Becoming the Strong Black Man: Depression, Race, and Resilience
The Cambridge Dictionary defines 'getting real' as a term "used for telling someone that they should try to understand the true facts of a situation and not hope for what is impossible." Getting real happens because of circumstances outside of our control. Some of our innocence is lost and we see the world in a different way. We struggle in trying to see how we fit in in light of the new circumstances.
For some, this situation is something small and easy to move beyond. For others, it is a maze that takes years to navigate. Some experience it as an adult and others seem to have lived in it as long as they can remember.
The conversation that I will never forget
My “get real” moment happened in early March of 1991, when my parents sat me down for a talk. Not “the talk” you are thinking of. This was much more serious. They informed me that a black man by the name of Rodney King was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers during his arrest.
My parents wanted only the best for my brother and me. This incident made them very worried about the world that we were going to experience as we grew into adulthood. It was then and there that we began a dialogue about racism in this country. This dialogue continued outside of our home. In fact, the story of Rodney King shook the nation.
That moment was pivotal, when everything began to shift. I was never the same.
Race plus mental health issues
I was finishing up sixth grade in my local elementary school at that time. Most of the students that I went to school with were either black or Latino. Talk of what happened to Rodney King circulated throughout our school. Speculations and opinions were heard in our classrooms and on the playground. Our teachers did the best they could to explain what had happened and to encourage a proactive dialogue about the conversation around race in our country.
I was also finishing up my last year in special education, classes I participated in because of my behavior and the mental health challenges. I remember vividly feeling ashamed about living with those challenges. My behavior had improved significantly and I had been looking forward to attending a private school the following year.
Struggling to find my place
I felt shame about my challenges. In fact, the shame was harder than the challenges themselves. Then add puberty to the mix. Like most middle-schoolers dealing with hormones, I was confused and lost.
As a young black boy "finding my place" meant seeing how I fit in with the group. I learned that there were certain group norms amongst the boys in my school. One of them was appearing tough and strong. Along with this image, came the pressure of "being cool" and wearing stylish clothes. I didn't fit in with those standards. This made it difficult for me to socialize with my classmates.
Despite my best effort to feel good about myself, I knew that having mental health challenges meant that I was the opposite of strong in other people's eyes. I felt like I was weak because each day was a constant struggle to hold myself together emotionally and manage my behavior. I felt like everyone else would judge me if they knew. This was really difficult for me to deal with.
Attempts to resolve the fear of racism
At home, my parents also began a dialogue with me about the importance of success in life. With all of the fear around racism and concern for my brother and me, they clung on to success as the best defense — mainly through academic achievement. They encouraged me to do my best to get good grades.
I knew my parents were trying their best to resolve their fears about racism for my brother and me; however, the pressure to succeed only added to my struggles. In my mind, having mental health challenges didn't go with being successful, just like they didn't go with fitting in at school. I believed that these challenges would only get worse and I would eventually spend the rest of my life in a psychiatric facility.
This led to a real internal struggle for me.
The axis of evil, or struggle
I finished my sixth-grade year with three challenges working against me: the shame of having mental health challenges and fear of where they would lead me in life; this new issue of racism, which brought with it the thought that I might have to fear for my life in a situation outside of my control at some point like Rodney King did; and the pressure of expectations that I had amongst my peers regarding the image I was supposed to portray as a person of color.
Put that all together and you have a recipe for me having a major breakdown, on top of just starting puberty.
As I grew up and transitioned into adulthood, I experienced many more challenges. During the summer after I graduated high school, life began getting real again when I read the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven R. Covey. The first habit is to be proactive. "Being proactive about taking responsibility for your life. Proactive people recognize that they are 'response-able,’” writes Covey. Learning this helped me realize that I had the choice to be proactive or reactive in every challenge that came my way.
That simple concept changed my life forever. From then on, I evaluated my choices in every challenge that I faced. Despite my best efforts, I often missed the mark on being proactive. I wasn't perfect, but I was persistent.
Today I am an adult who still has mental health challenges but I have no more shame. Today I am aware that racism exists in our world but I no longer fear it. Today I am aware of the social expectations around my image as a person of color but I am comfortable being myself regardless.