op-ed: emotional health – is so-called black “resilience” doing more harm than good?

May 2, 2014

When is a person really, truly healthy? I am a physically fit, twenty-something with an abnormal fondness of dark green vegetables and exercising, but in spite of all this, I still don’t feel healthy. My blood pressure is far higher than it should be and I experience anxiety so strong that sometimes it makes me physically sick. As I delve deeper into the world that is my blackness, I’m finding truths connected to my stress I can never unlearn.
The tragic death of Brown Girls creator, Karyn Washington has raised the long suppressed and painful discussion of black stress and how we have learned to cope, or in many ways avoid, the roots of our stress and anxiety. It’s time we discussed new and better ways of coping with stress, because right now, black people, stress is killing us- literally.

By Jazz So And So, AFROPUNK Contributor *

Disclaimer: This article explicitly discusses Christianity. I’m not religious nor do I strongly believe in any sort singular higher power- It is important that you note my obvious bias because of this. I won’t go into the specifics of my beliefs here, so as to stay on topic, but am happy to elaborate in separate discussions.

The Root writer, Lottie L. Joiner, revealed a 2010 study with the devastating fact that black people, mainly black women, suffer from higher blood pressure, more strokes, and heart disease, all due to the higher levels of stress experienced; a lot of which stem from simply being black.

“US blacks are more likely to experience stressful situations, such as material hardship, interpersonal discrimination, structural discrimination in housing and employment, and multiple care giving roles than whites,” wrote Dr. Michelle Gourdine, author of Reclaiming Our Health: A Guide to African American Wellness.

Historically, the church has been the place to relieve stress and find community for black people. We have found power through religion, from the liberating civil rights moment of the 1960s, led by peace leader and Christian pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. to Christianity as a catalyst of strength for black slaves during a time where no other hope could be found.

Christianity has become so closely intertwined with blackness, that even the fast-growing community of non religious black people cannot help but be influenced by it. For many black people, our church is our therapy, God is our mantra and pray is our meditation, but with the building proof that stress impacts the health of black people more than other ethnic groups, perhaps religion alone is no longer enough.

It is important to note my upbringing is far from typical of not just black culture, but American culture as a whole. In the middle of the day in our homeschooling courses, my mother would have my siblings and me sit in a circle and focus on our breaths in what I later learned was a form of meditation. We attended a ‘new thought’ church that was so progressive, it was actually called ‘a spiritual center.’ For the first eight years of my life, I understood meditation and spiritualism through humanity as normal.

Then, as a preteen my family left our spiritual center to attend a more traditional church. I remember asking my father why we left a place in which I’d grown to love and find such comfort;

“You need to get the black experience,” he expressed; a response I will never forget.

At our new church we were given sermons by a self-appointed Apostle who preached the gospel of prosperity and fear of our powerful Lord and Savior. The apostle told us to ‘do good’ for our God, to be strong in the presence of evil and to not let the devil bring us down.

In some ways, it was comforting to know that no matter what, I was protected by God. But on the other hand, in spite of the strength in community that was apparent at my new church, there was an overbearing sense of loneliness in accepting God as my only protector from the countless obstacles I would undoubtedly face. Not that all black people interpret Christian teachings as I did, but as an impressionable ten year old, this was my honest evaluation.

My background is unique in that I was given two separate philosophies in the most influential times of my upbringing. I have the unique perspective of a non affiliated mentality and later- a deeply religious, Christian mind; and I’m privileged to be able to analyze the implications of such a shift.

I learned from my time as a devout Christian that in particular, black Christians are taught to hold our own. We are taught to fight like hell so that we don’t go to hell, and God will reward us with prosperity; a goal for many black people because of the fact that we are an over represented group in the working class or under the poverty line.

Due to the major influence Christianity has had on the black American community, I believe that this is true even for non-religious black people- that we either turn to God, or go within to solve our mental issues. Encroaching our issues on anyone else is a sign of weakness and instability. Often times, the furthest we move towards seeking help from our community is asking for pray, usually a request so vague as asking to be blessed in your ‘time of struggle.’

Rarely do we actually speak about our issue.

I understand that discussing religion is frequently a lost cause. People have their beliefs that are usually static, and so it goes. I am not here to challenge Christianity. In fact, I believe that no path, spiritual or religious is better or worse a path than the other- so long as that path does not harm yourself or others ( as, unfortunately, many religions do).

I am writing to propose a discussion that involves finding new ways of building mental peace and healthy mentalities for black people, that may go beyond our modern understanding of black culture so intertwined with conservative forms of Christianity: in forms of counseling, discussing our lives with trusted peers, meditation, mantras, yoga, etc.

The real issue now is that we, black people, have a detrimental communal understanding of what it means to be in control of your mind. To be really in control of ones mind is to understand that, just like the rest of our bodies, our brain needs constant maintenance. A mind in control is always present, not absent (absent in this case, meaning on default). Striving for mental health takes the sort of deliberate thinking that very few people recognize is even necessary. That is why we, as black Americans, understand the community that meditates to be a very small, elite group. I mean really, how often do you stop to think to breath?

Russell Simmons released a book recently advocating meditation for people from all walks of life. While a pioneer effort for a black man to advocate for meditation, I fear his millionaire status and lavish lifestyle may overshadow his efforts in persuading the black community that such a practice makes sense for the average person.

I used to believe that a strong mind meant I could handle anything on my own. I thought that never needing to talk to anyone about my problems meant I was resilient, a warrior of my circumstances. Holding in my emotions gave me a sense of pride. Black culture suggests a hard shell equals a sound mind, when really, a strong disposition may just be a coping mechanism for pain or stress.

So many in my community shared this belief to the point that it felt normal, expected even, to stay silent, even when I felt I might fall a part. I recognize that there is great privilege in being able to talk out your problems with a professional, but for those of us that cannot afford counseling, we must acknowledge that expressing our feelings to our peers is not a sign of weakness. Taking time out of our day to collect our thoughts does not mean we are retreating. It merely means we have made our mental health a priority- and I do hope that day comes soon for us all.

For black people, walls can kill, and so we have no choice but to break them down. An no, more silence is not the answer.

Fortunately, this difficult discussion of black stress is showing up more in our media than ever before. This piece was written simply as an additional perspective to a fresh forum that already exists, and I really hope it continues.

* Jazz So And So’s website: