Santa Fe, NM: A roadside memorial to George Floyd Memorial near downtown Santa Fe.
On April 20 as the afternoon grew later, the world awaited one of the most anticipated verdicts in a generation. The case was the State of Minnesota v. Derek Chauvin, but it seemed as though once again the value of Black Life was on trial in the United States of America. Chauvin was accused and found guilty on all accounts for the murder of George Floyd, but the nation and the world knew more was at stake in the verdict. When George Floyd was killed in May 2020, it was a moment wherethe specter of racism and police violence were thrust again into the national consciousness from their home in the daily lives of black people. The murder was particularly cruel and horrific. For nine minutes and twenty-nine seconds the former police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the neck and back of George Floyd, suffocating him to death as he cried out for help, for his mother, and for God.
The incident was caught on video by a teenager who shared it to social media. Multiple news outlets picked it up and it’s playing sparked national outrage that ignited protests in large cities and small towns across America. While the world was on pause in the midst of the pandemic, millions got to see with their own eyes what many black families fear: a public death at the hands of a law enforcement officer, and another black man passing from life to become a hashtag.
As the verdict was read, guilty on all counts, a mix of emotions could be seen and heard throughout the nation. Relief, sadness, hope, anger, fatigue, closure. At the same time there was an acknowledgment that this was not the end of the struggle for equal justice under the law for black people, but another point in the middle. For many believers it was on occasion for lamentation more than celebration for a number of reasons. People breathed a sigh of relief for accountability by a law enforcement officer, but many noted that this guilty verdict could not bring restoration of George Floyd’s life. There is still much violence in the land and great need for God’s intervention. There is a lot of change to be had, a lot of work to be done and thousands of other stories that did not end the way George Floyd’s did. Within the same week, in the same state there was yet another case of an unarmed black man who lost his life too soon in an encounter with the police. In this nation there are people who lose their lives every day to violence. It is the reason many law enforcement officers go to work everyday, to protect and serve and prevent people from losing their lives. And yet the shadow of death by violence looms large in our communities. This enduring reality causes many of us to still cry out to God for justice, mercy, and change.
Lamentations is a book of the Bible that doesn’t get read very often, but is filled with violent and difficult imagery. The author wrote it during a time of great trauma when the children of Israel were in exile in Babylon and still facing destruction, disease, and death in the once great city of Jerusalem. They were aware that it was sin that brought the terrible conditions of suffering and injustice they experienced, but they were also aware that their hope was in God’s intervention. Our world in the wake of violence is similar to theirs in many ways, different than theirs in many others, but our hope remains the same in God’s intervention. The writer confesses his faith in the Lord and urges others to remember this time of trouble. This seems like a strange thing to do, remember a time of trouble, but it is instructive for us today.
Lamentations 3:20-23(NLT) says:
20 I will never forget this awful time,
as I grieve over my loss.
21 Yet I still dare to hope
when I remember this:
22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
His mercies never cease.
23 Great is his faithfulness;
his mercies begin afresh each morning.
It is tempting to forget pain, trauma, and the difficulty of a struggle; especially when we receive some relief. It is tempting to move on from the case of George Floyd because the verdict has been rendered, but the lessons must be enduring if we are to love in a world that keeps more people like George Floyd alive instead of relieved at their murderer being punished. This is one reason Lamentations may be in the Bible, to give hope to everyone going through a time of individual and societal struggle. It speaks to the presence of pain, but also the endurance of God’s presence in ways that encourage our souls to overcome weariness.
Believers are invited by Lamentations to hear and remember the pain we experience, as well as the pain of others. But also to bear witness to the hope of God in the midst of it. Great is God’s faithfulness, His love never ends. Let us be lovers of ourselves, our neighbors, and our communities as we continue to cry out and advocate for God’s justice in the midst of the weariness and violence that continues to plague our land.
