Mental health: self esteem and the soul

Book Review





Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem, by bell hooks, Atria, N.Y., 2003, 226 pages, $23.00



In her new book, Rock My Soul: Black People and Self-Esteem, bell hooks (she prefers the lower-case lettering) argues that a frontier of struggle which has been neglected and has now reached a crisis level of concern is mental health, especially issues related to self-esteem and the satisfaction of the soul. She says the crisis in self-esteem has reached a level of devastation that is widespread, with a particularly troubling manifestation in the African American community.

While some might argue not enough activity is generated around issues related to economic exploitation, racism, gender inequality, domination, and oppression, hooks says that to exclude mental health from the arena of struggle is a mistake. Even though her method of analysis pivots around Black versus white and female versus male, hooks offers an opinion that merits some consideration.

hooks labels our society a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Struggle issues have always centered on economics, politics, and social justice concerns. hooks argues that the neglect of mental health as an arena of struggle has resulted in difficulties that can no longer be ignored. This society has produced human beings who have experienced a continual assault on their self-esteem throughout their development, especially African Americans. As a result, human relationships on every level are suffering: men to men, women to women, men to women, adults to children, Black to white, etc. The problem, according to hooks, centers on the willing adoption of a culture and value system devoted to excessive individualistic consumerism, which produces a lifestyle devoid of integrity, purpose, and consciousness. The distortion of human self-esteem has led to addictions of all sorts to mask pain, debilitating insecurity that destroys the quality of collective interaction, and constructions of false self-esteem based on domination and control of others as a way of seeking self-validation.

These false constructions of self-esteem emanate from the embrace of racism, male supremacy, and capitalist values and the failure to confront painful experiences that occurred during the developmental process, especially during childhood. It is not that an assault on self-esteem does not harm adults, it is that those assaults on self-esteem experienced during childhood are especially hurtful, harmful, and long-lasting. Those painful experiences are most often linked to the influence and imposition of racism, male supremacy, and capitalist values on and in one’s life.

According to hooks, the problem of self-esteem became particularly prevalent in the African American community during and after the 1960s. hooks argues that prior to integration and the government-sponsored attack on the Black family (for which Daniel Moynihan was a chief ideologue), Black people maintained a more tight-knit, hyper-vigilant, socially conscious community. As a result of integration Black people abandoned the tried and true mental health anchors that come out of struggling to maintain the well-being of the group for consumerist individualism and capitalist values. Across class lines, the reality of life for African Americans during the last 40 years has generated an unhealthy self-esteem and too much reliance on seeking the esteem of others. Again, the problems are widespread but with a particular severity of expression in the Black community.

hooks reveals that people like Lorraine Hansberry, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others raised concerns about these matters long ago, but nobody listened. Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun captures the battle between values that evolved from the African American experience and promoted healthy self-esteem and the encroachment of alien values based on the individual acquisition of things at the expense of the well-being of the group. hooks indicates that this process signals the abandonment of African American soulfulness for soulessness.

Even though much of what hooks argues is problematic, she speaks to the reality that capitalism is wearing on our concept of self and our sense of soul satisfaction. hooks’ point is that the depth of struggle required to create and maintain relationships that can produce the collective action required for social change requires a conscious rejection of the culture and values of the enemy. We will consciously wage the battle to realize our selves as opposed to those of the enemy, or we will become like the enemy we despise and wallow in self-hatred with empty souls. I think she is right that these questions do merit more attention.

– Dee Myles (pww@pww.org)