The summer after my freshman year of college, I decided it was time for me to read everything I could get my hands on in order to become a respectable black intellectual. At Barnes & Noble, I grabbed the only book by bell hooks in stock in the “African-American Interests” section—Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem. “I have found myself saying again and again that mental health is the revolutionary antiracist frontier African Americans must collectively explore,” hooks wrote. She touched on issues of self-hatred, depression, addiction, and emotional well-being. I promptly decided it was one of the most important books I had ever read. Whatever was hurting black people, I wanted to fight. But I soon forgot about the book. I knew people who were in prison; I didn’t know anyone who was depressed.
And that included myself. Starting when I was 16, I had occasional panic attacks. Even so, I failed to connect Rock My Soul to anything in my experience. I saw in hooks’s words something plaguing black communities, not me. My panic attacks were frightening, but whenever they struck, I told myself they were nothing to worry about. After all, I was, by now, a college student. Emotionally stable. Perfectly sane.
Three years later, Rock My Soul became newly relevant. It had always been difficult for me to maintain interest in school, but I had done enough to get by. Now I was finding it harder to pretend. At some point in senior year, I stopped showing up.
I was the editor in chief of our student paper, and my work there was the only thing that got me out of bed on the days when I wanted to sleep until 4, 5, or 6 pm. Often, I would return home and open up a bottle of cheap vodka that I had started keeping around. I didn’t drink in earnest until I was 21—not because I was a stickler for legality, but because I was scared that getting drunk meant losing control. By the beginning of 2008, I had abandoned that fear and would drink that ice-cold vodka more days than not.
Every day, I was lying to people. Responding to a “How are you?” with “I’m fine” was enough to satisfy most people. The more I lied, the more I wanted to believe the lie—and the less I could. Every time I said I was fine, I saw myself dying. Sometimes I saw myself intentionally crashing my car. Sometimes I saw myself jumping from a tall building, frightened and free, feeling the wind beneath me.
I reached a point where I wanted to talk, but I’d pushed away the people it was hard to lie to. I stopped answering my mother’s phone calls. The vodka in my freezer stopped being helpful.
I had never smoked weed before. But the less comfort drinking brought me, the more curious I became. The first time I tried it, it didn’t have much of an effect. The second time, I wanted to make sure I felt it. So I inhaled sharply. Moments later, I noticed that something was off in the middle of my chest. Soon, there was tingling in my left arm. I couldn’t get enough air. In desperation, I asked my roommate Justin to take me to the hospital. As I panicked, sticking my head out of his car window like a dog wagging its tongue, Justin tried to reassure me. At the hospital, the doctor asked me if I’d done anything unusual that evening. “I smoked weed for the first time,” I said. “I guess you learned your lesson, right?” he asked. “Yeah,” I managed. Then the doctor left, the nurses dismissed me, and Justin drove me home.
It was the first time since I was 16 that a panic attack landed me in the hospital. Since it was helped along by the weed, I wrote it off as an anomaly. But by the end of March, it was getting harder to make the lie believable. With increasing frequency, my parents asked me if I was sure I was going to graduate on time. I hadn’t purchased a cap and gown. I still wasn’t going to class. I hadn’t even pretended to revise my thesis. “Yeah, I should,” I told them. “I’ll have to do a summer course to finish my thesis, but I’ll be able to walk.”
To tell the truth would have been to admit failure. I didn’t want to face my mother’s disappointment or my father’s lecture. I was their firstborn, and I was part of the first generation in both families to have several members attend college. My graduation would be a sign of progress. But I wasn’t even making it out of bed most days.
I went home one weekend and found my mother in the backyard, getting her plants ready for summer. “So how are we doing this—when school is over, are you coming back here?” she asked. “What room are you taking?” I started crying. “What’s wrong, my child?”
“I don’t know… everything,” I replied. Her hands were caked in soil, so she called my father over to embrace me. He hugged me and walked me back into the house. I sat on the couch and cried until I physically couldn’t any longer.
