Black Suicide

Suicide, that most absolute of acts, is yet relative and can serve as a window into the peculiar stresses of a cultural group. In support of this thesis, Herbert Hendin, a professor at the Columbia University Psychoanalytic Clinic, has produced two books: his brilliant and applauded study Suicide and Scandinavia (1964) and an equally fascinating and surpassingly relevant, though largely ignored, volume, Black Suicide (Basic Books, 1969, $5.95). Dr. Hendin proposes, and demonstrates, that suicide is different things in different places. In Denmark, it is commonly an attempt to inflict guilt upon others or to rejoin a loved one in a sentimentally conceived hereafter. In Sweden, suicide tends to be of a “performance” rather than a “dependency” type; the self-hatred of a competitive failure, however, is deepened by a peculiar Swedish coldness that emphasizes emotional control and erects between the sexes a wall of frozen silence. In the black ghettos of America, suicide is one face of a rage that, though ultimately caused by the Negro’s frustrating position in the society, originates for almost every individual in maternal rejection.
Not that uniformity prevails in Dr. Hendin’s cross section of twenty-five suicide attempts admitted to the Harlem Hospital. Four older men attempted suicide after professional reverses, suggesting the “performance” motive common in Sweden— but with the difference that not so much a rigid achievement standard as an adaptive pattern fragilely based upon outward compliance and contained anger had broken down. These Uncle Toms, after lifetimes spent pushing brooms or hand trucks, found themselves still naked to the world, and, having been taught docile compliance as a mode of goodness, construed their adaptive failure in moral terms and sought to take their lives in atonement. Again, many of the females included in this study attempted suicide after abandonment by a husband or lover—but there is a radical difference between the Danish matrix of interdependence and the sorry turmoil of abandonment, violence, foster parentage, and neglect that has served black females as models of family life.
The interviews and life histories presented in Black Suicide do not bear out the notion that the black female is relatively insulated from the effects of racial discrimination.
The most disastrous impact of racial institutions seems to be felt so early in life and so overwhelmingly that the plight of the female seems as bad as that of the male. Frustration, rage, and violence already characterize the lives of both sexes when they are teenagers, and there is little difference between men and women in the degree of despair that is so often present by the time they are young adults.
Given a set of tests called the BussDurkee Hostility Inventory, the women in this group of would-be suicides scored higher than the men, and in the “assault category” two females —called “Ina Tracy” and “Agnes Carreth”—obtained perfect scores of ten. Ina Tracy, a tall woman of thirtyone who lived in Alabama until she was twenty, describes one of her frequent fights with friends: “I beat her as long as she moved. As long as she moved I kicked her. Blood both frightens and excites me.” Of her childhood, she says, “My mother once told me that she wished I had been born dead or that she had gotten rid of me. The way things worked out, I wished it too. . . . My mother would make me break a branch and she’d beat me with it—hit me wherever it landed. I wanted to take her and choke her to death. Wished that I would die or she would.” Yet her mother’s desires appear to have controlled her behavior; teased for tallness at school, she was not much of a fighter until, running from another girl one day, she saw her mother, “who she knew would be furious at her running away.” Similarly: “At seventeen she told her mother she had never liked boys. When her mother replied that she should, she decided to have sexual relations with the first boy who was willing and soon after became pregnant.” Ina left the child with her mother a few years afterward and came to New York alone. Her first suicide attempt came a year later. A recurrent nightmare involves a “very large man who had been dead a long time, so long that one could smell him.” This image seems the only peaceful one in the frenzied alternation of her homicidal and suicidal fantasies.
