How to Protect the Mental Health of African American Men in Times of Injustice
Cities across the U.S. have seen protests and violence since George Floyd died May 25. The in-custody death has resonated with protesters who have marched daily to demand justice for the excessive use of force by police that led to his passing.
While this is the year 2020, the sights and sounds being broadcasted on our televisions and posted to social media are fairly similar to the many protests of injustice from years before in that they included police apparently getting the green light to brutalize protesters with everything from their fists to tear gas to shooting rubber bullets at them.
With this, along with economic insecurity and a global pandemic all happening at the same time, it’s no surprise that many African American men may be finding that they are angry every day lately. Grateful, but with righteous anger.
African American men are experiencing a perpetual state of grief and rage. Because of heartbreak that never seems to stop, they feel that their country doesn’t care about them and their diaspora.
How do we ensure that African American Men protect their mental health in times of injustice? To get answers, I spoke with Bilal Alaji, author, mentor, entrepreneur, and nationally acclaimed motivational speaker. His new book, “This Ain’t My Life: One man’s journey to finding his Destiny” serves as a blueprint to inspire men to build faith, strength, and self-acceptance through vulnerability. In our conversation, we discussed the impact of current events on African American men, and ways to help change the narrative for men in the areas of mental, spiritual, emotional, and physical health.
As an African American man, what are you personally feeling about all that’s happening in our nation right now regarding the death George Floyd, and how do you feel this is impacting the mindset of particularly African American men, when it comes to self-acceptance?
Thank you for allowing me to speak on an issue as prevalent as this one. Many [African American] men right now are feeling endangered. We are not feeling welcomed. We are not feeling that this is a society that we can walk in and be constructive and positive. Any and everything that we do has a negative connotation put on it. And this now is feeling like we are prisoners of war.
We are now at a time where we have marks on our back; and it seems to be nothing that anyone can say or show us that has changed that narrative. We were told that at one time that we were predators, and that we were gangsters, and that we were just drug dealers. We have tried to change that narrative by being productive in our communities, going to school and doing other things, and yet we are still being profiled and harassed and treated as if we are still criminals.
So, what do we tell our young boys? What do we tell our young women? How do we defend ourselves? How do we protect ourselves in a time when any and everything you do is looked at as a threat? Is looked at as if you are doing something to create this type of darkness that we’re experiencing? And so now, we as a black community – and also black men – are forced to come together now.
Together, we are a force. It doesn’t matter what religion, creed, theology, or understanding you’re under. We now must come together and decide on how we’re going to move forward into tomorrow with raising our young boys and girls so that we can protect each other and protect our own interests.
There is a great sense of vulnerability that men are feeling right now. And one of the things that you talk about in your book is how men can find their strength through vulnerability. As these events of social injustice are unfolding in our country, what advice would you like to give to African American men to help them find their strength through this vulnerable time right now?
Well, first of all, that’s an excellent question and a good segue into a lot of the components that I speak about in the book. But before I even explain to men what it is they can do, I think it’s important that men even identify that this is an issue that we do face.
A lot of men don’t even understand that a lot of what they go through is because they fear vulnerability. They fear being in a place that may make them look sensitive or may look like they are in a weak place in their lives at any moment. And for a long time, men have been taught to not expose themselves in that way.
I’d like to advise men now to try identifying their feelings, and understanding that through vulnerability, we do find strength. But you must at least be aware that you are vulnerable. And vulnerable doesn’t define you – it’s just a place that you are in one moment to get you to another place that you want to be in. But you have to transition and go through these learning phases. You have to go through things that are teaching you to level up or get exactly where it is that you want to be.
If you cannot first identify and just say, ‘what is happening right now? How does this make me feel?’ then you can at least be in a space where you could say, ‘all right, well, I do feel this way about it. I do feel that. I didn’t think I was going to feel this way.’ At least just be aware of it. Once you’re aware of it, you can embrace those feelings. From there, you can begin to embrace whatever difficulty or obstacle it is that is in your life and add it to your journey and your story. Only then can you find your hidden life lesson(s). You can’t always see the silver lining, but it’s there. But there’s a process to go through to handling vulnerability.
How can women help support and cultivate that transformation in the men in their lives? What can we do to be more helpful and more encouraging?
It begins with parents and co-partners and relatives. It just begins with a lot of dialogue that helps us to understand it gets us into a place of understanding the other’s position, the other’s point of view, the other’s perspective. And it allows men that voice that they don’t have. So, giving men an opportunity to speak where you’re actually hearing him, he will know and feel that he is supported.
Once that begins, then the process of just being able to express and share their vulnerabilities can become easier as time moves on. You won’t even have to go to seek it. Maybe he’ll come to you and he’ll ask for your advice, or he’ll say, ‘what do you think of this?’ And it will become just like a comfortable space for him so he knows now that he has a voice, and he also knows that his voice can be received.
Society kind of pigeonholed men in this a place where we were taught to be macho. And the machismo that we were involved in led us down a path where we could not share those vulnerabilities. We could not say something’s hurting us. We could not share our emotions with the world because doing so caused us to be perceived as being weak, incompetent, and less than what society said we were, as men.
