If you haven’t watched Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, don’t worry, you haven’t been living under a rock. In fact, it would be wise to take your time and heed the trigger warnings surrounding the series. For viewers, especially any survivors/victims of sexual assault or rape, watching the story of Hannah Baker unravel is emotional, and often challenging to get through.While it shouldn’t be classified as a waste of time, it also underscores something society has yet to apply to the conversation about rape and sexual assault: nuance. To our credit, we’ve finally admitted that there is a problem, and the past few years have been a real eye-opener about how millennial women experience rape and sexual assault, more specifically on college campuses.Last year, moments like Ke$ha openly talking about years of assault, or the decision regarding Brock Turner at Stanford University got us talking, even if we didn’t want to. In 2014, it was Emma Sulcowicz’s decision to carry her mattress around campus at Columbia University, that reopened the conversation, or “debate,” about how to hold the accused accountable. We’ve even come as far as having music artists, like Lady Gaga, step forward to advocate for survivors, and use their platform to spread awareness.This is why 13 Reasons Why seems like such a breakthrough. For once, we are talking about what’s so messed up about rape culture, and the part we all play in it. And that’s progress, isn’t it? I mean, we went from being in denial, to hinting at it, to actually having somewhat of a conversation about consent. All of this would be considered progress, but not if you’re a black or brown woman.Throughout the 13 episodes of 13 Reasons Why, we get to know the main character, Hannah Baker, and even grow to find her quips and sarcastic commentary reminiscent of a time when we too were teenagers trying to find our way. At this point, you might be asking, why would Hannah’s race be important? She’s still a woman! But as we see during the first few episodes of the series, a woman of color watching this can’t help but notice a few things...White women are at the center, always.This is the same critique we could also tack on to series like, Orange is the New Black. This is Hannah’s story about why she committed suicide, but as we continue to watch, we are also forced to decide whether her story is more important than Jessica, a woman of color who was raped by the same person. This is not only uncomfortable, but it doesn’t start the conversation people think it does. In no way should we ever have to think about whose trauma means more, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t left asking, "What about justice for Jessica?"By tape 12, we see Jessica’s story line completely become the background to Hannah’s story. Even while Hannah admits to failing Jessica and remaining silent during and after Jessica’s assault, you’re often torn between holding Hannah accountable, and feeling like it isn’t cool to critique someone who eventually takes their own life. So instead of trying to engage in an inner debate, we simply learn to focus on Hannah Baker and prioritize her story. Everything and everyone else, who also happen to be people of color, are simply part of her narrative.If Hannah were a woman of color, it wouldn’t be the same story.It’s not difficult to think about how this story changes if Hannah were black or latino. As Hannah becomes the target of slut shaming and cyberbullying, envisioning these experiences for a woman of color is just different knowing what we know.Statistically, women between the ages of 18–24 are at the highest risk of experiencing assault. Furthermore, one out of every six women will have this experience, and college women are three times as likely to experience sexual assault. But with a closer look, you’ll find that women of color are generally more likely to experience intimate partner violence, rape or assault than their white peers. Unfortunately, this has also meant that women of color are less likely to report it.Now imagine that not only are you being ignored to deal with that trauma on your own, but you’re told to just suck it up or be a “strong black woman.” Better yet, what if Hannah’s sarcasm, and at times, snark, were taken a step past being “the dramatic girl”? What if along with “crazy,” she was labeled as aggressive, and therefore, immune to rape or assault?Now think about if your attacker was a popular white athlete, similar to Jessica’s story, or if her attacker were of the same race. If the attacker happens to be of the same race, you face the added pressure to acknowledge how racism often disadvantages of people of color, and even confirming why you should stay silent for fear of ruining your fellow “brother’ in that struggle. If they’re