Your Health, History and Sankofa
Masquerade & Mysteries of Mental Health
Unmasking fears, myths, and stigmas about mental illness and psychotherapy.
The stigma of mental health has a long history of negative beliefs and perceptions within the African American community. And with good reason! The ongoing epidemic of race-based attacks and systemic oppression comes from a history of being enslaved and oppressed, which still exists in some form today. Psychotherapy teaches about the effects of repressed anger and intergenerational patterns of behavior. Perhaps it’s time to openly examine how our history of racism affects the mental health of many generations of African Americans. How did Black Americans become so disenchanted or fearful of mental health? Why is it so hard to believe in the power of psychotherapy? Would mental health treatment be beneficial to African Americans struggling with distress from an unknown origin?
The psychological concept of low self-esteem equals feeling less than, which equals poor mental health, which equals poor quality of life. Depression is not a normal state of being. It is a sign that something is out of kilter.
The new emphasis of trauma provides a new lens for developing more research into the impact of slavery that is continuing to affect black mental health today.
Social Worker and educator, Alma Carten wrote about slavery and its legacy. In her 2015 article, How Legacy of Slavery Affects the Mental Health of Black Americans Today, she stated that “Since slavery, the church has been a formidable force for the survival of blacks to grapple with the residual effects of white supremacy.” This has caused many of us to not believe in the value of Eurocentric psychotherapy methods to help us obtain mental well-being. Carten also stated that “the mental health impact of forgiving acts of white racism and repressing justifiable feelings of anger and outrage...” may have caused many African Americans to reject the notion experiencing any mental health problems, which creates an inability to express hidden emotions.
There has been a black psychology movement since the early 1920s. Dr. Francis Cecil Sumner (1895-1954) is known as the “Father of Black Psychology.” Dr. Sumner was the first to receive a doctorate in psychology in 1920 and studied Eurocentric versus Afrocentric psychology. The black psychology movement came into prominence in the 1960’s coinciding with the civil rights movement. From this movement came the Afrocentric model of psychology. The definition of black psychology states that psychological study of human being concepts through the lens of African American perspective about thoughts, behaviors, feelings and beliefs, and attitudes.
1954 was a pivotal year with the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka. Brown sought to dismantle the nation’s legally sanctioned segregation in public schools. This case was the first to use psychological data. The Brown decision came at the beginning of the civil rights era. The Association of Black Psychologists was founded in 1968 in response to the American Psychological Association‘s (APA) lack of interest in the study of African American psychology. In 1974, the first official Journal of Black Psychology was published.
Other notable contemporary black psychologists have contributed to today’s APA studies. Continuing today is the works of Beverly Daniel Tatum (1954-present) who studied race relations. Dr. Daniel Tatum wrote a book Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? It covers the development of racial identity, which is essential to the development of children. This reminded me of my own experience growing up and working in a predominantly non-black environment first in catholic school in the 1950s and later working in law firms. If I and my black co-workers sat together for lunch, inevitably someone would say “Why do you people all sit together?” And most disturbing was when another black person would say “I’m not sitting there because it’s too many of us at the table.” The 1960s-racist thinking was that if two or more black people are standing together talking, they must be plotting some militant uprising.
Repressed anger is our legacy.
Anger is a natural emotion, which is neither good nor bad. It is often a large part of a survivor's response to trauma. Anger is also a common response to events that seem unfair or if perceived to be made a victim. Repressed anger is a devastating and destructive state of being for the human mind. It is a defense mechanism to help deal with traumatic thoughts or events. Some symptoms of repressed anger may include workaholicsim, chronic mild depression, sarcasm, overly sensitive to rejection or slights, and muscle tensions.
Carten discussed that the black experience in America uses forgiveness and grace as hallmarks of the black church. Survival of slavery from the oppressions of white supremacy has taken a serious devastating psychic toll on acts of forgiveness. She cited two other authors, Terrie M. Williams a clinical social worker and Joy DeGruy a Portland State University researcher and scholar.
Ms. Williams who wrote about Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting. She interviewed black people from all walks of life to illustrate the higher toll of hiding the pain associated with black experience on mental health. “Experiencing trauma and suppressing anger drives deep into the unconscious mind and becomes contaminated by unresolved pain life of problems.”
Dr. DeGruy developed a psychological disorder specific to African Americans called Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome (PTSS) as a theory explaining the effects of unresolved trauma on the behavior of Black people transmitted down from generation to generation. It is a sub-category of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). New research is finding that this intergenerational pattern of behavior in our DNA make-up.
Carten’s article further stated that “Slavery being incongruent with the so-called democratic ideals on which America was founded.” Therefore, it was easier for slave owners to pretend that we were inferior so as not to be responsible for changing their oppressive behavior. Yes, we all know that slavery was for greedy monetary economic reasons. This doesn’t negate the fact that African slaves were human beings with human biological and psychological aspects. Yes, we do feel sad, hopeless, and possibly worthless as would any human being under those harsh circumstances. Carten goes on to say that “To deny this fact has caused blocked anger, which if goes unchecked creates hidden contamination by which mental illness is manifested into negative self-hate and violence towards self and others.”
Repressed anger management can be treated through psychotherapy.
In anger management treatment, problems with arousal, behavior, and beliefs are all addressed in different ways. Release repressed anger by screaming! Anger gets stored in our gut, chest, and throat. It can be released through the voice. So, a loud primal scream releases the pent-up emotions that have been stored in the body.
