In the aftermath of the shattering death of Chris Lighty, activist Rosa Clemente yesterday broke the silence of her own struggles with bipolar disorder, depression and thoughts of suicide. It takes tremendous courage in our cultures – U.S., hip-hop, African-diasporic – for her to place her mind, body and spirit on the line like that. Especially since not only is she a public figure known for her outspoken voice and uncompromising fire, Clemente was also a Vice Presidential candidate in 2008, half of the first ticket in U.S. history to consist of women of color. (But y’all should know this already.)
Along with Clemente, Lighty’s suicide has compelled many leaders in the hip-hop community to call for a discussion of depression and other mental illness among communities of color. My hope is not that only will these conversations take place, but that they will include a vigorous examination of some behaviors in our cultures that may actually be dangerous forms of self-medication.
Relentless hustling at the cost of meaningful relationships and substantive rest.
Spending far more on trendy objects with fleeting value than we produce for wages, in culture, and/or with meaning.
Partying too many nights and sleeping away too many days.
Obsessing over the lives of people we will never meet and don’t even admire (this being my personal drug of choice.)
And the alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana, oh my. My own awareness of the pervasive use of controlled substances by men of color in the hip-hop generation as a possible mask for widespread depression came when Joan Morgan called it in her 1999 seminal work When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down. Tens of thousands of us are committing suicide in slow motion through the daily act of ingesting toxins through our lips, and that impulse to not take seriously the proposition Morgan made twelve years ago is a surefire indicator that we have a pandemic on our hands. In our desire to not be judgmental – understandable given how ready and consistent others are in pathologizing our every action – we overextend to normalize and even celebrate almost ritually our penchants for self-destruction as if our ancestors were never lashed across the back while picking that shit.
And let us seriously consider that this penchant has been deeply implanted and cultivated by a system in which we were never meant to thrive. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer this past January, one of the first memoirs I read was Fred Ho’s Dairy of a Radical Cancer Warrior: Fighting Cancer and Capitalism at the Cellular Level. The self-described Marxist matriarchal Luddite posits that there is no eliminating cancer without fighting capitalism. As a disease with no singular cause, an individual must take holistic measures to overcome cancer. According to Ho, this demands a collective strategy of activism as much as personal approaches to diet, exercise, emotional wellness and spiritual healing. Our economic system creates such powerful and varied toxicity in the physical environment and socio-political culture that we cannot fathom a world without cancer if we are unwilling to participate in global movements for justice for “capitalism creates more problems than it solves.”
I wonder if the same is not true for mental illness in all its forms. There’s a reason we do all these self-destructive things and with such great pride and defensiveness. It’s the American way, yo, and who else is on never-ending mission to prove worthy of our imposed citizenry if not people of African descent? We forget that the American way was not conceived with our success in mind. It’s precisely that we forget we sure as hell act in ways that prove that very point.
It never fails to shock me how the history of our cultural production in this nation often replays the trope of the geeks gone cool only to be undone for attempting to keep a social contract they were forced to make by those who are far more powerful than they are. We begin at the margins, a necessary but underappreciated strata of the socio-economic structure. The dominant class needs us for its own survival but doesn’t recognize our humanity never mind respect our greatness. Yet we manage decade after decade, generation after generation, era after era, to fashion that marginalization into something phenomenal. We don’t do it with a calculated desire or decision to win over the haters. We do it to remember and assert who we really are in the face of their domination. We do it simply because great is who we are.
Then the haters get wind of our genius and want to be down. They want to capitalize spiritually as well as economically because domination has its psychic limits. (Although most are too busy dominating to be conscious of this otherwise they might evolve to more organic and effective strategies toward abiding fulfillment.) The haters finally see us, and so powerful is their recognition, we develop amnesia. We forget that we did not come to this table of our own will and say, “I want to play!”
And like the geeks who finally get invited to the cool kids’ party, we run hard to stay in place. We mimic their present of consumptive excess as if we had their past of unearned privilege. Some of us even take a page from their domination playbook and eat each other.
The irony is that it is only the most fortunate of us who survive long enough to experience that psychic cost of domination and privilege. The pain, however, is far more excruciating because our privilege was actually earned and yet resolves nothing. It was never meant to we learn only now that we are so far removed from our natural, effective methods of self-healing as individuals and in community.
Because we have lost sight of the joy of creating for its own sake, because we have forgotten the power of caring only what we think of ourselves, because we have internalized forms of medication that don’t even cure its creators, we come to realize perhaps too late that this is the real reason why we can’t have nice things and then feel powerless to do anything about it.
But first things first. Let’s admit to ourselves then one another how deathly afraid we are of being still and sober. Before we attempt to hush, patronize or ignore people who are fighting for lives of meaning despite mental illness, each of us must take inventory of our own behavior and honestly ask ourselves just how healthy are our coping mechanisms of choice despite how commonplace they may be. We must allow each other to confess that the darkness reminds us that we have chosen to play games that we were never intended to win and the occasional prizes we gain along the way may not be worth the struggle. Where anyone of us stands on the issue of whether this game is capable of changing or worthy of playing is irrelevant really. Left, right, center, we all agree that things cannot remain as they are. We might as well agree that self-care is as necessary as breathing, and that the breaths we most desperately need to take must come with words that break the silence over mental illness and its culturally sanctioned masks.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence,” said Audre Lorde, “it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”