I told my parents what I felt—some of it. I told them I wasn’t sleeping, that there was no way I was going to graduate on time, that I felt like a failure, that I was afraid of disappointing them and everyone else. My father said, “It sounds like you’re going through some sort of depression.”
There was the word. I was relieved to hear it, because what I was feeling had a name that I could say. But I still didn’t know what to do about it.
* * *
I now know many people who have lived with depression, but that’s a retroactive designation. When I was 21, no one in my life would have said they suffered from depression. Plenty of people said they were “depressed,” which generally meant “really sad,” but no one would cop to a mental illness. The only people I “knew” who had gone to a psychiatrist and talked about it openly were in Woody Allen movies. For several decades, white people in the professional and artistic classes have been able to wear their weekly analysis sessions as a badge of intellect, while the rest of us struggle with the stigma of mental illness—a stigma that is especially strong in black communities. Black people have every reason to be distrustful of mental-health care in this country: Psychiatric institutions have largely functioned as another form of prison, and mental illnesses are often attributed to black people despite their completely rational behaviors. But that doesn’t mean we don’t suffer, often in silence.
My family wanted to help. Aunt Gay, my mother’s twin, called the next day to reassure me that she was proud of me. Then Darius, one of Aunt Gay’s sons, called and said that I had nothing to be ashamed of, that I had accomplished more than so many young black men get the chance to do. I appreciated the pep talks and told them as much, but they weren’t what I needed. I asked Aunt Gay to tell Antaeus, her oldest son, to call me.
“How do you do it?” I said as soon as he did. Confused, Antaeus asked, “How do I do what?” Crying, I answered: “How do you live without Demetri?”
Demetri was born on February 27, 1982, the first son of Uncle Clayton, my mother’s only brother. Demetri was the best at everything: basketball, football, video games. I would practice Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter at home, trying to get good enough to beat him on our next trip to DC. But I looked up to Demetri because he didn’t tease as hard as everyone else. I felt protected around him.
In March of 1999, my mother left for a few days. On occasion, she would go to see her family without us, so that didn’t strike me as abnormal. Then my father called my brother and me to come downstairs. Demetri had been shot, he told us. Seven times. I didn’t grasp the gravity of the situation because he never said, “Demetri is dead.” Instead, he gave us a lecture about why he was always telling us that “choices” were important in life. (Demetri had sold drugs before, though he wasn’t at the time of the shooting.) My big cousin had been shot, and my father was admonishing me about “choices.”
I didn’t learn that Demetri was dead until the three of us arrived in DC. Up to that point, I thought we were just going to visit him in the hospital. I walked into the church for the funeral and immediately started crying. We had been to a number of funerals in my 12 short years, but none with circumstances this tragic. I finally made it up to the casket where Demetri lay dead, but my body felt out of place and time. I wanted to be anywhere else.
At Aunt Connie’s house afterward, Uncle Clayton had a little to drink. He had already lost the love of his life, Demetri’s mother, and now he had to bury his son. “You still got that jump shot?” he asked me. I tried a smile for him. The last time he’d visited us in Virginia Beach, we’d played basketball in the driveway, and he was impressed by my jump shot. “Next time I come down, I wanna see it, you hear me?” He was trying to make me feel better. I struggled through a half-hearted laugh, nodded my head, and said, “Yeah, OK.”
We never got the chance. Uncle Clayton died the next year.
I still had Demetri in my heart and memories, and I thought that was all I needed. But four years later, I had to acknowledge the pain and ask Antaeus—the only person still around who had been as deeply affected by his death as I was—how he made it through each day without him.
We talked for probably an hour. Antaeus told me how hard it was, why he’d gotten a tattoo of Demetri’s nickname on his forearm, why we had to keep going. It helped—a little—to know I wasn’t alone.
I heard from Aunt Connie next. She started with the familiar pep talk, but when I started talking about Demetri, things changed. “You like to write, don’t you?” she said. “Then you use those words. You use those words to make sure what happened to Demetri don’t have to happen to any other black boys.”
