by Terrie Williams and Dawn M. Porter
Renowned educator and author Geoffrey Canada put it this way:
There was a time when we were little that we could tell our mother about the pain, but then our mother, like lots of women raising boys, began to worry that we would be soft, that we wouldn’t grow up to be men, that we had to toughen up. It was rough out there and she couldn’t protect us. She knew one of the first things used to taunt boys is to say, ‘oh, you’re a mama’s boy.’ ‘go tell your mother.’ So after a while, we began to say “oh I can’t tell mommy anything,” and we stopped telling. Once we stopped telling her, it was easier not to tell anybody anything.
With this, the beginning of the pain and suffering, the mask, and the slow death, began.
In an environment where we teach our black sons to be strong and self-sufficient, we often forget to teach them how to ask for help. And in an era where stigma continues to shackle African-Americans with mental health issues, we see the tragic aftermath in our homes, our neighborhoods, in our communities and in our world.
In the African-American community, the perception of weakness is an overwhelming fear that has plagued our existence since slavery. We had to be strong to survive and that message has been passed down from generation to generation.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not necessarily a black thing it’s an “every living animal thing.” Darwin’s theory of natural selection tells us this. But in the black community it takes on greater meaning, because we know as African-Americans, we have to be twice as strong, twice as fast and twice as smart to even get noticed, so showing any sign of perceived weakness can result in our demise. This was the world that Aaron Alexis was likely raised in. In the beginning of the pain and suffering, the mask and the slow death begins.
Regardless of the issue, there is an unwillingness to ask for or seek help, and there is an unwillingness for others to get involved. As with many recent tragic stories, Lee Thompson Young, Don Cornelius, and others, we see the effects of a society that has been paralyzed by mental health issues and the unwillingness to ask for help or get involved.
Aaron Alexis is just another example of how our society [the system] is failing our black men. We don’t know much about the “Navy Yard Suspect.” We really don’t know who he was…only what the media wants us to know. But Aaron Alexis was someone’s son…we know this because his mother has spoken out about her sorrow for this tragedy. But did he have any friends who may have noticed a change in his behavior? Was there not a system in place to see the kinks in his armor as his mask began to falter? “Our brothers are crying out…nobody’s listening…” as Ken Braswell, founder of Fathers, Inc. has passionately declared.
We do know that he had two incidents that involved the police. In 2004, he was reportedly arrested for “malicious mischief” and in again in 2010 for “discharging a firearm into the ceiling of his apartment.” Although the first incident is truly unclear, the second seemingly should have raised some serious red flags. Are we too busy with our own lives to see those around us falling apart or are we too scared to get involved? Or is it simply, we just don’t know what to do or how to help so we stand by feeling helpless and do nothing?
Aaron Alexis was a man who served his country in the Navy Reserves from 2007 to 2011 and was honorably discharged. As a service member, we do not know what he endured or what challenges he may have faced or feared. All we do know is that he reportedly “held it together at work,” but seemed to fall apart in the evenings—as many of us do.
According to news reports, just weeks before the shooting, he called the police. He expressed paranoid thoughts of people following him and complained of hearing “voices speaking to him through the wall, flooring and ceiling.” Although there could be a number of reasons for someone experiencing paranoia and auditory hallucinations, there is a definite indication for assessment and intervention.
Unfortunately, with limited resources, on all fronts, police departments, emergency psychiatric facilities and veterans administration systems, people often fall through the cracks.
One agency may make a call and assume the other will get the message and do what is necessary. In a perfect world, Mr. Alexis would have been sent for an evaluation, likely hospitalized and engaged in medication management to address the overt symptoms while trying to sort out the underlying cause for the behavior. Again, we are dealing with a flawed system and we are continually seeing the fallout from this.
The tragedy is not only in the lives lost on September 16th, but in the reality that with all of the rhetoric and power plays in our government, we still can’t find a solution to this problem. It makes you wonder if this complacency is due to a lack of understanding or just plain old apathy.
When will we address the way we are raising our young black men? When will we take time to talk to our friends and neighbors? When will we stop being scared and get involved? When will we become the village it takes to raise a child? Can we stop saying when and start saying now?
Can we stop spending hours on Facebook and Twitter and start talking to with our children, our neighbors and strangers who are “friends” we just haven’t met yet? Can we stop burying ourselves in our work and start talking with our spouses and our coworkers ? Can we start getting to know the people around us?
We challenge you to get involved. Get to know someone…really know someone. Many times we are complacent with the people we know…we may politely ask if they are OK, but we really don’t want to know the answer, and subconsciously give off the vibe that we really don’t want to hear it. If you really want to do something, stand up and be present. Don’t let this life pass you by — be present in your life and in the life of someone else who you care about. Show them you care by asking — really asking. Get involved. You may need just take a break and disconnect from this new technologically advanced social media thing that is leaving people emotionally disconnected from others and get involved. If you really care, you will take the time and effort to truly to get know someone. People know if you really care or if you are just being polite.
Who knows? If someone would have really taken the time to get to know Aaron Alexis or countless others, who knows what lives might have been spared.
Today is the day that we must make a difference. We must raise our collective voices—if you see something, say something–do something. Edmund Burke tells us, “All that is required for the triumph of evil [or pain] is that good men remain silent and do nothing.” Every single day, most of walk past one another without a nod, a word, or a smile that says “you matter.” There are way too many who don’t even know how to smile or genuinely return one—because society has made them feel, in every way, they do not matter.
If you don’t know where to start, be inspired by one promising moment a few months ago. Antoinette Tuff, an Atlanta school staff member, with love, humanity and God in her spirit, calmed and talked to a young man whom she described as a “hurting soul” who was planning to “shoot up” the school. She took the time and made the difference, and in this instance, countless lives were saved.
“We must do the very thing we think we cannot do.”
Dare to make a difference!