You’re OK, I’m Not: Black Men and Therapy

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We don’t discuss enough the emotional and mental health needs of black men. So in this week’s episode, we make space for it. Tonya Mosley sits down with three Wise Ones to answer our listener’s question:

“Dear Truth Be Told, why is therapy so taboo in the black community, especially amongst black men?”

In order to answer this question, we need to talk about what it means to be a black man in America. Poet and writer Prentice Powell kicks off the episode by performing a poem he wrote in 2014 after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Being a black man in America means being my brother's keeper. Being a black man in America means being my brother's keeper while keeping a distance from my brother because I don't trust him further than I can see him. It's believing the cops don't care about you. It's learning how not to doubt yourself because when you're born everyone else already does. It's a love you have for your mother regardless of her flaws in dealing with your daddy issues so your son doesn't have to.

Being a black man in America is a gift. A blessing. A blessing God chose for me to receive because he believes I can handle it. It's also a gamble. It's knowing every time you step outside the world is a poker table and whether you like it or not your chips are all in. It is the grin you put on your face every time you feel pain just to let the world know they will not break you.

Right after dropping down to your knees praying to God asking him to heal you because the pressure has gotten way too real so you pop 30 pills but it still doesn't kill you but what will, is something as simple as going to the corner store without a pistol that’s tucked on your mother's floorboard or what will is not detaching itself from your best friend's dangerous lifestyle because you know your loyalty won't let you because you know had he not been around when that incident went down you may not be here right now.

Being a black man in America is Prentice Powell knowing I could have easily been Mike Brown hands up in the air screaming don't shoot six bullets in your body face down on the ground. It is a spend your constantly finding ways of getting a fair swing at this gang without having the umpire tell you out before you even step to the plate it's to work minimum wage and be paid in Crackerjacks as a whole world watches you with open eyes as you sif to get to the bottom of the box only to find out that there is no prize. It means that you can die with a pack of Skittles in your pocket. Have your murderer acquitted then deemed that's a celebrity to participate in a boxing match against a washed up drug addict who used to rap. Have people looked just like you paid a seat on pay per view even though it won't bring your life back. It means black boy black boy, turn your music down play it loud if you want but that may be the last gas you ever pump. Being a black man in America means stay out of Florida and I have a son who lives in Florida. It's telling your children what they want but what they need to hear.

Being a black man in America has me telling my two boys at the age of 9 and 7 that they are already feared, being a black man in America not knowing how to swim yet still having to keep your head above water. It's learning how to patch up your boat while teaching your children how to stay afloat, is to refrain from saying so many things that you want to say. It's knowing when to run fast and walk slow because I know between me and you in this country it is already a race to the grave, being a black man in America is to literally possess everything that lacks in America. Why do you think they work so hard for us not to succeed. We are hypochondriacs of the soul who bleed when we speak.

Being a black man in America is a full-time job you would never see a single penny for, there are no brakes, no time off no benefits. It is a lifelong commitment and an early death sentence to be a black man in America is to be a black man in America and unless you are a black man in America you will never understand what it's like to be a black man in America. But please do not pity us, envy us. We are whole pieces of broken. Some too shattered to care and some of us, most of us, are just trying to put the pieces back together.

This poem could have been written today with the death of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia on Feb. 23, 2020, that attracted national attention almost two months later. Powell’s poem hones in on the lack of freedom and humanity black men experience. It’s a reality that Bakari Sellers, attorney and CNN political commentator, agrees with. He wrote about his lifelong struggle with anxiety, distress and depression in a recently published memoir called "My Vanishing Country."

“I vividly remember the hot summer evening when anxiety took hold of me and never released its grip. It was June 1996 and I was 11 years old riding my bike when my mother called me to come inside the house. It was nearly dark, but she was beckoning me because I had a telephone call. My friend Crystal was on the line. I heard her voice saying I called to let you know Al died. Everything went quiet except for a silent inner scream. Al is dead. Our friend Alfred McLennon was called Al. He was a year ahead of me in school. An upcoming ninth-grader at Orange or Wilkinson High School. Elena hooped together in middle school. We were not best friends, but his death changed my life.”

