“Who shot Biggie Smalls/ If we don’t find them, they gon’ kill us all.”
I remember exactly where I was in August 1997 when I heard that Princess Diana had died. (Psychologists call this a flashbulb memory). I had stopped the night at my mother’s house and she awoke me with the news that Diana and her boyfriend Dodi had been killed in a car crash in a tunnel in Paris. My immediate response was ‘it was a hit’. It’s not that I’m a natural conspiracy theorist, but bearing in mind the events that had led up to this dramatic event, it seemed entirely plausible. Diana, mother of the future King, had become a major embarrassment to the Royal family, exposing the infidelities of her former husband and heir to the throne in a television interview, and subsequently cavorting with a series of high profile boyfriends. Front page pictures in the tabloids of her in a bikini sunbathing on Al Fayed’s yacht, and rumours that she was now pregnant with his child, must have been too much for the House of Winsdor to bare. In short, she had to be taken out! Or so I saw it.
In the intervening 15 years there have been many more such conspiracy theories. The most popular being that the attack on the World Trade Centre in September 2001 was not a surprise attack on America by a loose band of terrorists led by Osama Bin Laden, but was infact either allowed by the U.S. government who knew it was going to happen, or was orchestrated or staged by government agents in order to justify their longed for ‘war on terror’ overseas, and the implementation of draconian security measures at home.
In the words of former MI5 agent David Shayler
“I used to think they let it happen. I have come to believe that they made it happen.”
Not even the President of the United States (P.O.T.U.S) is immune from such conspiracies. Whilst the right wing racists in the US argue that Obama wasn’t even born in the US and as such, is not eligible to be President, some Black people believe that he another puppet of the Illuminati, or even an illegitimate child of George Bush Snr. And so rather than being a radical change in the status quo, he is simply carrying on the rule of the old establishment.
There is nothing new in these types of conspiracy theories. Similarly to the 9/11 attacks, way back in 1941when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, there were some at the time who argued that this was no surprise attack, but was allowed to happen by the President Roosevelt in order to justify America entering into World War Two, to which there was much domestic opposition.
Many Americans believe that John F. Kennedy was assassinated not by lone gun man Lee Harvey Oswald, but was infact hit by the mafia collecting unpaid debts, or even the C.I.A/ F.B.I/ right wing elements of the American establishment, who didn’t like the direction he was taking the country in.
Likewise Marilyn Monroe didn’t die of an accidental overdose, but was assassinated on the orders of JFK to cover up their affair, or by a Mafia don who was angered that she left him for the Kennedy brothers.
Although the aforementioned conspiracy theories are popular with many white Americans, recently many Black folk have jumped on the conspiracy bandwagon and are now riding it till the wheels fall off!
Rap group Dead Prez rapped on their classic track ‘Hip-Hop’,
“Who shot Biggie Smalls/ If we don’t find them, they gon’ kill us all.”
On the same album they assert that Bob Marley didn’t die of cancer. Do they know something that we don’t?
Mary J. Blige was quoted as saying that she was devastated by the death of R&B singer Aaliyah in 2002, and was convinced that she would be next. If Aaliyah died in a tragic plane accident why would Mary feel that she would be next?
Unless she felt that it wasn’t just a random accident but infact part of an orchestrated campaign by unseen powers to take out Black music stars that had previously succeeded in removing Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, and more recently Biggie and Tupac. (Personally I prefer Chris Rock’s take on those last two cases. “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King were assassinated – them two niggas was shot!”)
Or have you heard the theory, that when the levees broke in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina that led to the floods in New Orleans, this was not the result of a natural disaster, but rather caused by direct action (or deliberate inaction) from the US government in order to drown/wash away the poor Black community that had remained stuck there. (Personally I prefer Kanye West’s infamous assessment of the situation – “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people”).
More recently I received e-mails telling me that Beyoncé is a devil worshipper and the artwork for her album I Am Sasha Fierce is full of satanic iconography. As if that was not bad enough, apparently her husband Jay Z is a member of the Illuminati. The diamond symbol that he likes to ask the crowd to ‘throw up’ at concerts, is not the innocent symbol of his Roc-A-Fella Record label, but is infact Illuminati symbolism.
