What Color Does It Hurt?

Why blacks don't want to talk about depression.

Black Americans have a hard time talking about the pain of depression.
Black Americans have a hard time talking about the pain of depression.

In his 1995 book Rage of a Privileged Class, Ellis Cose noted that behind the external trapping of success—good educations, comfortable incomes, nice homes—middle-class blacks are angry and disillusioned.

In her new book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting (Scribner) author Terrie M. Williams warns that over a decade later something’s still wrong. A larger proportion of us have “made it,” but despite better educations, higher incomes, bigger homes—and even as Sen. Barack Obama is poised to become the country’s first black president–we’re just as angry. But now, the pain has turned inward.

“Success hasn’t healed our pain and it never will,” says Williams, a public relations entrepreneur and founder of the Stay Strong Foundation in New York City. “People who think that a corporate job or a half-million-dollar car or a three-million-dollar house cushions the pain are plain wrong.”

Black Pain looks at the largely untold story of depression among African Americans. Her book is both absorbing and enlightening, difficult to read, but hard to put down. Most engaging and heart-breaking are the many, many personal testimonies of both regular folks and celebrities who have battled their demons.

Though Black Pain looks at depression across the class spectrum—from gang bangers to top corporate executives —it is the sorrow of the very successful that Williams understands best. Because she’s been there.

In 1988, Williams launched the Terrie Williams Agency, and grew it into one of the country’s top public relations firms. She handled some of the biggest names in entertainment, sports and politics, including Johnnie Cochran, Eddie Murphy and Miles Davis. But in a searing essay that appeared in Essence magazine several years ago, she admitted that despite her outward success she suffered from crushing depression.

Exhausted, in constant pain and even terror, she eventually collapsed, staying in bed for days. She recovered with the help of medication, therapy and lots of TLC. That article received 10,000 responses and led to Black Pain.

“I had everything society tells us should make us happy: success, money, access, but not one thing in my life gave me pleasure,” she writes. “The saddest thing about all this is that I was able to go on so long without anyone really noticing.”

Wearing that mask, or game face, despite the pain, is a hallmark of depression in African Americans. In her book, Williams points out a number of others. Some are unique to women, others to men: