black bodies, black minds:

looking at the black psyche in relation to history and ideas of contemporary lynchings

by terron davis


“We understand these black killings as contemporary lynchings. What has been the point of lynching historically? Not to kill individuals but to let everybody know: ‘This can happen to you. You get out of place and this is what can happen to you!”

-- bell hooks


    In recent months, social unrest and racial disparity have become national trending topics. In the wake of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, of Rekia Boyd in Chicago, of Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, of Eric Garner on Staten Island, of Walter Scott in New Jersey, and of countless others, communities have called into question the faith they have in law enforcement or the criminal justice system.

It all comes full circle with the murder of Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the hands of a 73-year-old volunteer patrolman, Robert Bates, who allegedly reached for his taser but “accidentally” grabbed his gun instead. When Harris yells for aid, one of the officer’s detaining him boldly asserts, “fuck your breath”.   

    It is safe to say that these American tragedies and responses have taken a toll on my own mental state. I’ve spent days on my college campus gruelingly debating my right to live in a world that won’t let me breathe or expand beyond my own expectations.

    I have spent three consecutive days, following the Eric Garner non-indictment decision,  shut-in, deciding to take the time off to recollect my thoughts. I told my (kind and understanding) professors that I needed to take a “#BlackMentalHealthDay”—a term I coined as justification for my absences.

    This has altogether been physically and mentally taxing. Being a student of Communications, I have been taught the ways that the mainstream media can project a false narrative. Being a student of Africana Studies, I have been taught the histories of systematic oppression of Black men and women in America. Each non-indictment, each media crucifixion, each “contemporary lynching” was a slap in the face to these educations, and to a mind that has been taught to grasp the history and psychology of it all. Watching and partaking in this fight for freedom has taken time away from my studies, has affected my mood and my sleeping patterns, and consequentially, my grades. And I know I’m not the only one suffering.

    “It’s hard to sleep at night. It's hard to get out of bed. I find myself spending more time at home because my energy and aura is completely off and I don't want to put that energy on others,” says Jasmine Cordew, a Communications student at Brooklyn College, as she reflects on her reactions to Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer. Jasmine recalls her experiences in the classroom and other spaces she occupies: “I had to have discussions about race, identity, the police, the lack of justice [and so on] on a daily basis. I am constantly fighting and emotionally uncomfortable. I feel trapped.” 

    “It’s important to acknowledge the fact that the purpose of our existence in the America’s was never to thrive here,” adds Dr. Afiya Mangum, licensed clinical psychologist and professor at Howard University.  Dr. Mangum sees time in cycles. “This has been repeated before. The use of Facebook, Twitter and social media to get the word out about these ‘contemporary lynchings’ is no different than the way Ida B. Wells would hand out anti-lynching pamphlets in town squares.” Wells handed out these pamphlets because some Black Americans in the 1930s needed a reminder of their circumstance. Mangum says, “If you don’t understand what racism is, everything else will confuse you.” Simply put, if you don’t see racism, nothing will make sense or you will try to rationalize the condition with what is considered most comfortable. “We are all affected by this, some just cannot articulate it and others adjust to their restriction,” says Dr. Mangum.

    But why is a “reminder” necessary? Why do some Black Americans hesitate from “seeing” racism, when it has caused us so much pain in our racial histories? Why do we choose not to hold racism accountable for these ongoing crimes?

    Understanding why some Black Americans choose to not take part in the discourse is more complex and difficult to dissemble, primarily based on the fact that this is not a singular experience. In Joy DeGruy’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing (PTSS), DeGruy describes a set of behaviors, beliefs and actions associated with or, related to multi-generational trauma experienced by African Americans that may be inclusive of but not limited to undiagnosed and untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in those enslaved in the Americas and abroad. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome is a theory which speculates that centuries of slavery, followed by systemic and structural racism and oppression, have resulted in survival strategies that have evolved into multigenerational behaviors. Some of these attitudes contribute to what DeGruy describes as “antipathy or aversion for the following: The members of one’s own identified cultural/ethnic group, the mores and customs associated with one’s own identified cultural/ethnic heritage, the physical characteristics of one’s own identified cultural/ethnic group.” This aversion may cause some to shy away from recognizing the bloody expressions of racism against their fellow Black Americans. Often times in conversation, segments of the Black community will retort to comments pandering to respectability politics or black-on-black crime to deflect from recognizing this continued injustice. These disheartening responses only lend to ignorance and by default, acceptance of police brutality and legal injustices as facets of everyday life. Often times, when feelings are repressed, they project themselves elsewhere.    

