Sunday, December 2, 2018

Why Are We So Depressed?

Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us.
Donna Tartt

Sigmund Freud believed most people channeled their death instinct outwardly. The "Death Drive" or that tendency towards self destructive behavior is real. I don't care if you subscribe to Eastern orthodoxies, Western religious dogmatism, or postmodern psychoanalytic theory, we can't deny the fact that there are some people hell bent on destroying themselves.

Self destruction takes on many forms. For some it's alcohol and drug abuse; for others it's engaging in extremely dangerous or risky behavior. No matter the symptom(s) the underlying cause tends to be some form of depression. What has changed in society? Are we more depressed now than before? Why do so many people feel like they are trapped in lives they can't escape?

This isn't a frivolous rhetorical exercise. I'm asking broad, open ended questions for a reason: maybe we need to spend more time thinking, with an open mind, about what's happening around us? How can we possibly help anyone if we haven't asked ourselves tough questions, or examined our own self destructive behaviors? 

I'm not Monday morning quarterbacking depression or any mental health issue. This isn't amateur psychology hour. I'm asking anyone still reading to think about the big questions, and some of the seemingly small questions that have big answers. Who are you? Who am I? How much influence does society, class, culture, and economics play in determining the answers we find? Why are we so depressed?

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Overcoming Racists Imagery: A Trip Inside The Mind

Who else is tired of their social media feeds being flooded with viral videos of Black people being harassed and/or questioned by overly concerned white people? I’m not saying we shouldn’t watch and share these videos. Ignoring this issue won’t make it go away. These videos serve a purpose, but I’m tired of seeing them. I’m tired of anti-Blackness. I’m tired of people deputizing themselves to police us. I’m tired of people assuming our presence needs to be explained.

This kind of harassment is the child of ignorance and hatred. Unnecessarily following, questioning, or calling the cops on anyone can create a potentially dangerous situation. Not everyone is going to pull out a phone and start recording. There are people capable of going from calm to pissed off before their antagonist can dial 911, but even if the person being harassed keeps their cool they are put in the ominous position of having to explain themselves to law enforcement.

These videos are new, but this behavior isn’t. Black bodies have been monitored and surveilled since the first slave ships dropped anchor. The moment Black bodies are “out of place” our patriotic friends spring into action. Their fear and unarticulated assumptions create drama where none exists.
I know Black people who are policing themselves. I know people who have decided that eating at certain restaurants or shopping in some malls isn’t worth risking a potential confrontation. This is psychologically exhausting and emotionally damaging.

We don’t have to be prisoners to this madness. Self-exploration, self-awareness, and ultimately, self-knowledge is our way out. Finding yourself doesn’t mean you won’t be victimized by racism, but it can keep you from internalizing the experience. We should be upset by racist behavior, we should confront racists tropes, but we shouldn’t allow the mania of others to limit our freedom. We can train our minds and strengthen our spirits.

Plato thought there were three components to the soul: the logical, the spirited, and the appetite; Sigmund Freud lectured about the three parts of the personality: the id, the ego, and the superego; Frantz Fanon wrote extensively about decolonializing the mind; The Nation of Gods and Earths have been teaching about self-actualization since the 60’s. There’s a lot of information across a variety of disciplines readily available for anyone serious about overcoming the psychological effects of trauma.

What works for me (if it is working) may not work for you. I’ve found that fighting the urge to reject objectification helped me understand they way people look at me and how I react to their reactions. I think of myself as an object, a subject, and an agent. This allows me to focus on the things I can control. I define my personal trinity in the terms of me, myself, and I.

  • Me: (object) a canvas where society projects its understanding (and misunderstandings) about language, culture, gender, race, sex, and class.
  • Myself: (subject) The internal battleground where assumptions, prejudices, and preconceived notions are either internalized and accepted, or confronted and defeated.
  • I: (agent) The external being whose actions reflect the conscious and unconscious struggles I face.

We are constantly objectified: all of us. Every interaction we have starts with a look that attempts to understand us or place us in a category. At any given time, we have a number of character traits projected onto us. Those initial judgments are part of life; they will always be there, but we don't define us. We will never know freedom if we don’t find a way around social stigma. One can be bound without physical shackles.

Our challenge is to diminish the power judgment holds over us while simultaneously elevating our self-worth. The phobias and “isms” plaguing our society flourish because of intellectual laziness. Ignorance and hatred aren’t going anywhere, but we have to remember that the hateful and ignorant aren’t the majority. We can’t fall into the trap of trying to refute every negative stereotype about Blackness. Ultimately, the most important judgment we face lives on the other side of a mirror.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The Flag and Willful Distortions of History

Editor, The Recorder,

I would like to respectfully answer the challenge Mrs. Gum issued in her letter to the editor that ran in the Sept. 13 issue.

In her letter, she laid out a few facts about Francis Scott Key, but she didn’t give readers enough historical background about him or the poem he wrote (which was later turned into the national anthem) to paint a complete picture.

