‘The Hunted Slaves 1861 Richard Ansdell (1815 – 1885) Oil on canvas, 184 x 308cm
"Paradoxically though it may seem, it is none the less true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.”
― Oscar Wilde
As a parent I, as many parents of teenagers today, pride myself on being culturally informed in pop culture. I use Instagram, I have a Twitter account, I text, I take selfies, and I listen to some hip hop. I believe staying in the know gives me an edge. It helps to understand who I'm up against as I battle the "invisible" villain - peer pressure (that is a subject for another post). As I read over the "pop culture" news line this morning I came across an interview with a "popular" hip hop artist, Young Thug. Now I would know nothing about this young artist outside of his name popping up occasionally as I peruse articles or blogs. Because I have read some of the lyrics to his music it is banned from my daughter’s music library. I would have glanced over the GQ article but something caught my eye: "Young Thug Talks About His Career and Explains Why He Would Never Buy a Jay-Z Album with GQ" Huh?!? I'm shocked and curious. Jay-Z has managed to hold on to a career in an ever-changing and volatile culture known as the music and entertainment industry. Young Thug continued, "...If you're 30, 40 years old, you're not getting listened to by minors. Like, Jay Z has some of the sickest lyrics ever, but I would never buy his CD, just because of my age and because of his age. By the time I turn that old, I ain't gonna be doing what he's doing..." First of all that statement made zero sense and in this day and age it's a gift to be 40 and still selling out arenas. Second what language is his "age" speaking? I think I was shocked that there was a divide within the hip hop world; I thought I was "hip" and informed. I would now need to take a "crash course" in the "new hip hop" culture because heaven help me if I lose the ability to evolve with my arch nemesis (The New Hip Hop) right? On the other hand I was intrigued. What does this mean? Is this a snub or a reality?
I have heard snippets of some of the "New age" hip hop and it's basically hooks on continuous loops and beats. Who is he listening too that's lyrical? But wait...FLASH BACK:
"...Don’t forget, you must pitch the OLD black male vs. the YOUNG black male, and the YOUNG black male against the OLD black male. You must use the DARK skin slaves vs. the LIGHT skin slaves, and the LIGHT skin slaves vs. the DARK skin slaves. You must use the FEMALE vs. the MALE, and the MALE vs. the FEMALE. You must also have white servants and overseers [who] distrust all Blacks. But it is NECESSARY THAT YOUR SLAVES TRUST AND DEPEND ON US. THEY MUST LOVE, RESPECT AND TRUST ONLY US. Gentlemen, these kits are your keys to control. Use them. Have your wives and children use them, never miss an opportunity. IF USED INTENSELY FOR ONE YEAR, THE SLAVES THEMSELVES WILL REMAIN PERPETUALLY DISTRUSTFUL. Thank you gentlemen.” - Willie Lynch Letter
***I'll come back to that later at the bottom of this post***
There is no denying that music has been the source of expression and communication of generations long before the Jay-Z's, Beyoncé’s, Katy Perry's, and Imagine Dragon's. It was Ludwig van Beethoven who said, “Music can change the world.” What about Mahalia Jackson’s song "I'm On My Way":
“I’m on My Way,” could be heard a quarter century later in freedom rallies in places like Albany, Georgia. Commentators again embraced the sounds of African American culture as the music of America. Other parallels are found. The 1938 concert and 1961 Albany musicking each occurred during a peak of social movement activity, the communist-led Old Left that resulted in the unionization of America’s core industrial sector, and the civil rights movement that crippled the insidious system of legalized racial segregation. In both, African Americans and whites joined to make music, challenging the dominant racial order that infected all aspects of social life. The aspirations of both movements to bridge racial boundaries with music were explicit—wedding black music (spirituals) and blackinspired white music (swing) in one event and invoking a universal principle (freedom) in the other. And both were but one moment of many in larger cultural projects that have used music in pursuit of social change." - "Red, Whites, and Blues: Social Movements, Music and Race in the United States", William G. Roy (Princeton University Press)
Music has been the catalyst of change, the method of "common ground communication" and how movements were started. What does any of this have to do with mental health in the African American community? Everything. Mental illness is not being discussed. Period. Its still "taboo". The "urban realities" woven into the rap lyrics meant to tell a story of survival in spite of the circumstances does not address the social ills plaguing our communities as what they truly are. As with most highly sensitive social issues there is tip toeing around mental illness. There is no problem doing an "Ice Bucket Challenge" for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease because it's considered noble to give to those suffering with a "physical" ailment because it is apparent by the visible signs of suffering. It's "tangible". Mental illness is "invisible". There is no way to know someone is "symptomatic" unless they are experiencing an anxiety attack, are caught in the act of self-harm, manic or having a psychotic episode, otherwise it's a made up illness. It's all in "your head".
