With 2020 coming to a close, Mimi Cole can sense a deep healing coming for the South.
She has watched the South shift and change as she spends her formative years throughout the region. A Virginia native, Cole went to Vanderbilt University, where she was inspired to be a therapist focusing on eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). After finishing her bachelor’s degree in medicine, health and society, she’s now in graduate school at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
A self-proclaimed “therapist in training,” Cole is still in school and not yet seeing clients. But her sage advice has attracted thousands to her Instagram account, the.lovelybecoming. Her following has grown from 721 in December to more than 17,500. The account’s name was made intentionally. While people are always lovely, we are always becoming our true selves, she said.
For Reckon’s “Young, Southern and Black” series, Cole talks about the importance of destigmatizing mental health, especially in Black communities, and how the South is going through its own “lovely becoming” as Southerners challenge the old narratives.
“There’s this concept in therapy called rupture and repair where it’s really important to acknowledge the harm that we did in order to start healing and not necessarily hold on to shame, because that can be a detrimental place to be,” Cole said. “I think that some of the narratives we’re challenging is a lot of the shame about our past and kind of coming to terms with the idea that we need to really radically accept what happened and what is happening now so we can do the repair work.”
Cole said Southern movements are doing exactly that. Seeing people protest racial injustice moved her to tears and gave her hope for the South. The deaths of and discrimination against Black people this year reenergized efforts to take down the relics of the Confederacy. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Whose Heritage?” report, more than 100 Confederate symbols were removed after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes on May 25.
In order to move from shame of the South’s past to reconciliation, it’s important to acknowledge how the trauma affects people throughout generations and present day and give space for people to grieve.
“Having our harmed named for us is so important because I think that’s where healing starts,” Cole said. “When we know what we went through, we know what we’re even healing from.”
Cole believes reconciliation must happen on an individual and communal level. As more people discover her Instagram account, she’s noticing how her generation is challenging the old views their parents had on mental health and trauma.
“I know in the past when I was growing up, a lot of times people would say, ‘Trauma is sexual abuse. trauma is being beaten,’” Cole said “But as we understand more, we learn that trauma is any negative event that changes the brain and the way that we show up in relationships. I think we’re understanding there are a lot of things in this world that can affect us deeply.”
About 55 percent of Black Americans call the South home, more than any other region. Mental Health America identified racism as a mental health issue due to its traumatizing effects on Black communities. Black adults are 20 percent more likely than white adults to report serious psychological distress, like sadness and hopelessness. Black communities and other communities of color are more likely to be diagnosed with PTSD due to the prevalent nature of racism.
Despite these problems, only one in three Black Americans receive the mental health care they need. Experts point to socioeconomic issues such as the lack of healthcare as the reason why many African Americans see mental health care as a luxury rather than a necessity. Cole experienced the struggle while searching for affordable therapists in Nashville that would take insurance.
Cole said Black people may also be hesitant to go to therapy because of the way mental health is viewed in the church and the social stigma of appearing weak. She stresses that not all Black people are religious, faith has played a big role in Southern Black history and culture. Civil rights leaders talked strategy in Black churches. But dismissing mental health as something that can be “prayed away” can be problematic, she said.
Then there is the pressure of being as resilient as those who endured slavery and the Jim Crow South. Experts also point to the lack of representation in the mental health field makes people more hesitant to talk to someone who may not understand their racial struggles.
“There’s this idea that our ancestors went through so much and they were fine without therapy,” Cole said. “Comparison is a pretty common human thing to do. But we need to challenge the comparison because if we’re just saying they had it worse, there’s always going to be someone who had it worse. There’s always going to be a ‘bigger battle.’ Your world has its own unique challenges and those are just as valid as the ones of our ancestors.”
Along with therapy, Cole said Black healing is found in community. Spaces where Black people can process their grief through art and show support for each other through affirmations and hugs.
“We need to know that we’re not alone in this. We’ve experienced collective trauma, then we also have experienced collective healing,” Cole said.
With Black women-led organizations succeeding in flipping Georgia blue and demonstrators fighting against systems of racial oppression, Southerners are showing the nation how their region is dynamic. Cole says she is starting to see a South that benefits its diversity rather than one that maintains a power structure that grants privileges to the status quo, which Cole defines as white, male, cisgender, able-bodied and thin.
Cole doesn’t know if the South will ever be done evolving because there is so much healing to be done and sometimes, like humans, the South makes mistakes. But she has hope that the South is moving forward. That’s why the name of her brand uses the word becoming.
“We’re constantly doing repair work. We’re constantly learning and unlearning,” she said. “I think at our core, we are moving towards love and kindness and towards choosing ourselves and not abandoning ourselves over and over again.”
If you’re Black, under 30 and have something to say about the future of the South, email Reckon reporter Starr Dunigan at [email protected] You can also reach her via Twitter and Facebook. While you’re at it, consider joining the Black Magic Project Facebook group, where we talk about topics concerning Black, southern community and culture.