“Louise Greene,” an attractive and engagingly childlike woman of twentysix, scored low on the hostility tests, yet a legacy of maternal rejection also perpetuates itself through her. She was raised by her grandparents in Georgia, and did not meet her mother until the age of twelve, when a woman suddenly appeared and demanded that Louise, her first-born, come live with her and care for the younger children she had had by a variety of men. Though compelled to obey, Louise frequently ran off back to her grandparents, and after one fight was prevented from taking rat poison. She has had two children, by two men, neither of whom she wished to marry; when she did marry, she and her husband quarreled over her refusal to quit her job and stay home with the one child that was, for an interval, living with her. When this man died, under violent circumstances she never investigated, Louise came to New York, where she works as a drugstore waitress. She sends part of her salary south for the care of her children, who live with her aunt and uncle; she insists—even in her suicide note—on her love for her children. Hendin concludes: “Louise feels too keenly her position as a rejected daughter to be able to see herself as a mother. . . . Furious with her mother for abandoning her and for not providing her with a father, Louise is following in her mother’s footsteps in having children with various fathers and then rejecting them.”
Another type of casualty inflicted by the black home is illustrated by four male homosexuals who turned up among the twelve male suicide attempts—a surprising incidence; among male white suicides less than one in twelve is a homosexual. In the homes of these men—and though the statistical sample of homosexuals is small, it has been augmented by six other nonsuicidal cases—a father was usually present, but so violent toward mother and son that heterosexuality became intimidating. Also, the boys were disturbed by their mothers’ extramarital sexual activities. “Benjamin Ellis” remembers discovering his mother in bed with a man and says, “It jarred me so much I wept.” The violent father and promiscuous mother curiously reverse the typical nonviolent father and nonsexual mother of white homosexuals. Curious, too, is the usual preference of black homosexuals for white partners: a tragic indication of an unconfessed racial shame. “Andrew Vallen” insists he is proud to be a Negro but wants to have an operation to make his thick lips thinner. “Leroi Nifson,” a medium-brown offspring of a black father and a Syrian mother, when asked why he confined his homosexual contacts to whites and Puerto Ricans, answered that he considered himself Arabic, “a white man sympathetic to the Negro cause.” Benjamin Ellis, the oldest of the three, and the only one who achieved a high guilt rating in the psychological tests, associates dirt, masculinity, and blackness—“I do things with men, don’t with women because men are dirty anyhow. The man was Negro and not as clean as he could be”—but also says, “White men don’t care what they do. They’ll do anything. Negroes have limitations. If it lowers their pride, they won’t do it.” His double need to be degraded and to be protected is best served by a white lover.
Black Suicide began as an investigation of the anomaly that, though the overall Negro rate of suicide is lower in this country than the white rate, between the ages of twenty and thirty-five twice as many black males as white males kill themselves in New York City. The Negro homicide rate is in all age groups higher than the white rate. The interweave of destructiveness and self-destruction in black ghetto life is everywhere bared by Dr. Hendin’s case histories. “Peter Churney,” who has been thinking of suicide since the age of twelve, and at nineteen has survived three attempts, was present at his father’s violent death.
[Peter’s father’s] suspicions that Peter’s mother was having affairs led him to jealous rages. One night when he was beating her in a particularly savage way, the police were called. When they arrived, his father began shooting at them. Peter, who was seven at the time, was trapped in the room with his father, who had five guns and, although wounded, continued to fire until he was killed. . . . [Peter] was quite taken aback, however, at the suggestion that his father’s death might have been a form of suicide.
Peter, whose IQ is high for this group, admired Hitler as a boy and “says he had the idea of going on a rooftop and shooting people but adds lightly that this was before ‘that guy in Dallas’ did it.” His fantasies of mass murder, however, give him less pleasure now; Peter feels he is on a suicide course and nothing can stop him. “Harrison Eliot,” a man of thirty-three, lost his mother, “whose strictness and severe beatings he still recalls,” at the age of twelve; his father, a railroad chef, was robbed and beaten to death when Harrison was four. He has a savage temper, and twice has served jail sentences for fighting with policemen. He dreams of murdering his former wife and her boyfriend, and drowns his rage in drink. “He mentions that several of his friends drank themselves to death but does not seem to be aware that he is following in their footsteps.” “Eddie Marker,” a boy of eighteen, is working toward the same goal via drugs; he is a forty-five-dollar-a-day heroin user who must rob to support his habit. A year ago his twenty-twoyear-old sister killed his father, who she felt was trying to harm her baby. “Eddie does not believe in death, and thinks his father is alive and that he will meet him someday. . . . He has no plans for the future after he gets out of jail. . . . When Eddie was asked about, his getting into so much trouble he replied, ‘No more than most of the people I know. . . .’ Eddie uses his Muslim beliefs not simply to deny death but to deny the reality of life as he experiences it.”
