Last May, I was invited to the centennial commemoration of the 1921 Tulsa massacre. May 2021 was an emotionally taxing month for me, as I imagine it was for many Black Americans. The 100th anniversary of the massacre fell on Memorial Day. A year earlier, on Memorial Day 2020, George Floyd died in the custody of a white Minneapolis police officer; the violence of the video capturing his death launched a wave of fury and protests that swept the globe.
The parallel weight of the two Memorial Days was not lost on me. As such, I made arrangements for my son, Davis, to travel with me to Tulsa. It was a rare opportunity for him to witness Black history in the making. Meanwhile, I was also preparing an extensive commemoration. In partnership with the Kennedy Satcher Center for Mental Health Equity, Hurdle hosted a panel discussion on the state of Black mental health featuring national advocates and experts in mental health parity. The panel was held on May 25, 2021, to commemorate the first anniversary of Floyd’s death. Two days later, my son and I were on a flight to Tulsa.
But the momentum of May 2021 was cut short. In the days leading up to the Tulsa events, political tensions and racial divisions erupted in the city, which was still grappling with how to heal a century after one of the worst incidents of racial violence in U.S. history. Lawyers made new demands on behalf of the survivors of the massacre. The “Remember and Rise” gathering on Memorial Day, which featured a performance by John Legend was suddenly canceled.
My son and I made the most of our time in Tulsa. At fourteen, Davis was old enough to understand the imperfections of the moment but young enough to retain an optimism for future change. I rode his coattails of balanced positivity that week. I came away with this observation: The acrimony of the occasion, while unfortunate, offered a clear indicator of the turbulence that persists in the minds of the victims, perpetrators, and bystanders of America’s racialized past. Yet, the agenda of the centennial events did not include mental health. The wounds of generational trauma stood gaping and untreated as we tried to move forward the dialogue of economic parity.
Any real truce, forgiveness, or parity will be out of reach until we commit to healing our minds.
In his 1967 speech to the American Psychological Association (APA) titled “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. argues social scientists possess a unique ability to help America progress beyond the racial divides that leave us “psychologically and socially imprisoned.”
“If the Negro needs social sciences for direction and for self-understanding, the white society is in even more urgent need,” King said.
I wonder what King might say to the APA were he to address them today. I believe his speech — as-is — would still hold water. The protests that have erupted in the last 20 months since the death of George Floyd are not simply revolts to a single incident of injustice but rather responses to a much deeper affliction of the collective psyche.
With a cautious belief that there is a spirit at work in the privileged and underprivileged hearts, I have taken up my position in the modern-day Civil Rights movement, advocating — loudly — for mental health parity. Not in place of economic and racial equity, but as a supportive prerequisite. Others like me, including my friend, Patrick Kennedy, have brought their versions of urgency and demands that race and culture be honored in America’s mental and behavioral health system. Together, we look at the world through the lens of what King called “creative maladjustment,” an intentional refusal to condition oneself to an unjust society.
With a cautious belief that there is a spirit at work in the privileged and underprivileged hearts, I have taken up my position in the modern-day Civil Rights movement, advocating — loudly — for mental health parity.
“Through such creative maladjustment, we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice,” King said in his 1967 speech to the APA.
These continue to be vulnerable times, and the yoke of vulnerability in the fight for mental health parity cannot be shouldered by the underprivileged. Only together can we can create sacred spaces for the individual narratives of historically disenfranchised communities.
In the words of Patrick J. Kennedy, “We stand on the doorstep to make momentous progress in advancing the cause of this new civil rights struggle.”