Photo Credit: Ayo Ogunseinde
By Emelda De Coteau
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” -Audre Lorde
I put myself last too often. Still. Even after all the reading about self-care and self-love. Maybe you do, too? As women, particularly women of color, we are socialized to place everyone’s needs above our own. Slowly as I close my eyes, memories drifting back to childhood, I see the women of my church community serving men food first. Early, I learned, you come after him. Swallow your comfort, your feelings, your truth…
Many of us camouflage deep wounds every day; we get up, slip on our masks and go. No one hears our cries in the bathroom or teeth grinding at night from stress. Choices about emotional health and wellbeing are for other women – you know, those not carrying single motherhood, financial strain, hectic work schedules, or a towering myth of superwoman on their backs.
Yes. Radical self-love and self-care are doubly hard for African-American women. But why? And how can we cultivate these practices, particularly during a Trump presidency and the subsequent resurgence of overt racism? The answers to many of these questions are rooted in our willingness to grapple with and understand the past as it undoubtedly shapes our present.
Historical Trauma & It’s Impact on Communities of Color
Marisela Gomez, public health physician, community activist, mindfulness practitioner and director of Social Health Concepts and Practice, identifies what African Americans are dealing with as historical trauma, which occurs when an entire population is impacted by an atrocity. Initially, research began with Native American and Jewish communities, Gomez tells me and has since expanded to include African Americans, whose ancestors were enslaved, and Japanese Americans, who suffered within internment camps on U.S. soil after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She says what distinguishes this type of trauma is its multigenerational nature. “It could have been four generations ago or one generation ago, but it still has an effect now in the body or mind of a person…”
One of the effects of consistently battling trauma and stereotypes is doing so subconsciously and in varied ways, such as African-American women’s relationship to work. Modern American culture throws the lazy, welfare queen label at us with ease and in retaliation, we labor twice as hard. According to Fortune magazine, “the number of businesses owned by African-American women [has grown] 322% since 1997.”
Writing in Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self Recovery, bell hooks tell readers: “In part, these generations of southern black people were so desperate to let the racist white world know that they were not ‘lazy’ that they were compulsive about work… The compulsive need we see in our Mom always to be busy, never to be resting (she has high blood pressure) is disturbing. And yet many of us have adopted a similar pattern. We do not know when to quit.”
Perhaps it’s why Cranes In The Sky, Solange’s ode to the mix of despair, angst and frustration women of color experience, stayed at the top of folks playlists for months. She expressed through song what we feel, and all too often absorb as normal, this longing to escape. “I tried to work it away, she sings softly, “but that just made me even sadder. I ran around in circles, think I made myself dizzy… I tried to run it away, thought then my head be feeling clearer..”
Moving Beyond Trauma – The Radical Action of Loving and Caring For Ourselves
Self-care, authentically loving ourselves, standing in clarity about our identities, these are all radical acts in a culture intent on destroying us. Yet how do we live all of this out? Well, one of the first ways is acknowledging the depth of feelings we experience daily – sorrow, anger, joy, pain, etc. – as valid. Far too often, we convince ourselves there is no time to feel; we must keep going for everyone else, but silencing our voices merely holds us captive. I hear the words of Audre Lorde deep within my spirit: “Your silence will not protect you.” Our invisible scars merely morph into different forms.
Gomez says this manifests itself mentally (sadness, anger, rage, anxiety, etc.) and physically, with African-American and Latina women having higher rates of autoimmune diseases such as lupus. She sees stress linked to historical trauma as the focal point in many ailments, as women hold all of this in our bodies leading to issues with digesting food properly, weight gain, diabetes, and hormonal imbalances, directly impacting our immune systems.
Despite these struggles, African-American women, particularly in my generation and younger are resisting, holding space for self-care and radical self-love. I bear witness to their wisdom peeking out from Instagram posts, and other online spaces, including blogs and podcasts such as Black Girl In Om and Happy Black Woman. And I am particularly encouraged by this willingness to grapple with how self-care guards our hearts in diverse spaces, from toxic social media posts to the daily micro-aggressions we fight.
