Guest editorial by Rev. Irene Monroe
When the first news reports of Robin Williams’ death hit the media, few questioned the report that the country’s most beloved comedian had committed suicide.
This reaction stands in stark contrast to the reaction to the 2012 news of the death of “Soul Train” creator Don Cornelius. Cornelius was found dead in his home after committing suicide with a firearm. Many African Americans believed Cornelius must have been murdered by an intruder, even after the official report.
Although one death involved a firearm, and distrust of the government runs deep in our communities of color, the myth that “black folks don’t get depressed, we get the blues” persisted. And, unfortunately, an opportunity to talk about suicide in the African diasporic communities was missed.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that black suicide is not only on the rise, but that suicide claims at least one African American every 4.5 hours.
And black males have a higher suicide rate than their counterparts.
I can identify at least five factors contributing to suicide in communities of African descent which, for the most part, go unaddressed: untreated mental illness, homophobic bullying, religion, “Cop-Assisted Suicide”, and the “Strong Black Woman Syndrome”.
Untreated Mental Illness
The leading cause of suicide in African diasporic communities are not only the cultural stigma about mental illness, but also the barriers to mental health treatment. While health care disparities undoubtedly contributing to the problem, so, too, the dearth of mental health professional—therapists, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists. According to the 2010 data from the American Association of Suicidology “Just 4 percent of the nation’s psychiatrists, 3 percent of the psychologists and 7 percent of social workers, are black.”
LGBTQ African Americans residing in black communities are frequently the subjects of bullying, which often times lead to their death by suicide or gang violence.
In 2009 Ms. Walker found her son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hanging by an extension cord on the second floor of their home after he endured endless anti-gay and homophobic taunts by schoolmates, although Carl never identified as gay.
When I went to speak that year at the Anti-Bullying Community Forum and Vigil in reference to Carl’s death some kids in the black community of Springfield I spoke with about the incident said Carl’s gender expression was queer, implying that there existed sufficient rationale to taunt him.
In 2010, Governor Patrick signed landmark anti-bullying legislation , cementing the state’s commitment to changing the culture of bullying in schools, and Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) was involved in the drafting and legislative process from beginning to end.
Not surprisingly sisters of African descent are one of the largest religious demographic groups. A 2012 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey disclosed that 74 percent of African American women revealed that” living a religious life” was very important to us.
But our very religious life can also contribute to a cult suicide as Sikivu Hutchinson points out in her article “Jonestown Massacre: How Religion Kills Black Women.” And because suicide is such a taboo subject and kept on the “down low” in the community very little research among African American religion scholars and theologians have probed into just how conservative Christianity not only harms our LGBTQ brothers and sisters but also our grandmothers, mothers, and sisters.
“About 75% of Peoples Temple members were African American, 20% were white and 5% were Asian, Latino and Native American,” writes Hutchinson.
“The majority of its black members were women, while its core leadership was predominantly white. As per the cultural cliché, black women like (sole Jonestown survivor Hyacinth) Thrash were “the backbone” of Peoples Temple, the primary victims of Jonestown, and the population with the deepest investment in the philosophy, ethos and mission of the church.”
Most black males in America feel they reside in a police state. The hopelessness it engenders among this demographic group has created a cop-assisted suicide culture.
And, sadly, it’s a suicide method very common among African American urban young males. It’s when a young brother deliberately engages in a life-threatening unlawful act that provokes a cop to shoot to the point of killing. Social stressors such as police profiling, constant images of unarmed black males being shot by police, high unemployment, incarceration and dropout rates, and family and community violence, to name enough, contribute to black male suicide.
“How many young men who put themselves in situations where it’s very likely that they’re going to get shot to death are actually committing suicide?” Poussaint asked in a recent interview on National Public Radio. “There is such a thing as what we call victim-precipitated homicide, which is suicide. The most classic example would be suicide by cop.”
“Strong Black Woman Syndrome”
In July 2010 a groundbreaking study titled “Black Lesbians Matter” examined the unique experiences, perspectives, and priorities of Black LBT communities. And sadly little was known about it.
The report revealed that LBT women of African descent are among the most vulnerable in our society and need advocacy in the areas of financial security, healthcare, access to education, and marriage equality. The study is akin to a census conducted over several months in 2009 – 2010 where 1,596 LBT women from regional, statewide, and local organizations in New York, Atlanta, Chicago, and Denver, and also through an on-line survey participated. The study focused on five key areas: health, family/parenting, identity, aging, and invisibility. One key finding of the survey revealed there is a pattern of higher suicide rates among us. Scholars have primarily associated these higher suicide rates with one’s inability to deal with “coming-out” to their faith communities.
When news hit that the lovely 22-year-old Karyn Washington, creator of the uplifting and empowering online site, “For Brown Girls” committed suicide even “Ebony Magazine” had to ask “Is ‘Strong Black Womanhood’ Killing Our Sisters?” With the black community focusing primarily on the “endangered black male” and the dominant culture also not seeing, and hearing
African-American voices on this issue, unfortunately, our humanity is distorted and made invisible through a prism of racist and sexist stereotypes. And, so too is our suffering.
