Revelation(s)

by Acasia Olson

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I saw “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” this week.  In fact, it was the day after the 50th Anniversary Commemoration of the March on Washington.  I imagine Lee Daniel’s had this in mind when he set out to develop and produce and release this masterpiece.  The film follows the life of Cecil Gaines, a black domestic from Macon, GA who is eventually invited to work as a White House Butler.  The all-star cast includes Forrest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Terrence Howard, Jane Fonda, John Cusack, Robin Williams and Cuba Gooding Jr.  One expects nothing shy of excellence from this production, and it delivers just that, if not more.

This movie delivers the “Black experience” in 2 hours.  Daniels takes the viewer from the cotton fields of Macon, GA circa 1920 through the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the Black Power Movement of the ‘70s up to the 2008 election of the Nation’s first African American and 44th President, Barack Obama.  There are funny moments, which seem to come from Cecil Gaines’ younger son (who has a penchant for good natured humor) after a tense family dinner that involves his older brother, his brother’s lady friend, and his father. There are heartbreaking moments such as the case when Cecil witnesses his father’s death after his father attempts to stand up against the man who raped his mother.  There are the frustrating moments that come as the result of the tension between black domestics (e.g. Cecil and other White House Staff), and the soldiers of the civil rights and black power movements (e.g. Cecil’s son and peers) who choose between serving and fighting, smiling and resisting. I found myself sitting in the back of the theater shaking my head, giving little ‘church grunts’ during key scenes, wiping away my tears in moments of joy and pain.  I was there, and I was grateful to celebrate the history and heritage and legacy of my people over the course of those two hours.  I felt the double-consciousness that Cecil came to experience after he was invited to the White House State Dinner.  Here he was, a White House butler seated among dignitaries, decision makers and celebrities and though he and his wife had experienced a monumental event, he still didn’t feel as if he belonged, but instead felt as if he were a spectator or there for show.

As with any great movie, there are also the “aha” moments.

For me, these moments came after countless tears and efforts to subdue the discomfort that emerges when racial injustices are relived through the arts and seen in our modern society.  I was moved towards the end of the film after Cecil and his oldest son Louis reconcile their differences and work to reestablish a father-son relationship.  Cecil comes to realize that his son was not waging a war against the nation but was actually, in many ways, fighting for the heart, soul and future of the nation.

In public health, we talk about protecting and promoting the well-being and health of the public. Be it the global or local public, the country or the household, our goal in public health is to prevent disease, promote healthy lifestyles, and protect against the risks of disease.  Epidemiology, the study of the distribution and control of disease in a population, is the cornerstone of public health.  We use this discipline to help identify and explain how and why outbreaks and chronic disease enter into a population.

As a public health professional, I apply the principles of epidemiology to help identify the factors that contribute to the presence of diseases.  I never stop asking the age old question, “why?”  Why is this disease more common, more prevalent in this zip code, among this race, this age, this gender, etc?  I ask how and why some diseases plague some groups and not others. “What makes this disease more endemic to this group than that group?  What are the social determinants or factors that influence a person’s ability to make a healthy decision?”  I am always inquisitive and dig until I can get to the root cause(s) of the problem, or some reasonable answer and solution that can be applied to multiple problems.

When I was in the world of HIV/AIDS a guest from the National Association of People Living with AIDS (NAPWA) spoke to my graduate class about HIV/AIDS and organizational approaches to addressing and preventing its spread.  He said something that I’ll never forget, “HIV is the symptom of a larger problem.”  That statement rang out like a gong.  “What is the larger problem and how can we get to it?” I asked myself. In this past year, I have come to learn more than ever that institutional racism is the glue that holds many forms of oppression together and it feeds and fuels many ills in society.  Not just racism but power inequities and prejudice, which I would argue are the key components of racism.  But let’s go further.  Racism is not a matter of meanness but merely a disease that affects and infects many.  It’s so pervasive that many people don’t realize how they’ve been affected or infected by it.  It’s a disease of the body, mind, and soul and a lot of us are walking around like zombies, infected with it but not even aware. Some of us are aware and don’t care to change and some of us don’t want to know if we have it.

After watching “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” I realized that my job is to heal and fight for the soul of this nation and everyone infected by the sickness of racism.  There’s a reason why my life is taking this direction.  I had no idea that when I set out to find the cure for HIV that I would find myself staring racism and inequity in the face.  Now that I am I feel and sense things are coming together in a unique fashion.  What I enjoyed most about the film is that it portrayed African Americans not as archetypes and characters but as real people and humans with real joys and pains, not all of which are necessarily tied to race or injustice.  It is the American story, and if we could find a way to connect with one another within and despite our differences, then we’ll be able to begin the healing process.

Black Privilege

by Elise Lockamy

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Retrieved August 27, 2013 from https://www.google.com/#fp=e08be61500653123&q=define+privilege

Inhale. Exhale.

I actually took a moment to breathe it in.  The air was crisp and cool.  I felt refreshed.  I was standing on the campus of Milton Academy, the boarding school I attended for high school.  When I was there I did not appreciate it.  I was a gifted Black, Brooklyn girl thrown into a conglomerate of rich Others, all the while going through typical teenager angst.  It was a growing experience – tons of fun and a mess at the same time.

When I returned 8 years later I marveled at all I had access to.  There was an arts center, a well-manicured lawn (“the quad”), a cafeteria with loads of goodies, a student center, an observatory, modern gymnasium (complete with a weight room and ice hockey rink), expansive library, fabulous teachers, and great dorm parents. One year, Bill Clinton spoke at graduation.  (He is a close family friend of one of the legacy families at the school.)  There was a Kennedy in attendance when I was there.  Oh, you know the acclaimed writer Junot Diaz?  He visited after publishing his second work and had an intimate rap-session with the students of my English class.

o_O

When first pushed to explore black privilege I think about access.  Well look at all I had access to as a result of my academic talents .  The promise my teachers saw in me, the preparation Prep for Prep poured into me, and the support of family and friends propelled me to an echelon I could have never imagined experiencing.  I was living the dream, so to speak, and did not know it.  Is that privilege though?  Access to amenities and influential people?

I reflect on the results of my google query.  Privilege, it seems, is less about access and more about authority in a position of governance.  I maintain that we, the class of “firsts” – the first to go to college, the first to make it out the ‘hood, the first to travel and live outside of the U.S., the first to rub noses with millionaires – are living in a space where we are free to choose how to govern ourselves.

Let me philosophize a little more.

We, the post-freedom riders, are now free to choose whether or not to embrace diversity and multiculturalism, become the people who gentrify our historic neighborhoods, identify as Black, and vote Democrat.  We are free to choose whether or not we combat inequality and injustice, marry inside the race, or give back to community.

Pre-privilege, there was no choice.  You were Black (one-drop rule remember).  You lived in a certain neighborhood and sat in the back not by choice but by legal mandate.

But as we progress I ponder this – when we judge our brothers and sisters for voting Republican and marrying White (yea I said it), are we in fact putting our chains back on and revoking our privileges?  When we take back a person’s Black card have we in fact behaved as our former oppressors and stolen identity, as it was, because he or she does not resemble our Blackness?

(I think I may have just ripped off a scab.   I’ll follow-up when it gets itchy again.)

I went on to Georgetown University and fell in love with a life’s call there.  I even pursued a Master’s degree in a field my parents still do not know how to describe.   I enjoy my authority.  I chose to be the dream without becoming a doctor, lawyer, or investment banker.  I enjoy my friends from different nations who do not look like me and may not understand my cultural experience.  I defend those with low-incomes to those who have turned their noses up at them.  I enjoy my music… nice and loud… and will not apologize for doing so.  This Black privilege echoes the freedom I have found in Christ, to be exactly who he designed me to be without all the condemnation and apologies. Freedom rings here.

What do you do with your Black privilege (free will)?  Do you try to fit the mold or do you live free?  Do you oppress or do you edify?  Leave your reflections in the comments section.  I would love to hear your thoughts.

