The Silent Fight
By: Najya A. Williams
January 21, 2018
What does mental wellness look like in the Black community? It looks like plenty of “Girl, I’m fine,” “Bro, I’m gucci,” “Nah, I’m just a little tired. I’ll be okay. Don’t worry about me,” “School is great,” “I love being away from home,” “I got my degree and a good job. I don’t have a reason to complain,” and the most telling, “I’m happy.”
These are phrases often peppered with empty eyes and hearts heavy with pain no one knows about. Souls strangled by anxiety and fear about excelling academically, professionally, and especially, personally. Mental wellness in the Black community looks like a smiling person with a pill lodged in their throat. Everyone can see a rosy exterior that masks a worrisome reality. Unsurprisingly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have reported that the three leading killers of Black people in the United States are heart disease, cancer and stroke, diseases that are exacerbated by poor diets, lack of exercise, and stressful lifestyles. As a community, how did we arrive at an existence where ignoring reality is easier than prioritizing our mental health?
Since the beginning of slavery, Black people were not given the chance to buckle, bend or break under pressure. If anything, we were trained to adjust to the extra weight without complaint or comment. Our forefathers didn’t survive the middle passage for us to be weak. They weren’t weren’t beat, raped, tortured, and mutilated for us to be weak. Great aunties and uncles didn’t get hosed and bitten for us to be weak. Black inventors didn’t explore uncharted territories for us to be weak. Dr. King didn’t die for us to be weak. President Obama wasn’t elected for us to be weak. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown,, and Eric Garner weren’t murdered for us to be weak. We don’t come from weakness.
That is the mentality that has dictated how the Black community has regarded mental wellness for centuries on end, and it wasn’t until recently that more and more social activists began speaking out about self preservation as much as they do the fight for justice (Alexandra Elle, self care enthusiast and author, is a personal favorite). From this perspective, we can identify that the Black community feels obligated to disregard mental wellness because of the ancestors who endured pain no matter the health cost, and because of the fight for Black liberation that persists today. How can we not instinctively follow the pattern of our departed? How can we selfishly abandon the struggle? How is that remotely okay?
I would like to challenge us to reconsider what the current appearance of our mental wellness is really doing to our work within ourselves and our community. Social activism is a 24/7 job that never really ends. The media will never stop reporting injustices, there will always be someone or something to rally for, and the work will remain piled high at the end of the day. The fight for Black liberation is likely to outlive our generation, but at the rate we are going, we may not live to pass the baton off to the next group of fighters undoubtedly wanting to follow in our footsteps.
Strong and resilient are two adjectives that accurately describe the Black community; there’s no denying it. However, no matter how much we ignore the reality of it, human is also a valid description of who we are and will continue to be. Though we are moving our expiration date up closer and closer to the present, there is opportunity for us to fight the “good” fight, live as the answered prayers of those who came before us, and still lead healthy lives. Even if our own bodies aren’t enough of a reason, the bodies of our future activists are. Let us set the precedent for those who are peering up at us expectantly in the same way we once looked at the leaders ahead of us. We can turn the hands of time and open the jaws of premature illness and death by first releasing ourselves and making our mental wellness non-negotiable.
How can we move forward? Here are a few resources that outline ways Black activists can place themselves and the community on the same pedestal:
You may have noticed that throughout this piece, I have used pronouns that refer not only to you, but also to me. I am a social activist who has been on the front lines since middle school, and I hadn’t come up for a bit of air until my senior year of high school. It was only then that I confronted my guilt at feeling fatigued by the constant fight. It was only then that I confronted a silent fight I knew many of us were battling alone. It is my sincere prayer that this article sets you, your family and anyone else affected free. The silent fight for our humanity and mental wellness is not an easy one, but it is certainly worthwhile.
Najya Williams is a current sophomore at Harvard University. She plans to pursue a concentration in Sociology as a pre-medical student, and aspires to become a pioneer in the medical field and beyond as a pediatrician and writer.