By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
The Truth Will Set You Free, Or Kill You
Admission of depression is certainly liberating, but its consequences are proving deadly: Black suicide rates are soaring, particularly among the young. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the suicide rate among blacks between 10 and 19 years old more than doubled between 1980 and 1995, and for males between 15 and 19 the rate increased an astounding 146 percent. Unlike whites and Latinos, whose suicide victims tend to be poor and disadvantaged, black victims tend to be equally distributed across the economic spectrum. Carl Bell, a psychiatrist at the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago, believes this points to unique psychological pressures borne, but hardly acknowledged, by the black middle class. “Many blacks no longer accept you, and whites don’t want you either,” he said in a recent Essence interview. “As for young black men, society definitely doesn‘t have any place for them -- except prison.” Stephen Thomas, director of the Institute for Minority Health Research at Atlanta’s Emory University School of Public Health, says suicide among the privileged class and homicide in the ghetto may be two singular expressions of the same kind of despair. “The kid who walks out of the house with a semiautomatic gun and confronts another kid armed with a weapon -- we don‘t call that suicide,” he said in Essence. “But it’s self-destructive behavior that has a place in the same debate.”
I Remember David
Self-knowledge is assumed to provide us with those moments of pure, unalloyed happiness that are rare, but, like love, terribly potent and necessary in any life. But what if the self is always at odds with its environs, if it turns and turns but finds no berth or welcoming place? Then it becomes a kind of antimatter that may spontaneously combust or collapse into itself like a black hole. I think David died like that. He died no place, on the side of a freeway, and no one was saying how he got there.
We grew up together on a generously tree-shaded block in South L.A. in the late ‘60s, and David was my best friend. He wasn’t supposed to be; for one thing, he was a boy, and for another, he was an oddity among those boys in our surrounding blocks who learned fast and early the art of cool. They knew how to stick blades of grass in their teeth and look both languid and menacing, how to do a slow, foot-dragging rooster strut even if they were late for school or their mothers were standing out on porches strenuously calling them in to dinner. David didn‘t play himself like that, because he didn’t seem to care, and didn‘t know how anyway. He liked to pretend and play make-believe, to assume various superhero identities and make up games and rules and puzzle through all these things aloud. As we grew up and parted company with childhood and its exigencies of imagination, he drifted into drug use and never quite found his way out. He had no idea where to put himself as an adult, certainly not in the scheme of black male adulthood. I think he jumped, from an overpass or a car, or he got loaded and let things take their course. Or maybe, as his family theorized, he was done in by one of the seizures that plagued him in the final years of his life. Nobody raised the specter of suicide at the funeral -- few things are more anathematizing to the core black belief of hope and betterment -- but we all moved about the chapel weighted with the sadness that David bore, that of a soul that knew itself early on but left life unlived, by the side of the road.
Several years before he died I wrote a story about my old block and wanted to talk to David, but he refused me an interview. He didn’t want to talk about what hadn‘t happened, what he was not. He sent an adamant message through my brother: I don’t want to see her. I‘ve done nothing with myself, she can find a better example of what shines, of who matters . . . He was wrong.
I started playing piano again this year, after years of languishing, and though I read sheet music like one blind, I still gravitated toward what had vexed and enthralled me most: Scott Joplin. His ebullient ragtime described America around the turn of the century and foreshadowed other music genres that would describe it: jazz, R&B, rap. It was also the tragic beginning of the American practice of appropriating black culture and ignoring black people as personally and culturally unworthy. Joplin fought this, and lost. He dreamed of completing operas, crafted rags in the spirit of classical waltzes and rondos and quadrilles, and got nods -- bare nods -- for writing black barrelhouse, whorehouse, cakewalk piano rolls. His syncopations were genius, and exactly what exiled him: The sociopolitical metaphor of black rhythms laboring to break free of, and enhance, and conform to -- all at once! -- an unbending two-four beat was too much for America to bear, black or white.
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