In 2001 I had completed my master’s research thesis: Venturing in Sacred Space: African American Mental Health in Lexington, Kentucky. I had written about my community, literally the community where I lived, the East Side in Lexington, Kentucky. I had spoken with my community members and had been in search of what mental health meant to them. This research compelled me to change from the concept of mental health to the concept of mental well being for my subsequent doctoral research in Suriname. Mental health was too limiting a concept and kept me stuck in biomedical definitions on the absence or presence of mental illness in an individual. But mental well being was broader and allowed me for the compensation of well being within the context of community. But I digress.
I had completed my master’s thesis and was going to go to my first AAA conference: the American Association of Anthropology conference in San Francisco. This is the largest annual gathering of anthropologists in the country. This was a first and important step in my budding career as an anthropologist, so I was told. But before I presented at this conference, I decided to present my presentation in my community. After all, this was about them and I wanted their blessing with how I was going to represent them. So I organized a community meeting at the local YWCA, a hotspot for community activities in the East End. I decorated, had food and drinks, and waited for people to show. And they showed, in numbers. Almost all the people I had interviewed, and other interested came to the gathering. I was nervous, very nervous. This was not just going to be about how great we are. I had some painful findings too, like how we let people suffer in our community and don’t give them help, because help is for weak people. After all, we survived slavery. I had to tell them about the stigma associated with mental health suffering in our community, and the silence surrounding it. I was truly nervous about how they would react. Here is one of us who is going to hang out our dirty laundry. But that is not what happened.
I don’t think I started with the song Wi kon, wi kon. I don’t remember. What I do remember is that I had a plant and water and started by pouring libation for the ancestors and invited the audience to call out the names of their ancestors. And then we were off. I told them my findings. I used their voices to give back to them our story about mental well being. I told them about how we have people walking our streets in obvious distress and as long as they don’t bother anybody we leave them alone. We also don’t get them help however. I told them about how family members are shunned and silenced when they mention their mental health or request to have it addressed. I told them how we only get professional help if required by the courts, and how prominent shame and stigma are surrounding this topic. I also told them about the informal, sacred spaces of support we create. Other than church, women can easily give a distress call and sisters come running and envelope her with support. Men might not ask openly but they share their stories in barbershops, private talks, and unscripted spontaneous rap sessions. I mentioned the good as well as the bad, and then I was done. There was a silence during which I braced for the worst. I had been honest, maybe brutally. And then it started.
You, know what you mention there is true, because…. and then the stories started to flow. People started sharing stories, good and bad about their experience with mental health in their families and the community. Yeah, my cousin so and so, well nobody helps her. We all know she is not right, but we just ignore it. We don’t deal with it, pretend it is not there. She gets mad about it too. People nod in agreement. The evening continued this way. People thanked me for creating a space to talk about this stuff for real for a change. Best of all I received their blessing and full support to represent my paper in San Francisco.
The next day, one of my thesis supervisors, a white male, took me aside. He smiled and said “last night was something else. I really enjoyed myself. I have never really quite seen something like that. I call it Academy Church.” I was glad he enjoyed it and went on my way. That same day I ran into one of the deans, a black woman. She called me aside. “I hear you gave a presentation in the community. That is nice, but you should really consider presenting on campus on graduate panels and such.” I was a little stunned, but nodded politely and moved on. At the time I thought she didn’t get it. Looking back now, I see it is not that she didn’t get it, she just got something else. She got what it took to make it in the institution, and if that was my goal I needed to get my priorities straight. In that she was absolutely right. Only it was never my goal to impress or work my way up in the institution at the expense of my people. My people and community always come first. My education and the institution are mere means to an end, to serve my people.
Now, about 15 plus years later, after giving my inaugural speech at the Hague University of Applied Sciences, I am reminded of my supervisor’s comment: Academy Church. In the early African American tradition, church was not just a gathering to talk and listen about Jesus. Church gatherings were meetings to affirms one’s spirit. To use ceremony and ritual to affirm that our stories, our presence matters. Whether we called on Jesus, Allah, or Yemanyah, the purpose was to gather and for a few hours make sense in a world that didn’t. During these meetings we raised our voices, spoke our truth and testified. We did it all while aware of the brutal inequality and dismissal of our humanity that waited for us at the return home. We risked beatings and worse if caught going to the campground. But it was that important, to receive some affirmation.
So, as I review the recent festivities, I might conclude that Academy Church might not be such a bad coinage for what I do. We did ceremony. We had song, drum, and dance. For a few hours we gathered to speak and listen to our truth with all its painfulness and hope. We didn’t just listen, but were open to collectively feel and be transformed. So we can go out there and shine to the best of our ability. We live in a world full of inequalities and inequities that try to undermines our ability to shine. This garbage seeps into our educational system and interferes with our ability to fully benefit from what our education has to offer. I am committed to fight and dismantle that system to the best of my ability, but it has to be a communal effort. I will rally the troops and keep focus, to the best of my abilities. Ultimately the purpose of our gathering in the name of Academia is still affirmation of who we are and who we want to be. And if it is considered Academy Church, tongue in cheek or not, so be it. Ashe, Amin, Amen, Adu, Aho.