white, you risk becoming the target of how white privilege and sexism make women of color non-victims and even suspects. In both instances, there is an element of victim blaming fueled by both sexism and racism.Did I mention how incredibly difficult it is to see your attacker held accountable? Hannah asked an important question to her guidance counselor, Mr. Porter (played Derek Luke). She asked, "Can you promise me he will go to jail?" For many survivors of color, seeking justice is an emotionally grueling process that forces you to relive that trauma. It just doesn’t seem worth it in the end if you risk being alienated and labeled as a trouble starter. This is also why Hannah's race is important. Women of color don't get to ask the question she asked, mostly because they already know the answer. All of the POC in the series are labeled “at fault.”Again, representation matters, but what we do with it matters more. While watching, more than half of the people on the tapes were people of color. What is equally bothersome is that every single one of them were considered part of the problem.Even as we get Hannah’s side and their response to the tapes about them, we don’t feel any better about those people. At some point, we judge them because Hannah does. When Jessica decided to stop being friends with Hannah, or when Cherie plowed her car into a stop sign that would endanger someone else, we were left scratching our heads going, wait, so all the people of color suck? In the world of 13 Reasons Why, yes. Apparently they do. In all fairness, each character did have a role in leaving her feeling unsupported, and shouldn't be absolved of accountability. But just like in scary movies where you expect the black person to die first, the people of color are a big part of the problem (again). This is not only disappointing, but places 13 Reasons Why into a space of depicting rape culture as a reality for all teens. But most of all, when women of color needed it the most, 13 Reasons Why left us guessing.By the end, we were wondering what would happen to women like Jessica, who have also experienced assault and didn't come forward? This, by far, is the outcome that mirrors the reality. This Netflix series was an opportunity, like any other story about our culture, to confront the uncomfortable truths about society. As 13 Reasons Why prepares for season 2, it's worth asking: When will we see women of color as survivors too? When will they become the subject of the story that starts a...
Photo: CreateHerStockHi. I'm black, and I'm awkward anxious. (I'm also awkward, but that's another story entirely.) I've suffered from anxiety for as long as I can remember, yet I didn't know it had a name until I left home. Why's that? Because anxiety in my black household was some mythical, made-up concept — like a post-racial America. It simply doesn't exist. I distinctly remember trying to clumsily put these feelings of panic, dread or uneasiness into words and being met with a smooth "Sit down, child, you're working my nerves" or "Don't you have something else to fixate on?" In summation, for years I felt as though these emotions I was dealing with, almost on a daily basis, weren't real. Or at the very least, weren't important enough to warrant concern. I have the type of anxiety that people praise. It's the type that makes me a perfectionist, the one person that everyone relies on during a group project, a prima ballerina and a straight-up over-achiever. I'm never late. Organization game is 100. I've got an incredible memory (read: my brain plays situations on loop just long enough for it to make a long-lasting impression). And in the words of my family, 'I'm put-together.' Receiving constant praise and admiration for the effects of what I now know is called General Anxiety Disorder made coping with the not-so-positive side much easier. General nervousness, bruxism, fatigue, spikes of (unwarranted) panic, getting trapped in an unending loop of hypotheticals, mental exhaustion, irritability, muscle tension or aches, migraines, you name it! (It's always a good time to quote Shirley Caesar) There came a point when I realized I wasn't just fixated and that this load was way too much to carry alone. It was preceded by many head-scratching moments of: "Wait, you don't still have every exam you've taken in college in an organized folder? That's weird." Or, "No, I have to buy four bottles of paprika, because what if they stop making the brand I like? Duh. How will I season my food?!" This feeling of 'but, what if' leads me to make choices that others deem irrational. Fair enough, not everyone buys a back-up to their back-up, or can describe with uncanny precision the exact location of their high school prom dress (even though it's in a closet, on another continent, in a house