Terrie M. Williams began her career as a social worker. When she saw an article about public relations, she says it lit a fire in her. She launched The Terrie Williams Agency into one of the most successful PR firms in the country. Still wanting to help change people’s lives, Terrie began the Stay Strong Foundation and also wrote books. The range of her accomplishments definitely makes her an inspiration as part of my Embracing SUCCESS series.

Terrie’s latest book, Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting (Scribner, 2008), has touched many people with its candid look at the effect of racism on black people and her own depression from it. There’s a foreword by Mary J. Blige and testimonials from an impressive assortment of people, including Danny Glover, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Patti LaBelle. I admit it’s a tough read. Terrie speaks the truth! But as the saying goes, the truth can set you free. If you’re black, you’ll gain a lot of understanding about your own behavior and the people around you. Other races may also recognize parallels in themselves, and gain an understanding about why some black people act in unhealthy ways. It can also make everyone more aware of how they treat folks who are different and the effects it can have.

When I taught school, kids expressed the pain they felt from comments and treatment that they’d experienced because of their race. As a white person, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to have so many stereotypes about people who share the color of your skin used against you. This book is eye opening. EVERYONE, no matter what your color or experience, should read this book to understand the often underlying or subtle racism that still exists. It can help foster more consideration and compassion toward people of color. Anyone who cares about people should read Terrie’s book! I’m posting this interview in honor of Black History Month. Here’s what Terrie had to say:

How would you define Black Pain? The dark emotion and space in all of us. There’s a particle set of circumstances that affect people of color who experience pain and depression. It’s a learned silence from the days of slavery. You’d be beaten, tortured, raped, sold from your loved ones, but you had to act like you weren’t hurting. I think that’s been passed on for generations.

Why does it lead to depression? Because we’re not meant to hold our stuff in–the childhood wounds, scars, trauma and day to day slights we experience. We’re not meant to hold in anger, disappointment and rage. When these things are not dealt with, it causes depression.

Why do you think the pain and depression is different in the Black community from other groups? We were raised that you can’t speak about it or there will be repercussions. It’s also perceived as a sign of weakness or being crazy. We’re a very faith based people so we think to do anything other than to pray to God is a betrayal.

What inspired you to write your book? I went through the fire and came out on the other side. I heard the voice of God saying that I had to share my story. I used to wonder about people who’d say that God told them to do something, but I clearly heard a voice one day that said I had to share my story. It’s been an amazing blessing, liberating and has helped me understand what I’m here on this earth to do. Every experience in my life brought me to exactly this point. I am a social worker and one who manages depression so I know what that feels like and am more compassionate. I know how to market and promote a message and I had access to the media and celebrities. So I tied it all together to make an in your face, up close and personal message for people to understand that they’re not alone.

What would you tell someone who doesn’t understand how someone with your level of success could be depressed? Pain is a human condition. It has nothing to do with what I have. We come into this world shaped by the pain we have inherited from our parents, no matter how loving they are. We inherit their gifts and talents too. It gets passed on from generation to generation.

When was your toughest time? What happened? Four years ago when I had a breakdown. It was 9 months of hell. But when you come out of it on the other side and you’re still standing, you’ve got to share. I’m still very much a work in progress.

How did you keep your pain hidden from the people closest to you? I lied. That’s what we do. Three of the hardest word in the English language to answer honestly are, “How are you?” when you’re the one other people look to.

Why is it so important to share your message with children? I think we set our kids up to fail when we don’t tell them how we’re really doing. They learn that the way to move through life is to lie and wear a mask. They’re smart and don’t miss anything. So when we lie and say we’re fine but we’re not, they know differently. We ought to share our frailty, our flaws, our challenges with them, and let them know how we pick ourselves up. We need to share with them the tools that we use to steady ourselves when we go though the fire. I tell them the hell I went through when I had my breakdown because they can see. Then, they start to open up in amazing ways because they’re unaccustomed to adults speaking the truth to them.

How successful do you feel now? I have to work on the happy part but I feel successful in that I am amazed that my life has come full circle. That everything I did along the way prepared me for such a time as this.

How would you define courage? Feeling the fear and doing it anyway because the fear is there but you just have to move through it. If you don’t get up every day with butterflies in your stomach and they don’t feel good, if means you’re going through life being pathetic or flat-lining. Whenever you have those butterflies it means that you’re about to challenge
yourself and take your game to the next level.

What helps you move through it? I try to remember that there are people who go through a whole lifetime and they don’t have butterflies in their stomach. I know the butterflies mean I’m where I’m supposed to be.

What do you want white people and other races to understand about Black Pain? Be aware. When I flag a cab, especially at night, if I have a hat on I take it off because I have short hair. I have long earrings on so I cannot be mistaken for a brother. I try to have NY Times in my hand so I can flag the cab so the driver will see that there’s one with a NY Times, so maybe she’s okay. I start smiling literally when I get a glimpse of an available cab, so they will see there’s a friendly one. Maybe that one’s okay. I do that whenever I take a cab.

When black men walk too close to a white woman or get on the elevator, nine times out of ten she’s gonna clutch her bag closer to her arm or in some way convey fear. So it’s not easy to be a person of color on the planet. If you’re a big, tall black man and have a deep voice, you start to speak softer and smile extra, so you’re not so intimidating. You stand differently. One brother said he wears suits on weekends when he travels. A dark skinned black man tends to be more intimidating to others. So they smile extra to be perceived as nicer, better, like saying, “I’m not gonna hurt you.” All of those things, just because they become second nature to you, doesn’t mean they roll off your back. I try to be an aware person and know what other cultures experience. We really are all the same. We want and need the same thing.

What makes you grateful? I’m gratified because I get letters from people telling me that they’re relieved to see they’re not alone. More people have to read it to get to know who we are and why we kill each other every day in the streets. Black people understand for the first time understanding why they do what they do. I’ve heard from people in prisons who say, “I finally understand why I’m here. Now I know I’ve been depressed for as long as I can remember.” I thank God every day to have been able to do that. It’s not an easy book to read. The tears flow.

What’s your best advice for someone who’s scared to move out of their current way of life or to try something new? You’ll be pathetic or flatline for the rest of your life if you don’t. Thank God that you’re scared, because it means that right before you is something that’s going to take your game to the next level. So go for it. Listen to your inner voice and treat everyone the same. You never know in what disguise God is coming to you.

Check out Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting. It was recently released in paperback.

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