Just ten years ago, Olympic champion Kamara James was poised to do for the sport of épée fencing what Venus and Serena Williams accomplished for tennis: blast through the aristocratic gauze surrounding the field, color up its reputation and open the floodgates of inner city brown kids who might popularize the sport in the general public eye…
So how did Kamara James, at 29, wind up mysteriously deceased in her U.S. apartment with her last years on Earth clouded by mental illness, presumed schizophrenia, poverty and homelessness?
Kingston, Jamaica-born Kamara James defied the odds her single-parent household birth and family’s later New York City migration set for her. At age 11, she found The Peter Westbrook Foundation. African-American Olympic fencing medalist Peter Westbrook began the foundation to redirect children from the streets of New York and certain poverty or gang membership. Kamara went from dodging bullets and boredom in school to displaying prodigious gifts in academic brilliance and the sport of épée. By several reports (and her own admission), her relationship to her family frayed steadily even as she ascended. She never knew her father. Her stepfather died when she was young. Despite the broken homes, Kamara stayed driven.
Starting at age of 16, she was a member of the U.S. Senior National Women’s Team in épée fencing (i.e. sword fighting). After a prestigious Manhattan private school recruited her for high school, she went to Princeton University on full academic scholarship. She majored in religion. In 2003, she won a bronze medal in the Junior Olympics. Then, she competed in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics. She earned a bronze medal in women’s épée. Kamara seemed poised for endorsements, television commercials and global recognition most athletes of any race can only dream of— let alone a Black woman in an invisible sport.
But friends and loved ones maintain here is where Kamara sadly began to shift. By her senior year at Princeton, she had been hospitalized for the months with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She still graduated on time and with honors after her absence. She celebrated acceptance to Harvard University for graduate school studies in religion. However, she drifted in and out of optimal mental health until friends reported she wandered the streets of New York City emaciated, incoherent, sad and troubled. She ended her love affair with fencing, the very partner who had afforded her esteemed pedigree and worldwide travel. Finally in 2014, her recuperative move to California ended in her death.
What happened to Kamara?
“Hysteria,” that vague and nebulous early twentieth century blanket diagnosis set to describe any displeasing and overt female emotions, excluded Black women. We are supposed to be “Strong.” It may appear to be a blessing when white faces more likely appear as the poster children for prescription antidepressants and emotional episodes caused by overwhelming stress. However Black women’s reputations for resilience and emotional strength sometimes belie our fragility as human beings. We also have very strong emotional and mental reactions to the challenging worlds around us. We need care to manage the effects on our psyche racist worlds demand. We do not talk about mental health as readily and easily as others. We must start.
Family, loved ones and teammates have remained silent or commendably private about the exact circumstances of Kamara’s passing. The United States Olympic Team released a brief and perfunctory announcement of her death in mid-October. All tributes since then have focused on Kamara’s extraordinary talents and athletic gifts. What remains for the worldwide population who never truly got to know this spectacular athlete, and Black women who wonder how we lost a Serena or Venus, is a reality check about mental health.
Accolades aside, some level of outstanding emotional and mental orientation guided Kamara away from the destiny so many wanted for her. It could have been pressure; many Black overachievers, especially the women who are expected to nurture others instead of going after our own dreams, become paralyzed and crippled by survivor’s guilt when faced with new and demanding audiences who come after our higher achievements. Surely, Kamara was aware of the enormous expectations set upon her. Perhaps her version of the “stage fright” many performers and public figures experience was to scramble her thoughts so far beyond herself she forgot she was an Olympic medalist, intelligent Ivy League graduate and renowned woman who had options.
I wish so many more had embraced Kamara and told her: “You’re good.”
One thing Black people need to change, and soon, is the comedic stance and hostile stigma of therapy. Too many of us grow up hearing rumors or gossip about people who “cracked up,” a disgrace seen as often more weak and shameful than being on crack. Even in educated and business-oriented Black families and networks, distrust of authorities and pressure to keep signs of weakness “in the family” prevent us from seeking counseling when we are down, out, grieving, mourning or just seeking a little help.
I am not a doctor, just a Black woman who has had a therapist who became like a mother, best friend, teacher and partner all at once. I credit her with helping me transition through wild, confusing phases in my life and watching over me for over 6 years. And, this woman was White and twice my age. It did not matter. Care is care. Our relationship only ended when she relocated to a warmer place. I wish Kamara had found someone to watch over her.
What You Can Do:
- Do not dismiss feelings of sadness, fear or depression as passing moods. Talk to a peer or mentor if your feelings persist. Also, procure a regular therapist or life coach if need be. I do not advocate manufactured pharmaceuticals for emotional and spiritual challenges, however, a professional will be able to determine if medicine is something you actually medically may require.
- Reach out to female friends and family who appear withdrawn, upset or changed. Do not use social media. Call them for a real phone chat. Begin an email conversation. Send an encouraging card to let them know you’re here.
- Respect and honor any feelings you have which are not “happy” or “pleased.” You are human, and allowed the full range of emotions all humans experience.
- No matter your gender or ethnicity, find a young lady to mentor through the tricky road of achievement and success. Build her confidence and self-worth.
- Join a group or social circle exclusive to Black women, to feel comfortable speaking about such touchy subjects as discrimination and stereotypes with others who will most empathize and be able to share companion experiences.
- CELEBRATE who you are, all you have accomplished and everything about you that is unique and stamped as an attribute only you could have achieved. Build a wall against criticism from yourself or others to what is your full potential and your own personal best.
6 thoughts on “Real Talk: On The Loss of Olympian Kamara James and Black Women’s Mental Health”
Many thanks for this article, Kalisha! I am a sport historian and college professor, who teaches future teachers and focuses my research on African Americans. I teach my students about Peter Westbrook and his foundation each semester. I recalled hearing about the passing of Ms. James over 4 years ago and being saddened by the circumstances. Having lost a co-author in 2009, due to depression and mental illness, I have finally decided to research elite athletes who suffer from mental illness, and am looking into the life of Kamara Latoya James, a brilliant renaissance woman who left this earth too soon. As you have noted, getting help is imperative. Thank you again!
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Hello Susan, Thank you for reading about Kamara here and more importantly for doing something about her legacy. Here is an article in the NY Times about another brilliant athlete, who has seemed to get some help in time: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/25/sports/gracie-gold-figure-skating-.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage. Best wishes in your research! Many blessings, Kalisha
Excellent article speaking about mental illness.
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Thank you so much and I appreciate you reading about her. Blessings, Kalisha
Kalisha, Real talk indeed on a really neglected issue. This inspired me to reach out more to two sisters who I know are under incredible strain from a multitude of directions and with little external support. Sometimes just knowing that someone is genuinely interested can make a huge difference. Thank you.
Wow thank you for not just reading my piece, but more importantly for being inspired to check on those women. I do think love from other people makes a huge difference, and can never be taken for granted. Peace and many blessings, Kalisha