Don Cornelius suicide should stir up mental health debate in black community

OPINION - As the nation reflects on Soul Train's incredible legacy and mourn the passing of its creator Don Cornelius, we cannot sweep his apparent suicide under the rug...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

As the nation reflects on Soul Train’s incredible legacy and mourn the passing of its creator Don Cornelius, we cannot sweep his apparent suicide under the rug.

Just as Don Cornelius awakened us to the magic of black music and culture, his untimely death should also awaken us to the uncomfortable reality of the pervasive mental “unwellness” in the black community.

Traditionally, the black community has written suicide off as a “white” thing while also frowning upon seeking counseling of any kind. The pervasive logic has been that black people can handle anything because, historically, the black community has been subjected to unthinkable and unimaginable suffering and survived. In 2006, however, a landmark study challenged the “common misconception that suicide is rare in the black community.”

Still, as former social worker turned entertainment public relations guru Terrie Williams told theGrio, “suicide is really something that we really don’t talk about…so many times you hear that so-and-so passed away when they didn’t just pass away; they took their own lives.”

Our community’s reluctance to discuss mental health issues such as depression, coupled with her own personal challenges, inspired Williams to circle back to her social work roots in her 2008 book Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting. A mental health advocate in the black community, Williams is a powerful force behind Stories That Heal, “a website for people living with mental health problems—and their friends and family,” done in conjunction with the Stay Strong Foundation, which she co-founded in 2001, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Neither money nor fame shields people from their mental health issues, according to Williams. “We just think we knew who Don Cornelius was. Just because he was an innovator, a legend in his time, he was just as wounded as you and I are,” she noted of Cornelius. “You look at somebody else and you think all is well; you have no idea what people are dealing with.”

The reluctance of close family and friends to take note of those wounds is often crippling. On top of that, the tendency of many black people to keep things bottled inside frequently prevents them from seeking the help that they need. Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding Cornelius’s suicide illustrates this.According to the New York Times, former Motown Records chairman Clarence Avant and longtime Cornelius friend noted that “the suggestion that Mr. Cornelius had committed suicide surprised his friends. He did not appear despondent or upset when the two men met for lunch last week.”

Avant also shared that Cornelius “was very private” and his son Tony Cornelius reiterated that same sentiment with Gayle King on CBS This Morning. “My father was extremely private. Unfortunately when you’re a private person you keep things inside,” he said.

“Yes, he had been [pause] very [pause] very unhappy about some things that had gone on in his life,” the younger Cornelius, who was urgently called to the house by his father the morning he took his life, answered in response to King’s question about his father’s reported depression.

No doubt selling the rights to the Soul Train franchise to MadVision Entertainment, currently part of Vibe Holdings LLC, in June 2008 was a very painful moment. At the time, Cornelius publicly stated that “After years of offers, I feel the time is now finally right to pass the torch. The MadVision team understands and respects my vision.”

Privately, that was probably not the case and, although Kenard Gibbs, the Chicago native who oversees the Soul Train legacy, regularly consulted and included Cornelius in MadVision’s plans for the franchise, even meeting with him about a week ago, Cornelius probably needed to seek counseling regarding his tremendous loss. In fact, Cornelius was arrested for domestic violence against his then wife Viktoria Chapman Cornelius that October.

During the couple’s divorce proceedings in July 2009, Cornelius, as reported by L.A. Weekly’s blog and other outlets, “wrote in his divorce papers: ‘I’m 72 years old. I have significant health issues. I want to finalize this divorce before I die.’” Although that statement in itself was a clear sign that Cornelius was in need of mental health attention, there has been no indication that he sought any.

Unfortunately, he was not alone, even among his peers. Through poignant episodes featuring Phyllis Hyman and Donny Hathaway, who both appeared on Soul Train and like Cornelius, also ended their lives in suicide, even TV One’s popular Unsung musical biography series has touched upon mental “unwellness.” Then, as is the case now, far too little attention is directed towards the tremendous need and usefulness of seeking professional help.

“We don’t believe in therapy. We believe that you’re supposed to be able to handle everything yourself. It’s a character flaw or sign of weakness if you go and talk to a professional. We just don’t go and the reality is you cannot walk around with things inside of you; you will explode,” Williams noted.

So again, as heartbreaking as Don Cornelius’s death is for his family, his many friends and the scores of people he touched every Saturday morning with Soul Train, his suicide should serve as a wake-up call. As we reflect on the joy Soul Train brought to so many of us, we must also realize that “being black on a Saturday morning” or ” going down the Soul Train line” can’t take away depression. It can’t mask mental health issues. Neither can being rich or famous.

When it comes down to it, the black community is as vulnerable to mental instability as any other and, until we face that “ungroovy” reality, there can be no “love, peace or soul.”

Follow Ronda Racha Penrice on Twitter at @rondaracha