It came as a particular shock that Soul Train impresario Don Cornelius’ death occurred on the first day of Black History month. Cornelius was the face, voice and creator of the “hippest trip in the galaxy”, the African American version of American Bandstand, which ran for 35 years, setting a record for longevity in the process.
Until 2006, Saturday afternoons meant something special to fans who would tune in to Cornelius’ successful syndicated show to catch the latest hits, the latest dance moves, the lingo and the latest fashion. It was Black people looking good and being fabulous, and Soul Train made us feel good about ourselves.
Tributes to Cornelius, who was 75, have come from the top ‘names’ among the African American elite, but no tribute mentions the painful truth of Cornelius’ death by suicide, carried out in the way so many men who end their lives do, by a gunshot to the head. And that is telling.
We can speak of a life that meant so much in what Cornelius was able to give to the world, but in not giving attention to the way in which his life ended, we overlook what that ending can mean to others who find themselves contemplating similar action.
At any time, death of a loved one by suicide is shattering. Mainstream society will be somewhat more open about it but the Black community is particularly averse to accepting that suicides are committed by some of our own. It is a typical response to try to find some other explanation – usually to feel convinced that the death was at the hands of someone else.
Across the larger society, death by suicide occurs at a higher rate than death in the military arena. In 2008, 3,611 persons committed suicide in Canada. That is more than 20 times the total number of Canadian soldiers who died in Afghanistan over a 10-year period.
Cornelius had undergone brain surgery in the 1980s and had been quoted in news reports stating that he hadn’t felt the same after. Other reports are that in recent years he was challenged by financial issues and a divorce. He is said to have made a phone call to one of his sons just hours before his death.
Cornelius was a standout during his career. Similarly, his death should also stand as a point for those who would rather look the other way when it comes to suicide among our own.
We already accept that there is shame and stigma about mental illness in our community, not that ours is that different from other communities in this regard. But the lack of openness about mental illness is in part to blame for not adequately reaching out to those who have become dislocated to the point of seeing ending their life as their best option.
We need to understand that experiencing mental illness is not a character flaw or a personal weakness any more than having cancer is a character flaw or weakness.
People who have strong social networks are least likely to descend into the kind of mental and social isolation that often precedes mental illness or contemplation of suicide or other types of self-harm. As strange as it may seem, while we discourage youth from forming gangs that can lead them into trouble, those same gangs are a form of social membership that can save a young man from the kind of social and emotional disconnection that can result in thoughts – or the act – of suicide.
Among our young men, and males in general, expressing certain emotions – sadness, despair, and loss – is considered weakness even within their own families. That kind of false thinking has to stop for the sake of lives waiting to be saved.
Maybe we can think of this as one final legacy of Don Cornelius.
A note on the anticipated early spring…
What’s this about a dispute among groundhogs on the timing of spring’s arrival this year? Nova Scotia’s Shubenacadie Sam and our Wiarton Willie have us at an early spring arrival. But in the U.S., Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil has given an opposite prognostication. Well, the Americans can have their long winter; we welcome the influence of La Niña this year…at least until summer turns what’s been pleasantly mild into ‘hot enough for ya?’