Managing Editor’s Note:
In this post, Lyndsey Ellis speaks to the challenge of coping with mental illness, especially in our post-election world, and finding the empowerment needed to fight its stigma. Any of us who love reading can’t help but nod emphatically when she writes, “A good read becomes the essential wellness tool for bookworms.”
7 Books by Black Women That Empower Me
to Continue the Fight against Mental Health Stigma
Like many people, I’m still in post-election recovery mode. I’m shocked, confused, angry, sad, numb, yet somehow relieved that one of the vilest presidential campaigns in U.S. history is finally over.
Fortunately, there’s hidden triumphs in the bleakest moments. While the Internet, social media and half of America’s downtown districts are currently use-at-your-own-risk, a good read becomes the essential wellness tool for bookworms, especially the kinds of books that compel readers like me to broaden the discussion on the ultra-timely topic of mental health awareness.
As a person who’s experienced bullying and bouts of depression during childhood after her parents’ divorce, one of the only things I drew hope and comfort from were books. Lots and lots of them. With that, came a natural love for writing which has continued to feed my endless appetite for reading through adulthood.
As a Black woman, the urgency to explore and share the works of Black female authors is vital, especially during times like these when it’s easy to become hardened and defeated by the gross realities of bigotry and systemic oppression.
Here’s a few Black women whose books highlight mental health and in so doing, give me strength to heal myself and embrace compassion for all.
1) 4-Headed Woman by Opal Palmer Adisa
Opal Palmer Adisa’s 4-Headed Woman is a candidly nourishing poetry collection. Adisa’s work oozes with love, warmth, wit, awareness, and admiration for the complexities—and sometimes, the emotional and mental horrors—that often ring true for Black women. Her latest book is deeply matriarchal, weaving in food and humor to express relatable experiences. For me, it was a spiritual guide to womanhood that paid homage to mothers, sisters, aunts, mentors and endearing community elders who insist on keeping it real.
2) An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
If you’re into psychological thrillers with a literary bent, seriously consider An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. I didn’t want to part ways with the book until I’d finished every page, ‘Acknowledgments’ section included. Gay takes readers through the mind of a Haitian woman who’s kidnapped and repeatedly tortured for days by her captors after her rich father refuses to pay a ransom. The narrator’s mental and emotional state worsens after she’s released and attempts to piece her life back together during a long, rigorous and seemingly impossible recovery. Gay’s depiction of human fragility and resilience in the face of misogyny and unimaginable trauma taught me how the mind’s adjustment to the ugliest circumstances is sometimes key to survival.
3) The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson
The Star Side of Bird Hill is a coming-of-age story about the growing pains of a 10-year-old Brooklynite and her older sister who must stay with their grandmother in Barbados when their mother, an overworked, homesick nurse, starts having mental health challenges. The backdrop is a detailed account of underserved medical workers during the early days of the AIDS epidemic in 1980’s New York City. Jackson’s lyrical novel is a fierce example of how fiction encourages readers to think outside of their own personal narratives and develop a better understanding of cultural differences. In this case, I empathized with the psychological wounds linked to immigrants’ migration experiences.
4) Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
Boy, Snow, Bird is Helen Oyeyemi’s updated version of the classic Snow White fairy tale that addresses the repercussions of racism, child abuse, and transgender-related stigma, during the segregated civil rights era. At the heart of the story is a runaway whose emotional and familial baggage causes her to reinforce harm onto her loved ones. For me, an important takeaway was how cruelty becomes normalized and cyclical when unresolved issues go unchecked.
5) Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun by Faith Adiele
Faith Adiele’s poignant memoir focuses on her quest for inner peace at a convent in Thailand after becoming a Harvard drop-out and enduring Boston racism. This book’s fluidity and frankness about the author’s internal battles with fear, loneliness, and contradictory beliefs helped me accept that life comes with no instruction manuals. Adiele’s self-discovery and one-year immersion into Thai Buddhism also unearthed a desire to eventually pursue more travels abroad and keep an open mind for all cultures and customs.
6) The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Family is complicated. Angela Flournoy’s debut novel, The Turner House, portrays the thin line between beauty and struggle between relatives. The book follows a Detroit-based family of 13 siblings affected by the matriarch’s sudden illness in the midst of the city’s economic woes. Despite a tangle of intergenerational issues, like addiction and depression, the Turner clan fights to stick together and preserve the family home. Flournoy’s natural storytelling shines when it comes to expressing the joys and burdens of familial responsibility as it relates to kin.
7) Undoing Crazy by Colette Winlock
Set in Oakland, California, Colette Winlock’s Undoing Crazy is about a woman’s mental breakdown and gradual recovery. The narrator, a devoted daughter, attentive friend, and hardworking schoolteacher, begins feeling an inescapable emptiness, but with the help of a local spoken word poet, she’s able to rebuild what Winlock calls her ‘emotional legacy’. Winlock effectively addresses the dangers of emotional burnout, the result of a toxic selflessness prevalent among women of color due to deep-rooted cultural expectations. More than anything, I enjoyed this book for reminding me of the power of unapologetic self-care.
Long story short, these books by phenomenal Black female storytellers are examples of what keeps me going in exhausting and mentally trying times when the world feels flat, bitter, and wrong. They’re also inspiring reminders that my small role in mental health advocacy isn’t just a job; it’s a life’s work. And, the daily activism involved to end stigma that hurts and silences our most vulnerable populations is more relevant than ever.