We are surrounded by death. They kill us. We kill us. We scroll past death daily. Our street signs, holidays, school buildings, and currency honor the names and faces of genocide conductors. We manufacture all the life out of our food. We sing anthems and pledge allegiance to death. We pay taxes that sponsor death around the world in exchange for feelings of safety. We watch death movies and play death video games. This culture’s obsession with zombies is more fact than fiction.
Black youth are committing suicide. It’s a worse problem than something we don’t talk about, most don’t even know that. We still think it’s a white thing. But here’s the reality:
Suicides by hanging nearly tripled among black boys between 1993 and 2013
For the first time, the suicide rate of black children in between the ages of 5 and 11 had doubled between 1993 and 2013 — while the rate among white children had declined
Suicide has become the third leading cause of death among black people between the ages of 15 and 24
This is a difficult conversation. State sanctioned violence by the police is easier – it’s a more obvious problem. Alfred Olango should still be alive. The police are wrong, their instinct is not to preserve Black life. Also, I cannot ignore what motived brother Olango to point what could’ve been perceived as a weapon towards a cop. It makes me wonder how often street or police violence is a provocation masking a suicide attempt. It’s much less popular conversation but we need to have it to get to the heart of the matter.
We lean on blame talk because responsibility requires something more of us. It’d be easy to trace the source of the trauma that instigates suicide to oppressive institutions and the individuals that operate and benefit from them, but it’d be silly to think they care. We are not our own worst enemy, but we are our only saviors. Black youth suicide is an adult problem. There is something we must do differently to wrap our arms around our young people. To actually serve and protect them. To prepare them to be sustained custodians of their own life.
The suicide warning signs for a Black boy may look different than the symptoms outlined in a typical mental health diagnostic tool. Long before any attempt there is a resignation that occurs. The dimming of a light. A numbness. It can be hard to distinguish from a cool pose. The essence of this lack of care, this disregard for life is the same prerequisite for a boy being able to take another’s life. The resignation is usually a mirror to reflect the lack of care given to him by his environment.
So much in a boy’s life supports the resignation. All the men in his life are cold. We never express joy or heartache around him. Tenderness is a liability. The only modicum of happiness he is allowed happens through conquest - of girls, of property, of territory, of trinkets, of weaker boys. His is a world full of problems that are his fault for not behaving well enough at home, school, church or in front of the police. He was born in the wrong place and time, in the wrong neighborhood, in the wrong skin. So his life goal is to escape. The chariot to freedom is athletics or entertainment.
In the meantime, he still has to escape daily. To not bear the burden of feeling. Loud helps to drown out the noise, so he smokes before school, sneaks out during school, and as soon as last bell rings. But the rappers are advertising much more interesting stuff than weed these days. All of it costs money. Along with Jordans and diapers. Which causes more stress, requiring more stress relief. A nut is free though. Preferably while only having to look at the top of a head, without a body, or a heart, or any expectations.
The problem with escape is the return. Gotta come back eventually, and if you haven’t gained any new skills or insights that will help you transform your circumstances then you won’t be any closer to any real power. Plus the temporary numbness was only an illusion. Your brain was tricked for a moment but the intelligent design of the body isn’t that gullible. The pain is still stored in there. It doesn’t just go away on its own. It has to be released, repaired or restored. That process must be intentional, to identify the source or the pain and actively correct the harm done. Which sounds like I’m leading up to recommending Black people go to therapy, but not necessarily. We just need to do more things that are therapeutic. If you can afford a professional with a couch then please go, but therapy isn’t always therapeutic. Art, movement, writing, eating healthy, talking, meditating, praying, and lots more can be therapeutic. The medicine just has to include teaching self insight. It’s not enough to just say you gotta love yourself, first you have to know thyself. We much teach youth to learn how to listen to themselves, to become experts in how their emotional body works and responds to the environment. We have to teach them how to properly identify and express their feelings, even if it’s just in a personal journal. They must learn to be careful and compassionate observers of the expanding ways their self interacts with the world around them.
Emotional strength is a muscle. It builds and expands through adversity. Men are taught to focus more on building external strength than internal strength. Strength isn’t something that can be given to you. You can’t pay for it or pray for it. It has to be earned, through lived experience. You can’t read about someone else’s strength and then it becomes yours. The only way to know you can make it through tough times, is to make it through tough times. But if we avoid the feeling, we miss out on the opportunity to learn the lesson. Boys spend so much time trying to dismiss, numb, or circumvent the pain that they never get to build up that muscle. Instead of sitting in the disappointment, shame, or hurt we dismiss it, say we didn’t really care, play invincible. Then we teach younger boys to do the same. But if you sit in it for a while, however much it hurts, you eventually realize that it goes away, especially if we learn how to heal intentionally. Then you are no longer afraid of it. By enduring pain, and sharing the process, vulnerability actually becomes power and from there we can begin to shift the false dichotomy we’ve created between strength and weakness.
What our boys need are adults around that affirm life. That seek joy, fight the structures that limit their opportunity to excel, and create institutions that cultivate their brilliance. This is all adult work. It’s not our children’s fault or responsibility. We have to model living purpose filled lives, and what’s a greater purpose than posterity? In this death filled society we even have to reconceptualize what death represents. We have to study and teach indigenous understanding of the life cycle so they aren’t inundated with this idea that they are born inherently into sin and can only achieve salvation in the afterlife by submitting to someone else’s ideas of god. America fears death because of its obsession trying to control it. Indigenous people always saw death as a transition from one form to another, like photosynthesis. No one fears water evaporating into clouds and raining back to the ground, unless you’ve contaminated the lake. Our boys are stuck, simultaneously running towards and away from death because we are not making sure their lives are valued. They are born with assignments they never get to fulfill, then leave and return only to find that we haven’t fought to change the conditions that constricted them before. Let’s see this rise in suicide as a message from our youth, as their only perceived option for power. An urgently sober call that they desperately need us to revive the vigor of our fight for freedom, joy, and affirmation, as if their life depended on it.
~Dr. Cartman is the author a new book about family, manhood, relationships and culture. You can purchase it here.