Not long after the body of Judge Sheila Abdus-Salaam was found in the Hudson River last week, the conspiracy theories began.
Abdus-Salaam was a highly regarded associate judge on the New York State Court of Appeals, its highest court, and the first African-American woman to serve on that bench. She was a role model and pioneer, a woman raised in poverty who became a gleaming beacon of accomplishment.
With no signs of trauma or anything suggesting foul play, police ruled Abdus-Salaam’s death a suicide, but many on social media weren’t ready to accept that conclusion. In our fractured nation, they argued, someone intimidated by black success must have brought harm to this woman. Perhaps this was the lethal response of someone who landed on the losing side of one of her many decisions. It was suggested that to call her death suicide was a rush to judgment, perhaps even the first sign of a cover-up.
It’s telling that it’s easier for some to believe that Abdus-Salaam had been murdered than to consider the possibility that she had taken her own life.
Suicide is still one of the great taboos in American society; that sentiment seems especially acute in the African-American community. As we have fought to survive in a nation that can seem hellbent on our destruction, it feels beyond a sin to kill ourselves.
That’s even more pronounced when a black person achieves what we consider success. There’s a tendency to view him or her as enviably blessed; yet no one lives a cloudless life. In recent years, Abdus-Salaam endured devastating tragedies. In 2012, her 92-year-old mother committed suicide on Easter; two years later, her brother killed himself, close to the same holiday.
Abdus-Salaam’s body was found four days before Easter.
On New York’s Court of Appeals where Abdus-Salaam, 65, was appointed in 2013, she was still the only black female judge at the time of her death. There is an unimaginable weight to being “the first” and “the only,” one that leaves little room for imperfection. That person knows he or she will be held to an unforgiving higher standard and must persist and endure with little regard to the mental toll that can exact.
Then there’s racism.
A study by the National Survey of American Life found that African-Americans suffer a higher prevalence rate of post-traumatic stress disorder than non-Hispanic whites, 9.1 percent compared to 6.8 percent. (PTSD rates are generally higher in people of color, and is also considered more disabling within minority groups.)
That’s nearly one of out every 10 African Americans. To be black is to exist in a constant state of unease. As James Baldwin said, “In America, I was free only in battle, never free to rest, and he who finds no way to rest cannot long survive the battle.” The impossible price of that battle is a mind that churns and aches, until it may break.
Too often, African-Americans, wary of the many ways we are regarded as lesser, equate mental health issues with being damaged, just another demeaning label. But this is a fire that, left unchecked, will consume everything. That’s why it was so notable last year when rapper Kid Cudi posted on his Facebook page his decision to check himself into “rehab for depression and suicidal urges.” Responses to his public declaration were overwhelmingly supportive. In helping himself, Cudi may have helped others recognize the necessity for self-care and the aid of professionals.
Police are continuing their investigation into Abdus-Salaam’s death. If their initial determination holds, we may still never fully understand why she chose to kill herself. In life, she was an inspiration. With her tragic death, what remains is a teachable moment about how professional success can mask personal struggle, and how suffering in silence is to risk digging your own grave.