they haven't lived in for 10 years). To my fellow black men and women wading through the heavy and obnoxious sea of anxiety, there's something I want you to know: Suffering is not an inherent part of the black experience. We're not born to suffer, work, suffer some more, then die.Don't compare your struggle when deciding if you need help. "My great-grandfather escaped from slavery, walked 1,500 miles on one leg with no shoes, and then started a successful business in Rhode Island, one of the whitest states ever. What do I have to complain about?" (this isn't true for me, but you get the idea.)You don't have to be on a plantation, incarcerated or on the run from the IRS to feel anxious or burdened by life's twists and turns. If you compare your struggles with those of your mother or grandmother, you trivialize the issues that are very real to you. Anxiety is, by definition, irrational. People will tell you that your fears are ridiculous or unreasonable. If they don't suffer from GAD (general anxiety disorder) themselves, there's no way for them to understand what it feels like. Their word is not the end-all, be-all. Talk with a professional. Seeking help means you're strong. Avoiding, denying and ignoring the issue is the easy way out. Telling someone with anxiety to "calm down" or "be easy" is insensitive, redundant and foolish. If you've ever told me to "calm down," you've probably felt ire in its purest form. OF COURSE people with anxiety want to calm down! Do you think we voluntarily choose to suffer? *eye roll* Dismissing our feelings does much more harm than good. Don't blow this off. My anxiety has caused very real and tangible effects physically and with my personal relationships. There are loads of resources and support groups for other mental and social disorders such as depression and schizophrenia. Just because you're rattled — almost paralyzed — and stressing out over which cheese to buy, doesn't mean your anxiety is any less real or relevant. (I get it, the options are overwhelming. I'd say, take as long as you need, damn it!)Anxiety is a real disease...... and anyone who tells you to "just go pray about it" or "sit down" has no idea what they're talking about. You deserve peace of mind. You deserve to feel calm. It's okay to be black, anxious, awkward and whatever else you might feel. Just know that you're not the only one, and there's help if you need it. For more personal essays like this, sign up for Blavity's daily...
Photo: InTouch Weekly
I juggled with the idea of writing about Kanye West. Not because of the sensationalism surrounding his story, but because of the painful connection I have to a story like this. Mental health awareness is far more than a popular hashtag. It’s deeper than a month of observance. It’s more powerful than a movement. For those battling with the disorder on a daily basis or for those who haven’t figured out how to define and confront the emotional rollercoaster they’re riding, mental health awareness is a life or death situation.
According to the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI), nearly 44 million adults suffer from mental illness, whether it’s something more socially acceptable such as stress and anxiety or more complex such as manic depression or schizophrenia. Sometimes these illnesses aren’t properly diagnosed because many adults are afraid to discuss their symptoms or deal with the aftermath. This could even be the case with Kanye West.
Why is it easier to wrap our heads around physical health illnesses than mental health illnesses? One isn’t greater or more detrimental than the other. Although the conversations about cancer, HIV/AIDS and the countless other diseases are difficult, they’re still being openly discussed. However, many can’t seem to utter the phrase mental health without feeling the effects of the stigma or becoming worried about labelled as “crazy.”
What do you do when you’re crying out for help but your cries go unnoticed? What do you do when you live in fear of being stigmatized? How do you live with your grief, depression, anxiety or severe mood swings, when those closest to you are telling you to “get over it,” “pray about it” or otherwise dismiss the emotional turmoil you’re experiencing? What can we learn from Kanye West’s experience?
First, it's IMPERATIVE that you surround yourself with decent, authentic and well-meaning people who will notice your erratic behavior and tell you about it. Surround yourself with the folks who won't mock you, ridicule you or otherwise continue to let you pursue a breakdown because they are either embarrassed, ashamed or benefiting from your mental despair. Whoever pushed Kanye to seek help did not care about the publicity, the concert ticket refunds or his “brand.” They cared about the man and his impending meltdown.
