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Kevin Powell

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Black Men and Our Health

Posted: 11/28/07 06:28 PM ET

I received a very distressing email a few days back, from someone who informed me that a long-time friend and colleague of mine had had a mini-stroke. I was stunned because this friend, a Black man just barely 40 like myself, holds a black belt in the martial arts, works out religiously, and dating back twenty years, when we both were then members of the Nation of Islam, he has always been very conscience of the food he puts into his body. In fact he is a vegetarian. When I called my friend on his cellphone, he was lying in a hospital bed. He sounded terrible, groggy, and, well, very sad. My friend is an amazing educator, one of the best I've encountered, one who worked his way up from being a teacher to an in-demand principal in a very short amount of time. And because there are so few Black male principals in the New York City area--or across America, for that matter--my friend not only carried the burden of overseeing an entire school, but of being a beacon of hope to students, parents, and a community.

"It was stress," he muttered to me before I could ask him what happened. The stress of his job, the stress of being a father and a grandfather at a very young age, of having been married and separated, of being a Black male in America. Unfortunately, I know of about ten Black males in the past six months alone, ranging in age from 30something to 70something, who've all died of completely preventable ailments. One colleague, a producer at a major television network, also suffered a stroke, then a heart attack, and died, in his mid30s. Another, a 60something husband, father, church leader, entrepreneur, homeowner, and all around community man, was told by his doctor, at least a year before he died, that if he stopped drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, and using drugs, he would live. Stubborn to a fault, this man did not stop, could not stop, and his shriveled up body in a casket betrayed the power and strength he once wielded like a plate of armor.

Why, you might wonder, would someone in his position drink, smoke, and use drugs? I think it undeniable that while America is not the country it once was, thanks in great part to the Civil Rights Movement, the harsh reality is that racism still exists, on every level, and it affects us Black males, on every level. I am talking physically, spiritually, and emotionally. I am talking about younger Black males and older Black males; working-class Black males and professional Black males; famous Black males and anonymous Black males; Black males with college degrees and Black males who do not even have a G.E.D.

So what winds up happening is the constant search for an outlet, often a destructive and self-sabotaging one, to ease the pain and hurt of the daily weekly monthly yearly assaults we feel are launched on our psyches, on our souls, on our bodies. Those assaults can take the form of police harassment or brutality. Or not being able to find a job no matter how qualified one is to work. Or being wrongly accused of a crime. Or having paid your debt to society via prison time and no one--no one--being open to employing you for even the most minimal of jobs. Or never quite feeling you've made it, no matter how wildly successful your life has been, materially, because there is always the sinking feeling, lurking right there in the shadows, that it can be lost or taken away without a moment's notice. Or the gaping hole you feel because the women in your life simply do not respect you or your very difficult struggles to be a man, to be a whole human being. And the beat goes on and on--

That is precisely what happened to me, over a decade ago, when I was fired from Vibe magazine. Depressed, filled with anxiety and a smoldering rage, I contemplated suicide (I felt like a miserable failure), I turned to alcohol and it literally became my best friend. It got me through the days I could not look myself in the mirror, and it helped me to go to sleep at night. I do not drink, today, and never will again, but I overstand why Black males in America do what we do. But after years of crisscrossing America doing speeches, workshops, conferences, etc., on Black males; after writing a book (Who's Gonna Take The Weight? Manhood, Race, and Power in America) about manhood, it has become abundantly clear to me that so many of us Black males simply do not know how to take care of ourselves, holistically, in the face of the multiple challenges we confront every single day.

My suggestion is that we first begin to view our lives from the standpoint of good health versus bad health. Good health means we become active participants in taking care of our physical, mental, and emotional selves. Bad health means we continue to ignore our physical, mental, and emotional selves and continue to engage in behavior (no exercise, terrible diets, violence, alcohol, nicotine, drug, or sex addictions) that ultimately will, over time, damage and destroy our lives. Here is what I strongly recommend Black males think about in terms of our health, holistically:

1. Taking Care of Your Physical Health

We need to begin with listening and asking the right questions of our family members. Does your family, for example, have a history of diabetes, of high-blood pressure and heart attacks? It is critical that you learn your family health history as soon as possible, especially the history of the Black males in your family.