I’m not that old, but I have lived long enough to see the impact of the legacy of slavery on my elders, myself, family, and friends as well as the black community. I’ve come to believe in the power of mental health wellness.
Psychotherapy has its value because it promotes quality of life. Mental health treatment can be beneficial to African Americans to help sort out confusing feelings about growing up in America post-slavery. The body remembers what the mind forgets. The act of opening-up to an empathic listener creates a liberating process whereby the body learns how to release pent-up toxicity, which restores it to equilibrium. The upshot is that the impact of living with repressed anger is harmful.
Lamberton Genealogy Project - Self Esteem via Family History
The year was 2007. My wife, Cynthia, and I flew from Santa Fe to present and speak to the students of Robert E. Lamberton Elementary school of Philadelphia, PA. about ancestry. The school year was declared ‘Family History & Genealogy Year’.
We showed the kids the PBS program 'History Detectives' that featured my 2nd great-grandfather John Stevenson, an African-American Civil War soldier and veteran. Then we gave a PowerPoint presentation of my ancestors, telling stories and explaining genealogical research along the way.
In the dimly-lit auditorium with uncomfortable wood chairs, we had a delightful and illuminating conversation with the students and their parents. I told them a story of how, as a youngster, my mother and I had a similar situation on a bus as Rosa Parks. We could see the lightbulbs turn on; students and parents visualizing personal event in their respective lives that had the same familiarity. After two days, Cynthia and I returned home.
For the next six months, the students had genealogy projects to develop. In order to graduate from middle school to high school, they had to create a family history presentation.
And create they did! Booklets, posters, computer discs, oral histories on audio tape, and even a dance interpretation of three generations of women in one family.
I returned to the school in May 2008 to witness and judge a collection of genealogical treasures that just blew me away. I could tell that many of the students had help from their older siblings, parents, and relatives. No points were taken off for that. In fact, that was the big 'Gotcha' moment. The whole family got together on a genealogical project.
The top ten students had to present to me. There was the typical talking too fast, too low, not facing the audience, stumbling, and fumbling expected from middle school learners. However, there was something else. Discovery, pride, elevated self-esteem, and an awareness and upliftedness that comes from learning and knowing your family history and ancestry.
One student learned that there were skilled tradesmen on his father's side and college graduates on his mother's side. Another student had prominent ancestors from Haiti. Others had world-class boxers, jockeys and footballers to point to. Another could trace his ancestors back to the 1700s. All the students couldn't wait to tell me what they found out about their families.
We digressed a lot, talking about hippies, yuppies, Black Panthers and all kinds of things. We were freestyling, riffing, rapping, and ‘getting down with it’. We had big fun.
The bell rang. We all were taken out of our rapture and reminded that the students had to go to their next class. The security team was patrolling the hallways. Potential harassment and dangers awaited the students as they traversed unsafe corridors. This was an elementary school and even I didn’t want to leave the relative comfort (safety) of this classroom.
One of the security personnel drove me between the school and the hotel. He explained to me what a tough job he and the teachers had in keeping the children safe and providing an education at the same time. Their saving grace came in the form of their progressive and dedicated principal, Marla Travis Jones.
It was Mrs. Jones, inspired by the PBS program, who figured that one way to make a difference in her students' lives was to shine a light on their family histories and have the reflections be part of their academic well-being.
And they got it; the students, parents, and teachers! Mrs. Feracco, an eight-grade teacher with a passion for genealogy who assisted the students throughout the year, was surprised and proud of the students' efforts and parental participations. I was more than appreciative of her help in narrowing down the field to the top ten projects.
Getting people, young and old, to see their lives in the context of family history and its connection to world events is what I do. It is one thing to teach children lessons around historical persons and events such as those involving Crispus Attucks, Federick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. But until you place them in the context of the child’s family history, it is abstract and worst, boring and irrelevant in their young minds. It is cool for children to revere the charismatic Muhammad Ali; but it is another thing to know that your classmate has a world-class champion boxer uncle who faced similar challenges, making Ali’s story all the more relevant.
There is a word; Sankofa.
Sankofa is an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The literal translation of the word and the symbol is, ‘it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind’. After the word made its way to the United States, African-American scholars coin the term to mean “remembering our past, to protect our future” within the African-American culture.
‘Go back and get what was taken’ is another interpretation. I like this one.
Our Ancestors left breadcrumbs and signposts in the language, music, and arts to help us go back and get what was taken from us. By discovering and learning their family history, the students of Lamberton Elementary school were doing just that. Black History Month, Kwanzaa, Juneteenth, the Black Lives Matter movement, Jazz, Rhythm & Blues; are all vehicles designed to get us to go back and get what was taken from us.
Our students need culture. They need family history. They need reminders and remembrances of the past that are true and honest. They need parents, community leaders, and elders to show them the past; the deep, real past, so they can make informed decisions on how they are going to preserve and advance their culture. They need to compare and contrast world history with their family history, applying critical thinking in order to make sense of their circumstances, and not let that deter them from achieving the full potential of inherited possibilities.
We live in a technology-driven world. But it need not be just about bits, bytes, youtube, Instagram, industry, and commerce. It must be about culture, language, art, literature, and spirituality. It must be about family. It has to be about history; deep, real history.
History begins with one simple question. What happened? Students can find answers in their family stories.
I will tell you more about this in upcoming posts using my family as an example. I hope this gets you all charged up to tell the children around you to check out their family history and ‘Go back and get what was taken’. I will be with you on this fantastic journey.
Peace & Blessings,
“Guided by the Ancestors”