I started writing this article when it was reported that singer/performer Fantasia Barrino attempted suicide in 2010. But the buzz of that event in our ever increasing pop culture and 140 character social media world was a fleeting moment to discuss a “taboo” which usually resides at the margins of daily life, especially for people of color. With Fantasia’s speedy recovery and return to the stage, the deeper aspects of this conversation quickly faded. But here it is again because it did not really fade. It is always with us, but just not always as public. We know this place. With the alleged suicide of Don Cornelius, the conduit of creativity for Soul Train, it is here for us all to see, grieve, and ask why.
I remember the first time suicide prompted me to ask the elusive question “why?” As a twelve-year old girl, I was lost when a childhood friend from my neighborhood and church, whom I affectionately referred to as “cousin,” took his own life at the young age of 16. He was a superstar athlete and popular at school. Naturally, I questioned why this happened. It was explained to me that it was an accident and “the gun went off.” But I remember arguing about it with kids and teachers at school who did not accept it as an accident. I determined they were lying. They had to be. What other explanation was there? And why would someone suggest that he would do this to himself? Confused, I stood before a packed church of 300-plus mourners, above the casket of my “cousin” and read his obituary. The faces of the crowd, young and old, looked about as confused as I was. Less of a question and more of an entangled announcement, we all silently asked “why.”
Emphasis on silence. There is a code of silence around the topic of suicide in our communities; and not just suicide, but mental health as a whole, ranging from severe depression and anxiety, to mental illness like schizophrenia. The root of such issues can vary, but no matter the source, it is happening everywhere. Although some groups are disparately affected more than others, according to the CDC, no group is absolved from suicide or mental health regardless of race, class, or gender. Therefore, it impacts us all.
Yet, Black folks, and other people of color, are not given permission to work through their crap. This permission is not given by themselves or their community. Instead, we are instructed to be strong, to get over it, to keep it pushin’, or in the words of the late Tupac Shakur, to “keep ya head up” because it will all be okay.
When I was an undergrad, feeling like my life was tearing at the seams, I shared with a few close family and friends that I was going to see the campus counselor. Their shocked response: “Is that necessary? There’s nothing really wrong with you. You’re alright. You’ll be fine.” I was not alright. I was not fine. And sometimes, many of us are not fine either.
We are expected and encouraged to suffer in silence and privately move on because it is considered weak to do otherwise. When Ron Artest was interviewed in 2010 after the L.A. Lakers won the championship, he thanked his psychiatrist on national television, shocking the sports world of fans and commentators alike by sharing his open mental health process: therapy.