So why are Black people so fond of conspiracy theories, and does it even matter? Even if they are all proved to be false, isn’t it just a bit of harmless fun? For some perhaps, but for others it can be the thin edge of the wedge. The problem is not in the theories themselves, but in a way of thinking that they encourage. We all know people (usually of the older generation) who refuse to use Facebook, or supermarket reward cards, or shop on-line, for fear of corporations secretly collecting data on them. Or to chat their personal business over the phone because ‘the feds might be listening.’ It’s a small step from being cautious, to being hyper-vigilant. And then from hyper-vigilance to paranoia. And from paranoia to paranoid schizophrenia, which is a particular problem for Black people.
The Fourth National Survey of Ethnic Minorities (FNS) shows a higher rate of psychotic illness for Black Caribbean people than for white people, with Black Caribbean people being twice as likely to be diagnosed with psychosis. According to American Psychiatric Association schizophrenia represents a group of disorders characterised by the presence of thought disorder – more specifically misinterpretations of reality; delusions and hallucinations; inappropriate emotional and social response; and withdrawn regressive, or bizarre behaviour.
Although delusions vary, they tend to encompass a small number of themes. The most common type is persecutory or paranoid in which the individual feels himself the victim of some kind of malevolent plot. The imaginary persecutors are sometimes people known to the patient, but more often institutions such as government bodies or criminal gangs or ideological groups.
Legendary 70s soul singer Donny Hathaway suffered from schizophrenia, and its reported that on the day he died, he had complained that white people were trying to steal the music from his head, before he threw himself to his death.
The problem is not so much the conspiracy theories themselves, but rather in the world view that they encourage. Have you noticed that the people who cling to these kinds of theories the most, are the ones at the margins of society? The very ones at most risk from developing mental illness.
Another thing that historically Black people have been particularly fond of, is religion. Religious people say that faith is belief in something in the absence of proof. I would go further and argue that faith is belief is something despite facts that prove the contrary. People cling to their beliefs despite contrary evidence because it fits in with their world view. I was so willing to believe that Diana was assassinated, because it fits in with my view of the Royal Family as a murderous villainous dynasty. Christians cling to Creation Theory despite the contrary evidence from Carbon dating, Geology and Archaeology because if the creation story is proved to be wrong, then what else in the Bible is wrong? If they let go of that, then they may have to let go of their whole belief system, their whole world view, the whole religion that defines them.
If such beautiful and talented people like Aaliyah, Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe can die in random accidents, then it could happen to any of us. If the P.O.T.U.S. can be assassinated by a mad lone gun-man, then so could any of us. For some, that is too terrible to contemplate and so they create a larger more comforting story to explain these events.
Similarly, how is it that Beyoncé has had such a long and successful career when most R&B chicks come and go like fashion? She must have sold her sold to the devil!
How could two ordinary Black men, like Jay Z and Obama, both raised by single mothers like so many of us, rise to such heights, just on their own merits? It is easier for us Black men struggling at the bottom, to believe that their success is due to membership of some secret all-powerful organisation, rather than to acknowledge that it is down to their own hard work and talent. Because if they can do it, then why can’t we?
Conspiracy theories are rather like religion – although on the face of it they are nonsensical and ridiculous, they are actually reassuring as they give meaning and order to life. Rather than believing that the world is a random, lawless, chaotic place where anything can happen, at any time, to even the best of us, it is more comforting to believe that some higher power is in control, even if they may not always have our interests at heart, and they sometimes allow bad things to happen for reasons our simple minds can’t understand. It is more comforting to believe a fantastical conspiracy theory then to acknowledge the bleak and terrifying truth. Sometimes planes and cars just crash by accident, no matter how beautiful or talented the passenger is.
As Elaine Showalter put it in her 1997 book Hystories: Hysterical Epidemics and Modern Culture……….
“Men and women, therapists and patients, will need courage to face the hidden fantasies, myths and anxieties that make up the current hysterical crucible: we must look into our own psyches rather than to invisible enemies, devils and alien invaders for the answers.”
For our own benefit and mental health, we must stop giving the credit for what happens in the world to unseen powers, and secret organisations, and give the power back to ourselves.
If you are concerned about Black people and mental illness I recommend checking this website http://www.hsconsultancy.org.uk