In a world where darkness and depression are often considered synonymous, divorcing the hue from the disease can appear startling.
Author Nana-Ama Danquah outlines this life-long task in her 1998 memoir, “Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression,” from which she read excerpts in Barnard’s James Room on Monday night as part of the First Lady of New York Chirlane McCray’s Gracie Book Club series.
Danquah reflected on the experience of writing about being a black woman who suffers from depression in conversation with Colin Wayne Leach, a professor of psychology and Africana studies at Barnard and a Faculty Fellow at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia. The event presented by the Gracie Book Club—an initiative by the Gracie Mansion Conservancy to promote literacy in New York City—alongside ThriveNYC, a mental health initiative by the City of New York, was hosted by the First Lady of New York and introduced by Barnard President Sian Beilock.
“You’ve heard descriptions of depression before,” Danquah began, reading from her book. “‘An enveloping darkness,’ ‘a dismal existence through which no light shines.’ But what does darkness mean to me? A woman who has spent her life surrounded by it. The darkness of my skin, the darkness of my friends and family. I have never been afraid of the dark, it poses no harm to me. What then, is the color of my depression?”
Danquah proceeded to discuss how defining black women solely as strong or nurturing can lead to the false belief that those same women could not suffer from mental illness.
“The one myth I have had to endure my entire life is that of my supposed birthright to strength,” Danquah continued reading. “Black women are supposed to be strong. Caretakers, nurturers, healers of other people; any of the 12 dozen variations of Mammy.”
The event was the first of the year for the Gracie Book Club, which is currently in the midst of its third season with a focus on literature that discusses mental health. Speaking to Spectator, First Lady McCray explained the motivation for selecting Barnard as a host location for the book club.
“Barnard is an excellent college, and it is also true that young people frequently have their first symptoms [of mental illness] before the age of 24,” the First Lady explained. “We want to make sure that we are reaching a college age population by moving the book club around to different locations. We also like that Barnard has a tradition of activism, so this is a great location to have this talk.”
In conversation with Leach and while answering audience questions, Danquah shared personal moments of struggle and reflection that have shaped both her career and her relationship with family and loved ones. These included a suicide attempt at the age of 16, experiences of verbal abuse by her mother, and navigating the ways in which mental health is discussed in the U.S. versus in her home country of Ghana.
“I feel much more isolated in Western societies than I do when I travel to Ghana, let’s say,” Danquah said. “I feel like I have to fight for alone time [in Ghana], almost, whereas here, it’s just like I feel alone almost all the time. Even when I’m with people I feel alone, because people are on their phones. And so that’s my concern, that we’re becoming more isolated even in developing countries.”
Updated 1:27 p.m. January 30, 2019. This article previously identified Nana-Ama Danquah as Meri Nana-Ama Danquah. The author no longer goes by Meri.