The incidence of suicide is increasing in African American communities despite boasting a culture noted for its resiliency in the face of racial discrimination and oppression. From 1981-1994, Black suicide rates grew by 83%. Today suicide is the third leading cause of death among young African American men ages 15 to 24.
Researchers have endeavoured to understand why this is so. One study found that…
Young black males live in some of the most difficult circumstances in society; the data show that black men go to gaol, drop out of school and are victims of crime at rates higher than their white counterparts. Moreover, young black males are more likely to live in more challenging family environments.
There is often the expectation that life will disappoint. The combination of family stress, violence in their communities and the discrimination they face are taking a toll.
Racism, poverty, and violence are the primary factors that encourage depression in young black men.
Sarah Walton defines depression as ‘the torture of being a prisoner in your own mind.’ She warns of the dangers of ignoring the symptoms of depression. She says,
“Depression clouds your view, distorts reality, and tempts you to question your existence. Depression can cause you to feel an overwhelming sense of loneliness.”
Mental health specialists are concerned by the increase in mental illness among young black males. The despair is evident but many are reluctant to seek help. They prefer self-medication, turning to alcohol or drugs to ease feelings of despondency.
It is accepted, ‘undiagnosed and untreated mental illness can contribute to suicidal behaviours.’
In her memoir, Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward writes about the American South and in particular the small towns of DeLisle and Pass Christian where her family has lived for generations. She writes about her community and the tragic deaths of five young men in her life. One of the young men was her brother, Joshua. She understood the causes – drugs, accidents, suicide – but explaining why the young men died was more of a challenge. She says,
“I knew that I lived in a place where hope and a sense of possibility were as ephemeral as morning fog, but I did not see the despair at the heart of our drug use.”
If you are like me, you may be unsure what ‘ephemeral’ means. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘ephemeral’ as ‘lasting a very short time.” Given the context, this makes sense. In Mississippi, the hot summer sun causes the tiny water droplets to evaporate. The morning fog lasts only a short while.
Ward recognises that hope and a sense of possibility are largely unattainable for young black men in a society defined by racism and economic inequality. This was the harsh reality and it led to feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. It is not surprising substance abuse became widespread, providing an effective way of redefining reality even if the outcome could prove disastrous.
I have chosen to focus on three of the young men who died – Roger, Demond and Ronald.
Roger, the last of the five men to die, is a friend of Ward’s who she gets to know through her sister, Charine. ‘Rog’ is a cocaine user and dies of a heart attack resulting from a combination of cocaine and pills. Ward writes,
“Then Rog, the boy with the beautiful smile and the long face, lay back in his bed, feeling high and low, feeling everything and nothing, all at once.”
The second death is of Demond Dedeaux. He stands out from other boys in Ward’s social circle because he comes from a stable, two-parent household.
Ward knows that for young African Americans a secure family life doesn’t guarantee a positive and prosperous future. She writes,
“Even though Desmond’s parents had remained married and both had good jobs, his family wasn’t so different from my family, his reality the same, death stalking us all.”
Demond testifies in court against a murderer and a drug dealer. His courage is commendable but he pays the ultimate price. He is shot one night coming home from work.
Ward writes about the devastating effect of multiple deaths on those left behind, those who love them and shared in their lives. She writes about the hopelessness that grips a generation. She understands the desperation that inspires reckless behaviour. She feels the cry from deep within for mercy. She says,
“It was 2003. We’d gone crazy. We’d lost three friends by then, and we were so green we couldn’t reconcile our youth with the fact that we were dying, so we drank and smoked and did other things, because these things allowed us the illusion that our youth might save us, that there was someone somewhere who would have mercy on us.”
Ward meets Ronald when she works as a counsellor at a summer camp he attends. As he grows up, he seems confident and happy. It is only later we learn of Ronald’s demons, the constant struggle with depression and addiction. Ronald’s answer to his pain and confusion is to take his life. Ward says,
“I don’t know all Ronald’s demons… I don’t know what that debilitating darkness, that ‘Nothing’ that pursued him, looked like, what shape his depression took. I know that when he looked down at his copper hands and in the mirror, that he thought it would be better if he were dead, because then all of it, every bit of it, would stop.”
Ward laments the tragic loss of life. She weeps for her friends and family who were denied a future. She feels the presence of death encroaching on their existence. She says,
“One day our graves will swallow up our playground. Where we live becomes where we sleep. Could anything we do make that accretion of graves a little slower? Our waking moments a little longer? The grief we bear, along with all the other burdens of our lives, all our other losses, sinks us, until we find ourselves in a red, sandy grave. In the end, our lives are our deaths.”
Ward knows the burden of regret and the grief of loss. It weighs heavily. She says,
“I carry the weight of grief even as I struggle to live. I understand what it feels like to be under siege.”
Over time Ward comes to an understanding of this epidemic. Her perception is distilled into a concise statement that reveals the heart of the matter.
Her brother and her friends all died because of who they were and where they were from because they lived with a history of racism and economic struggle that fostered drug addiction and the dissolution of family and relationships.