After watching the Black Panther movie, I needed a few days to digest what the movie meant to me and how it related to black mental health.
When I was a little girl, I struggled with my dark skin and hair texture. Like many black kids, we are taught to believe that having light skin and soft long loose curls meant that you were pretty. So, it should not be a surprise that darker skin tones and nappy hair were interpreted as being ugly. India Arie said it best “Good hair means curls and waves. Bad hair means you look like a slave.”
I remember the days my mom permed my hair to make it straight. I was excited to open the “Just For Me” perm box with the tape in it so that I could pop it in the tape player and sing along as my mom permed my hair. There were times that I asked my mom to style my hair like the girls on the perm box. My scalp often burned from letting the perm sit too long because I was determined to make sure the perm was a success. I did not care how long I had to sit with the “creamy crack” in my hair. I was 14 years old when I started perming my hair and my friends’ hair. Let’s not forget about the times I spent in the Dominican hair salon for a blow-out or should I say a “doobie” (that’s what we call them in Jersey). I broke plenty of combs so the feeling of running my fingers through my straight hair made me a happy kid.
I would hear adults talk about soft hair textures as “good hair.” In middle school, a classmate with caramel skin referred to my skin tone as burnt toast. My natural hair texture made me feel ugly because girls were made fun of that looked like me, therefore, I felt uncomfortable in my own skin. However, I was involved in pageants from an early age, which I attribute to building my self-esteem, character and confidence. They were not the type of pageants that judged you on your body type and skin tone. For example, swimwear was not a part of the competition; instead we were judged on presentation and talents. Therefore, the contestants were taught to embrace their body (all shapes and sizes) and our skin (all shades and complexions).
Africans were referred to as “African booty scratchers,” so I never wanted to be associated with being African. In school, I learned that darker skinned slaves worked outside, like the fields, and light skinned slaves worked in the house. Whenever I looked at the charity organizations on TV that asked for donations for the starving kids in Africa who were so skinny that you could see their bones. They also looked sickly. I felt that when people associated me with Africans, they were saying that I was poor, dirty and ugly. Throughout my childhood I only saw images of slaves who behaved like Tarzan or the poor and hungry, therefore, the rich history, beauty and success of Africa and its people never crossed my mind.
Sadly, I have a relative who believes that she does not have any roots in Africa. She refers to herself as only black, not from Africa, and proudly states that she is mixed with Dominican. It is so mind boggling and sad to see the division and ignorance of blacks from America, Africa and other parts of the world. So many of us fail to learn to love our beautiful African heritage because we were programmed to base beauty on European standards.
My experience at the prestigious HBCU, Howard University, exposed me to the diversity within black culture by introducing me to black thought leaders, doctors, entertainers, judges and educators who were trailblazers and unapologetically black. It was a place where I could explore and embrace all of my blackness. Howard taught me about the Africa diaspora when blacks were dropped off in various parts of the world such as the Caribbean, Asia and Latin America during the slave trade.
I learned that Black history was not simply limited to slavery in America, the civil rights era and Obama becoming president. That is only a small portion of our history because our existence started before slavery. Honestly, if it was not for my experience at Howard, I would not have fully embraced my African heritage or become proud of my history in not only in America but Africa. After years of not loving my skin complexion and hair texture, I can say that I love every coil and nap and my espresso skin tone.
So, what does this have to do with the Black Panther movie? It was the first time I saw black women in Africa and in a movie, who were of darker skin complexion with braids and bald heads, yet they were so powerful and beautiful. The movie took place in Wakanda, a fictional country in Africa where the advances of sciences and technology were like no other. The women of Wakanda were movers and shakers, and they were not silenced by men. Wakanda was not only a beautiful place but so were its people. It was also the first time Africa’s beauty was displayed so eloquently on camera.
The beauty of Wakanda made me think about if racism, disease and sickness were nonexistence. Imagine a world with only love and peace between people of all races. I wondered how life would be if blacks were never slaves and how the rate of mental illness (most likely) would not be as high because we would not need to heal from the trauma of slavery and racism.
An article by ABC News mentioned that depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide and a serious medical illness that can cause specific mood, mental and physical symptoms. It is also associated with higher rates of chronic disease, increased need for health care, and difficulty functioning at work, at home and in social settings. When it comes to depression, black people are significantly more likely to have depressive symptoms than whites – and those symptoms are more likely to be severe according to a 2009-2012 survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC study also revealed that younger men of color who report daily feelings of depression or anxiety are also less likely to take medication or talk to a mental health professional compared to their white peers. Dr. Karinn Glover, a psychiatrist featured in the It’s Level To This: Medication For Mental Illness podcast episode (episode 7) and ABC News article said, “that could be because they can’t afford it, because of mental health stigma, or mistrust of a medical system that has a history darkened by racist experimentation. Glover is the Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.
In addition, Kenneth and Mamie Clark also affirmed that the negative impact of racism on self-esteem in the 1940s through “The Doll Tests.” These series of experiments demonstrated that, regardless of race, children as early as 3 years old preferred the white doll to a Black one, and attributed positive characteristics to it, while attributing negative characteristics to the Black doll, according to the article.
This is one of the many reasons why the Black Panther movie is so significant because of the positive images shown of Africa and its people. It provides hope that we can live in a world where we can coexist and work together. More importantly, that as blacks we can love ourselves and differences.
Managing your mental health is much more than bath bombs, manicures and pedicures for self-care. To be mentally healthy, you must heal from traumas and address your insecurities which is the opposite of the strong black women and vulnerable black men images that we are taught. The two images that are killing us because of the need to hold everything together. Seeing positives images of people who look like you and being free of family and societal expectations also determine whether you are mentally healthy.
However, with the success of Viola Davis, Sterling Brown, Lena Waithe and Laverne Cox, and the various images of blacks shown on the screen are celebrated with all our complexities and beauty. Black Panther reveals that we are on the right path.