When Bad Things Happen to Beautiful Minds

Sister of the Yam


When Bad Things Happen to Beautiful Minds


For lack of a better reference, the moment felt like Lauryn Hill circa 2000: Kanye West spitting his characteristically impulsive but nod-worthy truths–my favorite that night was his deft critique of “rap beef” –riddled by the painfully familiar feeling that what we were also witnessing was a beautiful mind unraveling.

Some who watched the Kanye West-Jimmy Kimmel interview this past Thursday, who had been keeping close watch of the many other interviewstweetspaparazzi attacks, and fashion statements that brought Kanye to Kimmel’s desk that night, and who were perhaps also nostalgic for the pre-kilt, pre-Kim, College Dropout Kanye that used to croon about family dinners and the graveshift of dead-end jobs, observed in Kanye a dangerously heightened mix of mania and megalomania; heard a wired, rambling incoherence; and chronicled those twenty plus minutes as exhibit Z that Kanye West is indeed battling some sort of mental health crises.

Others picked up on a mouth racing to keep up with a mind in constant overdrive; they tuned into Kanye’s fearless, biting critique; and cheered along the self-proclaimed Genius-Underdog sparring with the lovable Everyman type that always seems to win these kinds of debates.

Both interpretations of that night–that Kanye was emitting his last fumes before meltdown or that he is deep beyond reproach–are freighted with their own particular dangers. On one hand, we risk participating in a rich tradition of silencing and managing rightfully angry people of color who dare to speak up by calling them crazy. On the other hand, fawning hero-worship can doom us to pulling up a chair and whipping out the popcorn to shit shows that could very well be prevented; Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston hang heavy in my mind as the parables for how fatal that kind of spectatorship can truly be.

Positioning oneself in the gray is often indicia of cowardice, but here I am in this whack limboland of hedge and no answers: neither hypotheses fully work for me.


That night I saw a man who was wounded. Who never expected his naked struggle for legitimacy would become fodder for late-night mockery or that it would hurt that much–that he, as an adult man with serious indictments against an industry that made and now mangles him, would be infantalized into a whiny, ranting child. I saw a man deeply frustrated by an industry that has smugly siloed bright black and brown men into the white noise of hip-hop so that it can exoticize, imitate, appropriate, and snub them safely from afar. I saw a man who was lonely and misunderstood, who had had been stripped of his support system and now floats about unmoored. I saw a man who thought his creativity and hard word would somehow immunize him from the garden variety isms that topple heroes and unmentionables alike. I saw a man who, like many talented men of color, whether they hide out in Ivy League institutions or behind mics, has never been held accountable for the gaps in his logic and the tangles in his heart strings–for the materialism, misogyny and violence that hobbles his otherwise brave and sophisticated wisdom about race and class in this country. (But that goes for Common, Nas, Tupac and Kendrick Lamar too). I saw a man who wears his vanity like a XXL T-shirt as armor for the much smaller, more vulnerable man underneath. I saw a man who is so transfixed by needing affirmation from White America, so obsessed with his worthiness and seriousness as an artist, an intellectual and a man that he can’t quite calibrate, stake out terms for himself, laugh at the jokes that will surely come, or brave the insults that will never end. And I saw a man who can’t help but still be, many albums and awards later, the creative boy in the back of classrooms, saving up for Gucci loafers, standing up against gangster bullies and inventing those self-survival myths and mechanisms that get you out but never quite set you free.


Black America is mad at Kanye because he didn’t properly learn the lesson that every person of color must learn to remain sane in an insanely racist world–how not to offer your neck to the guillotine. Quite frankly, we’re confused: did Kanye think his art, his name, his stuff, his women-as-props would exempt him from blackness? Did he think his laying out of dreams, the unbridled honesty and that faux Little Engine That Could confidence could be the brave preemptive moves that would keep him safe? Further, we’re exhausted by his lack of groundedness . Kanye cannot seem to locate himself in a long history of great people doing great things while hearing as many–if not more and more serious–no’s than he. Lack of perspective is a male privilege and also the white privilege Kanye will never have and should never fight for.

Terrifyingly, Kanye’s sins for White America are much simpler: he dared to call himself great without their permission. For that, he is an asshole.  For that, he is dangerous. For that, he is crazy.