    Another reason for this hesitation may be found in the psychology of abusive relationships. Often times in abusive relationships, the victim chooses not to speak up against his or her offender. According to Dr. Michael J. Formica, the abuser is driven by primitive ideas of fear while the victim is left emotionally handicapped. The majority of American psychotherapists believe that this may be caused by conflicting emotions towards the abuser, social and cultural pressures to remain silent, and a reliance on the abuser. To Dr. Formica, abuse is about “a dynamic of extremes, domination and submission. It is about giving and withholding, also in the extreme.” Abuse is a relationship that is made up of two parts, fueled by an abuser’s pathological need for control and the victim’s willingness to accept the inconsistency of the abuser in exchange for their desire of being loved. To me, this reads not unlike the relationship between white oppressor and Black oppressed in this country.  In this context, “love” is acceptance and a space within the dominant culture, and the inconsistency in the abuser shows itself in their perpetual limitations and murders of the abused.

    Victims of abuse often become familiar with their circumstance and normalize its behaviors. Love is Respect, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing abusive relationships, writes that people stay in abusive relationships because they may not “know what a healthy relationship looks like, perhaps from growing up in an environment where abuse was common, [and] they may not recognize that their relationship is unhealthy.” It is important to note Black Americans have started their uplift in the midst of a society that was not meant for them to thrive. They have never been in a “healthy” relationship, and at times, this may prevents some from understanding what that is and how it differs from the injustice still experienced.

    Historical adversity, including the race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into socioeconomic disparities experienced by African Americans today according to Mental Health America. MHA believes that while negative stereotypes and feelings of rejection have decreased, they still persist. 

“Adult blacks are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites. Adult blacks living below poverty are two to three times more likely to report serious psychological distress than those living above poverty. 

Adult blacks are more likely to have feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness than are adult whites. And while blacks are less likely than whites to die from suicide as teenagers, black teenagers are more likely to attempt suicide than are white teenagers (8.2 percent v. 6.3 percent)”

    But despite these statistics, addressing mental health and seeking treatment is not considered priority in the Black community. Studies conducted in 1996 conclude that 63% of Black Americans see mental illness as a personal weakness, contributing to convictions leaving those who may be subject to traumas untreated. More recently, Black spaces in social media and television programming like FOX’s Empire have posed questions and opened discourses surrounding the taboo, but this still isn’t enough.

    Healing is a process and cannot be done through internalization and individualism. “You don’t heal in isolation,” says Dr. Afiya Mangum. Dr. Mangum is working in conjunction with The Association of Black Psychologists on Emotional Emancipation Circles (EECs), self-help groups where Black people can work through ideas of inferiority. This program is available at a number of schools across the country, including Howard University and Medgar Evers College.

    While within our communities, we understand and realize the hostilities that arise when confronting racists or racist apologists, we acutely understand the necessity for the conversations to be had.  “I am angered. I am upset,” McKenzie says, “But we have to discuss it. It's the only way to hash out our sorrows and frustrations and find feasible solutions for our issues.” 


Works Cited

Formica, Michael J., M.S, M.A, Ed. M. "Understanding the Dynamics of Abusive Relationships." Psychology Today. Michael J Formica MS, MA, EdM, 14 July 2008. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

Leary, Joy DeGruy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Milwaukie, OR: Uptone, 2005. Print.

"African American Communities and Mental Health." Mental Health America. N.p., 2013. Web. 05 Jan. 2015.

Boardman, Jason D., and Kari B. Alexander. "Stress Trajectories, Health Behaviors, and the Mental Health of Black and White Young Adults."Social Science & Medicine 72.10 (2011): 1659-666. Web.

"Why Do People Stay in Abusive Relationships?" N.p., 2012. Web. 04 Jan. 2015.


About Terron Davis:

‘Everyone has their own narrative. Their own characters. Their own storylines. You are the star of your own movie, but it’s important to remember that they are the star of theirs. There are scenes before you came in for your guest appearance. Remember that shit.’ — Me

I often find myself quoting my own ramblings. This one moment of clarity, however, is a statement that defines my inner narrative. My personal goal is a collected human understanding of one another. The truth is we are not all the same, we do not all fit one mold and it is important to respect those difference instead of "loving" and "respecting" others in spite of them. This is the truth I'm looking to tell in this space as well as all the others I occupy.