Then, what, the white reader may well ask himself as he gazes into this snake pit of lost lives, is to be done? First he might wonder how accurate a microcosm of Negro life in America these twenty-five failed suicides afford. Certainly this is a disadvantaged group within a disadvantaged group. Seven of the twenty to whom IQ tests were administered scored in the seventies, or on the border line of effective intelligence, and only four (including the wild Ina Tracy) above the standard median of 100. On the other hand, the geographic narrowness of the sample is more apparent than real; many of these Harlemites were born and raised in the South and experienced their formative traumas there. And a look at the graphs in the appendix discovers little change in violence statistics since the 1920s; proportionally as many Negroes were killing themselves and each other in the days of Amos ‘n’ Andy and the Cotton Club as in these days of summer riots and the Black Panthers. The birth dates of Hendin’s subjects span fifty years; after reading their histories one feels that Negro life in America has changed sadly little, except that drugs have replaced drink as the cop-out, and the Islam and paranoid politics now share with Christianity the effort to restrain despair and institutionalize self-respect.
Three conclusions of Hendin’s study bear emphasis:
1.The black female, far from being a secondary victim of white racism, bears the brunt of it. As a girl she is exposed equally with her brothers to the psychological injuries inflicted by absentee or distracted parents; from her teens on she is vulnerable to pregnancy; as a woman she is the first and nearest recipient of the black man’s anger. And not merely in the form of beatings:
One senses that for many black men sex serves a double purpose. The children they father serve as living proof of their potency and also as a mark of their anger. Their abandonment of women, often when they are in the most helpless of conditions, may be a way of striking back at their mothers who rejected them or the succession of aunts, grandmothers, or cousins who raised them; of figuratively screwing womankind and lodging a protest against their own lives.
Biology appoints the black woman custodian of order in a subsociety that has no great stake in order. As a mother, then, she transmits to her children her burden of shame, inadequacy, frustration, and fury. Dr. Hendin touches on the thesis, put forward by two black psychiatrists, that “black mothers reject and castrate their sons in order to prepare them better for the life they will encounter in a white world.” These same psychiatrists, William H, Grier and Price M. Cobbs (in Black Rage), go on to recommend a psychological shift of anger from black mothers to white society. Hendin does not think much either of diagnosis or of remedy. While conceding a limited “useful social purpose” to identifying the institutional sources of black frustration and channeling rage toward corrective action, he insists that black mothers rear their children badly because they were reared badly. “Like all other children, those black children who have experienced the least rejection are best prepared to deal with the world, black or white.”
2. Racial discrimination inflicts its worst psychological damage out of sight of the white world, in the heart of the black family. White people are strangely absent from these narrated lives. The policemen with whom Harrison Eliot battles, and the employer of whom “Jean Wayne” complains, “He didn’t care how I am,” may be white; but the only white people given any individuality at all are Leroi Nifson’s Syrian mother and “Roger,” Benjamin Ellis’ Jewish lover. Racial self-consciousness seems remarkably faint; of the fifteen patients who executed drawings of human figures, none indicated skin color, and only one determinedly attempted to portray Negroid features—and he, “Owen James,” had the special problem of being so pale that all his life other Negroes had picked upon him as a white. But Dr. Hendin does not conclude from the rarity of an overt black self-image—as did an earlier investigator, Charles Prudhomme— that race is not a factor in black suicide.