But we know in life, that’s not real. We know that there are things in our lives that if we don’t address them and express our true emotions, it can lead to mental, emotional, and even physical illness. So, by allowing men to have that safe space, it’s monumental. It helps build their confidence and their self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance is a huge part of it, which is another one of the main points in your book. Share a little bit about your personal journey to self-acceptance, and what it was like for you to not fit into society’s norms.
It was almost like agony going through all the different systems and frameworks in my life and just never fitting in. Although I was never a follower, I did want to be socially accepted.
Having that social acceptance means a lot – especially when you are an impressionable, young kid. And that just never happened for me. I experienced it a little bit in my teens and twenties once I began to embark on my own life journey, but I had many years of feeling awkward and weird; of thinking different and not talking and being like everyone else.
One thing I learned though my whole experience and just going through all of these different phases, was that it was so important to embrace it and change my mindset. It was important to understand why was I going through it those dark times. Because I believe in a Higher Power and in this Supreme entity, then I know that this Higher Power doesn’t do anything to harm me. It is only for my betterment.
Everything that happens to us happens not by accident. It happens because it was meant to happen. So if I know that to be true, then that means the experiences I was having was for a reason, and I needed to be the one to figure out what that reason was.
At the time, I was unaware that I was being transformed in the darkness. There was a process for transformation. It does not happen overnight. The process is what I was struggling with. The pain I had to endure was more than I thought I could bear. Muslims always said ‘Allah will not place a burden on you greater than you can bear.’ I didn’t feel the truth of this statement while I was going through that troubled time. It wasn’t until I began to grow a little, that I was able to endure a little more. That statement, it just sums up how I was able to transition drastically from a period in my life that I call, ‘triple darkness,’ into pure faith and survival. This was how that happened.
What advice would you like to offer to young African American men to help them in their journey of embracing their uniqueness, being comfortable with their level of social-acceptance, and being confident in their faith in this ever-evolving age of social media?
That is the million-dollar question right now, because most people are trying to figure that out. And to be honest with you. I think we are all survivors, right? No matter what’s going to be thrown in front of us, we’re going to find a way, to find our way.
I think when it comes to that platform, I think that as long as a lot of the young kids have the basic tools that they need, which are from their parents and from their influencers. I’ll give you an example, such as teachers, uncles, and aunts, grandparents, people who really mean something in their lives, then you will be able to see them use that tool in the way that it’s meant to be used.
I would say to them that it’s very important that they always do what feels right for them, that they don’t become so impressionable that they just follow what everyone else is doing .When they are able to stand on their own morals and figure out what means something to them, then social media will be something great for them, because it will encourage them to have their own voice.
I believe wholeheartedly that our youth right now are not in such a bad position as we think they are. And I must say that only because I think that so many things that happen in a society that is causing them to kind of scale back and look at things, COVID-19 being one. The death of George Floyd being another. And just so many more topics to talk about that it’s causing the youth to speak in a way that allows them to have that voice.
I think that we should continue to promote young men having that voice and just make sure that they are always supported and that if we see them going in directions that we don’t necessarily agree with, that we have that dialogue with them, but that we still give them that space and that freedom to express who and what they’re trying to be with our supervision and guidance. And I think with that, they will be just fine. They’ll be okay; and will continue to blossom into very productive citizens. They will reach maybe plateaus that we were not able to reach because of the tools that are in front of them.
What are some things you did along your journey of self-acceptance to safeguard your own mental health?
Faith played a large factor in that. And I was losing my mental health, whether I would like to admit it or not, but I was, and I think it was because of not only my frustration, but the darkness that I was in by one, not being heard, nor having a safe space to be heard. I was able to come through a lot of the darkness I was in only because the most high put his hand on me, and I chose to accept that hand in my point of darkness. It was through that point that my transformation began because I began to see things so differently. I began to feel his presence in a way that I may not have felt it before. And I knew that if I just continue down that journey, that I would be able to find Him more and I will be more at peace with myself.
It takes a lot of courage to admit your wrongs. It takes a lot of courage to look at your situation and realize that you played a part in it. Yes, you may not have played one-hundred percent, but it is really daunting to hear men or hear relationships and people who are going through problems and they just never want to look at the role they play. Or they never want to accept the percentage of where they may have been in the situation. People who believed that everything they did was right, and everything is going along in your life because people are attacking them, and people are doing this. and that.
You have to have courage to be able to work on yourself. You have to be able to get into a space of personal development and begin to realize that everything that’s happening to you is because you are allowing it to happen. You are the reason. When you take that kind of ownership – that level of ownership allows you to be in the driver’s seat, and now you have to make some choices. You have to make some decisions on how the rest of this drive called life is going to be.
You can’t blame everyone. And once you stop blaming everyone and allow yourself to take ownership, you make the necessary changes to be a better version of yourself. You change your thinking, and you change the outcome. And that’s what happened to me. I forgave people, whether I understood it or not, I just said, “You know, what happened, happened. It’s in the past now.” After that came understanding like, “Where did I want to be at this point in my life? What was my vision? Where do I want to go?” And then the most important question was, “How do I get there?”
