As a Black man, if I claim to love other Black men as I do, I must share in more than anger with my brothers. So when a mentee called me recently, and midway through the conversation began to weep, I gave him room as best I could.
The heaving was a deep bass, both physical and spiritual. He laid his burdens down. He felt, as I have sometimes felt about myself, that his role as familial glue was not holding and he was failing. He could not stitch back what he had let fall apart. He, like me, like so many Black men, has made an incredible and dynamic life for himself. Yet things seem to not be improving in the way and with the speed we want. Freedom feels like an illusion.
All my mentee needed was a good cry and a space to practice a new courage. All I needed was to realize that holding open a quiet space was enough. The silence was not heavy or forlorn, but full of who we were in that moment. That is the kind of support Black men deserve from each other.
It’s hard to find data to say how many Black men suffer stress and depression, because the canon of research on Black mental health is severely lacking. From experience, I know there is a steep cost to being vulnerable enough to admit how hurt cuts bone deep, and that you neither have the answers, nor know how to ask for help. So you bury yourself away. And you keep living with a grief that is quiet to many, but loud to those just like you. The data suggest that this is dangerous, especially for younger people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among Black Americans ages 15 to 24, according to a 2017 analysis by the US Department of Health and Human Services. Meanwhile, research shows anxiety and depression among Black people has only increased since the killing of George Floyd.
So it was powerful when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott spoke out after his eldest brother died by suicide in April. Prescott and his other brother, Tad, talked with ESPN’s Graham Bensinger about what happened with their sibling and about their own experiences with depression and anxiety. To see an NFL leader, a Black quarterback, speak unflinchingly about needing help? It felt like a triumph. Or at least opening a door to the reality. We speak of depression and anxiety as things we conquer, instead of things we have to manage.
I’ve been in conversations with Black male friends where we both know one of us is lying about how he’s doing, because the pain in our voices can’t be masked by the pride we try to auto-tune into our tone. I sometimes feel like we’re playing emotional Call of Duty. We’re together, exploring and achieving in our world, hitting our checkpoints, our milestones. But we don’t talk about anything else. That doesn’t matter in the game — when your character dies, you respawn at the last checkpoint, and go right back to war. Wounds don’t carry over.
But life is not a game. We do not always get the chances we want to respawn from our defeats, and we still carry psychic wounds. We end up waging wars inside ourselves, which we justify because of the things we secure while doing whatever we think we must. Most of us don’t heal, though, because in a Black man’s world, we can’t show compassion or admit our defeats hurt us — it is too often viewed as weakness.
To speak of pain is to acknowledge it, which is the kind of admission we are too often told is not for us. Few lies have been more successfully translated across cultures than the one that tells men we are only allowed specific types of expression.
What I wish, for myself and the other Black men I hold close, is that we would find each other when our shoulders slump, and hold open space for each other long enough to admit that our ability to bear pain is not the way we prove ourselves. We are born worthy. There is much that would harm us, but we can’t continue to conflate ignoring our ailments with strength. Until we admit this to ourselves we subvert our own freedom at a cost we can never afford, and everyone we claim to love will pay for it.
For generations, a norm for Black people has been to treat depression and anxiety as something to shake off. This is for reasons both historical and cultural; when both science and society conspire to craft a narrative of your being anything but human, the consequences echo across families and communities. We tell ourselves we’ll deal with it after we get through it, often because that’s all we’ve seen; to grin and bear it feels like the right thing to do. But not all things are meant to be suffered through.
This was never supposed to be our normal. A new normal will be to feel fully and not be overrun by our emotions. What will we become if we stop carrying emotions that aren’t good for us? Perhaps a culture in which we feel we can be soft and open, warm and strong, because we created it for ourselves.
Jonathan Jackson is an entrepreneur and writer currently living in New Hampshire. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.