As a little boy from the South, I learned at a young age the difference between celebrating Black History Month and honoring it. I grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas in a family that celebrated Black excellence year-round. Family gatherings — from baptisms to birthday parties — were celebrations of Blackness and our part in making it shine. February, however, was a time when we honored the full spectrum of Black brilliance — beauty and resilience in the face of tragedy and forgotten history. It was time for giving honor where honor was due.
As we mark Black History Month 2021, I join other Black leaders in a call to celebrate Black history as American history. But in keeping with my family traditions for honoring Black History Month, I ask us to go one step farther: This year, let us make a concerted effort toward honoring the Black voices that have been silenced and the trailblazers who have been overlooked. Trailblazers like Bebe Moore Campbell.
The Shoulders I Stand On
In my efforts to articulate a vision for culturally responsive mental healthcare, I often study the past. Last summer, my studies led me to the name of Bebe Moore Campbell and her work to establish July as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. I was shocked. I’ve devoted the last several years of my professional life to destigmatizing mental health and building Hurdle, a teletherapy platform that offers culturally responsive therapy to underserved communities. I had not done my homework to see whose shoulders I was standing on.
Campbell was a Los Angeles-based author and mental health advocate who passed away in 2006. She was vocal about her personal challenges in caretaking for a loved one who struggled with mental illness. In her journey to find relevant care for her loved one, Campbell visited a National Alliance on Mental Illness center in Beverly Hills, an affluent white community.
“She could not relate to what she was hearing and the options being made available,” says Linda Wharton-Boyd, a longtime friend and a director at the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority. “She knew she needed to establish a way to present the information and resources in a way that was relevant and felt safe to the Black community.”
Campbell used her experience as an example of the inordinate courage and boldness required to navigate the mental healthcare system as a Black person. She went on to co-found NAMI Urban Los Angeles in Inglewood and became a national spokesperson on mental health for the Black community. Inspired by Campbell’s charge to end stigma and provide mental health information, Wharton-Boyd, along with friend and fellow author Patrice Gaines, suggested dedicating a month to the effort. When Campbell lost her battle to cancer, Wharton-Boyd, Gaines and other friends, family and allied advocates reignited their cause, inspired by her legacy. In May of 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives announced July as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. But by 2020, her name was all but erased from the month’s awareness efforts.
“Legislation was passed to secure her name in the history of the July awareness month,” says Gaines. “I don’t want her name to be lost.”
Revisionist Black History
It is common practice to rewrite history in a way that feels relatable to our present. This is a risky practice, and the Black community knows this all too well: We are well aware that understanding our history is an important part of us achieving our full potential in the future. While it is tempting to think that I was one of the first onto the field in this battle to revolutionize mental healthcare, I know that I am following Campbell’s footsteps. This is why I join her friends in preserving her history in this space.
Her words have emboldened people like me — those in the mental health community who are fighting to make the system more relevant and safer for traditionally underserved patient populations.
“Stigma is one of the main reasons why people with mental health problems don’t seek treatment or take their medication. People of color, particularly African Americans, feel the stigma more keenly. In a race-conscious society, some don’t want to be perceived as having yet another deficit.”
- Bebe Moore Campbell
And Campbell’s legacy encourages me to never stop fighting for culturally responsive mental healthcare, even in the face of mounting resistance. When Campbell pioneered a public discourse over the ways the U.S. mental healthcare system was failing Black people, she didn’t have the momentum of today’s culture shift. Today, celebrities and athletes — Chrissy Teigen, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and Kevin Love to name a few — are using their fame to spread awareness about mental health.
Creating a better society is difficult, uncomfortable work and we are at an inflection point where people have a greater tolerance for the difficulty that comes with getting into “good trouble.” But we need people to step up with more than just showing up or words of understanding, but with real action. And that means all of us.
This year, Black History Month feels different. It’s heavier. The unprecedented circumstances of 2020 — from the pandemic to the swelling racial justice movement — have been hitched to Black History Month 2021 creating added weight and greater urgency. There is a more pressing insistence to claim the triumphant underdog stories of Black history as American history. As we lean into this more complete history, inclusive of the most marginalized people, I am doing my part by lifting up Bebe Moore Campbell’s memory. Say her name. Honor her.