Deciding what Kanye is–”crazy”, genius, or troubled–is important because this is, of course, much bigger than Kanye. He stands next to Lauryn Hill, Dave Chapelle, and others with beautiful minds and broken spirits. I do not think it is coincidence that all three–Kanye, Lauryn, Dave and we can even throw Michael Jackson in–have been accused of “craziness” at the height of critiquing the ugliness and the isms of the industries and audiences that have propelled them to fame. I think we should understand that “crazy” is the Atomic Bomb of the English language, that it’s a no-return obliteration of personhood and credibility. And we should also remember that ”crazy” has been a way of managing female sexual desirequeer eroticism and political ideology; yesterday’s history is today’s wet paint. As Dave once said, “the worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. ‘I don’t understand this person. So they’re crazy.’ That’s bullshit.”

I believe in considering Dave’s follow up to that thought: “These people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe their environment is a little sick.”drwdx-pw5_ru-deyv-shapell-aktery-dave-chappelle[1]

And that–the sick environment–is the one thing that never, ever gets enough play: if, as we speculate, all these beautiful, beautiful minds are breaking, undoing themselves, unfurling like tightly wound string, we owe it to ourselves to at least ask if something drives them to it. Certainly, mental illness is complex and at times turns on with no external switch, but we have testimony from artists we respect and admire, that something is rotten in Hollywood.

As Lauryn said after her hiatus from music, “When artists experience danger and crises…everyone easily accepts that there was something either dysfunctional or defective with the artist, rather than look at, and fully examine, the system and its means and its policies of exploiting/’doing business’.”

Over the course of a short decade, so many celebrities have fallen apart before my eyes: shaving their heads, ripping apart cameras, tearing off clothes, eating themselves into bloated existence or not eating themselves into invisible non-existence, drinking and drugging fast lives and slow deaths, basically begging us to listen in the most literal, primal languages possible, and we still keep diagnosing symptoms instead of curing the disease and the whole thing seems wild to me.

If mental illness is a dialectic between the person and the space,  then its source is not wholly the artist nor Hollywood, but I know that what Kanye and so many others deserve is the clean slate and the fighting chance Kanye kept quoting Richard Pryor to talk about.


If this past Thursday was only an open-aired breakdown of mental health, then we need better language. Because though we complain mental health in this country and for black folks in particular isn’t talked about, that’s not entirely true: we talk about it all the time; we just talk about it poorly. If finding oneself on the edge deserves a life-sentence of being called “crazy,” of being dismissed, written off, and laughed at, of not being heard, then no wonder the shame and the silence. Particularly for artists, whose whole careers and identities are based on being experienced, interpreted, listened to and gazed upon: mattering.  Truth is, there are those who are dying from, but more curiously living with, mental illness in our midst; they are flying our planes, shaking our hands, watching our kids, loving us, and staring back at us from mirrors. And some of the great mindswe most admire produced art, theories, and inventions despite and because of battles with mental illness. Furthermore, achieving mental health is often a lifetime of strenuously and intentionally maintaining the balance; there is not one discrete day you are sick and one discrete day you are well. Given the enormity, pervasiveness, and constantly looming threat of mental illness, we have to figure out a way for people to matter even if they have not sought or successfully phased out of treatment. We can’t just keep calling people “crazy” as the lever we pull to extradite them into irrelevance. The balance is hard but important: how to hear folks when they need help, how to hear folks even if they need help, how to empower them to seek help, how to be the help they seek, and how to know when we can’t be.

If this Thursday was also about something bad happening to a beautiful mind and that something bad is, as Lauryn puts it, “a machine that overlook[s] the need to to take care of the people who produce the sounds that have a lot to do with the health and well-being of society,” then we still need transformation.  We not only need to imagine and create a celebrity culture that does not drive the talented, the strong, and the brave into hiding but we also need to collectively figure out how to survive that heartless, breathless machine in the meantime. For Kanye, the machine is the fashion and the music industries, but for any one of us, it could be the university or the office or the political regime. If we become as angry as we deserve to be, then the isms we fight will rob us of our life joy. We have to somehow figure out how to resist and dissent without allowing that enterprise to swallow us whole and turn us stale and I have faith we can win this war without quotable tweets or serving as the one-person congregation of the Church of our own self-proclaimed Godliness. Kanye once said that he, like Dave Chapelle, has to laugh to keep from crying and I suggest that he works harder on that laugh–not for the Kimmels but for Kanye.

