Often experienced but rarely theorized, black feminist activism can be exhausting and the emotional labor debilitating. Yet often in the name of being “good” and “strong” black women who are “down” for the cause and our people, we keep going even when it hurts. Doing so continues the legacy of domination by relentlessly caring for others at the expense of ourselves. To protect and preserve our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health as black women, we must ask: How can we repurpose our strength to lead and support demonstrations against social injustices without continually sacrificing our wellbeing? Focused on summer 2014, I explore how the aftermath of my mother's death and living amid the fires of Ferguson, MO—linked to the killing of Michael Brown—sparked the realization that self-care is critical for black feminist survival.
Saturday 9 August 2014. My cell phone rings just as the evening news comes on, I look down and see my older brother is calling. I answer with, “Hey! How you?” a greeting we use affectionately in memory of our grandmother. “Oh, fine and you?” he laughs back. I then see the breaking news icon at the bottom of the television screen and squint at the small print as a reporter comes into view. “You see Dad today?” my brother asks. “Yep,” I respond, “took him a few groceries, and thinking tomorrow if it's not too St. Louis-in-the-summer-hot-and-humid, I'll take him to lunch and get him out to walk a bit.” The words scrolling across the bottom of the screen indicate there was an officer-involved killing in the Canfield Green apartment complex in Ferguson. Behind the reporter, I see police cars and a crowd gathering around an area with yellow crime-scene tape. “Wow, looks like somebody's been killed in Ferguson,” I tell my brother. “Where?” he asks with surprise because in St. Louis, MO, where violence is reported daily, we do not hear often about gun violence in Ferguson, MO—a suburban area.
“Ferguson, you know by Northwoods, where Aunt Dot lived and whoa sounds like police did it,” I say moving closer to the television. “But that's nothing new, huh. Remember when you and the cousins all got drivers' licenses in the same year, our folks told y'all not to go the North County way, they knew you'd be stopped—a car full of big afros in the '70s meant black male trouble to the police over there.” “Guess it still does,” my brother sighs.
The next day, the evening news begins with more breaking news covering a much larger crowd gathered in the Canfield Green parking lot. People are outraged because Michael Brown, an eighteen-year-old high school graduate, was unarmed when he was shot by the officer in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day. People are also outraged by the racial dynamics—Brown is yet another young black male killed by a white male police officer. His body remained in the street for four hours, uncovered, disrespectfully on display while “processing” took place. In the crowd his mother stands silently, still and teary-eyed, disbelief shared by all around her that the son she nicknamed “Mike Mike”1 has been killed. The racialized protests began with quiet marching and chanting, but by nightfall they turned violent, and by mid-week, the Missouri National Guard had been called in to “control” crowds with armored vehicles, assault weapons, and tear gas. The network news repetitively opened with scenes of protestors, police, violence, and arrests. From my home across the Mississippi River, in Illinois, and up on a bluff, I can see smoke rising from the fires of Ferguson.
BLACK FEMINIST ACTIVISM BEFORE, DURING, AND AFTER THE FIRES OF FERGUSON
In the days and weeks following Brown's death, in the news and on Facebook I see faculty and students from Saint Louis University (SLU)—the institution where I have spent my twenty-year academic career, and which is located just twenty minutes from Ferguson. I recognize several of the students protesting, distributing water, and helping those hit with tear gas. Many are majoring in African American Studies—an academic program I spent thirteen years building after accepting the Director position in 2000 (the year I earned tenure). It was a small unit and a previous dean had proposed eliminating it. The new dean wanted to revive it, and after a national search, I was appointed. At that time there were only three certificate students, a half-time administrative assistant, and office space consisting of two rooms in the basement of a building—in the back, in the corner, in the dark—with literally half a window. When I stepped down in 2013, it was a thriving program; a major and a minor with joint appointed faculty in a very visible office suite. The program had also earned the respect of faculty and staff across campus.
