race depression

I have depression.
I am young and black.

These two basic truths of my existence do not directly correlate, nor did the latter clearly cause the former. Yet the statements ought not be separated. I am depressed. To the extent that depression ever has a ‘cause,’ mine is both chemical and situational.

Long have  questions and thoughts about race consumed me—and, for nearly as long, I have wished I could stop caring. During my childhood small books on Rosa Parks, SNCC, and the March on Washington littered my room.

Even as I came of age in mostly white external spaces, from school to church to friend circles, questions of race—of supremacy and history and inequality—did not let me alone. In high school I grappled with black voices across the political spectrum, trying to find my way without a guide. I read books from Toni Morrison, Malcolm X and Shelby Steele, feeling pulled to the left but willing to entertain anyone who would at least discuss race openly.

After a history teacher first pointed me to W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk, one sentence brought me, night after night, to tears.

How does it feel to be a problem?

I felt like a problem because I had what my parents called “an obsession with race.”
I felt like a problem because depression had twice nearly killed me.

I was black, depressed, and race-conscious. And few people wanted to talk about any of it.

Even among well-meaning friends, bringing up depression often stops conversations short. People don’t want to say the wrong thing and mentally search for the perfect words. Those of us who suffer learn to speak of it sparingly, and to frame it carefully when it does come up. We share our pain and end up consoling our friends.
“Don’t worry. I’ll be okay.”

Those who battle depression also fight stigma, of course. We combat feel-good messages of positivity. Just feel better. Think happy thoughts. Think about your past successes.

These suggestions sound ludicrous to us, but we try them anyway—and then feel disgust with ourselves that they didn’t work. Something must be wrong with us, and not with the suggestion.

Those feelings of shame create a culture of silence. Depression becomes our burden to bear twice over. We feel it, alone, before dueling the ensuing shame.

That feeling—that people are okay with knowing that you have depression, as long as you don’t talk about it—mirrors some of what blackness has meant in the post-civil rights era.
It’s okay that I have blackness, as long as I don’t talk about it, or “act black” in any way.

We know the lines:
“If you want racism to end, stop talking about it.”
“I don’t see race.”
“Nobody brings up race except you.”
“Stop bringing race into this.”

Which brings us to Ferguson, Mike Brown, and battling injustices many people can’t, or won’t, see.

Most of what’s transpired in Ferguson, Missouri since Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown on August 9th has been utterly predictable, from the slandering of his character to the justification of his murder, to the disproportional focus on the looting by a relative handful.

47 percent of white Americans believe race received “too much attention” during the heat of the Ferguson situation (Pew). 37 percent agreed that Brown’s death raised important issues about race. Those of us who took to the streets to protest yet another black death at the hands of police were told to “wait for the facts.”

Don’t make it about race. 

Had Mike Brown been white, he could have acted exactly as he did, store theft, jaywalking and all—and he would almost certainly be alive today. That may not be provable; however, while the Aurora theatre shooter was taken into custody, John Crawford III held a toy gun and was killed in a Wal-Mart.

We speak up and get told we are race-baiters, or opportunists looking for attention. We want to keep racism alive so we can have jobs and get on TV.

Those comments sound a lot like what some say about those who dare speak of their depression. “Attention seeking.” “Wanting the spotlight.” “Not to be taken seriously.”

How does it feel to be a problem?

Talking about being black makes people uncomfortable.
Why do you bring up race so much?

Talking about depression makes people uncomfortable.
Just don’t focus on it, and you’ll feel better.

Talking about inequality makes people uncomfortable.
Stop bringing race into everything.

I once wished I could ignore it. But I will not—and we cannot—any longer be shamed into silence. Rarely does ignoring any issue actually make it go away. Audre Lorde told us her silences had not protected her, and that ours will not protect us.