Aaron Alexis was someone’s son: Our brothers are crying out and nobody’s listening

Aaron Alexis was someone’s son: Our brothers are crying out and nobody’s listening


by Terrie Williams and Dawn M. Porter | September 19, 2013 at 12:02 PM

Bishops Gerald Seabrooks, right, and Willie Billips stand in front of the home of Cathleen Alexis, mother of Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis, who made a statement at her home in New York's Brooklyn borough on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. The bishops are part of a Brooklyn Clergy-NYPD Task Force. Cathleen Alexis said that she does not know why her son did what he did and she will never be able to ask him. Aaron Alexis opened fire Monday, killing 12 people, before he was killed in a shootout with police. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Bishops Gerald Seabrooks, right, and Willie Billips stand in front of the home of Cathleen Alexis, mother of Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis, who made a statement at her home in New York’s Brooklyn borough on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. The bishops are part of a Brooklyn Clergy-NYPD Task Force. Cathleen Alexis said that she does not know why her son did what he did and she will never be able to ask him. Aaron Alexis opened fire Monday, killing 12 people, before he was killed in a shootout with police. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Renowned educator and author Geoffrey Canada put it this way:

There was a time when we were little that we could tell our mother about the pain, but then our mother, like lots of women raising boys, began to worry that we would be soft, that we wouldn’t grow up to be men, that we had to toughen up.  It was rough out there and she couldn’t protect us.  She knew one of the first things used to taunt boys is to say, ‘oh, you’re a mama’s boy.’ ‘go tell your mother.’ So after a while, we began to say “oh I can’t tell mommy anything,” and we stopped telling.  Once we stopped telling her, it was easier not to tell anybody anything.

With this, the beginning of the pain and suffering, the mask, and the slow death, began.

In an environment where we teach our black son’s to be strong and self-sufficient, we often forget to teach them how to ask for help.  And in an era where stigma continues to shackle African-Americans with mental health issues, we see the tragic aftermath in our homes, our neighborhoods, in our communities and in our world.

In the African-American community, the perception of weakness is an overwhelming fear that has plagued our existence since slavery.  We had to be strong to survive and that message has been passed down from generation to generation.

Don’t get me wrong, this is not necessarily a black thing it’s an “every living animal thing…”  Darwin’s theory of natural selection tells us this.  But in the black community it takes on greater meaning, because we know as African-Americans, we have to be twice as strong, twice as fast and twice as smart to even get noticed, so showing any sign of perceived weakness can result in our demise.  This was the world that Aaron Alexis was likely raised in.  In the beginning of the pain and suffering, the mask and the slow death begins.

Regardless of the issue, there is an unwillingness to ask for or seek help, and there is an unwillingness  for others to get involved.  As with many recent tragic stories, Lee Thompson YoungDon Cornelius, and others, we see the effects of a society that has been paralyzed by mental health issues and the unwillingness to ask for help or get involved.

Aaron Alexis is just another example of how our society [the system] is failing our black men.  We don’t know much about the “Navy Yard Suspect.”  We really don’t know who he was…only what the media wants us to know.  But Aaron Alexis was someone’s son…we know this because his mother has spoken out about her sorrow for this tragedy.  But did he have any friends who may have noticed a change in his behavior?  Was there not a system in place to see the kinks in his armor as his mask began to falter.  “Our brothers are crying out…nobody’s listening…” as Ken Braswell, founder of Fathers, Inc. has passionately declared.

We do know that he had two incidents that involved the police.  In 2004, he was reportedly arrested for “malicious mischief” and in again in 2010 for “discharging a firearm into the ceiling of his apartment.”  Although the first incident is truly unclear, the second seemingly should have raised some serious red flags.  Are we too busy with our own lives to see those around us falling apart or are we too scared to get involved?  Or is it simply, we just don’t know what to do or how to help so we stand by feeling helpless and do nothing.

Aaron Alexis was a man who served his country in the Navy Reserves from 2007 to 2011 and was honorably discharged.   As a service member, we do not know what he endured or what challenges he may have faced or feared.  All we do know is that he reportedly “held it together at work,” but seemed to fall apart in the evenings—as many of us do.

