Like countless others, I sat in front of my computer screen and read Kiese Laymon’s essay, “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others,” on Gawker last weekend. And like countless others, I deeply admired Laymon’s openness and his willingness to express his vulnerabilities, befuddlement, and failings. Some of the incidents and certainly most of the emotions they evoked could’ve been expressed by several of the men I know. And this, above all, is what made the essay so saddening for me.
Among other things, Laymon speaks with startling realism about the causes and effects of depression in young black men. This slow killing he discusses — the fatalistic risk-taking, the feelings of familial disappointment, the absorption of a lifetime of racial animus — is an occurrence all too familiar to the people these men love. A University of North Carolina Chapel Hill study indicates:
Enduring subtle, insidious acts of racial discrimination is enough to depress anyone, but African-American men who believe that they should respond to stress with stoicism and emotional control experience more depression symptoms…. The data also showed that when men felt strongly about the need to shut down their emotions, then the negative effect of discrimination on their mental health was amplified. The association was particularly apparent for men aged 30 years and older.
I’m not the smartest boy in the world by a long shot, but even in my funk I know that easy remedies like eating your way out of sad, or fucking your way out of sad, or lying your way out of sad, or slanging your way out of sad, or robbing your way out of sad, or gambling your way out of sad, or shooting your way out of sad, are just slower, more acceptable ways for desperate folks, and especially paroled black boys in our country, to kill ourselves and others close to us in America.
I felt the same helplessness upon finishing the essay as I feel noticing the signs, both subtle and blatant, of a beloved cousin or uncle or friend slowly self destructing. It’s difficult to know quite what kind of support is appropriate to offer, particularly if the man in question is hell-bent on internalizing his suffering. But offering your ear, your patience, your doctor referrals, your reassurance, your kind words, your forgiveness, and your continued willingness to engage, to discuss, and to hopefully, eventually understand are some great places to begin.
If the overwhelmingly positive response to Laymon’s treatise indicates anything, it’s that his premise is true: A significant number of young black men are slowly killing themselves (and others) in response to the unrelenting racism they face. If those who love them are contributing to that dying through a stubborn adherence to traditional masculine role expectations or through anger at our sense of hopelessness to change things, we need to contemplate new approaches to supporting their growth and strengthening their will to live.
Did you read Laymon’s essay? What were your initial thoughts? What should be the black community’s response to racism’s effect on the mental health and development of young black men?