It time to acknowledge that the stigma of suicide is killing us.
Rev. Irene Monroe is a Ford Fellow and doctoral candidate at Harvard Divinity School. One of Monroe’s outreach ministries is the several religion columns she writes – “The Religion Thang,” for In Newsweekly, the largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender newspaper that circulates widely throughout New England, “Faith Matters” for The Advocate Magazine, a national gay & lesbian magazine, and “Queer Take,” for The Witness, a progressive Episcopalian journal. Her writings have also appeared in Boston Herald and in the Boston Globe. Her award-winning essay, “Louis Farrakhan’s Ministry of Misogyny and Homophobia”, was greeted with critical acclaim. Monroe states that her “columns are an interdisciplinary approach drawing on critical race theory, African American , queer and religious studies. As a religion columnist I try to inform the public of the role religion plays in discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people. Because homophobia is both a hatred of the “other ” and it’s usually acted upon ‘in the name of religion,” by reporting religion in the news I aim to highlight how religious intolerance and fundamentalism not only shatters the goal of American democracy, but also aids in perpetuating other forms of oppression such as racism, sexism, classism and anti-Semitism.”
Tags: African American, asian, deval patrick, leland cheung, massachusetts, politics, race, voting
Guest editorial by Rev. Willie Bodrick II, M.Div
The debate continues over Governor Patrick’s announcement that Massachusetts would temporarily aid in the humanitarian emergency to shelter refugee children at our country’s southern borders. This came weeks after celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 at the Museum of African American History, and the timing of such events prompted me to ponder about the upcoming elections in September.
From campaign ads to community meetings and parades, we have come closer to intimately getting to know each candidate one by one and name by name. There are some candidates that are new to political sphere and then there are others that are seeking political tenure. Despite all the political excitement there is still something strange about the 2014 elections in Massachusetts.
If you take a look at the candidates seeking statewide office at the highest level, one thing becomes clear: there are hardly any minorities on either party’s ticket. Cambridge City Councillor and Democratic candidate for Lieutenant Governor, Leland Cheung, remains the only person of color on this year’s ballot running for any statewide office.
In a state that just eight years ago stunned the nation by electing Massachusetts’ first African American governor, Deval Patrick, frankly this is an embarrassment. The United States is becoming more diverse year by year, yet there is still a severe underrepresentation of people of color throughout all levels of government. Let 2014 be a wake up call for anyone looking to advance minority rights in the future. Unless we work together, we will not be able to achieve equality and opportunity for everyone regardless their gender, race, creed, sexuality, or religion.
When Dr. King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, one year before the Civil Rights Act was passed, he hoped for a nation in which his children were not “judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” In that very same speech Dr. King also critiqued injustice and brought into question whether America’s living was reflective of her language. As a progressive beacon in this country, we too must keep in mind that our reality must reflect our rhetoric as we engage the state of race relations both in Massachusetts and nationwide, particularly regarding the lack of minority representation in government.
Some may argue that Councillor Cheung, who is the son of immigrant parents, does not qualify for the “person of color” tag because Asian Americans in this country have been repeatedly cast as the “Model Minority.” However, I would suggest that you have fallen into the racial trap that mediates the same particular stereotypes that insinuate that everyone who looks Hispanic is here illegally, everyone who’s Muslim is connected to terrorism, everyone who is Black is thuggish or ghetto, and that every Woman is emotional. These problematic frameworks operate as means to maintain and commodify racial division for power and profit. The sad reality is that Asians Americans often struggle with the same levels of poverty experienced by other minority groups, and they too are victims of marginalization, prejudice, vulnerability, and falsehoods.
Yes, there is still interminiority prejudice that is tied to a gloomy history of oppression and conflict that has created crude competition rather than cooperative coalition. Although we should never naïvely forgo such realities, we must overcome these hostile histories and begin enacting meaningful dialogue that will engage all minorities to get involved in governance. For example, the last mayoral race in Boston featured multiple minority candidates that could not find a way to build sustainable cooperative political alliances amongst minorities to address the mutual issues that many of our communities face. We may not have the same history, but this is the United States of America, the land of immigrants. Whether by choice or by force, we come from all corners of the globe and we need minority mutuality as we move America forward.
When I first spoke with Councillor Cheung, I was so impressed with our dialogue about the racial dynamics of this upcoming election that it was necessary to video and make accessible to our community at-large via You Tube. Just as we did with Deval Patrick, our minority communities should see 2014 as an opportunity to make Massachusetts a better, and more inclusive place, with hopes that America will one day be more than a land with space for only one.
Rev. Willie Bodrick, II is a 2010 graduate of Georgetown University and a 2014 Master of Divinity graduate of Harvard Divinity School. He is an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition and finds interest in Political Activism, Community Organizing, and Social Entrepreneurship. He is currently the Youth and Young Adult Pastor at the Historic Twelfth Baptist Church and a resident of Roxbury. Twitter: @willbeamer