Pass You By

by Elise Lockamy

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“Don’t have to stay with someone/That makes you cry/ You’ll end up killing all the love you have inside…”

My song of the morning this past week has been Boyz II Men’s “Pass You By”.  The song tells the story of a woman who glows and feels like life is complete after she meets this amazing man.  Soon though, the glow begins to fade.  He’s not who she thought he was.  The relationship is not going in the direction she thought it would.  The Boyz tell her she doesn’t have to stay.  “You’ll end up killing all the love you have inside.”

A few months ago I was making a left onto Peachtree.  As I started the turn, I noticed a woman in the passenger seat of a Range Rover at the light.  Her pink skin had grown pale, her appearance withdrawn and sad.  I looked away.  As I finished up the turn, I glanced in her direction again and saw the car’s driver, a man who looked to be a few years her junior and twice her size, punch her in the face.  He punched her.

The light changed.  They continued driving.

“Oh, my God.  Okay. Okay.  Pull over.  No, you’re in the middle of the street.  Okay, make a U-turn and follow them.  What’s in the trunk?  All I have is a screw driver.  He could beat me up too.  License plate?  If I get the plate, maybe I can report it.  Crap. They’re already gone.”

That was it.

I did manage to report a domestic violence incident a year ago.  I was trying to sleep but there was a lot of commotion outside.  I heard arguing and car doors slamming.  I sat up in bed, looked out the window and saw a male figure pushing a woman to the ground.  He was holding her by the neck and she was whimpering.  I ran to find my glasses to get a clearer view, but when I hit the light switch, it alerted the batterer and he hopped into the passenger side of a waiting vehicle and sped away.

Damn.

I ran downstairs.  There was litter everywhere.  Clothes. Pictures. Condoms.  Even a license plate.   I knocked on my neighbor’s door to see if she was okay.  (I had my screw driver in my hand.)  She never answered.

I ran back up to my apartment, waited ten minutes, and then called the police. When they arrived, they told me that it wasn’t the first time there had been an incident with the couple downstairs.   They asked, “Was he Asian?”  I couldn’t tell for sure because I did not have my glasses on when I saw him.  They banged on my neighbor’s door.  When she answered, one officer proceeded to yell at her. “WHERE DID HE GO? WHERE IS HE? YOU TWO ARE GOING TO JAIL! YOU’RE DISTURBING PEOPLE!  CLEAN THIS SHIT UP!”

I regretted calling the police.  A month later, the couple moved.

I know there had to have been a time when both women had a glow, a glow of love and hope.  When it began to dim, did anybody notice?  Did anybody tell them that it was okay to leave?  That there were better things in store if they did?  What was keeping them there?   I once heard a pastor say that women love to a fault.  Was that it?  Love?

I want to wrap this up neatly.  I want to make some grand conclusion.  But I can’t.  Domestic violence is real.  It’s not Hollywood.  It’s not neat and fairy-tale like.  It’s real people.  Real messy situations.  I just have to be armed for the next time I encounter it.  A screw driver isn’t going to cut it.

If you or someone you know needs help, please see the resource below.  From the #COOLIKANS. With love.

National Domestic Violence Hotline
www.thehotline.org
1-800-799-SAFE

on being sun-kissed.

by Obehi Janice

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I used to hate the sun. Specifically, the way it streamed through my window blinds on a Friday morning. The color that hit my floor, desk, and face would always accompany the fervent sounds of a bustling college campus and the combination of color and life would sadden me. It was like my senses would be on overload, all of my atoms hitting one another and making my body to shake and shiver. I would only leave the dank sweat of my comforter to leave my bed, steady the heels of my feet to glimpse outside the window, and close those damn shutters.

Depression bit me like a snake.

When people ask me, “What did it feel like?” I always tell them, “It felt like I was consistently blacking out.” I should research how fast venom works but all I can think of is how a victim resorts to closing their eyes and seeing darkness from their shut eyelids to quell the pain.

That was depression for me.