Nurturing, growing, and establishing a program is vastly different than stepping into a program or department to keep the trains running. When building, one has to plan the routes, buy the tracks and see that they get laid; find folks to drive the train and ride the train; decide who gets priority; and ensure regular maintenance keeps everything running well. It requires ongoing negotiation, collaboration, advocacy, and yes, black feminist activism—particularly when it is an African American Studies program on a private university campus. I successfully created an interdisciplinary undergraduate program with an anticipated future—a space and place for black students not only to survive, but also to thrive; black students who felt ignored, dismissed, and devalued at our elite, predominantly white, institution. I was successful even in years when other departments faced cuts. I worked endlessly because I was “down” for my people; I “did the darn thing” and—albeit rewarding—the emotional labor was exhausting.
In summer 2014, I was also still adjusting to life without my mother; her death in 2012 had left me emotionally raw. Months after she died, my father's health began to decline, and now my brothers and I were caretaking another parent with chronic illness and negotiating a healthcare system that lacked commitment to “care.” In combination with my activist endeavors at SLU, I found my familial emotional labor absolutely overwhelming and sometimes debilitating. I also found myself thinking about my own mortality and how I wanted to live my life. Not having done so for years, I wanted to practice self-care for good health and to nurture my relationships to sustain me for whatever time I have left. Watching our elders leave us, my cousin Jesse Jr. reminded me, “We're the old people now.” Recalling how our parents went from healthy, vibrant, and energetic to slowly moving shells of their former selves, silenced by strokes and sadness, I began to wonder if it was too late for lifestyle changes that might add years to my life. More importantly, what intentional choices might support remaining years filled with joy, pleasure, passion, and productivity?
As I watched the reports from Ferguson, I thought about how I might partake in some way, perhaps on the periphery as opposed to in the thick of it. Watching, I felt like a failed black woman because I was unable to garner the historically bequeathed strength black women are always “supposed” to have, unable to embrace the words of the Negro Spiritual “I Don't Feel No Ways Tired.”2 I was heavy with fatigue and imagined that if I were to find myself in the crowd the pain would overtake me. I also feared unleashing bereaved rage—either at police or at those committed to opportunities for violence. My stomach tightened when I thought of where such rage might take me—both emotionally and physically. In the initial days of protests, I cried and characterized myself as weak, uncaring, and uncommitted. When several colleagues and my partner reminded me that academic labor was indeed activism and that I should never doubt that I was truly “down for my people,” their support facilitated self-forgiveness. Forgiving myself meant admitting I was not, and did not need to be, a superhuman black woman with a boundless supply of strength. Sitting with this, I decided it was also time to forgive myself for years of not loving myself enough to say when being strong for everyone else but myself was just too much.
During this time, I realized that choosing self-care is also an embodiment of black feminism that humanizes black women. I gave myself permission not to immerse myself into the fires of Ferguson. I was too tired and I hurt too much. Metaphorically, it felt as if my heart was in meltdown; exposed, vulnerable, and visible to all while I allowed myself to exhale—at last. It was so hard to admit that I needed to stay home and heal. As black women, we often feel obligated to answer every call to activism and to literally put our bodies on the line for others—no matter what, no matter how long, and no matter how deep our pain. We are the keepers of the community, othermothers as described by Patricia Hill Collins,3 and the key to black folks' survival. Angela Davis's discussion of the realities of slavery provides an understanding of black women's survival and strength-as-resistance:
Even as she was suffering under her unique oppression as female, she was thrust by the force of circumstances into the center of the slave community… . Not all people have survived enslavement; hence her survival-oriented activities were themselves a form of resistance. Survival, moreover, was the prerequisite for all higher levels of struggle.4
Growing the African American Studies program at my institution was my form of resistance and contribution both to the survival of the black students seeking support, solidarity, and solace and to a still-marginalized academic discipline. I believe that my work was “hard but holy”—a self-mantra I invoked often when the emotional labor felt too heavy and I wondered why I continued. “Holy” not in a religious sense, but sacred in that it mattered to me profoundly that important work be done—and that I find the strength to do it.