Next, very important that you make a conscious decision to change your diet. What we put into our bodies has so much to do with our physical health, with how we feel about ourselves over time. One of the questions I routinely ask Black male audiences is this: How many of you are drug addicts? Usually I get uneasy laughter, silence, perplexed stares. But then I take it a step further: If you cannot go ONE DAY without sugar, caffeine (soda or coffee), fast foods, nicotine, marijuana (or some other kind of drug), or sex (yes, if you cannot live without having sex all the time, then you do have a problem, an addiction), then you are, in fact, "a drug addict." And naturally the hardest thing for any of us to do is to stop or slow down things that we've come to like, things that taste good to us, things that make us feel good. But we should know that consuming large amounts of sugar over time leads to diabetes. We should also know that consuming large amounts of caffeine over time leads to heart problems, among other possible ailments. And having sex with multiple partners, in the age of AIDS and the re-emergence of other sexually transmitted diseases, can be catastrophic to your health (not to mention that every time you have sex with someone you are also having sex with everyone that person has ever been with, and vice versa). We, including me, have all engaged in one or more of these debilitating activities.

But if you can struggle to change your behavior around your diet, to keep your weight at a reasonable level, to avoid the extreme obesity which is at an all-time high in America (I have never seen so many younger and older Black males so far overweight and struggling just to climb flights of stairs or to walk down a street), then the other steps will be that much easier:

• Regular exercise (even if it is just walking 15 minutes a day, or biking, or rollerblading, or doing push-ups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks at home 3-4 times each week)

• Creating a diet for yourself where you actually think about what is in the food you are putting into your body (eating healthier does not mean you have to spend a lot of money on food; it simply means you think more about proteins and vitamins, think more about the kind of food you eat OR change the food you eat); either surround yourself with other folks who are also trying to live better lives, physically, or you become the example for others, to inspire them to also cease with the fast foods, the cigarette smoking, the binge drinking, the irresponsible sexual patterns.

We as Black males need to view ourselves as soldiers in a constant state of war. Either we are going to prepare ourselves physically for battle, and be able to ward off the attacks from various angles. Or we are going to be underdeveloped soldiers who are more likely to be wounded, more likely to be prone to various forms of attack.

2. Moving Toward Mental Wellness

In my work I have come to find that it is very difficult for us males to open up about what hurts us. Think about the film Antwone Fischer. The title character had survived a childhood of neglect and sexual abuse only to become an adult who could not talk about his lingering emotional injuries, could not fully open up to a woman he had deep affections for. And when he went to counseling, there was that wall of pain built by the childhood him to protect the adult him. By the time the Antwone Fischer movie ended, I sat in the back of the theater with hoodie on my head ballin' like a baby. I remember hearing many brothers saying they were not going to shed tears when they saw that film because they were told that that was what was going to happen. Just to make that sort of proclamation, in advance, about the unwillingness to show real emotions is part of the problem with so many of us. In this society we've been taught that males do not cry, do not express raw feelings, do not let others know when we are hurt or in pain, physically or emotionally, or both. That manhood is about cockiness, domination, bravado, "manning up" (perhaps one of the worst terms ever created) and, sadly for many of us, violence.

These are things I have had to grapple with in my own life journey. I was born into a household and a community steeped in physical, emotional, and verbal violence, and that become a part of my being. I got hurt again and again as a child, and I eventually hurt others as an adult. Only through the grace of a higher power and nearly two decades of therapy have I been able to not only think about my past with a relatively clear head, but to take the necessary steps to begin to get past that kind of mental unwellness once and for all.

But the first step is to take ownership of one's life. Again, racism is a daily constant for the Black male. But in the face of that harsh reality, we need to ask what mental illnesses have we picked up along our life journeys that stunt our emotional growth, our emotional well-being? For some of us, it is violence, against ourselves, against other males, against women and girls. For others, it is constant stress and anxiety. For others it is sparring matches with depression. Still others have low self-esteem and little or no expectations for our lives. And then there are those who consistently think of taking their lives, who think of suicide on a regular. And please be clear that there are two forms of suicide: the quick kind where you end your life with a gun as more than a few Black males I know have done this decade. Then there are those of us who smoke and drink and drug ourselves into what I call "slow suicide."

So a few basic steps toward mental wellness:

• Own your past, your mistakes, your backwardness (whatever it is), and your life.

• Create a space in your mind for forgiving yourself and for forgiving others, no matter what has happened to you. For example, in my short lifetime I felt the mighty void of my father completely abandoning my mother and I had to also deal with my mother taking out on me, physically and emotionally, the hurt she felt because of my father's neglect and absence. I cannot begin to tell you how many years I carried around a deep resentment toward them both, and how much that resentment prevented me from being in healthy relationships with a Black woman, or strong friendships with Black males. We are not going to go forward in our lives as long as we continue to hold on to the hurts of the past. Tied to self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others is the word love. If you truly are trying to love yourself, truly trying to be a different kind of human being, truly trying to be a different kind of Black man, you cannot continue to hold on to things that have previously done damage to your mind, to your spirit. Self-love and love have got to become twin pillars in your life. If that does not become manifest, then you will be stuck in the same emotional space the rest of your life.

