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Society needs to make more space for Black men’s mental health


10 min read

Mar 7



Yogi and activist Reggie Hubbard on the intersection of racism and the climate crisis

Image credit: Reggie Hubbard. Design by Gen Dread

Generation Dread: Tell us about the retreat that you just led for men of colour.

Reggie Hubbard: It was the first ever healing retreat for men of colour. It was also taught from a Black experience. Part of me is like, hooray! First! But the activist in me is like, what the hell? It’s 2023! How's this gonna be y'all's first thing that you've done for us? So I'm glad to have been the midwife to this impossible dream…but it’s late! 

We had 17 people from all walks of life, from 23 to 60 in age. People who came because they saw it as a chance to learn from me. Brothers who came because their wife or their girlfriend or their mama was just like, you gotta go. A queer couple was there, and men with kids. A brother who has a transgender fam. All this in the same room, which opens up the whole idea of masculinity. 

Most of the people who were skeptical about a spiritual yoga meditative practice hadn't had it explained in their cadence. So, the first yoga class I taught, I put on hip hop music. And I'm like, try this with your body. Try that with your body. And because it's culture, they got into it as opposed to people just playing. Like, walking into most yoga rooms, that ain't inaccessible for brothers, man. Not that every brother likes hip hop, but it’s just a whole paradigm we’ve got to shift and break. And in the infinite wisdom of the universe, not only am I giving birth to this thing, but it’s the same week of George Floyd's remembrance.

I’ve got this ridiculous ability to hold complicated space. I'm holding this complicated space for ages 23 to 60 and queer and straight and people who’ve never practiced yoga and people who practice yoga all the time. And the alchemy of that is that people shed lifetimes of grief and trauma in like, four or five days.Our joy of community and not having to put on armour, not having to code-switch or anything, just being authentically who you are, we were so joyous. People came up and said, thank you for your joy.

Racism takes a deep psychic toll on Black men

GD: Wellness is typically a space dominated and commodified by white women. What unique challenges exist with Black men's mental health and wellness?

RH: So I saw something a couple years ago: one of those Time Magazine special editions. It said “the new face of mindfulness”. And it was a white lady. Yeah, nah. And I was just like, mm-hmm. Noted. I'm gonna show you the new face, baby. Just gimme a couple years. And now it’s happening. I'm not on no magazine covers yet, but I don't care about that shit. As long as I touch lives, you can keep the magazine covers.

I mention that to say this: representation matters. If we don't even see ourselves in the mainstream norms of spiritual and health practices, why are we even gonna try? Like, I remember when I first was told, Reggie, you should practice yoga. I was like, I ain't no skinny white lady! If you don't ever see anyone who looks like you doing it, it's not even an option.

That's one. Two: the name of the retreat was Permission And Refuge. Men of colour, Black men in the United States, we have to act a certain way. We have an unhealthy fear of mortality. Wrong place, wrong time, wrong cop, you'll die. What happens to you when you see a different colour of light behind you in your car? Because I, a very practiced yogi meditation dude, see a red or a blue light and I freak out. So when society has you so on edge that all you're trying to do is survive, you don't have time to think about healing.

There’s also an internalization of not only that stress, but you just don't even think that your health matters. If I can get shot at any point, who cares? There is a societally imposed nihilistic tendency that most people aren't even aware of. That's why the retreat was so successful because you walk in the door, all your armour, you don't need that. Because I'm running this space. People automatically felt comfortable. When you feel comfortable, the body can relax more. And you're having this modeled by someone who looks like you, who speaks in your language.

Image credit: Reggie Hubbard.

GD: How do you see this work as being connected to climate justice?

RH: My suffering is your suffering. Your angst is my angst. From my lens, coming from a grassroots activist space, climate injustice is manifested in policy: most Black neighborhoods are near chemical places. In the United States, they built the interstate highway system through Black neighbourhoods. So they destroyed ecosystems and destroyed the land to perpetuate suffering, but also at an extractive cost to society. 

The other thing I'll mention about extraction is that most Black lives in the United States were used as an extractive commodity. Someone told me the other day that such-and-such “was built on the backs of” – and I was like, you can't say “built on the backs” to someone who's a slave descendant. Like, mind your words please. Nothing was built on your back – that was my great-great-grandfather. 

I see climate justice as similar because racial justice and climate justice are imperatives where those who are into it see…but those who don't wanna see it don't see it. There's a psychological kinship. Like, there were people running in Washington D.C. when the air quality was 176. Beyond red. So I’m like, okay, one: you are running…in a fire??? And two: you aren't concerned about the fire?! You’re just like “Gotta get my run in!” What are you doing?! So that psychological kinship I think is underplayed. People who don't wanna see racism don't see racism. People who don't wanna see climate emergency don't see climate emergency. And the urgency of both for whom it's an imperative, it creates a level of stress, but also a level of being distraught that can lead to being just really, really upset and depressed. So that’s where wellness comes in.

Creating new options instead of fighting the status quo

GD: You've done a lot of yoga work with climate activists. What are you observing that activists need most right now as a collective?

RH: People need space, perspective and hope. For perspective, I tell people, especially my climate friends, all the time: the climate catastrophe is a human problem. Nature will be fine. It'll reinvent. It'll do what nature does. It'll probably replenish. We saw what happened during the pandemic. Everyone's stuck at home and Earth is like, Yes!! Finally!!