Secondly, give yourself credit for addressing your emotional disturbances. It takes A LOT of bravery to commit yourself to an institution or allow someone to urge you to go and seek help. The fear, confusion, pain and desperation is enough to make people go into hiding or worse, contemplate suicide. So when you DON'T run and you DO admit that you need help, that can be the beginning of a cold, lonely and dark road where normalcy evades you. However, this road can lead to recovery. It might not be easy, and at times you might travel the path to healing alone, but taking those steps can save your life and enhance the quality of your life. Kanye’s story of admittance to the hospital might be more publicized than his recovery process. However, he has to remember that he’s not doing this for anyone else but himself. You have to remember this as well. During healing and recovery is your time to be selfish.
Finally, don’t become discouraged by people who don’t understand the complexity of your illness. Mental health isn’t something that can be compartmentalized, easily diagnosed or suppressed. In fact, it can take years before the onset of the illness surfaces. It can be triggered by an event that happened a long time ago or something that happened just a few moments ago. You can go long periods without feeling the effects of your illness and then they can suddenly appear and disrupt your lifestyle for any period of time. Mental health is a mountain that must be conquered by smaller, yet intentional steps. And sometimes, people might not understand your trek, therefore, they’ll discourage you or isolate you. Kanye might lose some friends and become the butt of a few jokes, but he’ll also figure out who his real friends are.
Kanye West has made a name for himself from his brilliance and blatant personality. However, at the core of Kanye is the story of a black man who dodged death, only to have it steal his everything (his mother), in the midst of a career within an industry which capitalizes on the pain of its artists. Kanye battles being a genius and normal guy who hasn't dealt with his grief, yet pushes to make himself known as an asset to multiple industries that might not fully understand (or care about) his story.
I've been in Kanye's shoes (the cheaper version), where mental breakdowns cause you to discredit yourself, question everyone and wish that the world could stop spinning and recover the sense of comfort and normalcy that you've been robbed of.
Do your part to understand mental health and to accept anyone who is battling mental health disturbances. They're not "crazy." They're not seeking attention. They're hurting. I’m one of those people. And chances are, someone you know is dealing with it too. Some people will tuck it away, hoping others won’t discover and judge their secret. And some will wear it openly, hoping that the right people find them and help them to heal and create a new normal.
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From the makers of the #AmySchumerGottaGoParty and the creative forces with hits like #ConfuseWhitePeopleParty, they're back with another one. Welcome to the #KanyeisOverParty.
Before I introduce this latest Twitter drag session, let's take a look at the back story.
Last week, Kanye West went on a political rant during a San Jose show proclaiming his support for president-elect Donald Trump, although admitting he had not voted in the election.
Kanyeisms have become increasingly uncomfortable in recent years, therefore his rant on Thursday night was a moderate surprise. These days, you never know what will come out of Yeezy's mouth. All was quiet on Friday, then Saturday arrived with no warning to unsuspecting fans of what was to come at his Sacramento show. Kid Cudi paired with Yeezy on stage, this after a recent rehab visit for depression.
The two performed "Waves".
Kanye and kid cudi pic.twitter.com/vfs5uQ0GsN— Jon hall (@Jonhallthegreat) November 20, 2016
The return of Cudi would be quickly overshadowed. Kanye appeared on the stage well over an hour late, performing only two songs building up to an unexpected tirade including sentiments toward former best pals Beyonce and Jay-Z.
"Obama couldn’t make America great because he couldn’t be him to be who he was. Black men have been slaves. Obama wasn’t allowed to do this [screams] and still win," Kanye proclaimed.
Then came his hurt feelings over an issue with Bey (which probably isn't an issue to Bey). "Beyoncé, I was hurt because I heard that you said you wouldn’t perform unless you won Video of the Year over me and over “Hotline Bling.” In my opinion—now, don’t go trying to diss Beyoncé. She is great. Taylor Swift is great. We are all great people. We are all equal."
"I’ve been sitting here to give y’all my truth even at the risk of my own life. Even at the risk of my own success, my own career. I’ve been sitting here to give y’all the truth," Yeezy said. "Jay Z, call me, bruh. You still ain’t calling me. Jay Z, call me. Aye, bruh, I know you got killers. Please don’t send them at my head. Just call me. Talk to me like a man. I’m not trying to be the man. I just am a man, the same as anybody here."