• Seek counseling or therapy in some form. This could be a traditional counselor or therapist. Or it could be someone older or wiser, or both, you can simply talk with freely, who will not judge or condemn you, or seek to convert you to their religion or political philosophy. Their role is simply to be a supportive ear and shoulder for you to unload in a healthy manner, and without censorship. Counseling or therapy can also mean joining or starting a support network of Black males who need a safe space to talk about their lives. For example, I produced a Black male national conference in Brooklyn, New York, not long ago, which was attended by about 3000 over three days, and as follow-up we created something we call Black Male Empowerment Workshops. Each first Monday of each month, also in Brooklyn, dozens of brothers get together to workshop on a particular issue (What is Manhood? How to Become Financially Empowered? etc.), while also sharing parts of our lives with each other. Some Black males have never talked about themselves, about their lives, and feel they are out here alone. You will be if you do not learn to open up and talk and share.

• Remove yourself from or limit the time you spend in environments or with individuals or groups that bring you a great deal of stress, anxiety, tension, anger, or resentment. This is a difficult one, because that reality might include a job or career, it might be a social circle, it might be a relationship. But one saying that has stuck with me the past few years is this: "My happiness is not negotiable." This means that I cannot, and will not, allow myself to linger in a job or career that is killing me slowly, nor will I be, ever again, in any kind of relationship (be it a friendship, a business relationship, or a loveship with a Black woman) that is more negative than positive, that brings me more grief than happiness.

• BE VERY CLEAR THAT ANY FORM OF VIOLENCE is a sign of emotional instability, of not being mentally well. I have been guilty, in my own life, of violence against males and females, and it is the reason why, these days, I speak out against all forms of violence. Enough is enough. Let us be blunt and clear about this: Black self-hatred leads us to commit violence against other Black males, and against Black women and girls. And the violence against Black women and girls, at our hands, is completely out of control. Just scan the newspapers in any major city or small town, and there are countless stories, month to month, of Black males who are terrorizing, wounding, and killing Black females. It was not always like this, not this scale of violence and hatred towards women and girls. Many of us brothers simply are not well in the head, as we say, and take our anger and frustrations and hurts out on our female counterparts. Indeed, I say to Black males, younger ones and older ones alike, that even if you are not the kind of Black male who would ever curse a Black female, hit or strike a Black female, rape a Black female, abuse a Black female sexually, or, God forbid, murder a Black female, if you have male counterparts around you who do any of the things I just listed and you say nothing at all, then you, we, are just as guilty.

• Create new definitions for Black manhood which are emotionally sound and progressive. This takes vision and courage. And it might mean having to go against the grain of so-called normal male behavior at times. What do I mean? We need definitions of Black manhood that are rooted in respect for some higher power or powers, in self-love and love, in a respect for the humanity of Black women and girls; those definitions also need to be rooted in nonviolence, in what Dr. King called a dangerous kind of selflessness, in a lack of ego and competition, in an understanding that it is more important to be giving, noncompetitive, and spiritual, than greedy, ego-driven, and materialistic.

Lastly, an emotionally healthy Black male is the brother who actually strives to be a whole being. Degrees, money, status, professional affiliations, fame, none of that can take the place of a Black male who actually works on his emotional state every single day of his life. It ain't easy, as 2Pac once rapped, but life ain't easy, no one ever said it would be. And I feel we really have no other choice but to take care of our emotional health before it is too late.

3. Creating A Spiritual Foundation

I think many of us are clear that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. In my lifetime I have been a Christian, then a Muslim, and now I am a Christian again. While I am very respectful of every faith, and am certainly appreciative of my various religious experiences, I am very clear that anyone can be religious, but not everyone is spiritual. What, then, do I mean by "creating a spiritual foundation?" Here are some key areas we can work on and or think about:

• Believe in something or some things greater than you. To me it does not matter what you call that higher power or powers, that life force or forces. But given the world that we live in as Black males, I personally think it foolish and a sure path to a life without any structure, any boundaries, if we do not have something to anchor us. With a structure, with a set of spiritual or moral boundaries, we come to understand that there are certain types of behavior we simply should not be engaging in. Just look at our own poor judgements, or the trouble famous Black males like O.J. Simpson, Michael Vick, Pacman Jones, Kobe Bryant, Mike Tyson, and far too many others have gotten into the past few years. Yes, we are mad clear racism is real, which means any time a Black male does something, anything, he becomes the poster child for that particular bad behavior. But, by the same token, we've got to become so spiritually grounded that it becomes less and less likely that we will give folks the rope, the noose, to hang us with. Or, as Dr. William Howard, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, New Jersey, said to me after I got into a very dumb fight in a New York City club a few years back: "We are going to make mistakes. That is life. But it is time to start making new mistakes, not the same old ones."

