The Invisible Ache: Black Men Identifying Their Pain and Reclaiming Their Power
“Together Vance and Smith debunk the myths that ‘therapy is only for white folks’ and ‘prayer is enough.’”
Deeply moving and forward-looking, The Invisible Ache explores the inner lives of Black men. Though written to teach them about the transformative value of therapy, it provides a window into how white culture’s deliberate and inadvertent macro- and micro-aggressions damage Black men’s psyches. And it illuminates how stereotypes forced upon them crush their true selves and leave them with an invisible ache that, without corrective action, corrodes their lives and the lives of those who love them.
Part memoir, self-help guide, and social justice handbook, The Invisible Ache, is co-written by award-winning stage and screen actor Courtney B. Vance and psychologist, author, and thought leader Robin L. Smith, PhD. Alternating chapters, they bring to life the cultural and institutional restraints that prevent Black men from living their best lives, along with the changes needed in both white and Black communities for them to move from post-traumatic stress to post-traumatic growth.
Vance poignantly chronicles his childhood, athletic and academic prowess at Harvard and Yale, fears and longings about his success on Broadway and beyond, and describes what it felt like to be both objectified and celebrated as a Black man making a name for himself. A husband and father now married to acclaimed actress Angela Bassett, he is living proof that Black men can heal from deep emotional wounding and go on to thrive beyond their wildest dreams.
He shares his pain caused by the unexpected suicides of his father, whom he “loved deeply but felt he hardly knew” and, decades later, his beloved, troubled godson. He credits his mother for pushing him into therapy initially to grieve and make sense of his father’s untimely death and get his own inner world in order. Because of this life-changing experience, he has gone public with his story in the hopes that other Black men will find their way into therapy and out of pain as he did whenever he needed it.
Smith provides a clinical perspective and broader social commentary on the emotional lives of Black men based on decades of treating them and their families. She writes eloquently as a Black woman about the “resilience it has taken to survive in a nation that literally once regarded us as animals, breaking our bodies for capital, stealing our children, and brutalizing us for sport. Black men,” she explains, “are consumed by a definition of themselves imposed by others”—violent, shameful, criminal, unworthy, lazy, incompetent, and dangerous—and suffer intensely from “constantly being eyed with suspicion.”
Vance and Smith describe how Black men protect themselves in a racist society: by living either on offense or defense, clinging to a hyper-masculine persona or squelching their natures and desire to fit in, especially in the company of whites but also with other Black people. Straddling two worlds, they end up posturing in both Black and white company, cloaking their vulnerabilities and living in fear of dropping either mask and exposing their true (unacceptable) selves. The ongoing stress of acting a part disconnects them from who they really are and from others, leaving them to struggle alone with their rage and frustration.
Mincing no words about the traumatic history of Black people in this culture, Smith describes the emotional transactions of Black men and women: how Black women try to ease the suffering of their men by “walking beside them and lifting them up”; the toll loneliness, self-denial, and depression takes on them; and how they protect themselves by sometimes withdrawing from or lashing out in frustration at Black men.
Smith lays out how psychotherapy can transform the lives of Black men suffering from depression, anxiety, suicidality, shame, despair, self-loathing, and self-destructive habits. Validating their chronic emotional ache, she explains how they can learn to feel self-love and compassion in spite of their imperfections, let go of resentment and regret, trust others and themselves, and parent their sons more wisely than they were parented.
Together Vance and Smith debunk the myths that “therapy is only for white folks” and “prayer is enough.” While validating Black men’s mistrust of this country’s health care system, the authors present psychotherapy as a tool (along with prayer) for finding peace of mind; a constructive alternative to abusing substances to manage fear, rage, depression and despair; a chance to feel seen and heard; an opportunity to value and practice intimacy with others; and a safe space to discover their purpose in life and learn essential life skills, especially for self-care.
The book explores social justice issues such as the built-in biases against Black men in our judicial system and the increasing public violence against them as they go about their business. Vance urges Black men to seek out positive Black male role models and mentors and has availed himself to mentor many of them individually and collectively. He cautions against their succumbing to the Imposter Syndrome in which Black men succeed but still feel like failures, and encourages them to acknowledge and name their hurt, “rebound and pivot,” (a tactic he used as a successful high school and college athlete), and band together to heal their wounds and move forward.
Along with being a resource guide for programs and organizations that support Black men’s mental health, The Invisible Ache is an inspiring story of what they can achieve personally and professionally when they have the tools and support necessary to examine their pain and find their joy. Vance is determined to spread the word, his lived truth: “To be vulnerable is to be strong . . . to embrace yourself, holes and all, is the mission of your soul.” This profound advice speaks not only to Vance’s fellow Black men but to all humankind.