This is the second time this year Kanye used the stage to air out his broken relationship with his former business partner and labelmate. And he continued to pile on for about 15 minutes. “Get ready to have a field day, press, because the show’s over,” Kanye said immediately dropping the mic.
After Yeezy stormed off stage, no one really knew what to make of it. Fans departed the venue chanting profanities at the rapper after paying upwards of $250 for the short-lived show.
The next night, Kanye's performance at the Los Angeles Forum was canceled a few hours before showtime.
Tonight's show has been cancelled. Refunds at point of purchase.
— The Forum (@theforum) November 21, 2016
Phone and Internet purchases have been automatically refunded. https://t.co/eeNN7hjDVC
— Ticketmaster (@Ticketmaster) November 21, 2016
The fate of remaining date in the Saint Pablo tour remains in limbo with reports of the plug being pulled on the upcoming 22 shows concluding at the Barclays Center on New Year's Eve.
Just got word from a source that @kanyewest informed his crew that remaining dates of U.S. #SaintPabloTour are nixed.— Gerrick D. Kennedy (@GerrickKennedy) November 21, 2016
Here we are and thus the #KanyeisOverParty was born.
Upset fans made opening arguments.
I'm done with Kanye..It has nothing to do with bey and jay or Trump.. How you do 2 or 3 songs at a concert?! #Refund #KanyeIsOverParty
— The Poet. (@TyeDashawn) November 20, 2016
Let's be honest... I really hope Kanye deals with his mental health issues & finds his inner peace! #KanyeIsOverParty— Kodi Gaddis (@KodiGaddis) November 20, 2016
The red carpet was lit, with guests dressed to impressed.
Arriving to the party like.... #KanyeIsOverParty pic.twitter.com/sQLbetpXVU— Common White Girl (@girlhoodposts) November 20, 2016
Uncle Snoop showed up and brought the recreation.
Snoop Dogg's reaction to Kanye's rant is hysterical.#KanyeIsOverParty pic.twitter.com/psVeLZFR2Y
— *don* (@popnonius) November 20, 2016
Security had a strict no Taylor Swift policy.
Just because the #KanyeIsOverParty is lit, don't mean Taylor Swift fans are invited. Your fav is the head snakepic.twitter.com/BgpdGbL122
— OG (@tattedpoc) November 20, 2016
The Beyhive showed up for revenge.
Kanye: I voted for Trump
Kanye: Stop talking about racism its not
Kanye: *shades Beyoncé*
— Common White Girl (@girlhoodposts) November 20, 2016
*Kanye supports Trump* Me: 😴😴😴😴*Kanye talks about Beyoncé* Me: #KanyeIsOverParty pic.twitter.com/ZGvy0p0ud7— Beyoncé (@ReaIBeyonce) November 20, 2016
If you just arrived at the party Sunday, you're extremely tardy.
I been at this party since:
He married KK
He made runaway slave clothes
He did NOT vote
I kept the food hot for y'all tho #KanyeIsOverParty
— April_In_July (@Never_Doubt_707) November 20, 2016
As for the Carters, will they respond? Highly unlikely.
Kanye: BEYONCÉ I'M HURT. JAY-Z CALL ME. TALK TO ME LIKE A MAN.
Bey and Jay: pic.twitter.com/zFpHEemhS9
— Mecca_May. (@MeccanismsOfMe) November 20, 2016
Take a look at Kanye's full rant.
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There is a growing need for police officers to be trained on how to interact with those suffering from a mental illness. Most recently, we have seen officers mishandle a situation involving an elderly woman and a mother, both suffering from mental illnesses. Instead of providing help, officers shot and killed them both. These scenarios sounds very familiar to the story of Alfred Olango. In September, his sister called officers from the El Cajon Police Department to help her brother. Olango ,who suffered a from mental illness, was killed after pointing a vape pen towards officers.