After losing my mother I became emotionally fragile—a word I had never attributed to myself. “I am a hardy woman” was another self-mantra to communicate my boundless strength to others. I learned how to be strong as a black woman from my mother, and the other strong black women in my extended family and community. No one I saw there was fragile. In hindsight, I see now that no one was outwardly fragile. I have always prided myself in being strong—often ascribing it to not being “tender headed.” As a black girl, not being “tender headed” speaks to developing an endurance for pain after my cries during hair-combing were met with Mama's ire and physical smacks to silence and still me so she could finish. Extending this childhood lesson into adulthood, I learned to minimize discomfort and tolerate it. I learned not to cry and to remain silent to avoid even more pain.
Distinctly different from the majority of my ideologically imposed and self-ascribed strong-black-woman life, losing my mother was a turning point at which I decidedly learned how to channel my emotional fragility into new ways of being a black feminist activist. Currently deconstructing and challenging this myth of black women as superhuman, or “de mules uh de world,”5 is the foundation of my scholar–activism. The strong black woman is one of several controlling images discussed by Collins, Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, and Sheri Parks,6 and I argue that embodying this particular controlling image negatively impacts black women's physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual health. Melissa V. Harris-Perry reminds us that identifying as a strong black woman is a redefinition of black womanhood to resist other controlling images such as the mammy, jezebel, and sapphire; however, she also offers, “[w]hen black women are expected to be super-strong, they cannot be simply human. What begins as empowering self-definition can quickly become a prison.”7
The strength to endure pain, hardships, and tribulations often functions as a badge of honor for black women. Conversely, drawing from my lived experiences, I am advocating for that revered strength to be repurposed for self-care. Black women can be black feminist activists and take the time we need and deserve to heal, replenish, and rejuvenate. We can be simultaneously strong and fragile. I can now say without shame or embarrassment or apology that in the name of self-care and survival, I stayed away from the Ferguson protests because I knew the pain would be too much to bear at that point in my life. I knew I needed to mourn and heal before I could go forward. Black feminist activism in all forms is exhausting, and therefore self-care should be embraced and encouraged in the realm of praxis. As Audre Lorde reminds us, “[c]aring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”8
In the aftermath of the fires of Ferguson, I have witnessed black women mediating, facilitating, and educating via discussions and protests linked to #BlackLivesMatter, police brutality, injustice, and racial progress. If we choose to participate, again—and again—and again—and again—self-care is critical for our sustainability, and black women must insist upon having the time to engage in self-care. Likewise, those who call and draw upon our resources and abilities to mediate, facilitate, and educate should also be respectful of and foster opportunities for self-care such as sleep, exercise, meditation, massage, yoga, periods of silence, and breaking bread with those who need only our presence.
For those who believe, as I did not too long ago, that self-care is an indulgence for after the work is done (as if it ever will be), bell hooks reminds us: “Black female self-recovery, like all black self-recovery, is an expression of a liberatory political practice… . choosing “wellness” is an act of political resistance.”9 Black feminist thought provides a compelling theorization of how we got to where we are with black women's self-care barely registering as an option or necessity via dominant constructions of black womanhood.10 Our role is to do for others: labor, prosper, entertain, revere, serve, and yes, even save. And for all of that—strength is mandated. Although rarely theorized, the liberatory practice of black feminist thought demands self-care if we are to protect and preserve that strength.
Almost two years after the fires of Ferguson, I remain committed to self-care, recovery, and healing from loss. I am learning to live without my mother amid witnessing the ongoing trauma of race, racism, and whiteness in a society that maintains a story of “democracy and freedom” while reinforcing a racialized narrative of “less than” to dehumanize “Others.” I hurt, I grieve, I mourn—and I now admit it. I have realized that to do so does not make me weak; rather, doing so requires and exemplifies great strength. My black feminist activism continues in the halls of the academy—in my courses, curricula, committee work, and research—and it is tiring because it is hard, soulful work. However, each time I call upon the legacy of black women's strength to support liberatory work for my people, I also prioritize going silent, getting still, and giving myself permission to take care of me.