By now, almost everyone should be familiar with Prince Ea, the musician/poet/speaker who has amassed a very impressive following — over 3 million page likes on Facebook — by creating and posting motivational and inspirational content. Per his official FB page:
“Prince Ea is devoted to growing the world through motivational and inspirational content. He has nothing to teach; he merely shows people the power that they already have within themselves. He believes that Love is the answer to every problem we face on this planet, and will continue to spread that message as far as he can.”
Many of his videos have millions of views. The most popular among titled “I Am NOT Black, You are Not White” (which was introduced by a preview video titled “Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter”, wherein a black man wore a #blacklivesmatter shirt, while standing beside a white man wearing #alllivesmatter) argued that we aren’t race or gender labels.
One of the most recent, “YOU ARE NOT DEPRESSED, STOP IT”, implored listeners to understand themselves to be the sky and depression to be simply just passing clouds.
And while I understand the intention behind much of this content, the impact and limitations of propagating many of these messages necessitates a conversation about about blackness, mental health and self-determination.
A focus on one’s positivity and happiness is easy, but it fails to address external realities that very heavily impact our day to day lives and ability to be positive or happy. A focus on being human and not “black” or “white” erases the history of a people who proudly stand in defiance of oppression and the history of oppressors. Claims that depression is nothing more than a passing emotion, diminishes the truth that for many it is a biological disorder or tied to past traumas that require clinical intervention. This is the reductiveness and over simplicity that makes self-help and a hyper-focus on positivity problematic, especially for black people.
The self-help industry has been booming for quite some time and it should come as no surprise that it is worth billions of dollars. The appeal is easy to understand, in context. In a neoliberal, individualistic society– the ideological tenets of American society– narratives of meritocracy and building oneself up from nothing reign supreme. According to these pervasive myths, we are all powerful: Greatness is within reach for every one of us, opportunities for success distributed equally, ripe for the taking. We are each solely responsible for our destinies.
Yet, blackness has always stood at odds with this narrative. If it is, indeed, true that success is a matter of claiming it, why then did black people not have the right to claim their own humanity? Why were we treated as property? Barred entry from spaces or access to education merely because of our skin color? Why do we have little to no control over the judicial system that creates legislation that disenfranchises or oppresses us? Why are we still fighting for justice for various victims of police brutality? To free members of the black community from a for-profit prison system that has incarcerated more people in America than anywhere else in the world, the majority who are black? Why was the banking system capable of systematically targeting and destroying black wealth? Or redlining neighborhoods our neighborhoods and driving down the value of our homes?
In truth, the Black struggle in America has inherently always been a fight for self-determination. For the right to claim freedom and dignity. Any claim that somehow the only thing required for Black people to gain those rights was positive thinking or belief in self is disingenuous, at best, and a complete and utter disrespect of our fore parents, at worse. Thinking positive thoughts and believing in oneself is not all it took for black people to win the rights we have today. Many fought and gave their lives for those rights. It took collective action and collective strife.
In this way, the propagation of this type of self-help, and positivity focused thinking may actually do more harm than good. The appeal is universal– we all want control of our futures; to feel that success is within our grasp and all we have to do is reach out and grab it. For some of us, it may actually be. But if we are to collectively move forward as a people, we must understand that we are still fighting to create a world that is truly based on individualism and meritocracy. Where self-help, motivation and positivity is all we need to claim our success. Right now, that is still all just a dream.