Lee Thompson Young, tabloid reporters, and traditional religions

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 25, 2013 — 12 Comments

On August 19th, Lee Thompson Young, a television actor who starred in the police procedural Rizzoli & Isles, was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Lee Thompson Young

Lee Thompson Young

“We are beyond heartbroken at the loss of this sweet, gentle, good-hearted, intelligent man. He was truly a member of our family. Lee will be cherished and remembered by all who knew and loved him, both on- and offscreen, for his positive energy, infectious smile and soulful grace. We send our deepest condolences and thoughts to his family, to his friends and, most especially, to his beloved mother.”Official statement from the TNT cable channel.

When a young person with a promising career kills themselves, a natural instinct is to ask why this has happened. Sadly, E! News decided to make wrong-headed and ignorant speculation based on Young’s religious practices.

“Those close to Young noticed things ‘really changed’ a few years ago when he began practicing Yorùbá, an Africa-based religion which has a saying, “iku ya j’esin”, meaning  ‘death is preferable to ignominy.’ Some have questioned whether this means that suicide is an acceptable way to preserve personal or family honor in the face of public shame.  However, Yorùbá culture icon and Chief Priest of Osogbo, Araba Ifayemi Osundagbonu Elebuibon, told the National Mirror earlier this year that the religion ‘[does] not support suicide. Their belief is that if somebody commits suicide, they will be punished in the hereafter.’ The Famous Jett Jackson star ‘took [his religion] to the next level and started wearing white all of the time,’ says a source, adding, ‘This religion was everything to him.’  Although he reportedly took a break from practicing Yorùbá, he recently returned to the religion. Just before his death, he visited a small village in Africa for something reportedly related to the religion.”

E! News, being a gossip tabloid, obviously went for the “weird religion” angle, complete with anonymous sources. Amazingly, they went with it even though they partially debunk their own theory. This prompted pop-culture/celebrity/fashion blogger Luvvie to blast E! for the irresponsible and ignorant assertions made.

“Yoruba is not a religion. Let’s get that straight out of the gate. Yoruba is the name of a people; Yoruba is a language; Yoruba is culture. Yoruba people are MY people and that’s MY tongue and that’s MY culture. Yoruba is NOT a religion! […] Ifá is the traditional religion that you probably meant, but assuming that a majority of Yoruba people practice it is incredibly pinhole-minded. Just like we speak different dialects of the language, our beliefs are diverse. Us Yorubas are a religious people and most of us practice Christianity or Islam. Even if Lee was practicing Ifa, he would not be encouraged to take his own life. So let me shut this line of reasoning down now. I’m so upset that it even comes up!”

Clutch Magazine picked up on the story and added that “when covering a topic as sensitive as a man’s death, there is no place for cultural insensitivity and ignorance.” Both Clutch and Luvvie noted that a subsequent clarifying update to the story was not sufficient, and the E! News writer apologized and says she wants to dialog with Luvvie about the issue. That dialog must have been successful, because a followup report on Young’s funeral service was far more accurate and sensitive to the subject.

“Young’s practice of the West African religion Ifa was also highlighted throughout. Dancers dressed all in white performed to the beat of live drum music and the actor’s former karate teacher entered the room ahead of Young’s mother, writer Velma Love, blessing the ground in front of her as she walked in. Some of the mourners were dressed all in white, too, as a nod to Young’s Ifa practice.”

The ray of light in all of this is that some education was able to happen, and the story of Young’s death was not further tarnished by lurid speculation into religions the reporters don’t understand. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream news sources still treat indigenous and traditional religious practices from the African continent, and the faiths that they helped spawn, as suspect or primitive. I hold out hope that some promising signs of increasing interest will yield more understanding and respect.  As for Lee Thompson Young, my deepest condolences go out to his friends and family. What is remembered, lives.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

Posts