This tragedy left yet another community heartbroken over the continuos narrative of unarmed black person being killed. To help change this narrative and provide support, Alfred Olango's father launched a police reform program. Richard Olango launched the Alfred Olango Unity and Justice Foundation in honor of his son. The foundation promises to focus on improving police training by focusing on areas such as psychology, human behavior, criminal justice and discipline.
“These are the foundation of police training,” he said. “If you don’t pass these, you go back to police college.” Olango wants to prevent officers from using their gun first. “Police are supposed to use a gun as a last resort. From the time police arrived to the time my son was dead was one minute and 29 seconds."
Hopefully this foundation brings awareness to how officers should be trained in sensitive scenarios like the one in which their son was tragically killed. Alfred Olango's mother, like many, wants her son to be the last to suffer at the hands of police violence. “I don’t want any mother to go through what I am going through.”
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On Tuesday, October 18th, officers from the NYPD were sent to respond to a neighbor's 911 complaint at the home of 66-year-old Deborah Danner. Officers had been called to her residence before, one call resulting in Danner, who officials say has schizophrenia, having to be removed from the building.
Officers, including NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry, entered the apartment and allegedly saw Danner with scissors in her hand. Police say they gave her verbal commands to put down the scissors. When she put them down, officers say she then picked up a baseball bat and began charging toward Barry. Assistant Chief Larry Nikunen says the eight-year veteran then shot her twice in the torso. Danner was taken to the hospital, but it was too late. Sergeant Barry had a stun gun on his person when responding to the call but did not deploy it.
The NYPD is conducting an investigation, which includes determining why Barry's stun gun was not used instead of his service revolver. State Senator Ruben Diaz released a statement that has us all asking the same question, why did a 66-year-old woman with multiple police officers in a room have to die like this?
My statement on tonight's fatal #NYPD shooting in The #Bronx #BLM #blacklivesmatter https://t.co/8HxPyUFne6 pic.twitter.com/F0gk4yaL25
— Ruben Diaz Jr. (@rubendiazjr) October 19, 2016
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When I told my mother I wanted to quit my job on Capitol Hill to write full time, she was apprehensive. I’d been at my job for three years and I loved my boss, the people I worked with, and the work that I did. I even saw a clear path for upward mobility in my career there, and had devised a plan for it the moment I walked through the heavy wooden doors of the Rayburn Office Building. But then I began writing again, and my first love quickly turned from a pastime to a side hustle. Then it started to consume my daily life, forcing me to ask myself some hard questions. In the months before I left I'd sit at my desk contending with the thought that perhaps the job was more of a marker for where I thought I should be rather than my true purpose. Finally I got to a place where I came in and did my work, but otherwise felt like dead weight. And that's when I decided to go.
My choice to leave was made even harder by the fact that I knew my feelings could be tricky sometimes. When I was 15, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and being impulsive is one of its most definitive traits. The diagnosis had come at a time when I was performing locally as a hip-hop artist, totally ignoring my mental health and getting into a lot of trouble. I had a baby at 21 years old and dropped out of college. I married his father, but we separated soon after. I still wrote music and worked odd jobs, but I felt like nothing had turned out the way I’d planned and it was truly depressing. So I withdrew from my family and friends and stopped making any big plans. In fact, there were some points during that time when I battled bouts of indecisiveness so crippling that I felt my best recourse was to stand still. Luckily, even though my husband and I were living separately at the time, his parents offered to help with my son and encouraged me to go back to school and finish my undergraduate career.
So I did just that.
It was the first goal I’d stuck with and accomplished in a long time. Though issues that stemmed from my disorder threatened to derail the last two years of my studies, I worked hard and graduated with an English degree. Right before I graduated, one of my professors encouraged me to apply for a congressional internship, and a few months later I was an official part of a congresswoman’s staff. It was only part-time, but it was salaried, and I didn't mind either way because I was happy to get my foot in the door.
