Black People Don't Kill Themselves, Right?

Why Don Cornelius' death should start a much-needed dialogue about African Americans and suicide.

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When the news came Wednesday morning that beloved icon and creator of Soul Train Don Cornelius had died, there was a collective gasp of disbelief. Though he was 75, there seemed to be an understanding that Cornelius was immortal.

For as long as we could remember, he was, as a friend put it, "the arbiter of cool." Growing up in the small college town of Stillwater, Okla., in the 1980s, I was exposed to few examples of that intangible "cool." Michael Jackson was one; Soul Train and, by extension, Don Cornelius was the other.

Soul Train was the "hippest trip in the galaxy" and my only connection to urban America. No matter what happened during the week, no matter how often my blackness was overlooked and misunderstood, I could always count on my Saturdays being filled with music and magic. Soul Train gave me a definition. Watching these beautiful brown people juke and jive once a week was a conduit to my own self-actualization.

On Wednesday Facebook was filled with similar stories of awakening and pride that Soul Train provided. On the first day of Black History Month, we were not only grieving and mourning the man who was such an indelible part of our personal black histories; we were also celebrating our childhoods. We were trumpeting the first time we had a visual representation of "black is beautiful" that everyone could understand. It was interesting to see how similar our experiences were.

As morning rolled into day and details of this tragedy were revealed, competing with our fond memories was a small but vocal group of people expressing disbelief. Cornelius' untimely death they could handle. What they couldn't grasp was the method.

As a mental-health advocate, over the years I've heard variations of the "black people don't commit suicide" meme. Yesterday the chorus was deafening. People went so far as to create elaborate conspiracy theories rather than accept what could be a simple truth -- that Cornelius had taken his own life.

As we wait for authorities to confirm what's been reported about his death -- that he died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound -- it's easy to let our stages of grief include conspiracy theory. Who wants to believe that someone they have treasured and admired for most of their lives could do such a thing? That state of shock and disbelief is understandable, but it is dangerous to assume that "black people don't commit suicide."

According to a report published in the Journal of Black Psychology, "Suicide was the 16th-leading cause of death" among African Americans in 2003 and the "third-leading cause of death among African American people aged 15 to 19 years, fourth among those aged 20 to 29 years, and eighth among those aged 30 to 39." Yet somehow, there is still this dangerous collective misunderstanding that "black people don't commit suicide."

Tell that to the family of 17-year-old Houston teenager Ashley Duncan. Ashley died on Monday, also of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. For weeks Ashley posted to several social media sites about her despair and depression, even going so far as tweeting about the gun she was planning to use to harm herself. Though hundreds messaged, retweeted and "liked" her various status updates, nobody made any real attempts to help her.

We can speak of the false familiarity created by social media, but a cry for help is a cry for help. I wonder how much of the "black people don't kill themselves" meme contributed to the overwhelming apathy that followed her into death.

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