So, the climate catastrophe is a human problem. But the human being is the only species of nature that thinks it's separate from nature. That's cognitive dissonance. And that’s delusion. My Buddhist practice teaches me that delusion is the core pillar of suffering. So in terms of organizing and wellness, I have to see your problem as my problem, but I also have to see your liberation as my liberation. So I give hope and perspective – and let’s use race for instance: cops still kill black people for sport. And: my partner's white. That was illegal 50 years ago. There has been progress. There's still progress to go. President Biden in the United States passed a very comprehensive climate policy that got no press, and he did it against recalcitrants from the Republican party in the United States. That's written in the law. The biggest climate bill ever. Could it have been more? For sure. But biggest ever? That’s nothing to sneeze at. It's codified. It's happening. So that perspective is what people need. Is it enough? Probably not. We have baked ourselves into almost a seemingly intractable situation. But at the same time, as the pandemic demonstrated, when culture shifts, things can change quickly. 

When it comes to organizing, this is where wellness goes into it: if I'm miserable and pissed and sad all the time, who wants to hang out with me? I remember at one of my yoga teacher trainings, someone came up to me like, can I offer you some advice? And I was like, sure. And he was like, I know you're an activist and so you typically view things as a fight, right? Well, what if you viewed your work as a dance? So that’s how my activism has shifted. That's how my teaching practice has shifted. I'm having fun creating this cool stuff over here. You wanna be a part of this? I'm organizing and creating new norms! The first ever healing retreat for men of colour happened because we created it. Jimmy Hendrix famously said in his song “Are You Experienced?”: “trumpets and violins / I can hear in the distance / I think they're calling our name” 

So rather than being like, this sucks, doesn't it? I’m like, yeah, we know that sucks, but this is cool. So let's go here. So for movement folks, climate folks, everybody in injustice movements, you want to welcome people to the beauty of what we're creating in addition to holding space for the sadness that you have in the present moment. Because if you don't hold space for the grief and sadness, you can't hear all of these new things. It’s an energetic and a generative difference.

Image credit: Reggie Hubbard.

GD: Holding space for grief and sadness requires us to slow down and be still…but a lot of people are deeply conditioned to see rest as a luxury rather than a right, or a need. What do you say to people who feel guilty resting because they’re not being “productive”?

RH: My avuncular response is this: if the body weren't designed for rest, why is there sleep? 

My more professorial response is: there's no way to have a fresh idea from an exhausted mind.

And my more in-your-face response is this: if you had a car that didn't have any gas, had a flat tire, and a cracked windshield, would you expect it to go anywhere? No. Then why are you doing that to your body? 

Rest is productive. And if that touchy-feely stuff doesn't work for you, rest is revolutionary. Why are you tethered to the capitalist grind system? ‘Cause the grind culture only leaves dust. Creating conditions to honour your sacred nature impacts your work. If you feel guilt, just sit with the fact of why you feel guilty about that. Is it because you genuinely feel guilty, or because you have agreed to a system that imposes this guilt upon you because it wants to extract your labour and grind you to dust?

We tend to have our lives compressed either in our posture, or in our schedules, and compression yields more compression. We need more space. More time to breathe.

“Hope and despair can live at the same time”

GD: When you think about the climate crisis and the interlocking systems of oppression that are going on and the various fights – or dances – for justice, what gives you hope?

RH: I am a descendant of people who were enslaved in the United States. I celebrate Juneteenth. I don't celebrate the 4th of July in the United States. It doesn't mean anything to me. What it means is the perpetuation of a system that held people like me as chattel against our will.

I still have my grandmother, she's 97. In her lifetime, she has seen Blacks having to pay poll taxes, and being chased away from voting booths because of lynching. She’s gone from the threat of lynching…to her grandson being an advisor to the Speaker of the House with a huge afro and an attitude. 

In the stories she's told me and other elders have told me, I've seen how progress manifests if you stick to it. I am the heir and the descendant of a legacy of joy in the midst of sorrow, of hope when it was untenable to have hope. So if we don't have hope, it will never manifest. It's not a naive thing to have hope, and it’s also not a naive thing to have despair. But hope and despair can live at the same time. In fact, in my life, my biggest moments of despair are what gave me hope. They’re what gave me the impetus to try something new.

I lean on the legacy of my history as opposed to what I think is happening in the moment [something philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò also talked to Gen Dread about here]. And that long perspective gives me hope. So in the context of climate justice and other justice, we saw the world change three years ago and the protests that emanated from George Floyd. Young voters voted Trump out. Young people are so engaged that we just have to hold down things long enough for things to shift. Like, the demographics are there. The percentages are there. We just have to organize and hold hope in the same way that people from the civil rights generation and the generations before held hope when it didn't seem possible, or it actually seemed quite nonsensical. Those two things run deep within me. An awareness of my history, knowing that my history is predicated on people having big dreams when they thought they were foolish. And then telling me about their big dreams.

Image credit: Reggie Hubbard.

My grandfather, rest his soul, he was a light-skinned brother. He could almost pass for white. Then he went to World War II, came back on the G.I. Bill and he got a 4.0 GPA or something. And his boss said there ain't no way a n***** can be that smart. He told that to his grandson when I was in the seventh grade or something. His grandson went to Yale. Because he planted that thing. And he knew my spirit was just “oh really?? I'll show you”. I remember when I got into Yale, people were like, oh, you got in because of affirmative action. Oh, but look, I'm also vice president for three years, and I'm in the National Honour Society, vice president, and I got a 3.7 GPA. So I’m not only Blacker than you, I'm smarter than you and a better leader. So maybe you should try those things and be Black. So that attitude took the baton forward. Those of us who are older have got to implant our hope into young folks, and young folks gotta hold hope upon what we tell them. It’s a collaborative experience. 

So have perspective, have hope, and just dream big, because they can come true. I'm living proof of that.

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