When Jesus wanted to teach a lawyer the universal truth about what it means to be a neighbor, He told a story about a man from one ethnic group who helped a man from another ethnic group who had been beaten and left for dead along the Jericho Road. This anonymous brother’s keeper has been venerated as the Good Samaritan, and schools, hospitals, and streets are named after him. But today, if Jesus were telling this story, I wonder if He would only focus on one person helping another person. Today’s Jericho Road is not a one-person problem. If we’re to understand what it means to be a neighbor and straighten out our Jericho Road, we’ll need a national body of determined individuals who come together to fix a dangerous curve in our historical road that has caused damage to many for far too long.
What do I mean by straighten out our Jericho Road? First, a little context. In biblical times, the Jericho Road was the way from Jerusalem to Jericho, a flourishing city. The rich and famous built their vacation homes in Jericho. Religious leaders spent their days off there, perhaps resting under a palm tree. But the road to Jericho had many twists and turns where evil people lurked and attacked unsuspecting travelers. Far too many people taking the four-hour trek down the Jericho Road found themselves victims of evildoers.
Some would question why anyone would knowingly travel such a dangerous roadway, but a better question would be: Why should anyone be unable to travel to Jericho in safety? Are we to surrender our freedom because some would want to deny our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Why are we told to go back to Africa when our forefathers and foremothers helped build this great society—for free? When we gather for Bible study in our own churches, do we have to fear that evil people are going to jump out of nowhere and attack us?
Today’s Jericho Road is a twisted state of mind
Our Jericho Road is not offenders lurking on some mountain path over in Israel. It’s individuals with twisted states of mind who believe they can wait in their own dark shadows and then, without warning, jump out and attack people because they don’t like how they look or falsely believe that individuals searching for peace and rest are a threat to them. How do we straighten out such a mindset? Do we need metal detectors at every church door? Should we take off our shoes off before we enter our places of worship, not because we’re standing on holy ground, but because we want to ensure no one is hiding a bomb in their shoes?
When our nation has experienced natural disasters and terrorist tragedies in the past, we’ve come together, stepped up with celebrity telethons, public service announcements, days of silence, and other forms of active support to tell ourselves and the world that we’re better than this… that we shall overcome all terrorist threats to a humane society.
Go public against racial hatred
When a group of African Americans tried to cross a bridge in Selma and were denied, the country rallied. People of all ethnic stripes came against forces that wanted to infringe upon the God-given dignity of others. In one collective voice, they said, “No more. Not on my watch. Never again.”
Do we have enough Good Samaritans today who are willing to go public with their determination to end racism? Can we get enough people to just say no to racism so that our national consciousness reaches a tipping point that ends racial injustice? Will we call out and straighten out our own family members, friends, co-workers, and associates when they espouse ideas and actions that would undermine the safety and sanctity of others?
There’s been a lot of talk about having conversations about race, but as we all know, talk is cheap—unless it’s meant to broaden our understanding and respect for people who are “other” to us. Should we have such honest and transparent conversations, we’d quickly find out that underneath the skin, we’re all pretty much the same, with the same dreams and aspirations for ourselves and future generations. But until people, famous and anonymous, lock arm in arm and publicly declare that life matters and that racial hatred is wrong and will not be tolerated here, we can expect more of the same.
It’s been said that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. If that is true, then good people must take just actions until evildoers realize that we the people are intolerant of racial injustice. What Jesus taught must still be shared: We are all neighbors. We all are made in the image of God. Christ died so we could all experience our universal oneness in Him. When a Black child is murdered in the streets, we all suffer. When a White child is murdered in her elementary schoolroom, we all suffer. We are all human. No one else needs to be senselessly gunned down to make this heart-wrenching point.
So another Black History Month is here, and for artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types that hail from the Black community, it’s an opportunity that comes with a burden.
February is a time when your workplace, school, or church might be more open to forms of artistic expression that highlights the achievements of Black people, particularly for those of you who live and/or work in a predominantly White community. And while it’s obviously a great opportunity to highlight the best of our tradition as a community, it also means that from an exposure standpoint, it’s an opening to get your songs, poems, plays, or paintings seen and heard by people who might be able to support you financially.