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Sellers traces the loss of feeling invincible as a child to this moment. It was the start of many panic attacks, having trouble breathing, and fearing death. He says theories about what it means to be black man are out of date and are no longer effective. “We all say we won't cheat on two people — our wives and our barber. I love my barber, [but] we need more therapy than just our barber.”

Sellers calls his anxiety his “superpower,” but says he understands mental health issues continue to be exacerbated by individuals who do not acknowledge the humanity of black men. So for Sellers, therapy is a must.

Karamo Brown, host of Netflix’s "Queer Eye," saved money in a jar on his desk to afford therapy. He says it was important for him to take care of himself emotionally and mentally. Since then, he’s been an advocate for therapy, and more so, connecting it to his faith and spirituality.

“I actually put up a bulletin of available therapists [in my church] because I think if people are encouraging you to ‘just get to church,’ then why not bring the therapy to the church? There's now an outlet where people can say, ‘Well, I'm not going against what my community has taught me ... I can still do it.' ”

From Brown’s personal and professional experience, he says he has learned that emotional and mental unhealthiness shows up as anger. And for many black men, Brown says, it is a result of a narrow definition of masculinity and a lack of space for exploring emotions. Brown suggests planting seeds of emotional language in black boys and men so they understand how to put words to their feelings. Some examples are, “Do you feel healthy today?” or, “What moment challenged you the most today?”

In addition to therapy, and making space for and modeling conversations on emotions, Ron Finley recommends gardening. Finley is an artist, designer and self-proclaimed gangsta gardener. He is famous for turning parkways in South Central Los Angeles into beautiful flower and food gardens while teaching black and brown youth the power and seduction of the soil. He says not only is gardening therapeutic, it is also freedom.

“It's freedom in a sense of you're learning how to fend for yourself. You're not dependent on a system to feed you. I have seen people change in the garden. I've literally been able to witness that. And some of the testimonies that I get online that I've been getting for years ... it's some of the things [that] make you want to cry. They're just so heartfelt that people didn't know that we'd been separated from this earth for so many years. And it's time for us to come back to it. It's time for us to realize that we are a part of this planet,” Finley said.

Therapy can look traditional, like going to a licensed therapist, but it can also be practiced in the day to day. Part of that is allowing the men in our lives to be vulnerable.

Episode transcript can be found here.

Episode Guests:
Karamo Brown — podcaster, author of the memoir, “Karamo: My Story of Embracing Purpose, Healing, and Hope” and host of Netflix’s Queer Eye.
Bakari Sellers — attorney, politician and author of “My Vanishing Country: A Memoir
Ron Finley — artist, designer and gangsta gardener

Mental Health Resources:
Black Men Heal
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Therapy for Black Men Directory
Crisis Text Line — 24/7
Psychology Today
Open Path Psychotherapy Collective
Talkspace — Get started with therapy right from your phone.
Alma — Available for teletherapy in the NY-area.
Liberate — the only meditation app by and for the black & African diaspora
Atlanta African-American Men's Counseling, Therapy & Life Coaching: Jon A. Parker, MAMFT, LPC, NCC

Recommended Reading:
Heavy by Kiese Laymon
Shook One: Anxiety Playing Tricks on Me by Charlamagne Tha God
We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity by bell hooks
The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz
The Way of the Superior Man by David Deida
STFM: Still Trying to Find/Forgive/Free Myself by QED Jones

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Recommended Listening:
Let's Talk Bruh podcast
#YouGoodMan: Black Men and Mental Health from “Token Talk” podcast
Damon Young & Kiese Laymon: The "Good Dude" Closet from “Death Sex and Money” podcast