This month is Black History Month, which calls into memory the challenges and accomplishments that many Black and African Americans have dealt with across history. Yet this is not something that is just about the past. It’s about the present and also the future, as more of us continue to strive for excellence. As we have all realized, 2020 took a toll on all of us, not just because of our health, but also a toll on our ideals and the realities of what it means for us to live. These are all things that can hamper that drive for excellence. Something that connects all of these — the past, the present, and the future — is our mental health. Mental health is influenced by our connection to others, which in turn feeds our own sense of resiliency as well. But we also have to be cautious that as we strive for excellence, we do not forget to recognize and honor the toll that it might take.
An expression of this is found in the story of John Henry, which is the classic story of a hard-working Black man of legend who helped lay the railroads across the US. He is known for identifying himself and wrapping his ego around his job. He was eventually challenged with the invention of the machine that was going to replace him. As the story goes, he challenged the machine and won, laying more steel and digging faster than the machine. That’s where the sanitized version of this story often ends. But the full version of the legend tells us that he died as soon as he won, because his body had been pushed past its breaking point. The machine could easily have its parts swapped out and continue working the next day, but for John Henry, even if he had survived, his body would have been wrecked. Either way, the machine would have ultimately won.
What does this story have to do with Black excellence? It teaches us about placing our ego in check and remembering that we are of value, not just to the task that we are doing, but also to the community that we are a part of. Consider how much of the work that has been done in the past, is being done currently, and will be done in the future, is done for the good of the community so that we are all lifted up. This is the element of connection. The element of resiliency is that we know our purpose, but we know that we are not alone. In the legend, John Henry worked by himself, which shows a flaw in the story. No Black or African American would have done any of these things completely alone. There would have been people bringing him more steel, people providing food and water, and there would have been people cheering him on. All of those things contribute to resilience. To strive for excellence means we have to have connection and we have to have resiliency. This means we must surround ourselves with those who fulfill several roles: those who lift us up, those who keep us grounded and practical, and those who encourage us to dream. So for all those who have come before us, all those that are presently striving, and all who will stand upon our shoulders in the future, we can learn from them and teach them that to be mentally strong is to be connected, to be resilient, and to learn from the things hidden in the story.
2020 has been a challenge for us all. We’ve learned many things about ourselves and seen things that we know we need to change. This involves addressing how we think, how we behave, and how we believe about the world and ourselves. The relationship between the two is what brings life, and it is my honor as a mental health professional to help strengthen that relationship. In that way, this is my little piece of Black excellence.