But the burden is the challenge of successfully executing your art without being swallowed whole by the bitterness of the struggle. I mean, let’s just be honest: struggle might be the catalyst that serves to incubate powerful works of art, but it’s terrible as a sales technique. No one can alienate their audience through their art and simultaneously persuade them to become financial supporters.
The truth is, we’ve come a long way as African Americans. No longer are we restricted to the kinds of gigs and roles that kept us docile and subservient in the minds of the majority. In recent years, there has been a greater level of visibility to the everyday struggle that Black Americans endure, and it’s also helped place a premium on authentic Black art that helps to articulate that struggle.
Still, if we’re not careful, we’ll fall into a false dichotomy, where we feel like either we must keep it fully 100 at all times with our art, or we’re selling out for the money.
But there’s a middle ground.
Discerning the Difference
Ten years ago, I was in a hip-hop duo traveling to a Christian camp to do a concert for a bunch of youth from the inner city. When I arrived onto the campus, I headed to the most logical place for music performance—the chapel.
As I walked into the chapel, I walked up to the sound booth, and told the guy that I was with the hip-hop group that was supposed to perform. He gave me this blank stare, so I thought, “Hey, it’s loud in here, so maybe he can’t hear me that well.” I tried again, a bit louder.
“I’m with the Iccsters… y’know, the hip-hop group.”
Again, he gives me this confused stare. And then he says, “This is Christian camp.”
Right then and there, I almost lost it. I could tell that he didn’t really mean to say anything offensive to me, but it was like all the years of being stereotyped as a young Black man, overlooked and misunderstood as a rap artist, all the times hip-hop had been blamed for all of society’s problems—by other Christians, no less!—almost overwhelmed me. I wanted to set him straight and tell him that there are Christians who perform hip-hop, and his assumption was shortsighted, racist, and insulting.
But I had somewhere to go, so I swallowed that rage, walked out of the room, called my contact, and located my actual destination (a different building with a smaller setup).
Often, when I’m invited to share hip-hop as a form of worship music and find myself in spaces that remind me of that day, I’m tempted to go back to that moment, tap into that rage, and give the audience a piece of my pain.
The wisdom and maturity of age helped me learn how to posture myself, not as someone with an axe to grind, but as someone with something of value to share. And when I share my pain, I do it with an eye toward giving others an opportunity to join me in my struggle, instead of guilting them for not already being onboard.
Sometimes God calls us to stand up and fight; other times, He simply gives as an opportunity to share who we are and how we got here. As an artist, my prayer is for us to flip the script and learn to discern the difference.
It’s not easy to be hated by the person who is supposed to love you most, and unfortunately, being toxic has become normalized in our culture.
Many see misdirected aggravation, gaslighting, physical abuse, and more as “love tactics.” When a child only knows pain as a source of love, then they too love in that way and any other form of healthy love seems abnormal.
However, the question is, can a person ever love authentically if they were raised to be toxic?
The assumption is no. When someone is exposed to consistent, toxic stress, they are vulnerable to mental and physical illness that can sometimes develop into a genetic trait, according to Hey Sigmund; therefore this behavior is biologically passed on through generations.
However, despite the science behind the effects of toxic love, there is always hope for a better life.
Fighting for Love
“I just felt like I wasn’t loved by my mom, says Monique, a woman in her 40s who was often told she wasn’t good enough. “I felt growing up in my mom’s house I wasn’t allowed to be me, an individual.”
To suit her mother’s perfect image of a family, Monique, was to participate in certain activities without any consideration of her talents or desires. While at the same time, her brother was given free reign to participate in activities of his choice throughout their childhood.
And to make matters worse, Monique’s father suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and would often abuse her. She recalls him touching her to satisfy his physical desires and severely beating her when she reported it to her incredulous mother.
Fortunately, Monique found refuge in her grandmother’s home, where she found the kind of love her mother envied. Monique remembers her mother punishing and verbally abusing her as a result of the love she received from her grandmother.
