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Bicyclist in a red jacket pauses outside Oakland City Hall in front of a AfroComicCon sign.

AfroComicCon promotes support, healing: ‘The power of narrative therapy is that you get to rewrite your story.’

on September 20, 2023

Mental health might not be the first thing that comes to mind at a comic book convention. But on Sunday, the seventh annual AfroComicCon at Oakland City Hall featured a lively panel of artists and therapists discussing safe mental health spaces.

Sitting at a bench typically reserved for politicians, marriage and family therapist Perry Clark argued that comics have been “vilified as escapism.” For some people, he said, “reality sucks.” Relating to worlds like Wakanda — the futuristic home of Marvel Comics’ character Black Panther — can help people cope with harsh realities. 

“The power of narrative therapy is that you get to rewrite your story,” said Isabelle Darling, a social worker for refugees, immigrants, and survivors of torture who was in the audience. Dressed up as the character Storm from “X-Men,” she said, “I feel that comic books and gaming allow the reader and the player to be able to see themselves outside of the box that they are told they’re supposed to stay in and, for me, that’s healing.”

Isabelle Darling poses in white suit and long white hair as Storm from X-Men, with Tony Veritas dressed in white mask, black hoodie and orange flack jacket.
Isabelle Darling as Storm from X-Men, with Tony Veritas at AfroComic Con (Nicole J. Caruth)

Co-founded by Oakland resident and educator Michael James, AfroComicCon welcomes upwards of 8,000 people every year, from toddlers to seniors. However, panelists throughout the day emphasized supporting Black youth.

According to the American Psychological Association, Black youth experiences in the United States can put them at risk for suicide, depression, and other mental health problems. Yet barriers to care, which include stigmas, affordability, and accessibility, prevent them from receiving treatment. In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control found that suicide rates among Black adolescents aged 10-24 had increased 36% since 2018.

In recent years, the concept of intergenerational trauma — when the effects of trauma are passed down between generations — has been popularized by the self-help industry and best-selling books like “The Body Keeps the Score” and “My Grandmother’s Hands.” Instead of focusing on traumatic experiences, Darling says we should ask youth: “What would heal you?” 

Sekayi Edwards, the founder of Hidden Quest, a virtual therapy practice for geeks, creatives, and spiritual seekers, uses geek culture to understand his clients’ sense of self. Conversations about the mythical worlds they enjoy help to identify strengths they might be able to amplify in real life, he said.

Not all geek spaces are therapeutic. Several panelists cautioned against online spaces that reflect the racial problems of the real world. Los Angeles-based artist Natasha Lee shared her story of teenage rejection by a player in Star Wars Galaxies who learned she was Black. “I never was my true self in any space after that,” she said.

Vanessa Stubblefield in a black T-shirt she designed with the word 'blerd' in white stands beside a table of her T-shirts for sale.
Vanessa Stubblefield Vanessa Stubblefield from Nashville sells her clothing line at AfroComicCon in Oakland. (Nicole J. Caruth)

Enthusiastic crowds enjoyed performances by rap veterans Suga-T and Yo-Yo as part of the companion Art and Soul Festival. Vendors lined the street with tables, selling everything from earrings and Dutch wax fabrics to garlic fries and jerk chicken. 

“Jurassic Park” fan Vanessa Stubblefield traveled to Oakland from Nashville to sell her new clothing line and meet like-minded people. “It’s such a cool thing to belong to something and be around a group of people who don’t think what you’re doing is weird,” said Stubblefield, who recalled being bullied in her youth for being Black and a nerd (also called a “blerd”). Today she embraces this identity through her brand Planet Blerd Tees.

“Being able to tap into what gives you pleasure publicly with others who are doing the same thing, you can’t help but increase your mental health, your mental acuity,” said Shawn Taylor, founder of Nerds of Color. “That’s why I think AfroComicCon and other Black comic and art conventions are so important.”

1 Comment

  1. malindawilliams on December 20, 2023 at 11:49 pm

    A question from geometry dash subzero: How can I support Black youth in my community?

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