Then I did everything I could to kick butt in that office. In such a small press shop, there was a lot of work to do with her social media, but I did it. Our office won two awards for social media engagement while I was there, and the changes I suggested for her website are still in place today. Another bonus was that the women I worked with were strong, capable, and drama-free. I learned so much from that office about writing and editing that after awhile I decided to start writing again. I had written for my college paper and won awards for some of my short stories, so I thought it'd be a good hobby for me. So I dove back into my old blog and got a few articles published, but tried to quell any desire to write full-time.
My reason for this was simple — despite reading stories about other women who’d managed to launch successful writing careers while holding down a day job, I told myself that I wasn’t like them. Having bipolar disorder had kept me on an emotional balance beam for most of my life, and I wasn’t ready to fall off of it again. Those thoughts were inwardly devastating for me, but I accepted them as my truth for a long time. Even after I took advantage of the great healthcare I got through my job and went to talk therapy, I was hesitant to make any drastic changes in my life. Surprisingly, what snapped me out of that mode was the realization that I was inadvertently doing something extremely selfish and potentially sabotaging my own growth.
Really, sitting at that desk even though I’d lost all passion for the job months before was one of the most selfish things I've ever done. I watched desperate interns who would’ve given their left kidney to work in that office bust their butts the way I did when I first came to work, and I knew they were doing it because it was their dream to be there. It just wasn’t my dream anymore.
I knew it had gotten bad when I began to view staying at my job the same way I view holding onto someone with whom I have no real plans on staying with long-term. Once I stopped being invested in the work I was doing, I knew that it wasn't right for me stay in that position. So, I stopped being a placeholder in that office and made room for the next person who’d give it their all.
I left on good terms, too. One of my favorite coworkers made cake, I received Hallmark cards scribbled with warm goodbyes and a kind send-off that makes me smile whenever I think back on it. But now I’m settling into my new reality, and I feel complete. I kept a side-gig putting together proposals for a government contracting firm, and I'm able to do that from home. The income from that enabled me to start my own company, and ultimately, my goal is to work solely for myself and travel the world. Even my personal relationships are better since I stuck with my counseling.
Although I don’t know what my life’s going to look like a year from now, I can at least say that this fresh start — and every fresh start I’ve ever given myself — has brought me nothing but growth. I’ve even learned that stumbling along the way is not necessarily a result of my disorder, but it is a result of me being human. Today I see that I was never meant to be a placeholder in anything I do, and I really don't think that should be anyone's goal. There's always someone who's hungry enough to fill your shoes, so slay or get out of the way.
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I'm no historian. But I connect beyond a doubt with the artist spirit. The artist spirit is the one that rose despite the darkness of its environment. Or the crushing pressure that life puts on us. The artist spirit manages to take all the spicy seasonings of pain and create beauty. I didn’t work in a brothel to survive. I wasn’t antagonized by racism my whole natural life. I wasn’t plagued with drug addiction, like Billie. But I’ll tell you where I think Billie and I intersect: I found my soul voice in pain. The source of my “pain story” might differ from Billie’s, but we have that song in common, where singing unleashed our mourning and made our pain into power – I think we both know this feeling.
My own pain grew out of a horrid relationship which included unthinkable physical and mental abuse. Oh, my blessing is also my curse. I want to heal every pain in the world and be a force of support for those in need. This humanitarian gift becomes a liability if it's the motivation behind an intimate relationship. In my case, I loved a person in a great state of pain who was incapable of loving themself, who was full of anger, and who then turned this hatred into violence against me. Being in a relationship with someone who had psychotic tendencies made it impossible to be healthy.
I also simultaneously mourned for the drug addiction of a close family member — it broke my heart everyday. I also struggled to raise myself out of my economic poverty and found myself temporarily homeless. I once had a nervous breakdown from all the stress, and physically melted to the floor into a puddle of hysterical laughter — It seemed the tears no longer came and my body didn’t know what was left to do, then a chord snapped, I fell and an impossible laughter belted through me.
