I never saw my dad cry. Or my brother as an adult. I never saw my boyfriend shed a tear for over ten years. And I wish I could talk to them about so much – but for two out of three, it’s too late. Through bereavements, break-ups and break-downs, they didn’t ever seem to have emotions apart from joy and anger. And their anger was fierce, often leading to altercations with the police; jeopardising their relationships, their freedom and their futures. But these black men weren’t fools; they were educated, smart, successful and likeable. Over the last few months, reflecting on my relationships with the black men in my life, I started to wonder: are the restrictions of black male masculinity so narrow, that even smart, successful, black men are forced to engage in self destructive behaviour, to avoid dealing with, or accessing their real feelings and emotions?
A recent Guardian article, ‘It’s time to tackle mental health inequality among black people’, by Edward Davie, highlighted that black people are ‘17 times more likely than white counterparts to be diagnosed with a psychotic illness.’ and in Lambeth, the borough with the country’s biggest black population, nearly 70% of the borough’s black residents are in secure psychiatric settings (when they make up just 26% of the borough in total). There is clearly a problem with black men and mental health and we aren’t talking about it.
A recent study ‘Mental Health Survey of Ethnic minorities’ by ‘Time To Change’ and The University of Warwick, concluded that: “Only a fifth of BME people feel very able to speak to people about their mental health. This suggests that most (black or minority) people are functioning in social circles where one of the most important part of their lives is left unspoken”.
So should we just accept that black culture just doesn’t lend itself to discussing feelings? African households for example are often places of gender tradition; the male is the provider and strong head of the household – therefore a man appearing to struggle emotionally would be seen as some kind of ‘failure’. Caribbean cultures also often enjoy traditional gender dynamics - with hyper-masculine roles for men and home-maker or roles for women. Hence, getting black men to be more open about their mental health means both dismissing culture and tradition; challenging what it means to be of the male gender full stop, and then subverting the stereotype of what it means to be a black man – with all the stereotypical connotations that go with it, that have become ingrained from childhood and solidified (or even exaggerated) by the mainstream media. That is a lot to challenge, and easy to see why things aren’t really changing.
So when I received an invite by spoken word artist Rhael ‘Lion Heart’ Cape to attend his poetry book launch, where his collection would be dealing with how he, as a young black man, has dealt with mental health issues such as depression and social anxiety I was excited and intrigued. The launch, set in the family home where he grew up, was cleverly designed like an art exhibition, with photographs of Lion Heart in various stages of his boyhood, with snippets of his poems used to punctuate the visuals. The images captured key moments of his masculinity forming - for example a series of portraits side by side indicated where his childhood freedom became contained, as he realised his place in the world: a goofy, tiny, laughing child, transitioned into a straight faced, sullen, self aware adolescent. There was also an art instillation – a dark room with ongoing haunting insults and a flickering computer screen, symbolising his depression - he explained that during the depths of his illness, he would not leave that room for weeks at a time. Lastly, we were treated to a beautiful reading of selected poems from the book ‘The Mute’s Rebellion’, and I spoke to Lion Heart briefly about why he felt it was important to show black men as emotionally vulnerable in his collection:
LH: I just wanted to to rebel, and encourage others to do so with me. To simply put it; I wanted to find strength in my vulnerability.
Do you think art, like your poetry, which challenges stereotypes, could start to change things for black men and mental health?
LH: I believe if more black men spoke up, regardless of social norms, and culture traits that confine us, yes, we’d find more communal solutions. We still perceive talking about these things as jeopardising our image... there so much more to be said, so much more to be done.
What more do you think needs to be done?
LH: We need to deconstruct the normality of muzzling our feelings. We need to start discussing our emotional and psychological struggles, because we all have them.
Indeed we do - the biggest killer for men under the age of 35 right now is suicide. Clearly, the issue is complex, but we are failing men right now. Whilst art and poetry like Lion Heart’s ‘The Mute’s Rebellion’ are brilliant ways to highlight the problem, we can all do our part by teaching boys it’s genuinely OK to talk about how they are feeling.
And for black men, that is without a doubt harder – it means confronting tradition, culture and racial stereotypes – which we must acknowledge are often comforting and can give our lives a sense of purpose in this chaotic world. However, they carry such narrow ideas about black male masculinity that they must be challenged. Patriarchy has been alley of black men for decades, but perhaps this black masculinity mental health crisis signals the beginning of the end of that. Bell Hooks notes in ‘Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism’, that during the 1960’s Black Power movement both black men and white men became allies for the first time as they “both believed in the inherent inferiority of women and supported male dominance. Another bonding element was that he (the black man),like the white male, accepted violence as the primary way to assert power”. Yet perhaps today, such an alligence to Patriarchy and its restrictive set of rules and values is harming men just as much as it is harming women.
It’s 2017 - we don’t need men to rule over us; we don’t need men to take on the full weight of being provider (we work too!); we certainly don’t need any more aggressive, violent ‘tough guys’. We need our black men alive, free, healthy, and quite frankly, able to communicate with their loved ones, before it’s too late.
Lion Heart’s debut poetry collection book ‘The Mute’s Rebellion’ can be bought at: LionHeartfeltonline.com