah girl who dared to dream, and made it to the stars!
Of course, she wasn't the first black person to fly into space. That honor goes to Guion Bluford and Mae Jemison. But from Madame C.J. Walker to Oprah Winfrey (first black millionaire and billionaire), from Vivien Thomas to Dr. Ben Carson (cardiac surgery and neurosurgery), from Thurgood Marshall to Ketanji Brown Jackson (U.S. Supreme Court), and of course from Obama to Kamala, our firsts were also our best. (In fact, Ketanj was deemed more qualified than at least three of the nine judges currently seated on the bench!)
They are what would be considered "a credit to their race." The "black" race. OUR race. To have to be twice as good at something has always been a requirement for blacks. It is for that reason we celebrate our firsts with a collective joy, a joy that only those who have been held back, or otherwise oppressed, can truly experience.
Yes, others can celebrate our firsts right alongside us, and they do. But It isn't as personal for them. There may be whites who never dreamed they themselves could be President of the United States. But they never considered that their skin color alone would be a primary barrier.
Collectively, every African American first is a victory. But unfortunately, so is the pain. Black men who are venerated on the basketball court or football field, are themselves in danger of being executed by a cop. It is a terrible, almost daily thing, and this country's racial reckoning is long overdue.
Collectively, we feel this trauma and pain. We grieve and prepare our black sons for these types of confrontations. The "talk" is an unfortunate ritual that takes place every day in millions of black households. The "talk," if you're not familiar with it, is the conversation black parents have with their sons about how to behave when pulled over by the police. To always have your license and registration ready before the officer gets to the car. To keep your hands visible on the steering wheel at all times. To only speak when spoken to. To answer "yes sir or ma'am," or "no sir or ma'am," when addressing an officer. To do everything it takes to appear "non-threatening." It has been this way for generations. It's not fair, but we accept it as a part of life. It is what it is.
To be fair, white men are also killed by the police. But justified or not, those incidents are not met with the same outcry. Those incidents don't seem to be viewed as the fault of the "white collective." Whites tend to stand by their ethnic differences, be it English, Irish, German, or Italian. Unfortunately, we blacks don't have that luxury For example, take Patrick Lyoya, an African emigrant who, last month, was shot in the back of the head execution-style while lying face down on the ground. Black, the dear reader, is black.
We blacks as a race, ethnicity, or whatever sociological term you want to use to describe us, face challenges that seem to be unique. That's because they are. Up until Obama, there has always been a white president. And Kamala Harris is the first black, AND female Vice President. That in itself is an unbelievable accomplishment, something my deceased parents could never dream of.
There are numerous other societal and cultural examples of firsts. Major league baseball was almost always exclusively white until someone had the good sense to recruit Jackie Robinson from the just as good, if not better, Negro League. White singers did cover versions of Little Richard songs (see: the Beach Boys and Pat Boone), to make them more palatable to white audiences. And many white big-band jazz musicians copied the style of Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie. We've always had "firsts." It's just that those firsts weren't as widely acknowledged as historians are now forced to reckon with today.
Firsts. Breaking thru to the "big time." Stellar accomplishments that are notable enough to be historic. That's what makes Tiger, Obama, Kamala, Ketanji, and now Jessica Watkins so special. Every African American has a first in their family. First to graduate from college. First to get a really good-paying job. First to own a house. There are always firsts to celebrate in the black community. Again, other ethnicities, particularly immigrants, can also claim such accomplishments, but for us African Americans, it's bittersweet. Our presence has been felt in this country for almost 500 years, yet it is only been within the last 80 years or so that we are getting our due diligence.
Intelligence isn't some mental condition exclusive to a race. Education and upbringing are primary factors. If all things were equal, blacks flying into outer space, or serving as President of the United States would be so common as to be ubiquitous. We're Americans, too. But that's not how it works here. That's why it's such a huge deal when one of us manages to break thru those barriers.
Us African Americans have always faced seemingly insurmountable odds. Be it gainful employment, education, and/or housing, it's obvious these historic snubs are the result of centuries of racism, and oppression. We turned rejection inward and started to blame ourselves for things we had no control over. Like how light our skin may be. Or how straight our hair is. We too dreamt of flying. We too dreamt of being President. But we were told, and treated as if we were inadequate. You're black. How can you be considered smart enough to fly a plane? To be a physicist? To be "good enough?"
Yet we still keep churning out firsts. And our saving grace has always been that with every first, things incrementally get better. Ask your grandparents. As bad as it is now, it could truly be worse. We've made amazing strides. Let's keep it up, and do more.
Of course, we've still got a long road ahead of us. And if you suffer from anxiety and depression, our current pandemic doesn't make it any easier. Many folks have lost their jobs and/or homes. Others are suffering the after-effects of having had Covid. And worst of all, many families are coping with the loss of a loved one. And, as it always is in America, low-paid minorities were among the first victims.
The whole world is shook, but it's harder to swallow when you live in the richest, and most technologically advanced country in the world.
I've been fortunate enough not to lose anyone I love to Covid, but the panic, fear, and anxiety still lingers with me. Like many of you reading this, I suffer from a diagnosed mental illness. My next few columns will address that. And through those columns, I hope to show you that, collectively, we can address, and deal with those issues together. Because now, there is help and treatment available, from, and by folks that look like us. More and more black folks are practicing psychotherapy, and want to help address mental illness in our community. It is desperately needed, welcome, and refreshing.
That's not to say that seeing a therapist of a different ethnicity isn't helpful. Any help especially offered with good intent, and compassion is great. Therapy is good for you. Get the help you need when you can, how you can.
Again, any help is good, but it means so much more when you and your therapist can joke about sitting for hours while your mother patiently braided your hair. I lucked out, and currently have a black female therapist, close to my age. It'sbut nce to be able to talk, "sistah to sistah." Without too many specifics, I'll share with you some of my journey thus far, and how I have made extraordinary strides because of it. I'll also give you a little background on my moniker, but I'm sure many of you who have ever been teased about sounding "proper," will understand. :)
My first column was to be about my struggle with mental illness as an African-American woman. How that, despite the introduction of psychology in the 20th century, many blacks were not only excluded from treatment, we were also conditioned to believe it was considered a sign of weakness. I've since learned that you should never be ashamed to ask for help. To go ahead and reach out to others in desperate times of need. Be it your pastor or best friend, never be afraid to seek comfort and reassurance. Your life may literally depend on it.
We're gonna take this journey together. We are part of the black collective. Let's give back to ourselves by supporting each other. It won't be the first time we've come together. But as always, it will be for the better.