Health Hero: Healing Our Community With Affirmation and Empowerment

Yolo Akili’s new book, Dear Universe, can help transform your soul.

The state of African-Americans’ mental health — regardless of gender, sexual orientation and gender expression — isn’t as stable as it should be. According to the Office of Minority Health, African-Americans are 20 percent more likely to suffer from serious psychological distress compared to whites.

And whether this break is due to poverty, past trauma, homophobia, lack of access to health care, unemployment, or stress and unsafe neighborhoods, it’s clear that we all need to heal. One man determined to improve our mental health is Yolo Akili. His new book, Dear Universe: Letters of Affirmation and Empowerment ($9.99, Micheal Todd Books), fuses self-empowerment, humor and social justice to help his readers navigate their emotional and spiritual path. sat down with Akili to talk about what inspired his book, why Black men need to tap into their emotional health and why Dear Universe is for everyone.

What inspired Dear Universe?

There was a period in my life when it seemed like everything was falling apart. I left a job I loved and moved from Atlanta to New York City, a place that was alien to me. I was really depressed and was struggling to figure things out, so I took to writing things down in a journal.

And it’s so ironic because before I moved to New York, I had spent years working with therapists and counselors facilitating support groups for all types of African-American men (batterers, gay and bisexual men, men living with HIV/AIDS) and here I was, forgetting all of the things that I had learned doing that work. And so journaling was a way to rediscover that knowledge. And when I started to feel better, I looked at all of these letters and was like, "This would make a good book!"

From there, I took these letters and tweaked them to better convey the messages of self-love and empowerment.

What’s really great about the book is that it’s humorous and speaks to me in the language that I can relate to.

I’m a Southern boy and most of the spiritualism I got was from my family members. So I wanted for that Black vernacular to come through, especially since that voice isn’t reflected in the self-help, new age literature. A lot of what I read is so inaccessible for a lot of people, therefore I wanted Dear Universe to be humorous and talk to people in a relatable way and have fun with spirituality. Like I wrote, the universe really is you, your mama and your cousin Pookie.

Can people of different faiths consume your book?

This book is for anyone, regardless of where you are in the religious spectrum. Now granted, there are going to be things that people may feel that they can’t do or will be challenging, and that’s OK. You take away what you can, but you won’t walk away feeling like you are stepping away from your faith.

And so far, readers from all different faiths have told me how much they love the book and want to buy it for their mother, father, cousin and friends. And it’s this communal healing that embodies what Dear Universe is about. It’s meant to be shared with loved ones and talked about.

When we talk about emotional health, it tends to focus solely on women. Why is it important to engage Black men in improving their mental and emotional health?

For way too long, Black men have been told that emotional and spiritual health isn’t an important part of who we are. And we are definitely living the consequences of believing that. We buy into these ideas of masculinity and who we are supposed to be as men. So many of us hide our emotions or the only emotions we express are anger and manipulation.

When I facilitated support groups, I saw first hand the depths of the emotional trauma that Black men face and how we suffer in silence. One man, who was 50, admitted that he had no one to talk to about his feelings, not even his wife. And so think about all of those years of never speaking your truth and how that builds and builds. It’s not a wonder why men self-medicate, or are checked out emotionally or shut down when they can't provide the way they want to for their family. Where can they go to express themselves and talk things out without being ridiculed?

In order for us to have the families and the communities that we want, we have to believe that doing that inner work is crucial to our well-being.

Read more about Akili and Dear Universe here.

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(Photo: Courtesy of Yolo Akili)

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