There's no doubt the stigmas attached to mental illnesses are the reasons many find it difficult to speak openly about them regardless of race, gender, orientation, or culture. A flood of misinformation is spread by Hollywood looking for the next big "thriller" cash cow in movies like "Psycho", "Shining", "Silence of the Lambs", "Fatal Attraction", and "Gone Girl". In those movies the person suffering with a mental illness is villanized and the symptoms are extremely "amplified". Most people when they hear mental illness their minds automatically go to a "dark place" I know mines did before my son was diagnosed with Bipolar and Schizoaffective disorders in 2012 and I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety in 2013. So many of the social ills plaguing our community are as a result of undiagnosed mental illnesses. Take alcoholism for an example. Many do not know that alcoholism is considered a mental illness:
"...alcohol combines the elements of both mental illness and physical disease. Alcoholism is classified as a substance abuse disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Mental and emotional symptoms of alcoholism exist long before the grave physical complications of the disease appear. The mental symptoms consist of loss of control (taking in larger amounts of alcohol over a longer period of time than the person intends); persistent desire to drink (one or more unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control drinking); continued drinking in spite of adverse social, occupational, or legal consequences; and frequent intoxication or withdrawal symptoms when expected to fulfill major obligations at work, school, or home. These are all behavioral or mental symptoms, which, unless interrupted permanently by treatment, will inevitably lead to physical complications of alcoholism." - Why is Alcoholism Classified As a Mental Illness? James W. West M.D. F.A.C.S (BettyFordCenter.org)
You will see countless drunk "selfies" captioned " I can't go a day without turning up..." or "...it's Friday time to turn up..." #TurnUp and countless posts on the pages of people online drunk or passed out and no one realizes they are symptomatic. Many suffer with social anxieties like feeling uncomfortable in large crowds or feeling extremely nervous in social situations so they drink or smoke pot to "take the edge off". With all of the "symptoms" ever present why can't we speak openly about mental illness? Because it's not perfect. We are not allowed to be flawed right? But it goes deeper than that in the African American community. There's the spiritual aspect with the church and then there is the "history" of mental illness and the African ancestors. WHOA...it's about to get real.
"The Africans become insane, we are told, in some instances, soon after they enter upon the toils of perpetual slavery in the West Indies" Benjamin Rush, MD (17461813), signer of the Declaration of Independence, Dean of the Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania and the "Father of American Psychiatry -is not often cited in discussions of mental illness and African-Americans, how-ever valuable it might be in understanding the traumatic impact of enslavement and oppression on Africans and their descendants." - "In Our Own Voices: African American Stories of Oppression, Survival and Recovery in the Mental Health System", Vanessa Jackson
The resistance is rooted in the calculated intentional break down of the psyche of and long standing breach of trust suffered by the African slave:
"I HAVE A FULL PROOF METHOD FOR CONTROLLING YOUR BLACK SLAVES. I guarantee every one of you that, if installed correctly, IT WILL CONTROL THE SLAVES FOR AT LEAST 300 HUNDREDS YEARS. My method is simple. Any member of your family or your overseer can use it. I HAVE OUTLINED A NUMBER OF DIFFERENCES AMONG THE SLAVES; AND I TAKE THESE DIFFERENCES AND MAKE THEM BIGGER. I USE FEAR, DISTRUST AND ENVY FOR CONTROL PURPOSES. These methods have worked on my modest plantation in the West Indies and it will work throughout the South. Take this simple little list of differences and think about them. On top of my list is “AGE,” but it’s there only because it starts with an “a.” The second is “COLOR” or shade. There is INTELLIGENCE, SIZE, SEX, SIZES OF PLANTATIONS, STATUS on plantations, ATTITUDE of owners, whether the slaves live in the valley, on a hill, East, West, North, South, have fine hair, course hair, or is tall or short. Now that you have a list of differences, I shall give you an outline of action, but before that, I shall assure you that DISTRUST IS STRONGER THAN TRUST AND ENVY STRONGER THAN ADULATION, RESPECT OR ADMIRATION..." - Willie Lynch Letter
What about the Tuskegee experiments:
"In 1932, the Public Health Service, working with the Tuskegee Institute, began a study to record the natural history of syphilis in hopes of justifying treatment programs for blacks. It was called the "Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. The study initially involved 600 black men – 399 with syphilis, 201 who did not have the disease. The study was conducted without the benefit of patients' informed consent. Researchers told the men they were being treated for "bad blood," a local term used to describe several ailments, including syphilis, anemia, and fatigue. In truth, they did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness. In exchange for taking part in the study, the men received free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. Although originally projected to last 6 months, the study actually went on for 40 years...
