Even in the midst of suffering, the Black spirit can’t be silenced.
White supremacy has many faces and uses many tools.
It led to the creation of the idea of race and the othering, subjugation, enslavement, and colonization of an entire continent of people.
There’s no corner of the Earth that it hasn’t touched.
Underlying it all is the message that one way is the right way, and one type of person is the right type of person.
The United States may have been founded on the idea of religious freedom for the colonists, like the Quakers, Shakers, Puritans, and Protestants who wanted to believe and practice differently from what the monarchy dictated.
Unfortunately, that so-called freedom was carried out at the expense of the liberty of others.
But all was not lost.
Vehement attempts were made to strip Black people of our language, religion, and cultural customs. Still, we ultimately never lost the religious and spiritual practices that kept us connected to our source.
These practices fed and protected the Black community throughout the hardships we faced, even when they had to be hidden, adapted, and syncretized with the religion of the oppressor.
This adaptation is evident today in the flexibility of Black spiritual systems and how we’ve used them to get through some of the most trying times in our history.
Before wellness and mental health entered the stage, there was always “the Black church,” providing a north star in dark times.
In the New World, Black people embraced Christianity, but syncretized the religions of our homeland with the religion of our oppressors.
According to a 2014 PEW Research Center study, 79 percent of African-Americans identified as Christian.
This is commonly seen in island nations, like Haiti and Cuba, as well as in Central and South American countries, like Brazil. Here, Christianity has been combined with indigenous or African Traditional Religion (ATR).
Some new forms include:
Many others exist without names, but just because they don’t have names, it doesn’t mean they aren’t significant.
Many of these traditions include music, specifically drums, tambourines, hand clapping, stomping, and shouting. The presence of these signature elements in Black American religious services is distinctly African.
Services like these acted as a cornerstone for the civil rights movement and Black liberation, providing a crucial source of healing, community, and strength in the midst of unspeakable pain.
These beliefs and rituals were the first line of defense in the protection of Black mental health.
There’s no denying the mental health benefits of religion and spirituality.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness states that “spirituality also incorporates healthy practices for the mind and body, which positively influences mental health and emotional well-being.”
In an article in the Journal of Religion and Health, author Archie Smith Jr. argued that religion and spirituality are central to the Black experience.
“To ignore the religious nature of human beings while seeking to restore them to psychic health would not only trivialize a vital mental health resource in the Black experience,” Smith wrote. “It would further alienate Black people from awareness of the creative and spiritual depths in which their humanity participates and upon which their total well-being ultimately depends.”
For many Black people, and certainly for those past, total wellness depends on the roles and rituals of spiritual practice.
This means that spiritual wellness is inextricably linked to mental wellness — the two practices work in tandem, not separately.
Nicole Shawan Junior is a former prosecutor turned multidisciplinary storyteller.
She was raised in two churches: evangelical with her paternal grandmother and Catholic mass with her maternal grandmother.
She enjoyed going to both services as a kid, but things changed as she grew up.
“I began to question what it meant to constantly be bombarded with a white Jesus,” Junior says. “I was really starting to question Christianity and Catholicism as not only my sexual identity was burgeoning, but also [as] my political identity was coming into itself.”
As these seemingly contradictory identities emerged, Junior started drifting from the church.
Stephanie Jones, LCSW, the proprietor of the mental health group Lifestyle Management Counseling, is the daughter of a pastor.
She served on the usher board, led devotions, and even taught Sunday school.
“I’ve always been very much ingrained in the foundation and the system of church,” Jones says. “As I got older and really started to explore religion and spirituality for myself, that kind of disconnects you from the actual system of church.”
After that, Jones says she focused on connecting with her source.
Rediscovering spiritual and mental well-being
Mental and emotional health look different for everyone. Some ways they express can be through:
For Junior, reconnecting all started with a dream.
“In my dreamscape, I’m treading water in an ocean,” Junior shares. “It was a bright sun out. Then, in front of me this… Brown skinned brother — probably the color of Hennessy — comes up in front of me, ascending from out of the water, and he starts to talk to me about who I am and what I come from.”
Junior researched her dream, confiding the details in people she trusted.
“I would say, before I found Yoruba, before Olokun was like, ‘Come on, come back home,’ I didn’t really have any mental health practices,” Junior says.
Instead, she processed and decompressed from her stressful career as a prosecutor by smoking a pack of cigarettes a day and running on the treadmill at the gym.
“It wasn’t until I started to research Yoruba that I realized that, yes, you do have to go to your ancestors, you have to be good with your ancestors, you have to speak to them,” says Junior. “You have to pray for their evolution, their enlightenment, and their progression in the spiritual realm.”
This was an important step for Junior to reconnect with her lineage.
Whether it’s through prayer, ancestor veneration, conversation with the creator, or meditation, it’s all a way to support mental health and find inner peace.
“Meditation is like that closest space that you can get to having a conversation deeply with God, because you’re able to really turn down the noise, turn down the distractions and everything that’s going on, and just be in your own head and try to find that vibration of calm,” Jones explains.
Meditation and personal research are just two of the tools Jones suggests for her clients. When she learns that they may have a spiritual foundation or practice, she also suggests that as another tool to cope.
“I noticed spaces where I can be a lot more honest about spirituality versus places where I may have to throttle back a little bit more, because in the position that I’m in, you don’t want to infringe upon someone else’s beliefs,” Jones says.
Putting the tools to work
So how does it all come together?
Jones says that process is different for every person, but the hardest part is often being honest with yourself about what’s going on.
“Be authentic with yourself, be unapologetic about what you need,” she says.
For Junior, an honest examination led to a transformational shift in her life.
She found purpose in writing and powerlifting. She pushed into these new avenues to heal her mind and body at the behest of her ancestors.
Four or 5 months in, the experience became cathartic.
“Spirit, body, mind, you know, all of it at all cylinders,” Junior says. “I know that only happened because I found my religious tribe. I had found my religious home.”
Junior credits finding her spiritual path with helping her break free of the fear imposed by white supremacy.
While ancestral religion was integral in Junior’s journey, working with a mental health professional can be equally profound.
“The two have a very close relationship,” Jones says.
For many Black people in America, the relationship between mental health and spirituality is vital.
It provides the foundation to confront the ills of racism, prejudice, police brutality, and the manifestations of white supremacy in all of its microaggressive forms.
Whether you’ve grown up in organized religion, embraced spiritual practice, sought out mental health support, or not, it’s never too late to incorporate one or all of these practices for your well-being.
“It’s never any one thing. Recognize that it’s a recipe,” Jones says. “You have to pull those things from your toolbox [and] be unapologetic and unafraid to share what’s going on.”
You can share and connect with:
“You gotta be honest with somebody, but it has to start with you being honest with yourself,” Jones says.
“You don’t have to sit on someone’s couch for a year plus in order to find mental wellness,” she says.
It can start in your own backyard.
You may say inshallah, amen, asé, or namaste.
You may pray to Jehovah, Jesus, Oludumare, Buddha, Vishnu, or your ancestors, or you may sit in silent meditation.
No matter what, there is help, there is hope, and there is healing in connecting to yourself, your community, and your ancestry.
Regardless of the legacy of racism, the power of the human spirit can never be taken away.
Nikesha Elise Williams is a two-time Emmy award-winning news producer and author. Nikesha’s debut novel, “Four Women,” was awarded the 2018 Florida Authors and Publishers Association President’s Award in the category of Adult Contemporary/Literary Fiction. “Four Women” was also recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists as an Outstanding Literary Work. Her latest novel is “Beyond Bourbon Street.”