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Harlem Community Mixes Serious Talk And Play At Celebration Of Don Cornelius’ Life

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Before the Harlem community got down to the business of challenging the Guinness World Book’s record for the longest soul train line on Thursday, July 12 at the amphitheater of Marcus Garvey Park, the hundreds of folks in attendance paid tribute to the man who made the soul train line a ubiquitous feature at black celebrations, Don Cornelius. Produced by Imagenation, the evening also included contributions from up and coming local singers, talks from social change agents on mental health, and a film screening.

Cornelius came to fame as the engine behind one of the longest-running black cultural products in television syndication around the United States and available in much of the black world globally, Soul Train. The program introduced via television significant artists from Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder to Al Green. These musicians and their ensembles were able to perform their hits live in the Soul Train studios. They were accompanied by acrobatic dancers –most with a unique fashion sense — who often shaped much of what would become popular street styles. As stated by many of the contributors in the documentary screening that closed the evening, VH-1’s “Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America,” this television program served as an affirmation to blacks in an America where they were still largely underrepresented in the public sphere.

Wellness Advice

Cornelius died, apparently by his own hand, on February 1 of this year. Terrie Williams, founder and principal of the Terrie Williams Agency, generously and transparently talked about her own challenges with mental health and encouraged the community to take control of its health, including “getting a check-up from the neck up.” Williams is the author of a 2009 book, “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting” from Scribner.  As she wrote in her book, “These days I use my visibility to talk about pain and how we mask it. Every time I step up to the microphone I ‘out’ myself as someone in pain. I do it because I know that by sharing my story, my fragility, insecurity, frailty, and woundedness, I liberate someone else to do the same.” According to Barnes and Noble, more than 165,000 copies of the book have been sold. The Terrie Williams Agency is a leading New York public relations firm that services clients including Janet Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Lionel Richie, Russell Simmonds, The Samuel Goldwyn Company’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn,”  and Simon and Schuster’s “Miles: The Autobiography” by Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe.

Williams was followed by Dionne Monsanto, a grieving mother who last year lost her 15 year-old daughter to suicide. Diagnosed at four years-old, the young girl wrestled with mental illness for much of her life. Monsanto recently started The Siwe Project — named after her daughter — to raise awareness about mental health issues in the global black community.

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month and several national organizations are using this month to highlight services and programs. According to a fact sheet from the National Alliance on Mental Health, people of color continue to receive less mental healthcare compared to their White counterparts.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a branch of the National Institute of Health (NIH), conducts research and disseminates information and resources on mental health. The NIMH lists the following conditions on its roster of mental health illnesses: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, autism, bi-polar Disorder, borderline personality disorder, depression, eating disorders, generalized anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, and social phobia.

ImageNation Cinema Foundation is a Harlem-based media arts organization, founded with the goal of establishing a chain of art-house cinemas, dedicated to progressive media by and about people of color. Through a variety of public exhibitions and programs, ImageNation fosters media equity, media literacy, solidarity, cross-cultural exchange and highlights the humanity of Pan-African people worldwide. Imagenation will soon open the first in their planned chain of art-house cinemas on Seventh Avenue , also known as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard, in Harlem. Imagenation recently screened the Jamaican documentary “Better Mus’ Come” at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater. “Restless City,” Andrew Dosunmu’s film on the tragic lives of new Americans from the African diaspora, was screened at AMC in Times Square.  

“Soul Train: The Hippest Trip in America” is 64-minute documentary directed by Amy Goldberg and J. Kevin Swain on the legendary TV series established by the late Don Cornelius. Cornelius was the principal architect responsible for a new era in Black expression. A trained journalist, Don created a media empire that provided an outlet for record labels and advertisers to reach a new generation of music fans.

Mental Health Resources

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has several resources to support individuals struggling with mental health issues. See http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/chi/chi26-9.pdf for a number of tools. Trained, culturally-competent professionals are available to support individuals needing care at Harlem Hospital Center which can be reached at (212) 939-3343. In Brooklyn, the Kings County Behavioral Health Center is available at (718) 245-3131. The Behavioral Health Center at Queens Hospital Center can be reached at (718) 883-3000. The Behavioral Health Center at North Central Bronx Hospital can be reached at (718) 519-5000. The City also offers a crisis intervention support-line at 1-800-LIFENET/1-800-543-3638; more details on LIFENET are available at http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/downloads/pdf/dmh/dmh-lifenet-brochure.pdf.

And just in case you’re curious, the crowd at Marcus Garvey Park easily surpassed the former Soul Train Line world record with more than 300 boogeying souls who bravely strutted their stuff on the Harlem line to the encouragement from hundreds of supporters in the bleachers on Thursday!

By Lavern McDonald

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