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(Personal) My Sister, One Year Later

Myth 150

One year ago today, my sister died. My mother, my two nephews and their father were gathered in the conference room down the hall from her room in the hospital when we got the news — even though her heart was beating and she was breathing (with help), her brain hadn’t registered any activity for long enough that the presiding physician called time of death. Everyone cried. It was the first time I had hugged my Mom since I had come out to her. It was the first time I had ever hugged either of my nephews.

I rushed to Baltimore with the small hope that I would get to see my little sister alive one more time. It had been eighteen years; we spoke on the phone sporadically, but we hadn’t seen each other since I left home. The worst thing for me, at the time, was knowing that the last time I saw my sister was when I was being disowned. Between then and last year, she gave birth to four children, tried to take care of my difficult and increasingly frail mother, had a nervous breakdown. For the longest time she had been self-medicating for mental health issues, and in the end that’s what had brought us here.

I think about Teneka every day. I think about how hard it must have been to struggle against your own brain without a support network of people who understood and accepted what she was going through, who were committed to helping her find what she needed to get better. It could have been talk therapy, or cognitive behavioral techniques, or medication. It could have been changing her lifestyle so that she had room to take the time she needed to cope with everything on her plate. It could have been a community of people willing to give her help when she needed it without asking or judgement.

Instead, she was under a system that punished her for finding any way she could to ease her pain without giving her access to the tools she needed to do so in a healthy and sustainable way. The people around her dismissed very real issues she was having and encouraged her to do the very things that would make them worse. Her own mother took whatever help she offered and said it wasn’t good enough, accused her of being selfish and lazy and untrustworthy. My sister was a good woman who needed help, someone to orient her. But there was no way she could get that.

It breaks my heart, because my sister is part of a narrative that’s been used to blame black Americans for our problems since the end of slavery. The truth is, however, much more complicated. The immediate cause of her passing — what’s on her death certificate — is not the reason she died. The real reason is that we, as a civilization, are far more interested in judgement and punishment than compassion and assistance. Instead of recognizing the very real problems Teneka suffered under, we made her feel broken for not being able to cope with them.

Her experience isn’t uncommon. There are so many black women who have to shoulder extraordinary burdens — motherhood and everything that comes with it, often totally by themselves — while being told that they are wrong in every way. Our sisters don’t look the way they should; they don’t talk the way they should; they don’t act the way they should. Their names are wrong, their hair is wrong, their clothes and makeup are wrong. They’re hoes, or they’re stuck-up; they’re too angry and too loud, too ignorant, too dark, too ugly.

Misogynoir took my sister away from me. The stigma around mental health took my sister away from me. Our social inability to address the pain felt by our most vulnerable citizens while placing them under impossible stress took my sister away from me. I’m still grieving about that, because I’m reminded of it every day.

Remember this story about two women being racially profiled at an Applebee’s?

Or this story about a black woman detained by police on the tarmac because the police were called on her for no reason?

Or this story about a black woman being mistreated at a Waffle House and the police receiving no repercussions?

What about the responses Kelis received when she detailed the abuse she received at the hands of Nas?

What about what our sisters have suffered at the hands of powerful men like Bill Cosby and R. Kelly?

These are all stories that have been in the news for the past two weeks. If I started going into the recent and not-so-recent history of mistreatment of black women, we’d be here all day. If I started going into the institutional problems that prevent our sisters from getting the mental health treatment they needed, we’d be here all week.

I don’t want anyone else to feel trapped in a private and invisible hell the way my sister was. It’s so important for me to speak up about mental health because I know first-hand that not doing so literally kills people. We have to be better about this. The lives of our women depend on it.

Dr. Amber Thornton is a licensed black American psychologist who has devoted so much of her time to addressing the stigma of mental health in our communities while also advocating for better cultural competency within the professional psychological community. Her podcast, “A Different Perspective”, has invaluable information about depression, anxiety, and the black experience.

Journalist Imade Nibokun heads up the Depressed While Black Twitter and Tumblr pages, creating an online community of folks across the diaspora who have to deal with the personal struggle of depression and the social struggle of institutional racism at the same time.

The Black Mental Health Alliance is an organization of licensed black American mental health practitioners, activists and organizers dedicated to dealing with mental health issues on a personal, professional, and institutional level.

All of these people are doing much-needed work, helping our community see the problems we face clearly while adapting perspective and solutions built by institutions with little to no insight into how these problems manifest through our shared culture and history. On the anniversary of my sister’s death, I vow to support them and their work and I ask that you please do the same. I want my sister’s legacy to be one that spurred us into action, to finally address this blind spot within our own community.

I love you so much, Teneka. I’m so sorry that we failed you; I will work hard so that we fail far fewer people like you.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2018 in mental-health, Politics, Self-Reflection

 

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(Personal) Going Back to Go Forward

Myth 150My childhood was spent in a procession of hostile places. At home, I had a severe, distant mother and an alcoholic father to tend with; my sister got into trouble a lot and ran away from home several times, so there was always something terrible going on there. At school I was a poor, shy kid who had no social skills and a meek disposition. I got along with the teachers well enough, but that only made life worse with the students. At my church, I was a “spiritual orphan”, more a pity project for elders in the congregation than a colleague and certainly one of the least popular kids there. I spent most of my life growing up with few friends and a certainty that I didn’t fit in any of the places that surrounded me.

