Within the last year, the idea of black folks having (the capacity to have?) mental health concerns has surfaced through the American popular culture. From the media frenzy surrounding Fantasia Barrino's suicide attempt to Ron Artest's shoutout to his psychiatrist after the Lakers won this year's NBA Finals, a quickly emerging albeit intriguing disposition is rising to the top of our daily conversations: how do we deal with the taboo issues of the African American psyche?
Not talking about it is going out of style faster than shaving 1/2 your head (which, for some, could definitely be a cry for help because of its H.A.Mness). The idea that mental affliction is a white dis-ease and that blacks are immune to such misfortunes blankets both our understanding of mental health in the African American community as well as its treatment. There is a widespread (mis)understanding that to acknowledge issues of depression, suicide, bi-polarism, schizoprhenia, and other psychological concerns would be to suggest that in addition to being black, being "touched-ed" in the head makes African-Americans further reprehensible.
I am not suggesting that the black psyche is unexplored. Rather, in popular culture, its presence is increasingly apparent, demanding attention and ways to approach situate its position in (African) American discourses. Fascinatingly, the ways in which it is explored are telling signs of how African-Americans treat this problem. Humor, for example, often outlines our perception of mental health. The often absurdly exaggerated images of blacks with mental disorders in minstrel-esque or over-imaginative roles creates a forced space of acknowledgement for mental health yet enough distance that the audience's disassociates itself with it. In other words, we laugh at that in which we do not see ourselves, creating a barrier between proactive resolve and re-active contribution.
Other manifestations of the African American psyche are often dark and unforgiving, inextricably linked with circumstance and racial prejudice. Representations of black men's incoherency are often violent and explosive, an ultimatum of social circumstance and frustration. Black male characters often implode under the weight of their own indiscretions and refusal to "allow anyone in" because of the premise they would be less of a man if they acknowledged their problems publicly. Toni Morrison's characters Paul D in Beloved (1987) and Shadrack from her 1973 novel Sula find unhealthy ways to deal with their growingly schizophrenic episodes. Shadrack, in fear of someone taking his life, suggests an annual National Suicide day on January 3rd to his fellow citizens of The Bottoms. Richard Wright's Bigger Thomas and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man also show signs of insanity as coping mechanisms, often a result of a traumatic or turbulent experience inflicted upon them because of their blackness and gender.
African-American women, however, often brunt their burdens taciturnly. This is apparent in both liberatory and neo-liberatory narratives of slave women who disclose their suffering through letters instead of direct, vocal disclosure. Trudier Harris' essay "This Dis-Ease Called Strength: Some Observations on the Compensating Construction of Black Female Character" addresses the danger of viewing the "strength" of remaining silent about stressors regarding black women as a positive attribute. Morrison's Beloved and Alice Walker's novels -especially The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970) and The Color Purple (1982) - confront the unpleasantries and damaging impacts of slavery on the psyches of women of color. Edward P. Jones' addresses "touched-ed"-ness slightly differently in the creation of the character Alice from The Known World (2001). Alice purposefully presents herself as mentally disabled in order to maintain some sense of freedom and understanding of herself. Her utilization of mental handicap as a coping mechanism not only speaks to her refusal to succumb to her abrasive environment but also her ability to find a way to remove herself from the racist discourse that sought to define her identity.
While the black psyche has continued to diverge from private to public scrutiny, the recent hash of events speaks to something quite disturbing - how can we view the seriousness of some of these concerns as a trend? In other words, Fantasia's suicide attempt, Artest's shoutouts, and this notion of black mental instability is what's hot in them streets. Cue my favorite saying: where they do that at? While Artest acknowledging his seeking of professional help is to be applauded, the premise of his shoutout is further complicated - only folks with some money can seek out help, it is a luxury. For a brief moment, race is replaced by class. Instead of bringing attention to these afflictions as such, they are dismissed as simply part of "what black people (celebrities) do." This (not really) new avenue of black suffering is profitable. What is undermined is the critical need to address such concerns from a perspective of healing. Instead, it is distorted as another popular means of black expression.
Mental affliction for African-American is real. How we approach it however, is from distanced and imaginary perspectives. This ideology needs to be collapsed and replaced by a discourse that allows for people of color to confront psychological issues without fear of being ridiculed or reprimanded for their acknowledgement.