Throughout July, The Offing observes National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month with a spotlight, across genres and departments, on work that considers the intersections of race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, and mental health and illness. This is one of our spotlighted works.
“If you can describe it, you can control it, out-wit it . . . get beyond it. In order to describe it you have to face it . . . I don’t think anything is ever really escaped, but is perpetually overcome.”
— James Baldwin
Baldwin’s study of Blackness is one that I return to often, particularly when I consider notions of racial melancholia, trauma, and the great harm it can do to a person’s everyday life. I’ve noticed a denial of the ways race intersects with mental health and history. Inside certain cultural expressions of Blackness, depression is often reduced to craziness. If you grew up in a religious community, it’s a demon that needs to be prayed away. If you are a Black woman, you are reduced to emotional or combative. The same holds true for anxiety, which is viewed as weakness. Our ancestors survived much worse, right? But the reality is that, generations later, we are left with an inheritance of that ‘survival’: ancestral trauma. And we don’t know what to call it. And we don’t know what to do about it.
Intersections of depression and race are not something specific to Black folks. These intersections happen in a number of communities, but there is a specific way in which Black folks deal (or don’t deal) with them, and the culminating result is a deep silence.
“Mental health is the revolutionary political space for black people,” bell hooks recently said in conversation with New York City’s First Lady Chirlane McCray. If we name something that burdens us, we give ourselves vital power and allow ourselves to regain some control over it. The act of talking about it is revolutionary; however, the way we discuss mental illness seems far too status quo.
Mental illness is often framed by the language of ‘wellness’, which becomes less about illness and more about notions of wellness and pharmaceutical consumption. The “try-this-and-take-that” approach removes root causes, erases any cultural or historical context. I suppose, in a way, the language of mental illness revolves around Western, mainstream ideas of happiness, which are coded with privilege, false conceptions of normalcy and lots of forgetting. The ‘Others’, the ones who can’t forget or who aren’t inherently ‘normal’ or who are not privileged are pushed farther to the periphery. That distance from the center is felt in every aspect of life.
“It takes a special skill to [even] find a therapist. It’s really tiring, to be honest,” notes Enumerate co-editor, Diamond Sharp, as we talk about our experiences, not merely as writers but as more complex beings. We talk about which medications have or haven’t worked for us, and recognize that even the act of medicating is not without a high cost that often make us try to “tough it out.” I’ve heard, from people with the best intentions, that I shouldn’t subject myself to “that poison” — though at times, it’s all that has kept me from careening into a concrete median. And then there’s dealing with the side effects: feeling too numb to laugh, to eat, to write or to fuck. Brain chemistry is tricky, especially for artists, and as much as we want to feel ‘normal’, we can’t stand feeling ‘normal.’
Diamond and I found that in talking with one another, and other POC and Queer folks who were gracious and candid enough to share their stories, that we wanted to shed some light on writers and artists who are facing “it” head on — and to do so in recognition of July as Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. In recognizing not only mental health, but minority mental health, so many questions arise: What is mental health? Mental health by whose benchmarks? And, so what if I am unhealthy to anyone else? It seems the most authentic way toward healing is accepting how we live with it. The journey toward resolution can be tumultuous as the path to self-acceptance is littered with dismissive language: crazy, psycho, emotional, unstable, diseased, wrong. When wielded, intentionally or not, the nomenclature is venomous. But we push forward, attempting to identify the unseen and vilified illness as a part of our chemical and genetic makeup.
My grandfather, in the aftermath of suffering from a condition that left him with multiple strokes, had flashbacks of his childhood trauma–often in the middle of the night. Once, my uncle had to chase after him full speed down the street, wrestle and persuade him into coming back home. We didn’t know what he was running from. On a separate occasion, he curled into fetal position, beneath the kitchen table, and began swatting at snakes and rats that only he could see. My grandmother tried to help him, but settled on the only thing she knew to do, pray. The hiss and growl that escaped from his throat still haunts me. Back then, over Sunday dinners, we called his actions, “fits” or “episodes.” We’d uncomfortably laugh, or enter into silence. There was never talk of treatment or therapy. It was “family” business.
If these experiences, and others like them, are hidden, how do we document them? Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow recounts the historical and communal trauma of women deemed “casualties” of war; Avishai Margalit dissects the “ethics” of memory; Maxine Hong Kingston’s experimental memoir explores the dual scenarios of an aunt whose cultural and familial-shamed pregnancy made her drown herself in a well; Marjane Satrapi faces her Othered experiences in France, and the depression she suffered in returning back to Iran in Persepolis. And though we have these literary moments, the mainstream narrative of mental health is always told through a lense of resilience and bucolic distant shores leading to ‘happy’ endings. Much like coming out to gender and/or sexuality, the confession of mental illness is a type of coming out. And, so, we turn to poetry, enumerates, fiction, essays or artifacts that place us squarely inside emotional truths–work that makes room and brings suffering to light with a hope that the afflicted have a space to say, as Jasmine Warga says in My Heart and Other Black Holes, “Maybe we all have darkness inside of us and some of us are better at dealing with it than others.”
While Diamond doesn’t have many stories from her family of origin, she understands those realities exist. A large part of her work interrogates how we find solace. Many communities look to folklore or mysticism. In the old South, the local conjure woman or hoodoo practitioner, who we may now identify as suffering from bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, would simply be a “seer” who converses with the other side and brings healing. Today, Afrofuturist theory suggests that women like us are simply engaging with the multiverse, viewing the ‘ailment’ as a gift.
The work included in our July spotlight offered confessional gifts with the hope others may know that they are not alone, and never have been. Our ancestors testify. Our lineage testifies. And, we, at The Offing, testify to the strength of each of you, all of us.