There will be no shortage of celebration for Don Cornelius. The creator and long time host of the “hippest trip in America” left an indelible mark on our culture. Every eulogy written will honor a man who’s Soul Train gave Black musicians across generations an opportunity to share their art and genius with a world that would have ignored them otherwise. That he died on the first day of Black History Month is tragic, yet emblematic of his stature and legacy. Once a week for more than 30 years, Don Cornelius created Back history. His is not just the death of a man, but of an institution.
However, he didn’t just die, and we need not be timid discussing the way in which he died. Don Cornelius committed suicide. He shot himself. It’s an uncomfortable conversation for us to have, and while I don’t mean for it to distract from our mourning, it is a conversation that must be had. Because when we get beyond the memories of his storied career and the impact it had on us all, we are left to deal with the fact that a 75 year-old man killed himself. And we’ll have to ask ourselves: why?
None of us can say with certainty. Without a suicide note, anything anyone says is pure conjecture. And it’s the wrong question. The reason is unimportant. What we need to be asking ourselves is this: was anyone there for him?
Did he have anyone to talk to about what ailed him? Did he speak up? Did anyone listen? Don Cornelius wished us all love, peace, and soul, but who was there to ensure he had some of his own?
Suicide is rarely spontaneous. There are warning signs that, if are senses are attuned, can be seen, heard, and acted upon so it doesn’t reach this point. For that to happen, we would have to take mental health and mental illnesses seriously. We don’t, and as a result we are watching ourselves kill ourselves in slow motion.
Make no mistake that the “we” in question is black folks. Mental illness carries with it a stigma in every community it touches (which is all of them), but the confluence of factors that lead to silence around mental health in the black community are a special blend. Our devotion to strength is strangling our ability to communicate our feelings effectively. Those most in need of a community that cares become isolated out of fear of appearing abnormal, weak, or “crazy” in front of their friends and family. And when they do reach out, they find little understanding on the other side. We have to do more.
But maybe this case won’t resonate. Cornelius was 75 years-old. Despite his age putting him at a higher risk for suicide, for some there isn’t the same sense of tragedy surrounding his death as there would be if it were someone younger. Someone who hadn’t yet been afforded the chance to discover their purpose. Someone that might still possess some innocence. Someone that appears to have actually needed us. Someone like Ashley Duncan.
The 17-year-old Texas teen committed suicide after days of tweeting suicidal thoughts, culminating with a post saying “I finally got a gun” accompanied by a picture a revolver. Despite Duncan’s hundreds of followers on popular social media sites Twitter and Tumblr, no one intervened. We have to do more. We have to do better.
It is our collective ambivalence toward discussing issues of mental health in our everyday lives that leads to incidents such as this. Whether 17 or 75, if we wait until someone commits suicide to care about their (or our own) mental health, we’ve waited entirely too long. And an article such as this one that comes after the fact will hardly suffice. Enough has been written about how we don’t talk about mental health. Now, right now, it’s incumbent upon us to actually talk to one another.