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Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting
by Terrie M. Williams

Reviewed By Loretta H. Campbell

Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting
by Terrie M. Williams
Publisher, Scribner & Sons
$25.00 U.S
$28.99 Canada
ISBN-13 978-0-7432-9882-7
ISBN-10 7432-9882-9
333 pages

terrie Williams

“As a people we can’t keep getting beat in the head by poverty, racism, broken homes, drugs, police, brutality, suspicion of character, unemployment, cheating husbands and wives, incest, homelessness and not freak the hell out sometimes.” —Jim Glover, Creative Director, Carol H. Williams Advertising (from the book, Black Pain)

What is it called when Black people, or for that matter, any people, “freak out” and either inflict pain on themselves or others? In this book, Terrie M. Williams names it—depression. For Black people, as Williams traces it, the root cause of Black pain is the dominant white racist society. This society either ennobles our acceptance of pain or vilifies our reaction to it. Williams invites us to identify it. Because when we do so, we can start to heal. She describes her book as the “power of testimony” and begins it by bearing witness to her own struggles with depression.

Williams’ journey began in 2005 when she published an article in Essence magazine about her clinical depression. The response to her story was astounding. She received 10,000 letters and explains that half of the people who wrote her “came out for the first time about being depressed.”

Through these letters, her research with clinicians, the literature on this disorder, and speaking engagements, Williams has learned five main reasons Black people hide their emotional depression. One, they are afraid their families will be hurt to know that they have it. Two, they fear their careers will be ruined if it is learned that they have this illness. Three, they are afraid folks will think they are crazy. Four, they feel they can’t afford to seem weak. Five, they are ashamed.

Of all of these, shame is the most debilitating, according to Williams, because it prevents sufferers from seeking any kind of help at all. They tell no one. Secrecy is almost as bad as the depression itself. Suffering in silence, they develop self-hating behavior, anything from addictions to self-mutilation. These kinds of behaviors are used as an anesthesia to dull their emotional pain.

Jennifer Holliday, one of numerous celebrities who share their stories in this book, describes how she tried to use food to medicate her depression.

“Food was my best friend,” she says. When her weight mushroomed to 340 pounds, she stopped performing. At the age of thirty, she attempted suicide with sleeping pills. By nearly ending her life, Holliday saved it. She went into a mental health care facility for six weeks. She was lucky. Her friend, acclaimed singer and entertainer, Phyllis Hyman, was not so lucky, and committed suicide soon after Holliday’s attempt.

As Williams outlines these symptoms, she names the causes. Many who struggle with depression are victims of abuse; physical, sexual, emotional or a combination of all of these, at the hands of family members, loved ones, or friends.

Among the victims of these abuses who are most likely to suffer in silence and act out in horrific ways are Black men. Like their sisters, Black men suffer from various compulsive behaviorisms related to depression. They are also victims of machismo. In the chapter, “I Wish It Would Rain,” Williams illustrates the “myth of strong Black manhood, trauma and its after-effects, the heartache of addiction, and the toll of incarceration.”

In the section, “Game Face: The Trap of Masculinity,” Williams talks about the façade so many Black men must use to survive. The game face is killing them because they either implode when they can’t talk about their feelings and pain or they explode because they are so needy.

Also in this chapter, Doctors Denese Shervington and Irma Bland share their findings on how to reach out to our men who are suffering with depression. The doctors “treated sixty men for sixteen sessions each to see whether or not talk therapy would help a traditional drug treatment program for cocaine-addicted Black men.” The sessions revealed that almost “half of the men had been victims of physical abuse, and a quarter of the men had been sexually abused! Many of them grew up in poor neighborhoods in homes where their parents abused them and/or couldn’t provide them with a feeling of safety and where racism terrorized them every day.” The doctors describe the men as being eager for the sessions and grateful for the opportunity to learn ways to heal from their trauma.

Tragically, as this study explains, the vast majority of African American men in prisons never received emotional nourishment—love. In many ways, there is no crime wave in our communities. What we are stricken with is a wave of abuse and neglect.

Williams offers hope in addressing the problem of depression. From her own experience and the clinicians whose work she draws upon, she emphasizes the curative powers of a deep spiritual connection.

The most important spiritual connection in our community is the Black Church. As illustrated in the chapter, “A Spiritual Hospital,” our churches have been in the forefront of progressive change in America for centuries. Williams mentions how church programs and outreach centers have saved lives and families. She describes studies that have shown that prayer can cause positive change in illness. Furthermore, individuals with a spiritual life recover from depression and other kinds of illnesses more quickly than those with no spirituality.

However, like any institution, the Black Church has ultraconservatives who hold their congregants back with irrational ideas. In “Five Things Good Christians Say That Shouldn’t Keep You from Giving Yourself the Gift of Therapy,” Williams advises Black people to ignore so-called Christians who say:

  1. Pray it away.
  2. We gotta get the devil out of you.
  3. God can heal you from anything.
  4. Church is all you need.

Very likely people who say things like these are also in need of prayer and healing themselves.

Although the book uses Christianity as its example, Williams clearly indicates she means all religions. What is important is that the depressed person has a spiritual foundation supporting her/his life. This base works hand-in-hand with therapy, which includes talk counseling and holistic work (yoga, meditation, Reiki, massage, etc.).

Equally important, Williams encourages Black people who suffer from depression to seek out culturally sensitive therapists. There are associations of Black psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and social workers. Black health care providers, she explains, are more likely to understand the pain of people from their own community.

Williams concludes this book with a method of healing that springs from the traditions of many African countries. In the chapter, “We Heal by Sharing”, she asks persons with depression to form healing circles among themselves. In these groups, people can talk about their pain and share ways to nurture each other. She advises individuals in the circle to ask and answer questions about how they feel. In effect, she asks them to create sacred healing spaces where people can recover together.

These circles also provide a support system for the day-to-day struggles that African Americans face. It is true that we, as a people, are continuously tested by injustice. It is also true that we have tools at our disposal to not only cope with these problems, but to thrive in spite of them. Williams’ book is a labor of love and a heartfelt paean to and for Black people so that we can claim the happiness and wholeness that we deserve.

Loretta Campbell is a freelance writer living in New York City./p>

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