Just ten years ago, Olympic champion Kamara James was poised to do for the sport of epee fencing what Venus and Serena Williams accomplished for tennis: blast through the aristocratic gauze surrounding the field, color up its reputation and open up the floodgates of inner city brown kids who might popularize the sport in the general public eye. Epee is French word for ‘sword.’ It helms a sport typically associated with upper crust milieus…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 bullet dodging 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.
From the 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 to major 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 the dreams of 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 3 months with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. She 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,” right? 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 or untraceable stress. However Black women’s reputations for resilience and emotional strength sometimes belie our fragilities 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 these 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 women who are expected to nurture others instead of go 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.”
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 or 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.