The advisory panel concluded that the Tuskegee Study was "ethically unjustified"--the knowledge gained was sparse when compared with the risks the study posed for its subjects. In October 1972, the panel advised stopping the study at once. A month later, the Assistant Secretary for Health and Scientific Affairs announced the end of the Tuskegee Study. In the summer of 1973, a class-action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the study participants and their families. In 1974, a $10 million out-of-court settlement was reached. As part of the settlement, the U.S. government promised to give lifetime medical benefits and burial services to all living participants. The Tuskegee Health Benefit Program (THBP) was established to provide these services. In 1975, wives, widows and offspring were added to the program. In 1995, the program was expanded to include health as well as medical benefits. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was given responsibility for the program, where it remains today in the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention. The last study participant died in January 2004. The last widow receiving THBP benefits died in January 2009. There are 15 offspring currently receiving medical and health benefits." - The Tuskegee Timeline, Center for Disease Control and Prevention
Having difficulty trusting the Psychiatrist and doctors would be justified given the history of the abuse of trust. However in this age of technology, open access, and more control over who your doctor is there is no excuse for seeking the medical attention necessary right? Well there is the spiritual element in the AA community - the church. How can you go to your pastor or church counselors and say, "...I hear voices all day and they tell me to do things..." or "...I'm sad all of the time. I pray but depression won't leave and I don't know what to do." In most churches that's a quick way to an exorcism or to be cast out for lack of faith. What about Abraham, Jonah, Job, Elijah, King Saul, Jerimiah, and David:
“I am troubled, I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long. …I groan because of the turmoil of my heart” (Psalm 38:6, 8 - NKJV).
It's very necessary to have the conversation about mental illness and mental health in our community, not doing so is a continuance of "oppression". AA children are suffering from PTSD because of the violence and poverty in urban communities. Families are being torn apart because of drug use and alcohol abuse due to self-medicating because of underlying mental illnesses. Mental manipulation and the resulting mental illnesses which cause parents to exact the same punishment on their children as slave masters and overseers used on them as slaves. The PTSD, Schizophrenic, depressed and Disassociated Disorders that caused a destruction of the psyche and went undiagnosed were seen as "moody", "throwed off", "touched in the head", "Crazy", and "recluse" are creating the ills in our communities and is what got us where we are today.
The use of brutality, division, (lynching) murdering, and forced belief in inferiority (reduced to a hashtag and negative images on and in the media) as well as carefully orchestrated poverty and economic dependence are all evident even today. It's no accident urban schools have high crime rates, low funding, underqualified teachers and not enough (recent edition) books. There is a reason true history isn't taught in the schools. We can keep pointing the fingers outside of our communities or we can take ownership in them. Are you afraid to trust doctors and psychiatrists? There are more in the AA community going into social work and psychiatry, it's a new era of people to help you who look like you and likely came from the same culture or knew someone who did. Get the help you need. Do the research on the doctors. If you are not comfortable with the first one, keep looking until you find someone you are comfortable with. No more excuses. No more suffering.
Stop patronizing athletes, actors, musicians and designers who are exploiting the ills of the AA community for financial gain. Stop using self-deprecating and derogatory terms as "honorary titles". Wearing the word NI**A as a "handle" and excusing its usage is a psychological block to the true atrocities attached to that word. If you are not part of the solution you are the problem, not part of the problem, YOU ARE THE PROBLEM. Mental Illness is more a part of our community and practically woven into the fabric of our people and passed down through the generations. We either acknowledge its existence and our need to get informed and seek assistance if needed or watch it continue to destroy us and our children. Jails and prisons are full of people who are a product of their "manufactured environment". So many people are locked away in free labor camps known as the US Prison System. Instead of Googling the latest #CockFight on WorldstarHipHop.com get informed. If you don't know your history you are bound to repeat it and it appears we are recycling the "Slave Code".
The very thing used to keep us in bondage is the very thing that can set us free. I pray that we finally get it. All it takes is a few to spark a movement. I believe we are closer than we ever were. Let's call out the leaders in the music industry to talk about the things that matter. To come forward and be honest if you are being treated for a mental illness it will not only liberate you, it will liberate a generation. Stigma kills, education takes its power away by creating awareness.
You don't fear what you understand. The Ghetto boys struck a chord albeit rather harsh and full of epithets, "My Minds Playing Tricks On Me" (clean) addressed depression and psychosis. Who will be the pioneer of today? Make music that informs and encourages your community. Stop tearing it down and acting shocked when it’s broken. We are responsible for our communities, it's time to take ownership, and get it done.