* * *
Black people in the United States pride ourselves on the fact that we have survived despite having every imaginable form of violence inflicted on us. We’ve made it through slavery and lynchings, rape and Jim Crow, poverty and police dogs, fire hoses and jail cells, and we have raised families and created culture that is emulated (and stolen) the world over. Even with all the odds stacked against us, we have persevered through the strength of our collective will and our faith in God. But neither will nor faith can heal the psychic wounds of that survival.
While black women are expected to be strong enough to shoulder the emotional needs of the entire community, men inherit a sense of masculinity that teaches stoicism as a virtue. Generations of black boys and men are walking around with turmoil swelling inside them, ready to explode at any minute. “The violence done to black boys is the abusive insistence, imposed on them by family and by society, that they not feel,” bell hooks writes in Rock My Soul. I learned very early on to suppress my emotions. I was a sensitive child; the slightest bit of teasing from my big cousins, whose approval I desperately wanted, would set me off in tears. So I tried to laugh along or be silent.
And I learned by example. My father was a picture-perfect example of masculine authority. My brother and I knew him as a dutiful provider and a strict disciplinarian. I can only guess now at what made him afraid, what caused him pain, what trauma he’d lived through to become the man he did. He always said we could talk to him about anything, but he never opened up to us—and I learned to never open up, either.
I always waited until my pain was unbearable, until it left me facedown and sinking. Then things would come pouring out of me and I’d feel much better, but I never carried that lesson forward. I wanted to change this pattern, but I didn’t know how.
Sometimes it feels like the problem is that we black men have internalized the perception of ourselves as unfeeling brutes. Sometimes it feels like the problem is our commitment to an antiquated idea of strength. But when we do speak, who listens? Or, more critically: When we speak, what do people hear?
* * *
Hip-hop is the biggest cultural phenomenon of the past half-century. Rappers get criticized for their materialism, sexism, homophobia, and glorification of gangster lifestyles—and there is plenty of merit to that critique. But we’re all guilty of reducing our image of rappers to caricatures. When they tell us what’s wrong, do we listen?
When the Notorious B.I.G. was a “nigga rappin’ ’bout blunts and broads / Tits and bras, ménage à trois, sex in expensive cars,” people paid attention. When he told us about his “Suicidal Thoughts,” we brushed it aside. We turned “Cash Rules Everything Around Me” into a money-making anthem, without taking note of Inspectah Deck saying: “Though I don’t know why I chose to smoke sess / I guess that’s the time when I’m not depressed / But I’m still depressed and I ask, What’s it worth?” When Tupac was hollering “Thug Life,” everyone from vice presidential candidates to my parents wanted him censored, but they couldn’t be found when he said: “I smoke a blunt to take the pain out / And if I wasn’t high I’d probably try to blow my brains out.” Jay Z and Kanye West’s album Watch the Throne was dismissed by some critics as “luxury rap,” but there’s nothing luxurious about Jay Z asking: “Where the fuck is the press? Where the fuck is the Pres? / Either they don’t know or don’t care, I’m fucking depressed.”
When T.I. kept getting arrested on gun and drug charges, did anyone ask whether his behavior was the result of having witnessed so many people in his life die or go to prison while his talent made him a millionaire celebrity, even as survivor’s guilt ate away at him?
Who would we be if we understood mental illness, if we could offer support and had access to all the resources needed to address these common but unspoken struggles? I got lucky: My family cared and supported me, even if they didn’t always understand. Through social media, I found a community—starting with the poet and mental-health advocate Bassey Ikpi—that made me feel less alone and taught me there were ways to heal. And I had enough resources at my disposal to make that healing possible.
It’s not true for everyone, and it’s especially not true for black boys trying to become black men in America. But we can end this deadly lack of care. We can build communities that prioritize mental health and encourage the understanding that depression isn’t a sign of weakness, but an illness like any other. And we can fight to ensure that therapists and psychiatrists versed in racism and gender oppression, proper medication, and facilities that don’t mimic prisons are available to us all. But first we have to start talking about what we need.