Like many girls, Monique found herself looking for love in empty relationships during her teen years that lead to a forced, terminated pregnancy and physical and emotional abuse similar to the treatment she received from her own father.
Eventually, Monique met a gentle and caring man named Laz. However, Laz’s compassion and gentleness were unfamiliar to her, which ultimately lead to Monique returning to one of her previous, toxic relationships.
She went on to marry a former flame named Xavier and stayed in her abusive marriage for eight years.
“Towards the end of my [3rd] pregnancy, I found out he was cheating and when I confronted him, he hit me,” says Monique who recalls her toxic relationship that mirrored her childhood. “He asked, ‘Who are you to question me?’…It felt like because of the way I grew up, if I wasn’t getting hit, then it wasn’t love,”
After her divorce, Monique fought against her toxic past. She made the decision to rise above her father’s mental illness, her mother’s jealousy and apathy, and their collective effort to make her their emotional punching bag for their marriage troubles.
Although the struggle did not end after her marriage when it came to love, her children, and health, she remains hopeful enough to fight for the love she deserves. She charges her will to carry on to God, because without Him, she would have taken the final blow to end her suffering.
Turning Off the Gaslight
Bella was born to a Catholic family that rejected her mother for having a baby with a man that she later learned was married. The rejection caused her mother to make multiple attempts to prove her worth to the family by making Bella seem exceptional, but in private her mother was spiteful and unloving as the list of accomplishments grew.
“[My mother] did everything for me to prove herself, but not for the love of me,” Bella explains. “She worked hard to put me through private school and extracurricular activities, but at home I was repeatedly told I was nothing; sometimes she even called me a waste of a human being. To this day, she has never told me she loves me.”
Whenever something would go wrong in Bella’s life, she would automatically blame herself as a result of her relationship with her mother. Even when her husband and father of their two children committed adultery, she took the blame.
As time went on, Bella lost the love of her life, her job, and believed that she would never be loved which drove her into a suicidal state .
Until one day, Bella decided that she had enough and began to fight for her life, beauty, and self-love through therapy. “Once I figured out that I wasn’t this awful, unlovable monster that I was made to believe as a reality by someone who was unloved, it turned my world upside down in a great way,” Bella says. “It never would have happened without me doing the work in therapy.”
As a result of her treatment, Bella was led to a love that she has been enveloped in for the last four years. Even though the pain of rejection transcended through two generations, love won in the end.
“In the middle of all of this, I met a man who just rained love on me,” Bella joyfully exclaims.
Is there hope after a toxic upbringing?
“But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of [your abuser], which I also hate” (Revelations 2:6, NIV).
In the beginning of this article, the question was, can a person love authentically if they were raised to be toxic? The answer is yes, but you must fight for it.
It is easy to nurse the scars of someone that you love, because love is to be unconditional, right? But what good is unconditional love when a person’s pain has replaced the spirit that you desperately want to love?
That is spiritual warfare and it is best to back away and allow God to handle it if they are unwilling to get help. It is important to recognize the signs of someone who has been abused and trying to regain power, which can include verbally sharing memories of their toxic loved ones.
Fortunately, Bella and Monique worked past those painful memories found a way to defeat them so that the tradition of toxicity ended with them and a reign of love could begin.
“Black people don’t commit suicide. That’s a white thing.”
Who said that? That is a false statement. Blacks suffer from mental illness just like their white counterparts. In fact, when you think of everyday stressors, systematic-racism such as police brutality, education and health care gaps, and sexism that impacts black women, blacks are more likely to be at risk for developing a mental condition.
July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and this is a perfect time to shed light on what many deem a nonexistent problem. Schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety disorder, dissociative identity disorder/multiple personality disorder, bulimia, ADHD, OCD and social anxiety are examples of mental illnesses that people battle daily. In the black community, many choose not to acknowledge mental illness as a sickness. Diseases such as diabetes and cancer are accepted as normal and natural, but what so many fail to realize is that blacks are no different than any other race when it comes to these illnesses. We are not exempt from mental illness.