So, when I discovered the Internet and the furry community it was a lifeline for me. There was a whole community of people out there who shared my interests and mindset, no matter how strange it was. After I graduated high school, I worked two mall jobs and spent what little free time that gave me talking to people online. I would often get home after midnight, wake up at 6 or 7 AM and catch the bus to do it all again.

When I went to college, I accepted my sexuality. When I came out to my mother and she rejected me, I knew that was my last link to my community gone. I would absolutely be disfellowshipped from my congregation, and after that my mother would more than likely be encouraged not to speak to me. My sister and I weren’t close at that point, and I hadn’t developed a strong bond with anyone else in my family. I left home in the summer of 1999 and I haven’t been back since.

For a long time, it was hard to think of myself as a black man. I felt thoroughly rejected by my tribe and just as wholeheartedly accepted by a new one. I’d rather think of myself as a geek and a furry because that was the community I had jumped in with. And they’re still a huge part of my life — I love the furry fandom, and I love geeking out with other people who love science-fiction, urban/modern fantasy and post-apocalyptic stories. This is still my tribe, and I feel more comfortable here than I ever have anywhere else.

But over the past year or so, with my discovery of the black geek community online and my slow but steady connection with black geeks through Twitter and the blogosphere, it’s occurred to me that the black part of my identity is still there, will always be there, and continues to wield its influence over me. I’ll see social dynamics differently than most people, and my experiences of being marginalized in both the dominant culture and my little minority tribe will continue to have some bearing on the way I see the world. To deny that would be dishonest to myself, and I can’t do that any more.

I’ve been trying to absorb what that means for myself, but over the past year I’ve found myself making small and hesitant overtures back to at least the part of black culture that overlaps with the tribe I’ve chosen for myself since leaving home. And it’s been a wonderful experience; learning that our shared history and experience can be used to create wildly different stories that are just as vital and interesting and imaginative as a Euro-centric tale is nothing short of a revelation. I’ve been so intrigued by the idea of it, and it’s made me want to dig back into not only my own personal history, but the history of my people to better understand my place in the fringes of it.

So I’ve been dabbling in telling stories borne out of my experience and the way it’s shaped my understanding of the culture I came from. I’ve been seeking out the voices of other intelligent black people who’ve been making a place at the table for themselves within the broader SFF community. I’ve been slowly trying on my blackness, but I’ve had trouble feeling it, had trouble feeling connected to the place where I’ve come from.

That was until I saw The Wiz Live.

For those of you who don’t know, The Wiz is a musical re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz featuring an all-black cast. Most people know it as a somewhat campy 70s movie starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor but it was a surprise hit on Broadway before that, winning seven Tony Awards in its first year (including Best Musical). I had never seen the 70s movie up until now, when NBC decided to put on a live staging of The Wiz as part of its nascent Thanksgiving tradition.

I won’t go into too much detail here, though I can spaz about The Wiz for a really long time. But the musical re-contextualizes everyone’s desires through issues that affect the black community at large in really interesting ways. Dorothy finds herself stuck in a place she doesn’t want to be, though it’s the only home she’s got and she can’t go back to the one she had; the Scarecrow can’t think of a way out of his situation, which is a losing game that he’s forced to play; the Tin Man loved the wrong woman, and now she’s stolen his heart and left him without the ability to feel anything; and the Lion struggles to muster the courage to deal with the very real difficulties he faces in life.

The performances were nothing short of amazing — for the most part. But what really hit home for me were the songs; numbers like “You Can’t Win” and “What I Would Do If I Could Feel” talk about the depression and bitterness that build up through a lifetime of feeling helpless, but “Be A Lion,” the brand-new “We Got It” and “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day” acknowledges the difficulty of the black struggle while also encouraging us to live the virtues that have gotten us this far — perseverance, fearlessness and compassion for the struggles of others. It’s a uniquely black American story, steeped in our culture and concerns. I’ve never seen a story quite like that before, told so excellently, with such care and such pride, on some a big stage. It was a revelation.

It was the first time I felt connected to the community I had come from, or felt like I had a strong sense of its values, its struggles, its worries. It was the first time I ever saw a story that made me feel like this was something specifically told for me and mine. Seeing all of these immensely talented black people stepping up to tell a story to the best of their considerable abilities was….it made me realize what I could be. And it connected me to where I came from.

So now I feel I have a better grasp of my background — not only of my personal history, but the social and emotional history of my people. I’m sure it wasn’t just The Wiz that did it — I’ve been digging around, learning more and pushing myself to interact more — but it felt like a piece of the puzzle that clicked into place and allowed me to see a much more complete picture than I ever have before.

I’m going into my background and the storytelling around it with much more excitement and confidence now. I have a stronger sense of who I am, and an even greater desire to connect to my culture and its history. The specific troubles I went through are shared by a lot of black geeks like me, who find it difficult to be truly who they are while being a part of a community that encourages sameness for its own protection. I want to go back and rejoin it, while at the same time embracing my individuality. There’s a place at that table for me, even if I have to make it myself. It’s something that black geeks are used to doing at this point, right?

The story that I’m writing to put up on the blog this week is my first attempt at writing a furry story from a black perspective. I’m excited to share it, while at the same time I realize it’s just the first step along a path. My understanding of my own history will continue to deepen and evolve, and hopefully my writing will reflect that over time. But for now, the first bit of that journey.

 

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