I have always been struck, in America,
by an emotional poverty so bottomless,
and a terror of human life, of human touch, so deep,
that virtually no American appears able to achieve
any viable, organic connection
between his public stance and his private life.
This failure of the private life
has always had the most devastating effect
on American public conduct,
and on black-white relations.
If Americans were not so terrified
of their private selves,
they would never have become so dependent
on what they call “the Negro problem.”
– James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro
Emotional poverty. This phrase rattled in my head while I sat in a dark theatre watching Raoul Peck’s documentary based on James Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, Remember This House. It repeated as I walked home that night and prepared dinner. It echoed when I turned out my light to go to bed. Emotional poverty.
If you have not yet seen, I Am Not Your Negro, I would encourage you to do so today. It is a stunning and emotional film that highlights the historical and ongoing race, class, and social justice issues in this country. Naturally, being a mental health advocate, I watched the documentary with my mental health glasses on. In an interview, Baldwin notes that, as a Black person in America, “there are days when you wonder what your role is in this country, and what your future is in it.” An identity built on not feeling accepted, not being able to identify with your countrymen/women/folk, not being respected emotionally, physically and financially, is an identity built on trauma or “emotional poverty.” We all carry the scars of our ancestors, and in the case of African Americans, those scars continue to bleed and swell. Nearly 250 years of legalized slavery, over 60 years of legalized segregation, and 233 incidents of police brutality in 2016 alone, lay the groundwork for inter-generational trauma.
Racism and discrimination can affect a person’s mental wellness, but seeking and receiving services for mental health needs can also be stigmatizing for different communities. Vlogger Maia Noelle shares more about the taboo nature of mental illness in the Black community:
Lately, there’s been an increase in conversation and representation of Black mental health in the media: Last year, rapper Kid Cudi opened up about his struggle with depression; Popular shows like Empire, Insecure, and This Is Us depicted the debilitating nature of mental illness and being in a mental health crisis through their Black characters; And even a church in Harlem has prioritized mental health in the Black community and now offers free services to residents. There is still work to be done in destigmatizing mental health, not only among Black individuals, but in the U.S. as a whole.
As Black History Month comes to a close, Young Minds honors the efforts made in developing culturally sensitive and informed resources, supports, and dialogues (like these amazing young women using art to say “it’s OK to not be OK”). “Emotional poverty” still rings in my ears, and addressing this requires more than just the work of the Black community. It necessitates cross-cultural conversations because #BlackLivesMatter. I encourage you to check out the resources below and think critically about your role as an ally and supporter of Black mental health advocates.
NAMI: African American Mental Health
Mental Health America: Black & African American Communities and Mental Health