The Negro usually needs to repress an awareness that he has so blanketed his entire race with his own self-hatred that he loathes all the characteristics of blackness. Over and over the subjects in this study try to deny racial motivations for their feelings or behavior, though such motives are apparent. Even the man who insisted on having an operation to make his lips thinner denied that he in any way connected the size of his lips with being black. In their most repetitive self-images the patients saw themselves as black bugs or black rats. While these images were often dreamed of as symbols linking sexuality, destructiveness, and blackness, it is no accident that the symbols that come to them originate in the most despised and unwanted living things in the Harlem tenements—the rats and the roaches.
3. Black poverty includes a poverty of motivational fantasy. Along with the low self-esteem goes an inability to imagine successful achievement. One looks almost in vain among the testimony of the young men for instances of heroes. “Luke Dellins,” a promising and athletic boy cruelly maimed by hospital maltreatment, has become a bitter black nationalist and admires only Jomo Kenyatta. Peter Churney, whose fascination with Hitler has been noted, wanted to be an archaeologist and now wishes he could make movies like Sergei Eisenstein. And when one tries to imagine how a ghetto child whose father was shot before his eyes is going to become an Eisenstein, or a Hitchcock, or a Mike Nichols, the plausibility of low aspirations sinks in.
In America the rate of white suicide continues to rise after the age of forty-five, and to overtake and exceed the black rate. Hendin’s explanation for this is elegant and eloquent: the white person encounters, in late middle age, the certainty of failure and disappointed hope that his black fellow citizen encountered in the prime of life. Luke Owens, at the age of twenty-nine, has concluded: “There is no place in the world for a fellow like me. I’ll always be on the same level, I’ll get nowheres.”
Little hope can be held for most of the subjects of this study. Yet Dr. Hendin’s description of the general black plight in this country is not entirely dispiriting. For one thing, it makes intelligible, as nothing else I have read does, the vehemence of black liberation rhetoric. The roaches and rats that run through these suicides’ dreams are close to such images as this one, dictated into a tape recorder by Eldridge Cleaver upon the death of Martin Luther King: “I think that America has already committed suicide and we who now thrash within its dead body are also dead in part and parcel of the corpse. America is truly a disgusting burden upon this planet.”
For another, Dr. Hendin’s book locates the need for revolution within the black psyche. I italicize this alarming and prevalent word because it is a stumbling block. Granted that the unmitigated capitalism special to America has at repeated historical moments—on the large plantations, during the North’s post-Reconstruction abandonment of the freedmen, in present-day technology’s devaluation of untrained labor—worked to sever the Negro from the general economic evolution, it is difficult to conceive an “overthrow” of the “system” that would not prove counterproductive for all races. Rather, the challenge to the white-dominated system would seem to be merely to make good the numerous statutes and public resolutions that already exist. But there can be no denying that the self-hatred impressed on the black man by three centuries of rope and shackle, low wages, and social insult must be overthrown. And, for all the recalcitrance of private neuroses, psychic revolutions can occur rather quickly, as one generation replaces another. Although it is tempting, as the abysmal statistics from the ghetto mount, to dismiss symbolic triumphs, what value can be given to, say, the disappearance of “conking” or the widespread use of black models in television commercials? Or to the appearance in the streets of African costumes? That whites ape such fashions and commercialize them seems to me the opposite of disheartening: it is one more step toward America’s recovery of what it early lost, a sense of itself as a multiracial nation, rather than as a white nation “holding” colored minorities.
The black race presently exists in America as a sunken, underdeveloped other country, exasperated and mocked by the highly developed country that surrounds and permeates it with its imagery of affluence and opportunity. As W. E. B. Dubois wrote in 1903, “To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.” No number of damagemending programs from the white world can lift this black nation as a dead weight. Ambition and righteous pride must be ignited within the black community, and black artists, it seems to me, have an enviable part to play. In an art situation that is generally modish and frivolously nihilistic, the black artist (and the playwright, that natural didact, seems to be foremost) has a work of genuine resurrection before him, of supplying a self-image that though angry is also potent—of generating “motivational fantasies” to which the white world, of course, helps lend substance. As long as young black men cannot “envisage a future in which their situation would improve through work,” the black race as a whole draws nearer to being the instrument whereby, in Cleaver’s metaphor, America commits suicide.