I’m certain The Recorder won’t give me enough space to thoroughly discuss Francis Scott Key’s bigotry, protests against police brutality, and the fissures in America today, but I will try. To do this, I will enlist the help of another famous Francis Scott Key — Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

To fully understand protests in America, one has to be willing to hold two contradictory ideas in their head at the same time and get outside of themselves long enough to consider what America looks like through another’s eye.

Francis Scott Key was the son of a slave owner — he inherited wealth created by slave labor, he owned slaves, and he was enriched throughout his life by the institution of slavery. As a lawyer in Maryland and a District Attorney in Washington, D.C., he did everything in his legal authority to make life hell for Africans in America. He never prosecuted crimes committed against freed Blacks, and he fought several legal battles against abolitionists.

Key was in British custody because of a prisoner swap he was negotiating. The British feared he would turn over intelligence, so they kept him on a boat anchored several miles out to sea during the 20 to 24 hours of the attack on Fort “McHenry.”

Francis Scott Key and his poem are a part of American history. He is worthy of praise and blame for his actions. He was a horrible human being. In the third stanza of his poem he writes, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave, from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave, and the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

That line was a direct reference to the freed Blacks and slaves who chose to fight for the British Army. He hated them so much that he cheered their deaths.

Key once said Africans were “a distinct and inferior race of people, which all experience proves to be the greatest evil that afflicts a community.” All of this is part of the same story!

America is complex. We have a history most would rather run from than confront. I’ve been at military funerals where loved ones are presented with the flag; this is a cathartic experience. Love of country is a powerful motivator for many people. I understand and respect the sacrifices some have made. With that said, it would be disingenuous to not admit the promises made in the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the national anthem don’t apply to all of us.

There will never be a “popular” protest movement. This doesn’t mean reasonable people can’t disagree about what is or isn’t appropriate. Dr. King has been dead long enough to become a beloved figure in America, but he died a hated man. Muhammad Ali was much more popular as an older man dealing with Parkinson’s disease than a young man standing up for the dignity of Black people in the 60's and 70's. This will also be the fate of Colin Kaepernick. His protest was never about the flag or our troops.

Willfully distorting the reason players are protesting solves nothing. Saying racism is better doesn’t deal with the ways it has evolved. Changing the conversation guarantees another generation will have to talk about these issues.

Malcolm X once said, “You can’t stab a man in the back nine inches, pull the knife out six inches, and celebrate the progress.”

There are inequities in employment and educational opportunities that need to be addressed. The criminal justice system is a nightmare. Too many Americans have been systematically excluded from the dream.

What Is Your Legacy?

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

I'm (Part of) What's Wrong With Social Media: I Don't Apologize

Facebook was my gateway drug into the world of social media. I remember the day I opened my account. It was November 16, 2011: I had just gotten home from doing close to ten years in the Virginia Department of Corrections. I was surrounded by family and friends who worked as Sherpas guiding me through the nuisances of Facebook etiquette. 1) Don't post about politics. 2) Don't post about religion: unless you are posting about how awesome Jesus is. 3) Don't post about racism. Basically, I was advised to avoid posting about anything other than cats, babies, and food. 

I was so eager to get reacquainted with some of my old friends that I indiscriminately started sending and accepting friend requests. Within a few days I had over 500 "friends". This was awesome. What I didn't account for was how much some of us had changed over the years. After a while it was obvious some of our lives were in completely different places. This isn’t about being praise worthy or blame worthy. Life happened and we had different priorities. 

The overwhelming majority of my “friends” wanted Facebook to be a place where they could escape from the day to day grind of life. I didn’t know social media was supposed to be fun, and when I found out I didn’t care. All of this was happening so fast. 

I turned my Facebook into my public diary and started journaling. It was cathartic. I wrote what I felt and didn’t care about the consequences. There were days I felt incredibly blessed to be home and have a second chance at life; on those days, I wrote about my feelings. There were days when the world seemed like a flaming bag of crapsicles; on those days I wrote. I didn’t shy away from controversial issues. I was indifferent to the agreed upon rules that governed Facebook. This was seen, by some, as passive aggressive behavior. I lost a lot of those early "friends".

Our society conditions people to avoid “controversy”. We are taught to ignore bigotry, hatred, and incivility. Too many people have bought into the belief that society's ills can be fixed by ignoring them. There are people who believe their right to bliss shouldn’t be impeded by the raw nature of our world. They are wrong! They have every right to ingest or avoid any information they choose, but they don’t have a right to another’s silence. I don’t apologize for the (small) role I’ve played in ruining social media. I don’t apologize for writing about race, religion, class, culture, or politics. I don't apologize for my truth being abrasive against the thin skin of those who choose to run from the world around them. Maybe, If we hadn’t avoided talking about these issues for so long we might understand how they affect us?