Jackie Robinson

Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon

Released: 2016

View on: Your local PBS affiliate

Jackie Robinson is everything you expect to get out of a Ken Burns film, and definitely a good one. The film starts out with a history of Robinson’s life, his relationship with his wife, Rachel, and his early athletic achievements. Robinson was born in the deep south to sharecropper parents. When his father left the family, Robinson’s mother moved them to the Los Angeles area and raised Jackie and his three siblings on her own. Robinson lettered in four sports at UCLA – football, basketball, track, and baseball. His older brother, Mack was also a track star and won the silver medal in the 200 meter dash in the 1936 Olympics, finishing behind only Jesse Owens.

Robinson was an officer in the United States Army during World War II. After the war, he briefly played football and then briefly served as the athletic director and basketball coach at what was then called Sam Huston College in Austin Texas (my hometown)! Robinson played for the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro Baseball league for a short stint before being approached by Branch Rickey, club president and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Rickey and the Dodgers picked up Robinson to play for the Dodgers’ farm team, the Montreal Royals, for the 1946 season. Then, in 1947, Robinson broke the color line by playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Not only was he an exceptional player, he was also strong in the face of immense racism from fans and players.

One thing I really liked about this documentary is that it discussed not just Robinson’s nonviolent and outwardly calm demeanor in the face of prejudice, but also the righteous anger he had. He knew that he had to remain calm for his first couple of years, basically to prove to white people that he didn’t fit the stereotype of an “angry black man.” But slowly he began to speak out more as his career progressed. The documentary talks about the anger many people had toward Robinson as he began to defend himself.

What Robinson faced in his first few seasons paved the way for players of color to come after him, not just in baseball but in other sports that were also slow to integrate. What he faced in his last few seasons, as players and fans negatively judged him for speaking out about issues affecting him and black Americans, continues to this day for black athletes. One recent example is that of Colin Kapernick and other black players who decided to nonviolently protest the killing of black Americans by police. Colin and other players decided to sit or kneel during the national anthem before football games. Personally, I think that this action is a respectful way to state that they see an injustice and they want to bring light to that injustice. In fact, I think that part of what this country was founded on and continues to stand for today is the responsibility of each citizen to stand up to injustice and work toward equality for all.

The backlash that Robinson, Kapernick, and other players have faced as they chose a nonviolent way to protest is, to me, outrageous. White America first tells black Americans that they must protest nonviolently. Then, when black Americans choose a form of nonviolent protest, white Americans raise hell about how disrespectful these black Americans are. It’s a vicious cycle. It makes me feel that white America now values the contributions of black athletes, but they don’t want to acknowledge that black athletes also face discrimination and are part of a community that is consistently discriminated against in many ways. It makes me angry, because I think that sports are a powerful way to bring people together, but only if we value all of the players not just for their athletic ability but also simply for the fact that they are human beings. Black athletes are not commodities simply to make money or win games for someone else. But it seems like a lot of white Americans treat them that way.

After his major league career concluded, Robinson was involved with the civil rights movement – a movement that he helped to lead in its early days. As I reflect on what I think he would want us to take away from his life, it is the continued struggle for civil rights. I think that a nice way to honor Mr. Robinson would be to make a donation to Colin Kapernick’s organization, the Know Your Rights Camp, which teaches black youth about awareness of higher education, self empowerment, and how to properly interact with law enforcement in various scenarios. I also think Mr. Robinson would be honored to have more involvement in local ACLU chapters, fighting for the rights of all marginalized people.

Mental Health, Race

Outside the House

Director: Darnell Lamont Walker

Released: 2017

View on: Outside the House website

I first learned about Outside the House when I came across an article about the documentary on social media. I’m really glad I learned about it – this is an important documentary that uses storytelling, as opposed to just spewing a litany of statistics to talk about mental health and mental illness among black and African American individuals. Don’t get me wrong, statistics are important, but so is storytelling (no worries if you want some stats – check out Mental Health America’s website). The fact that Outside the House relies so heavily on storytelling makes it powerful, and will hopefully help to reduce mental health stigma.

When thinking about mental health in the African American community, it is important to remember our society’s racist history and present. Beginning with slavery, African Americans had their freedoms taken away and were expected to work hard labor and other jobs for no pay and with no hope for anything else. That causes a huge amount of stress and anxiety, and creates a mistrust in the system, because the system has often not worked in favor of the African American community. The history of mental health in the African American community also furthers the idea of suppressing mental health concerns.

“There is a sense of pride in being resilient because of slavery. Black people survived then because we were quiet at times. We didn’t even share our stories of pain with each other out of love. That strategy was necessary at that time.” – Franchesca Griffin

Today, racism still permeates society. For example, one person interviewed talked about her heart racing every time a police car stopped behind her car at a red light – that kind of everyday stress adds up.

Among the women interviewed, and some of the men, domestic and sexual violence was an extremely common theme – a lot of these individuals could pinpoint the roots of their mental health issues back to these incidents. This is universal across all communities – domestic and sexual violence can affect anyone regardless of race, and regardless of the race of the survivor, it is common for these experiences to result in depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other serious issues.

Another issue that came up quite often was that of religion. Among many religious communities, it can be common for people to think that any mental health issues they are experiencing should be dealt with through their religious leader, even if the religious leader has no mental health training. It can also be common for people in religious communities to believe that if they pray hard enough their mental health issues will go away. One person interviewed in the film had a great way to think about this – she said that God had provided professional help for people who need it, so why not take advantage of it?

Beyond a mistrust of the system, and cultural and historic trauma, several issues of access to mental health care exist for black and African American individuals. Most research on mental illness doesn’t include many black and African American individuals, meaning that the science behind treatment and medication literally doesn’t account for these communities. There is a mental health provider shortage in general, but it is especially pronounced for black and African American people. Very few psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers are black or African American. Although there is no requirement that that a mental health provider be of the same race as the patient, for some people it is easier to open up to a person who understands the racial reality that surrounds them. And, a lack of resources exists to get the help that is available – lack of health insurance; providers choosing to operate their practices in predominately white neighborhoods; an inability to take the time to see a professional because of work or child care obligations. The barriers are numerous.

So what can you do? First and foremost, it is important for all of us to understand that everyone experiences mental health ups and downs, and more people than we would think experience mental illness. If you have experienced a mental health issue or mental illness, you are not alone. If you feel comfortable telling your story to others, it can be very helpful in ending the stigma. However, it is your story and you are the best judge of when, and if, you should share that story with others.

There are several organizations that work to end the stigma. One in particular was featured in Outside the House: Black Girls Smile. Black Girls Smile works to ensure that all young African American females receive the resources and support necessary to lead mentally healthy lives. Check out their social media campaign using the hashtag #togetherwesmile.

Another group I like is End the Stigma. This is run by an individual who has experienced depression and anxiety, and who provides education, resources, and discussion about mental health.

If you have questions about mental health issues, either for yourself or someone you care about, please check out the National Alliance on Mental Illness Helpline. If you are in need of assistance, please call 911 and ask to talk to someone trained in crisis intervention. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also a great resource.

And finally, I encourage everyone to sign up for a Mental Health First Aid course. I took a course about a year ago and found it extremely helpful. I learned about how to best interact with people exhibiting certain symptoms. For example, if a person is experiencing a panic attack, get on their level, stay calm, ask if you can get them a glass of water, don’t press them to tell you what triggered the attack because often there isn’t an obvious trigger (or any at all). If we all took Mental Health First Aid, I think our society would be much better at interacting with each other!