And so rather than opt for silence, I choose to speak. I choose to speak my truth. My truth is this:
I am depressed. I am depressed because of chemical imbalances in my brain. Medicine and therapy have provided some relief. Friends and ritual have also helped. I am depressed. I likely always will be, to some extent.

I am depressed also because, despite us having a black president and a black attorney general, and despite living in a society where I can play ultimate frisbee with white people and high five white strangers at football games and work at a white church and have lots of white friends, black lives still matter less in America.

I am depressed because I watched many of my friends go blissfully about their lives, seemingly unconcerned as police pointed guns and deployed tear gas against their unarmed fellow citizens.

I am depressed because black men have devalued the moving, vital leadership of black women going back to Sojourner Truth, who said in the mid 19th century, “There is a great stir about colored men getting their rights, but not a word about colored women.”

I am depressed because black editor Thomas Fortune’s 1883 words still ring with truth today: “The white man who shoots a negro always goes free, while the negro who steals a hog is sent to the chain gang for ten years.”

I am depressed because those who speak up are labeled as The Problem, while the issue they strive to solve goes unchallenged and often unseen.

Shame is powerful. Depression makes us intimately familiar with shame, with doubt, and with fear. Supremacy, though it no longer requires supremacists to operate, teaches us the same lesson.

Depression and supremacy aren’t satisfied with our shame. They want our silence. And as much as it hurts–as often as we’re told, verbally or otherwise, to shut up, as many times as we curl up and cry or bury our faces in our pillows–we have to keep going.

Audre Lorde said, “only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.”

At rallies and protests and forums around the country, we are fighting doubt and finding truth—in her voice, and in ours.

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7 thoughts on “race depression”

  1. Thank you for your honesty and eloquence about depression — it’s a topic that few can describe so vividly. And thank you for your brilliant teachings on race. My heart aches and I am always grateful to know more.

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  2. Thank you for writing such a lucid and articulate piece. I am so completely with you on the depression thing–fought it and fought it until I finally decided to try meds this past winter (I’m 37 years old and have been in denial about depression for nearly my whole life). Like you, meds and therapy have brought some relief, but there is no magic switch that will make me “better” forever. Being in a place of peace takes great vigilance and a willingness to relinquish expectations. As far as race goes, I applaud you for speaking openly of what so many would rather ignore or deny. I would like to be a part of the solution. I stand with you in solidarity, and send my wishes for you to find a deep and abiding sense of peace within you, peace that will remain steady through the many changes that will inevitably occur around you.

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  3. Reblogged this on ofcourseitsaboutyou and commented:
    I have had the very great honor of working with Kenny Wiley for the last few weeks as we organized events to bring the community together against police brutality after the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Kenny speaks here openly about being Black and fighting depression. Black people are often told to be quiet and be strong, erasing their need for assistance and visibility at a time of trial in their lives. I am sharing this because I want you to read about how depression and race intersect, and because these words are powerful. Please read Kenny’s post and forward it on.

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  4. Thank you Kenny for an enlightening article. I go to Northwoods, so I know you by sight, but not personally. I do know your dad and knew your wonderful mother. There are many problems in our society, but you are not a problem, you are a problem solver. I too know depression first hand. I have openly talked about it, trying to erase the stigma that goes with it. Our wonderful President has stood up against the worst racism. I can’t imagine how he has kept his cool, dignity and courage. I wish he could run for a third term with a house and senate of a democratic majority.
    Maxine DeVries

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  5. I remember the exact moment when I realized that it wasn’t my being Queer that was the problem, but it was society’s treatment of my Queerness that was the problem. The cracks in my sense of shame subsequently splintered like a spray of shattered glass. What followed was a sense of aliveness coursing through my body like I had never known. Chi (life force) limited and repressed by cultural conditioning can (and often does) result in depression. The chemicals in our bodies follow belief. May you continue to speak for your freedom and the freedom of so many young, black, gifted men amidst so many cultural messages and ingrained systems of operating that tell them they are otherwise. Sending you love.

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