Breaking the Silence on Black Suicides
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
In his stage days, comedian turned political activist Dick Gregory liked to crack that whites kill themselves by leaping from a tall building, and blacks kill themselves by jumping from a basement. This bit of gallows humor always got an uproarious laugh from black audiences. For decades blacks took perverse pride and comfort in the notion that suicide was a white folks thing. Despite the long, tortured experience of slavery, segregation, racially motivated violence and poverty, it was their article of faith that blacks didnt kill themselves. They were always able to laugh or pray their way out of the worst adversity. But suicide among blacks is no longer the stuff of jokes.
In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its second report in the past fours on teen suicides. It again warned that more young blacks than ever kill themselves, are self-destructing at a far faster rate than young white males, and are more likely too kill themselves with guns. Though CDC researchers gave no reason for the escalating self-carnage, some suicide prevention experts speculated that the jump in suicides was an ugly by-product of middle-class life. In other words, as more blacks climb the social and economic ladder, the same pressures and frustrations that come with the chase for better careers, bigger incomes, and richer lifestyles rack them, as their white middle-class counterparts. This explanation is shaky. The CDC did not break down suicides among blacks by income status. In Chicago, where some mental health professionals report that the suicide rate among young blacks exceeds that of whites, most of those who take their lives are lower-income blacks. They are plagued by chronic problems of drug and alcohol use, high unemployment and prison rates, family breakdown, and the absurdly easy access and availability of guns. These problems are compounded by the paucity of mental health centers, treatment facilities and trained professionals in poor neighborhoods. Then theres the belief among many school counselors and teachers that young black males are inherently violent, and crime-prone. They often ignore the glaring signs of at-risk behavior such as uncontrolled rage, unruly behavior, or aggression exhibited by many young blacks, or dont recognize that this acting out behavior frequently masks acute feelings of depression, hopelessness, alienation, and poor self-esteem. The end result is that many young blacks fail to receive the counseling and treatment that could save lives.
Another unstated and even more troubling reason for the rise in black suicides is the refusal of many blacks to accept the fact that their children can and do kill themselves. This stubborn denial of a changing reality was glaringly evident in June, 2000 when 17 year-old Raynard Johnson was found hanging from a pecan tree in the front yard of his Kokomo, Mississippi home. Johnsons family openly disputed the coroners ruling that his death was a suicide, and claimed that he was murdered for dating a white girl. Civil rights leaders quickly joined the clamor over his death. Jesse Jackson flatly claimed that Johnsons death had the earmarks of a lynching. The NAACP hired a private investigator, and the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that the Klan had long used white fears of black men raping white women to terrorize blacks. But there was no tangible evidence then and afterwards that Johnsons death was anything other than a suicide, and the suggestion that Johnson was lynched for dating a white girl even in Mississippi was absurd to many.
Yet, in the face of Mississippis hideous record of violence toward black males, it was much easier for black leaders to claim Johnson as another casualty of racial violence then to face the painful possibility that Johnson may have taken his own life. If black leaders are loath to admit that young blacks such as Johnson can take their lives, many black parents are even more adamant in denying that their children could be at mortal risk to themselves. They often ignore their tell tale signs of chronic depression, rage, self-destructive acts, or their notes in which they threaten to take their lives and refuse to seek professional help. The tight blinders to the suicide crisis could have the same deadly consequence as the persistent refusal of many blacks to admit that HIV-AIDS was a serious threat to them. Even as the CDC issued report after report warning that blacks now accounted for nearly half of the AIDS cases in America, black leaders, community activists, and religious leaders stuck their heads in the sand or railed that the disease was a white gay disease. Black leaders and parents must face the bitter truth that suicide is not a desperate act reserved solely for pampered, frustrated, alienated white suburban kids. Many black kids are also taking their lives. Its no disgrace to admit that truth.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: thehutchinsonreport.com is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).
A service provided
Theodore Myles Publishing
Copyright 1998, 2011 Afrocentricnews