According to news reports, just weeks before the shooting, he called the police.  He expressed paranoid thoughts of people following him and complained of hearing “voices speaking to him through the wall, flooring and ceiling.”  Although there could be a number of reasons for someone experiencing paranoia and auditory hallucinations, there is a definite indication for assessment and intervention.

Unfortunately, with limited resources, on all fronts, police departments, emergency psychiatric facilities and veterans administration systems, people often fall through the cracks.

One agency may make a call and assume the other will get the message and do what is necessary. In a perfect world, Mr. Alexis would have been sent for an evaluation, likely hospitalized and engaged in medication management to address the overt symptoms while trying to sort out the underlying cause for the behavior.  Again, we are dealing with a flawed system and we are continually seeing the fallout from this.

The tragedy is not only in the lives lost on September 16th, but in the reality that with all of the rhetoric and power plays in our government, we still can’t find a solution to this problem.  It makes you wonder if this complacency is due to a lack of understanding or just plain old apathy.

When will we address the way we are raising our young black men?  When will we take time to talk to our friends and neighbors?  When will we stop being scared and get involved?  When will we become the village it takes to raise a child?  Can we stop saying when and start saying now.

Can we stop spending hours on Facebook and Twitter and start talking to with our children, our neighbors and strangers who are “friends” we just haven’t met yet? Can we stop burying ourselves in our work and start talking with our spouses and our coworkers ? Can we start getting to know the people around us?

We challenge you to get involved. Get to know someone…really know someone. Many times we are complacent with the people we know…we may politely ask if they are OK, but we really don’t want to know the answer, and subconsciously give off the vibe that we really don’t want to hear it.  If you really want to do something, stand up and be present.  Don’t let this life pass you by — be present in your life and in the life of someone else who you care about. Show them you care by asking — really asking.  Get involved.  You may need just take a break and disconnect from this new technologically advanced social media thing that is leaving people emotionally disconnected from others and get involved. If you really care, you will take the time and effort to truly to get know someone. People know if you really care or if you are just being polite.

Who knows? If someone would have really taken the time to get to know Aaron Alexis or countless others, who knows what lives might have been spared.

Today is the day that we must make a difference.  We must raise our collective voices—if you see something, say something–do something.  Edmund Burke tells us, “All that is required for the triumph of evil [or pain] is that good men remain silent and do nothing.”  Every single day, most of walk past one another without a nod, a word, or a smile that says “you matter.”  There are way too many who don’t even know how to smile or genuinely return one—because society has made them feel, in every way, they do not matter.

If you don’t know where to start, be inspired by one promising moment a few months ago.  Antoinette Tuff, an Atlanta school staff member, with love, humanity and God in her spirit, calmed and talked to a young man whom she described as a “hurting soul” who was planning to “shoot up” the school.  She took the time and made the difference, and in this instance, countless lives were saved.

“We must do the very thing we think we cannot do.”

Dare to make a difference!


Terrie Williams, an OUR COMMON GROUND Voice, is author of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We are Not Hurting and Dawn M. Porter is a MD Board Certified Child, Adolescent and Adult Psychiatrist

Terrie Williams

Terrie Williams

Recovery Work: Black Women and Emotional Health

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Recovery Work: Black Women and Emotional Health

by Liz A.

I had a recent encounter with her, you know, that sister who is needy as hell. I was hoping she didn’t see me and with a quick right turn down the other hallway, I would be able to dodge her. But just my luck, before I could attempt my matrix type move, she spotted me.

Me: Hey sis…
Her: Hey girl, I’ve been calling you. Did you get my texts? My voice messages?
Me: Yes girl, I got them. I just have been extremely busy and haven’t had the opportunity to respond to them yet.

Yes, I am aware that she has been calling me. And yes, I did receive all of her texts and voice messages. But as an acquaintance, her incessant calling and texting made me uncomfortable. And after much thought I made a conscious decision not to return her calls and to distance myself from her. My decision to distance myself was not out of malice or ill will but as an act of self-care. Especially after unsuccessful attempts to playfully hint to her, using gestures such as “ girl, stop calling me a million times a day” or “sis, you don’t have to call me, I will call you,” that she needed to calm down with the contact. It was also intended to serve as a non-verbal cue, with the hope that, for someone who admittedly had difficulty with preserving friendships, she would take the time to recognize and examine her relationship patterns.

