clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

A’ja Wilson expands understanding of mental health for Black women

From the outside, A’ja Wilson’s past year seems incredible. Not long after the 2020 WNBA MVP led the Las Vegas Aces to the WNBA Finals, the University of South Carolina honored her with a statue. Yet, as she shared in an essay in The Players’ Tribune, things were more complicated. Her revelations help to expand the conversation about mental health, especially for Black women.

WNBA Finals - Game Two
2020 WNBA MVP A’ja Wilson.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

In 1979, Black feminist Michele Wallace introduced her critique of the myth of the Black superwoman. As summarized by Gabby Bess for Vice in 2015, the Black superwoman is “exempt from weakness and pain,” possessing “an inordinate amount of strength that outpaces that of white women and even most men.”

When applauding the efforts of WNBA players, there often is tendency to present them as Black superwomen. They are excellent athletes and expert activists. They are changing the game while saving the country. They can do it all.

Although intended to be laudatory, such overwrought depictions can trend toward dehumanizing, with praise for Black WNBA players’ power and poise working to mask the realness and messiness of their humanity.

With “Dear Black Women,” her most recent essay for The Players’ Tribune, Las Vegas Aces forward A’ja Wilson shares “the real A’ja,” exposing the myth of the Black superwoman while also expanding the understanding of mental health for Black women.

A’ja’s accomplishment and anguish

By the end of 2020, Wilson had emerged as the model WNBA player.

She was the MVP of the 2020 WNBA season. She took an Aces team missing two projected starters — Liz Cambage and Kelsey Plum — to the WNBA Finals. She was a member of the WNBPA’s Social Justice Council. She continued to grow her foundation. She was a founding member of More Than a Vote.

And, yes, she was memorialized on the grounds of her alma mater, with the University of South Carolina raising a statue to celebrate the player most responsible for elevating the Gamecocks’ women’s basketball program to perennial, preeminent power.

However, as Wilson declares, “I’ve had a hell of a couple months, y’all.”

As awareness of mental health has expanded in recent years, both in sports and beyond, it increasingly is understood that someone can be successful while also experiencing mental struggles. With that said, it still can be difficult to appreciate how deeply someone can be struggling when they are achieving such successes.

With her revelations, Wilson effectively captures the complicated coexistence of success and struggle.

Wilson writes:

I mean, what do I have to feel down about, really? I made it to my first WNBA finals. I got the MVP trophy. They even gave your girl a statue on the University of South Carolina campus. A statue. In bronze. On that campus. Forever.

She continues:

Inside the Wubble, I’d had basketball to focus on. Trying to get that title, trying to prove the doubters wrong about our team’s potential ... it was just all-consuming.... I kind of made myself numb to everything that was going on. I guess that was my way to compartmentalize basketball versus the anguish of the news that I was seeing on my phone. It was like I wasn’t fully processing the grief of it all. I was just … empty. Then, when I finally got out of that bubble and I was back in the real world, it was like something broke. The decompression led straight into depression.

The super humanity of A’ja Wilson

Wilson also addresses how the societal expectations imposed on and internalized by Black women — the Black superwoman ideals — made it difficult for her to accept and admit her mental challenges.

She shares:

But I didn’t tell a soul. I kept everything from my family, even my parents, because I didn’t want them to worry about me. As Black women, how many of us put on that mask every morning? Gotta be perfect! Gotta be smiling! Gotta be strong! As Black women, it’s like ... weakness? Weakness? We don’t got time for that!!!

Wilson further writes:

How many of us fall into that same pattern? I mean, I have this vision for myself that I feel like I have to meet — not as a basketball player, but as a Black woman in America. As A’ja. I feel like I need to handle every situation with grace and poise and positivity. I can’t let them catch me losing my cool, right? You know A’ja is gonna handle her business. Don’t worry about A’ja. A’ja’s good.

While Black WNBA players have been pedestaled as superwomen, the traits they are perceived to model, and are thus praised for, are those expected of all Black women in America. As she puts, “Gotta be perfect! Gotta be smiling! Gotta be strong!”

Yes, A’ja Wilson represents the best of what Black women can be in America. But she also experiences the burdens Black women endure in order to be seen as at their best.

By disclosing her struggles with depression, Wilson contributes to a needed adjustment of the impossible, mentally-taxing expectations imposed on Black women.

She explains:

I had to accept — no, no, no, I had to embrace — the fact that the real A’ja that I am on certain days isn’t the same A’ja that a commentator sees, or that a teammate sees, or that even my best friend sees. And that’s O.K.

She continues:

At the end of the day, there are different paths to greatness. And I feel like we don’t hear that message enough, especially as Black women. You can be vulnerable and still be the MVP. You can be vulnerable and still be the CEO. You can be vulnerable and still be in the White House. You don’t have to put the mask on every morning.

The impact of A’ja

By sharing her story of struggle, Wilson helps tweak of the narrative around Black women in sports. Nike’s most recent ad campaign also reflects this altered perspective. Prominently featuring Wilson, Nike celebrates Black women athletes with the tagline, “We Play Real.”

The ad closes with the words, “You thought history just made itself? Naw baby, this ain’t magic. This. This is the real thing.”

Wilson and her story also are “the real thing.”

Real. Messy. Complicated. Successful. Up. Down. Iconic. Emotional. Black women in America, athletes or not, also deserve to be a little bit of everything.