Drea Davis, beauty and lifestyle blogger writes, “Knowing how to maintain a balance between staying informed and practicing self-care is vital in these trying times. I stay aware of what’s going on around me without overloading to the point of overwhelm. Along with reading my bible and staying prayed up; I read, write, listen to music, spend time with friends + family, and whatever else I can to keep my mental, spiritual, physical and emotional health intact. The key is showing up for yourself so that you can be a powerful voice and source of strength for others as well. We need each other out here now more than ever.” Her guide for self care gives us concrete ways to remain in tune with our bodies, minds and spirits.
Kira Lynae, blogger and founding member of Black Womyn Rising, a radical intergenerational organizing collective for black womyn and girls based in Baltimore, looks to the past while grounding herself in the present. She says: “Lately, my self-care practice has taken root in “Sankofa” or the Ghanian tradition of looking back, beholding the past as keeper of lessons, advice, inspiration, etc. to ground yourself in for the present. I have returned to the letters, diary entries, essays, poems, lectures and notes of Black womyn from the 19th century to make sense of and re-imagine my life and the lives of all Black folk. I carry their spirits beyond the page, holding them in body as I dance to Black music, concoct herbal and oil blends for my hair and skin and write poetry.”
Community and activism are a way Lenora Knowles, another founding member Black Womyn Rising and PhD candidate at the University of Maryland College Park, honors herself: “My self-care practices these days include doing direct action (which for me is an embodied practice of resistance done in community) – it reminds me that I’m not alone and brings awareness to my body. In addition, I enjoy dancing to my disco and funk albums, deep breathing, hanging with my sista friends, connecting to nature (especially natural bodies of water and trees) having my partner give me head massages, spending time/building my altar, reading women of color feminist writings, and reflecting through my own journaling.”
Within these beautiful sisters’ rituals, I see reflections of my own – loving myself through connecting with the legacy of those women who preceded me, while also remaining committed to creating change in the present day.
Photo Credit: Shifaz Huthee
Here are three simple core practices I use to cope and come into a greater consciousness:
Unplug Regularly – Constantly reading news stories or scrolling through Twitter, Facebook or Instagram is something I stopped doing this summer. Nearly daily I found my emotions oscillating between intense sadness and rage. Instead, I now channel my work into community activism and of course, writing – journaling, blogging and freelance writing projects.
Mediation & Prayer – Usually in the afternoon when my daughter is napping I close my eyes for at least 5-10 minutes and mediate, breathing in and out, and then I pray and read bible verses. The breathing in and out centers my body in space, while through prayer, I come into a deeper relationship with God.
Establishing Boundaries – It has taken me years, but I am learning to say no. No, what you are asking me to take on is too much. No, I need space and time to breathe. No, at this moment, I am not ingesting all that information. Establishing personal boundaries is an essential piece of self-care.
There is so much pulling at us simultaneously. Part of caring for ourselves means holding sacred space amid the noise and distractions. As I neared the end of my conversation with Marisela she emphasized that daily meditation need not be elaborate, but can begin with setting aside a small area in your home, marking it with a photo or other object, shutting your eyes and breathing in and out for five minutes.
“Your body and mind start to respond,” she told me, citing the work of Dr. Herbert Benson author of The Relaxation Response, who found the amount of cortisol changes in our bloodstream by consistently practicing deep breathing. Increasingly scientific research shows mindfulness and meditation help with depression, eating disorders and PTSD, among other conditions.
After our chat, I reflected on how beginning to love and care for the self not only liberates us but our families and communities, birthing healing able to touch generations. Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “black women are the mules of the world.” It’s time you and I changed this narrative beginning with how we see ourselves – as worthy of love, care, beauty and light.
Audio link with meditation → Listen here
Emelda De Coteau is a loving wife, mama, creative, and believer seeking God anew in each moment. She is the founder of the inspirational and faith blog, Live In Color. Emelda is a columnist for Beautifully Said Magazine, founder of #WomenCreativesChat, an online community, contributing writer and networking media ambassador for Pretty Entrepreneur, a supportive network for women in business, blogger at Positivity Warriors, and founding member of Black Womyn Rising, a radical organizing collective for Black womyn and girls.