I mean what else could I have done? We weren’t close enough for me to tell her straight out that she didn’t have any friends because she was needy. And that her incessant contact was suffocating and entrapping and that contrary to her belief that it communicated her interest in pursuing a friendship, it actually displayed itself as neurotic and obsessive behavior that made people distance themselves from her. No, I couldn’t tell her this but I did hope someone who cared about her would; that way, it wouldn’t hurt so much.

Because as a woman in recovery, who herself was confronted about being needy, knowing that the person cared about me, helped to absorb some of the impact of that painful truth.

My need arose from the death of my mother when I was fourteen. After being abandoned by our relatives, my brothers and I were left to raise ourselves. During this phase of my journey, I was emotionally neglected, deprived of affection and suffered from issues of abandonment and rejection. In a desperate attempt to seek out love, as an only girl with limited female guidance, I sought out women under the guise of mentorship for nurture, affection and mothering, often forcing my emotional needs onto them. This resulted in several toxic and unhealthy relationships with women.

Overtime, I learned that my need came from a place of deep pain and wounded-ness. And according to my truth telling therapist, “as long as I come from that place of wounded-ness, I would never be in a healthy relationship.” So out of an act of ‘radical self love’ and out of a desire to be as whole as possible, I made a commitment to do the necessary work in order to heal, which involved taking ownership of my emotional health.

Just like that sister must do…

And when she does, she will realize that it’s deeper than her inability to develop friendships and that her neediness is but the language of her wounded-ness.

Reposted from “For Harriet” 

For Harriet is an online community for women of African ancestry. We encourage women, through storytelling and journalism, to engage in candid, revelatory dialogue about the beauty and complexity of Black womanhood.Learn more.

Liz A. is a woman on a journey of becoming. She is a “warrior poet”, an avid journal-ler and an independent writer. Liz identifies as a Womanist with Black Feminist tendencies and is currently a social worker in training. So far, Liz has written for the Feminist Wire and is a columnist for the ForHarriet blog. Liz is currently working on her untitled memoir.

DEPRESSION: One Black Man’s Story

One Black Man’s Story


Mychal Denzel Smith
DEPRESSION:<br /><br /><br />
One Black Man's Story

It’s hard to answer the question “what’s wrong” when nothings right.

When my grades started dropping senior year of high school, I didn’t think much of it. School had never held much interest to me and I had always done just enough to “get by” anyway, so not being able to focus in Physics or AP Government wasn’t a big deal to me. And I never had many true friends, just a bunch of associates who came in out and of my life, so the fact that I closed myself off from them didn’t register as a warning sign. The sleeping in late, the not eating, the constant worrying about things that hadn’t happened…I thought I was just being my normal, neurotic self.    

But staring in the mirror, wondering how much blood there would be if I bashed my head against it, wasn’t normal. Sitting at the dinner table thinking about taking the knife I’m using to cut my steak to slit my wrists, wasn’t normal. Something was missing.

I had thought about suicide before, but never in any real way. It was always a “what if?” Now, it had become a “maybe I should…” I learned firsthand what the true meaning of the word “depression” was.

Something was missing, but I had no idea what.

I “got over” it though. I moved past it. I never spoke a word of it to anyone. I was “better.”

Two years later, I wasn’t just “better”, I thought I was completely “cured.” I spent the summer in Atlanta working a well-paying internship, going to concerts every week, meeting some of my heroes, just enjoying life.

Then I bought the Gnarls Barkley album, St. Elsewhere. I was taken aback. I realized I wasn’t too far removed from the space Cee-Lo was singing from. The isolation, the helplessness, the feeling of being trapped inside your own mind and it being locked from the outside and there is no one around to pick the key up from under the welcome mat to let you out…these feelings were all too familiar. I never spoke a word of it to anyone. No matter. Cee-Lo was doing that for me.

There’s a song toward the middle of the album called “Just a Thought” that is a hauntingly accurate description of what goes through a person’s mind while suffering from severe depression. Each verse ends with the phrase “…and I tried, everything but suicide, but it crossed my mind.” I could only nod silently in agreement as he belted out the most secret of my thoughts for the whole world to hear.

MORE in this series of stories


MORE on Depression in the Black Community