The spell lasted for about five years. The worst was the fourth year. My senior year of college, my modus operandi involved skipping classes, avoiding calls from my Mother, crying in bed, hiding under my covers, and hitting repeat on all these actions over and over again. I was afraid of spending time alone, though. So when I wasn’t doing that, I was publicly happy. I was jovial and supportive to my fellow classmates, and outspoken in class and extracurriculars. But the only engine working in my body was a cruise control that simply shuffled my feet from this location to that, grinding the gears of my jaw to smile at this face and that.

I hated the sun.

Days before my 21st birthday, the shakes came on like an attack.

It was a gorgeous November day and I mean gorgeous. The campus was buzzing with pre-election day jitters and it was a good week to be Black and Democrat. The energy was palpable and unavoidable. A nervous joy, you know?

But where was I five days before Election Day?

On the carpeted floor of my single capacity dorm room, grabbing one of the legs of my bed frame, and crying out to God.

What is wrong with me
My head hurts so bad
I feel so fucking ugly
Why did you make me like this
What the HELL is wrong with me
God, please Lord, help me


I hadn’t showered in two days and I hadn’t eaten in four.

I remember thinking: if I just figure out how to do it, then my head will stop hurting.

I remember thinking: it’s best I don’t live anymore.

My cellphone was on my bed and I quickly called a friend of mine. She came to my door and she stood outside my room begging me to let her in. It took a good fifteen minutes before she entered and begged me to call my Mom.

In two days, I was on a Southwest flight home to Lowell and before I knew it, it was election night.

While my classmates stormed the White House after Obama’s victory, I was in and out of delirium, sweating beneath my Mother’s covers, watching Anderson Cooper’s silver fox hair swing left to right in enthusiasm. I was so pissed off that I had pushed myself to this level of despair, so frustrated that I could never say, “I celebrated Obama’s victory.”

The next day I flew back to school in D.C. and put on my act again. I joined a celebratory rally in the center of campus with other Black students. I wore black clothing in solidarity and even spoke off the cuff about how proud I was to be a Black woman in this time. It’s hard to remember if I was lying or not.

Feigning happiness was my greatest acting role to date.

I eventually prayed and cried my way into a therapist’s office, was diagnosed with clinical depression, and started taking Celexa.

And it helped. (How exactly will be explored in a future post.)

On July 9, The Washington Post published an article titled “Therapists say African Americans are increasingly seeking help for mental illness”.  I scoured the entirety of the piece, just happy that I could identify with these women in the article. There was this interesting emphasis on the “strong Black woman” stereotype and the inability for traditional Black churches to accept the need for medication and therapy. I just read the article thinking, “I’m one of them.”

But when I read articles like these I also feel embarrassed that I suffered from a disease.

Is depression really a disease? Am I just bat-sh#! crazy?

One thing I’ve learned is that God speaks through doctors and He blesses people with the capacity to create medicine to HELP. To heal.

I still suffer from anxiety. Depression set off little traumas in my being that peek through at least once a day. Being in my twenties, single, the eldest daughter, and an artist, I keep my heart busy with preoccupations. The main engine of the anxiety is worth. “Am I enough?” Indeed. And because God lives and Jesus reigns, I have more than enough. I keep a homemade poster of Philippians 4:6-8, what I call a “cliche verse” near my bed to remind me that I can’t do this alone.

Three years after my last major episode, I live in a bedroom with an unusual amount of sunlight. My neighborhood is noisy and full of life. I wake up from my covers not sweating, but expectant. I call my Mother, I pray to my Heavenly Father, I sing and dance a little. I ward away the depression bit by bit.

And I’m sort of obsessed with the sun now.

It streams in, wakes me up, and invites me to leave my bed to start the day.

Obehi is the creator/performer of the one-woman show “FUFU & OREOS”, a play about her personal experience with clinical depression and self-identity. It’s currently running in The Berkshire Fringe Festival through August 4.


Last month (July) was National Minority Mental Health Awareness MonthRaise awareness, lift each other up in prayer, and take action.