Some of this hurtful history is a blur, some of it I remember crystal clear. I DO know that through it all I sang. I sang and I sang. It wasn’t the shows that made me a soul-singer, it was the fact that I discovered singing soothed my own soul. I started humming instead of weeping. My voice was my own soul crying out into the world.
From that point forward, my voice always had an urgency inside of it and a connectedness to pain. It also has an empathy for other people’s pain. My voice has hurt and disappointment and anger inside of it. And it combined with the sweetest tones and melodies to reflect the irony of being alive: We survived. We made it to that microphone. We lived to tell about it “tonight." The microphone was our time to speak our power.
I do not sound like Billie Holiday. My writing is not in the genre of Jazz. But my spirit and Billie’s spirit, we meet. Billie left us too soon. The trials of life drowned her. I hope that my own voice carries the torch. In addition to the pain, I sing of great hope. I sing to the Billies that are to come; You ARE somebody. Your story is amazing and worthy to be told. You are not alone. You are loved. Don’t give up. There is light after the dark – I’ve seen it.
Photography by Diana Ragland.
Makeup, Hair and Shoot Production by Heidi Giselle.
From the author, about this photoshoot:
October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. I am a survivor of a violent relationship. Since leaving behind my painful past, I’ve gone on to be an advocate for social change and human rights, using my voice and songs as a service to others. I’m currently on the executive board of CONNECTnyc.org, a nonprofit that provides resources and counseling for families overcoming domestic violence. This year I released “Dance Revolution,” a single produced byDJ Spinna, in support of the One Billion Rising campaign to end gender-based violence.
Maya Azucena, a multi-award winning recording artist and magnetically inspirational woman, is known for making music that uplifts the soul. Maya’s work has been featured in O Magazine, Washington Post, Billboard and countless other publications. She’s starred in MTV's Madeand earned a Grammy Award -certificate for contributing her 4-octave range and soul-stylingsto a song with Stephen Marley. Within the last year, she’s toured to Haiti, South Africa, India and Russia. She also joined the Essence Fest lineup in New Orleans with Oprah Winfrey, Maxwell & Beyonce. Inspired Artist Movement's "2016 Inspiring Artist of the Year," Maya considers herself an "advocate for art as power" and uses her songs to empower those in need. www.MayaAzucena.com
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When it comes to black women and mental health, acknowledgment is key. However, given the severe history of our race and gender in the United States, conquering the stigmas can become burdensome at best. One thing is for certain: Black women are sublime creatures of God. We are fully capable of doing it all at no less than 100 percent. That said, even the superhero must count on their sidekick for support.
Statistics shouldn’t lie, although they tend to have a crafty way of masking the entire truth.
Long after the days of slavery, the black American narrative continues to lack accurate representation, from textbooks to mass media. Reality TV producers thrive on exploiting black women and our ‘drama’ for the sake of entertainment. As a result, we choose to follow suit and turn a blind eye to our issues, too. Rather than acknowledging and addressing them, we live Hollywood’s portrayals—only to be led down a shameful path of self-inflicted psychological wounds that are taught never need healing. A health care system designed to discourage certain marginalized groups from seeking the care they deserve certainly poses a roadblock. However, there are other ways of finding support and encouragement in our own needs.
We can change the narrative.
Today is a better day than ever to start an open conversation about mental health and self-care. Social media is a powerful tool for sharing. With it, we can tell our true, unique perspectives as a community and as individuals. Considering socio-economic issues, constant oppression and injustice, a number of psychosocial factors make us far more susceptible to mental suffering and we must remain aware and informed.
Having a mental illness or challenge should no longer be another silent killer of our community.
Let us be empowered by our conditional traumas, not discouraged. Remember how necessary it is to routinely check in with your own mind and acknowledge what feels right and what doesn’t. You are allowed to be afraid and uncomfortable while doing so, but you don't have to live in those feelings forever. Just like everyone else, you deserve to be freed of your mental suffering.
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