While some experience mental illness only once in their life (depending on the illness, environment, life stressors, and genetics), others battle mental illness for the rest of their lives. Some of us think that we do not have a problem and truly believe that everyone else is the issue. Unfortunately, these myths and illusions force us to suffer in silence and not seek treatment. Mental illness affects “everyday functional” people and it is not limited to the homeless man talking to himself. It impacts a person’s emotions, perception, and behaviors.
As a person with major depression and generalized anxiety disorders, the comments said to me have been heartbreaking and mind-blowing because it prevented me from seeking help. I thought that I was making it up in my head even though I didn’t feel well for years. Finally diagnosed at 25, my doctor stated that the illness started around the age of 13. Can you imagine having cancer without being diagnosed for over 10 years? You would die. Well, I can tell you that I was dying on the inside and it led to multiple suicide attempts. My illness can get so debilitating. At one point, it stopped me from doing basic things such as going to work, talking, eating and showering.
Here are some of the myths that we must stop saying!
Myth #1: Only white people commit suicide.
Fact: According to by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate of black children in between the ages of 5 and 11 doubled between 1993 and 2013 and the rate among white children committing suicide declined. Suicides by hanging nearly tripled among black boys. While whites still have highest suicide rates in the country, suicide rates among black youth have significantly grown over the past decade. Unfortunately, black youth are killing themselves more frequently than their elders. Suicide has become the third leading cause of death among black people between the ages of 15 and 24 and a leading cause of death among school-aged children younger than 12 years in the United States.
Myth #2: Medication doesn’t work and/or they make you feel worse.
Fact: Medication is necessary for some individuals in their mental recovery. While they are NOT cures for mental illness, they are vital for treating the symptoms. Some may need medication for the rest of their lives (depending on the illness) and others only need it for a specific time. Nonetheless, medication is not a sign of weakness and it does not mean the person is crazy. It is no different from taking medication for high blood pressure or insulin for diabetes. Just like the body gets sick, the brain gets sick too, if you don’t take care of it. And no, this is not to say that everyone with a mental illness will need medication, but it is an invaluable help to many.
Myth #3: Black people don’t go to therapy.
Fact: Though there has been a deep-rooted stigma about seeking therapy, Blacks are increasingly seeking therapy for mental illness. Therapy is great whether you have a mental illness or not. Therapy helps you to work on yourself, dissect problems, face fears and overcome obstacles such as breakups, loss of a loved one, financial challenges, self-image issues, abuse, etc. As mentioned previously, blacks deal with oppression daily and therapy can help us work through it. Those who are still hesitant to try therapy can look into other ways of getting help. The support of a life coach has also been shown to be beneficial for many.
Myth #4: You can pray it away.
Fact: As a Christian, I have seen God perform miracles in my life. But when you say to a person “just pray,” you are assuming that they are not praying and dismissing how they feel, challenging the sincerity of their faith, and most likely preventing them from getting treatment. You would not say “just pray” to a person who broke a leg. You would tell them to go to the doctor for an x-ray and cast. We must treat mental illness the same. God also gives us resources to use on earth and sometimes that may be therapy and medication when a person is battling a mental illness.
Damian Waters is a marriage and family therapist in Upper Marlboro, MD, where he serves predominantly African American clients. On the issue of the stigma surrounding blacks seeking therapy, he says, “There’s some shame and embarrassment. You’ll tell someone that you went to the doctor, but you won’t tell that you went to the counselor or psychiatrist. Also, there is the idea that their faith should carry them through, though often their problems are larger than that.”
As a way to honor those with mental illness, please think before you speak, and encourage those who need help to seek treatment. Mental illness is just as serious as any other disease and those affected by it should not be judged or outcast. Mental illness is a flaw in brain chemistry, not a character flaw, or a white people problem.
Can you think of other myths surrounding Blacks and mental illness? Share them below along with your thoughts on putting the myths to rest once and for all.