Understanding allows you to stop being so distracted. It allows you to stop focusing on everyone else, or everything that did happen. It allows you to stop looking at seasons and making reasons for where you are. You begin to now take ownership and say, “Okay, I want to go this way, I want to do these things.” And there’s a lot of components to get to where you want to go. You have to read. You’ve got to specialize in something. You’ve got to begin to walk in that light, walk in the direction that you want to go. And you’re not going to get there by being a novice or being an intermediate level-type person. But you’ve got to start somewhere.
In the book, I talk about how you can overcome and transform into a better version of yourself. And to do so, you actually have to invest into yourself. You have to not allow negative influences, situations, obstacles, bombard you, because that’s what life does. Life challenges you to really own what you say you want.
That’s how you get to where you want to go. Life is going to step in and say, “Oh, you really want that? We’ll see.” And you’re going to walk through the monsoon desert, you’re going to go through an oasis, you’re going to go through the jungle, but eventually you’re going to get there.
You may even climb a mountain. And what is the best way to climb a mountain? Don’t look down. You just keep taking step after step, walking up, and you focus on the end point. That’s how I got to where I was and what I wanted to do.
What message that you would like to give to men, in terms of physical, spiritual, and emotional health for Men’s Health Month?
That second one you mentioned, spiritual, is the most important for me. Your spiritual is your foundation. That is the root in the ground. Yes, we see the tree on the top, but that tree has roots that go very far into the ground. What you see up, is also below. You cannot build upon nothing without having a framework, without having a foundation.
I’d like to tell any men out there, that whatever spiritual foundation you have is going to be important for you moving forward, because not having that means that you are easily blown away. You can be swept away within any type of situation or any type of obstacle because you lacked the framework that will hold you together.
God speaks about it in all types of religions – about having that foundation, and how to believe in Him. How to have that remarkable five letter word, faith. And building that foundation of faith and spirituality is the key.
Now, the physical is important, because neglect of [physical health] leads to health ailments; just as maintaining it leads to feeling good. And self-care is critical for men as well. There’s nothing better than going into the mirror and just loving yourself, right? Like, “Wow, you’re the man. I like you. I love you.” You know? It’s important to build your own confidence. And physical ties also into diet. Men want to make sure that they’re eating right.
Age is not a factor in what I’m saying. It doesn’t matter what your age is, as long as you’re treating your mind and body your framework will be productive.
The emotional component is very key. Spirituality starts this off, but emotional is tied into personal development. Personal development is you working on those things that you will be able to not only digest for yourself, but also share when you’re out in the community. Learn when you are vulnerable, how you react when you’re vulnerable. Put a plan together of how you’re going to manage being vulnerable so that you can deal with it better.
Remember that to become a new person, you’ve got to do new things. You can’t do what you were doing before to become somebody new. You’ve got to come out of your comfort zone, come out of your little space, and you’ve got to develop yourself. That’s where the emotional part comes in, because as you begin to work on yourself, you’ll begin to see the improvements. You’ll begin to see how people embrace you more, and how you embrace yourself more.
Everything is not as bad as we make it out to be. We create the burden, man, we create the monsters. But we can also create happiness, we can create peace, and we can create love in our society.
‘This Ain’t My Life: One man’s journey to finding his Destiny’ is available in paperback, hardcover, audio and digital version on Amazon and all other major retailers and bookstores. You can also connect with Bilal by visiting his website: bilalalaji.com, and on Facebook and Twitter.
About Our Guest
Bilal Alaji is an entrepreneur, mentor, investor, motivational and public speaker. As the Ceo of Illustrious Shoes and O’ Ramadan, Bilal, is a transformational leader that uses his platform to inspire and educate others. With over 15 years working with youth in group homes, transitional housing facilities, and corrections, Bilal uses his experiences to motivate youth . “My life is my message”, said Ghandi. So, Bilal, has chosen to use his life’ s story as a way of communicating with today’s youth.
Also known as LOGIC THE OFFICIAL, Bilal, spent 20 years as an emcee. He performed at such venues as the world famous Apollo theater and the Nets arena. During his tenure as an artist he had the privilege of working/ performing with artists such as Shanice, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Gang Starr, Brand Nubian and more. LOGIC THE OFFICIAL generated 2 CD’s and 2 street CD’s with a compilation of recorded music.
Bilal left the lime light of the music industry obtaining his MBA from Metropolitan College of New York. While in college Bilal worked as a student mentor providing support, counseling, and resources for students to meet their educational goals. After graduating college Bilal became the founder/ Ceo of Illustrious Shoes and O’Ramadan.
Now, the author of This Ain’t My Life, Bilal has shared his story in an effort to help inspire others to live their best life. Bilal speaks to diverse audiences sharing strategies, techniques, and life experiences that will ultimately change lives. There is no obstacle too great for Bilal. Bilal is living proof that “what doesn’t kill you, only makes you stronger”.
How to Protect the Mental Health of African American Men in Times of Injustice
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