• Spirituality is the consistency of behavior, or the struggle to be consistent in every aspect of our lives. This is not easy and none of us are perfect. But we have to strive for better behavior in our lives. God knows I have made many mistakes in my life, have hurt more than a few people, have burned more than a few bridges. But in most cases, especially the past decade or so, I have not only taken ownership of my mistakes but whenever possible I have apologized to folks I may have hurt in some way. And if someone has hurt my spirit, I tell them so, because I feel part and parcel of this creation of a spiritual foundation is unfiltered honesty as often as possible, even where some folks are not comfortable with that honesty (their issue, not yours). This honesty, this consistency, can mean so many things. For example, as someone who often speaks out against patriarchy, against sexism, against males just blatantly manipulating and abusing Black females, it would be spiritually hypocritical for me to talk this way, then the moment the lecture is over attempt to collect as many phone numbers as possible from the women in the audience. But many of us Black male speakers, activists, artists, intellectuals, and so-called leaders do exactly that time and again. That sort of behavior is, in a word, unspiritual.

• Spirituality is about being tested again and again, and how we respond to those tests. I can say, without question, that the past two years or so have been two of the most difficult of my life, both professionally and personally. Sometimes I have responded well to the challenges to my spirit, and sometimes I have been completely knocked down. The key thing is to get back up, always, to know that everything happens for a reason, even if it hurts us at that moment, or for a long period of time. Doubly important is how we respond or do not respond, spiritually. I will give you an example: I am presently working with what we call street organization leaders. One of the street organization leaders told the story of how he and his baby son and others were sitting on a park bench, one recent summer day, when a rival street organization member rolled up and aimed a fully loaded gun right at the group. Three times the young man tried to shoot the crew and three times the gun jammed. This street organization leader was running with his baby son in his arms, shielding his child while also awaiting those bullets to his back that never came. He sees that rival street organization member nearly every week, but the rival does not even realize this was one of the heads he was attempting to kill. The street organization leader says it has taken everything in his power to just let it go, although we know what could have happened.

Not only is this a tale about being tested, and surviving a very serious life test, it is about forgiveness on a level many of us could never understand nor relate to, especially if we are not from the 'hood, if we are not a member of a street organization. But the bigger point, spiritually, is that no amount of anger, rage, hurt, pain, or a grudge is worth holding on to. If that street organization leader could experience that kind of test and come away from it with a deeper understanding of his spiritual path, of what his calling is on this planet (to be a leader, to put the guns and the violence down once and for all), then why are you, I, or any of us here? What purpose does our life serve? Without coming to that purpose, whatever it is, at some point in our lives, we are forever lost, just out there floating from day to day, whether we are a brother on the streets, or a brother on a college campus, or a brother in corporate America. Lost is lost no matter who or where you are.

• Create or find a spiritual belief system that works for you. It could be Christianity, it could be Islam, it could be Judaism, it could be Yoruba or Rastafarianism, it could be Buddhism, or it could be some combination of various spiritual belief systems. That might mean you create a place, an altar, in your home where you pray or meditate on a regular basis. It might mean deciding to pray, meditate, or worship with like-minded people outside your living space. It should mean nonstop reading, studying, learning about your particular faith or faiths, and, really, about all faiths, since the goal should be to grow as a man, as a human being.

Finally, at the end of it all, our health and wellness as Black males takes time and commitment and patience, and acceptance that we are going to make mistakes, that we are going to fall down, that we are going to fall backwards. The critical thing is to never stop striving to do differently, to be differently, to be a new kind of Black male. Think of what Malcolm X was when he went to prison for seven years, and think about what he became when he was released from jail. It did not happen overnight, but Malcolm's life is testimony that personal growth and transformation is very real and possible. But it takes real work and real self-reflection and brutal honesty. Otherwise, nothing is going to change for us, in my opinion. Sadly, with so many Black male studies, reports, conferences, think tanks, ad-hoc committees, etc., all across America, none of those efforts are going to matter, from this era to the next, from this generation, to the next, from this century to the next, if we as Black males do not come up with very simple and basic solutions for surviving, living, and winning. Nor will all those activities matter if we do not actually become the real and permanent Black manhood changes, to paraphrase Gandhi, that we need to see in our communities. For these times, for all the brothers who ain't here, and for all the Black males to come.

Kevin Powell, writer and activist, is a Fair Health Journalist Fellow for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Phelps Stokes Fund Senior Fellow, and editor of the forthcoming book, The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Surviving, Living, and Winning, which will be published in 2008. He can be reached at kevin@kevinpowell.net.

 
 
 

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