Self-Care for My Sisters: Letting the “Strong Black Woman” Rest

Self-care for black women

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It’s self-preservation…”
—Poet Audre Lorde

As a Black woman thinking about what’s been happening to others in our community, especially since the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, I’ve been walking around with a broken heart. I’ve been in what feels like continual face-to-face conversations with grief, confusion, weariness, wariness, anger and even despair.

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I thought I was better prepared to cope.  

During the first years of my life, I was brought up in racial segregation by women and men who nursed me on our Black tradition of hope, optimism, persistence and perseverance—women and men who taught me to believe in the “never before” because that is what faith is, how transcendence happens and how we overcome.

Like a lot of Black women, as a professional, caretaker to a child, partner to my spouse, attentive daughter and sibling, and sister in a sister-circle of friends, I’m connected to and care for a lot of people. Those relationships give richness and dimension to my life.

But they take work.

And, frankly, like a lot of us, I was invested in my image as a “strong Black woman.” The woman who never breaks, never halts, never gives in. Who works “twice as hard to get half the way.” I thought that I could keep right on walking with the weight of all that emotional turmoil getting heavier and heavier on my back.

But, like a lot of us, the emotional pressures of the last few years have come to bear and have taken a toll, sapping my personal power, wearing on my spirit and tapping my reserves of strength.

Melanin makes you beautiful. Rest makes you whole.

I needed to think about self-care in ways I had not before.  

What is self-care for Black women?

Everyone should practice self-care: taking an active role in finding and preserving our own well-being, health and happiness. But self-care for Black women is more than taking a yoga class (though that’s highly beneficial) or getting a pedicure (though we should definitely treat ourselves).

We should definitely work to eat better (finding healthy ways to lighten up our soul foods). And we should fight hard to get more rest and downtime, more time for just us while we work towards justice.

But there are yet other things that we, as Black women, need for wholeness, healing and health because of the experiences and demands of our lives. To be whole we must affirm for ourselves our worth in a world that doesn’t often see it.

Self-care means defining and naming ourselves and understanding our own value. To be safe we must be careful of how we are perceived and strategic about what we say and do. Self-care means finding or building a space where we can just be who we are without fear of judgement. To be included we must stand up for ourselves. Self-care means finding our voices and lifting them in defense of ourselves.

Not only do we deal with what being Black women means, but we stand between our children and the punishments of racism. We protect their little bodies and prepare their little souls to deal with the fact that unfair things will happen, untrue things will be said and unjust things must be faced just because of who they are.

That’s a lot.

Remember that sisters always work it out together.

Self-care calls for self-love and support for ourselves and our sisters.  

The power of prayer and the peace of meditation cannot be underestimated in Black self-care. They have sustained generations of us through struggles, both personal and societal—from unnamed enslaved women to Harriet Tubman, from unknown cooks in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ’60s to Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks, from unrecognized sisters working for social justice in the movement now to each one of us.

Like a lot of us, I have also found self-care in the oasis of our Black Sisterhood, relying on my sisters to understand my experience, support me in what I’m going through and uplift me in my time of need. Our Sisterhood is a literal lifesaver.

Things my sisters have said and done to save my soul.
Here are some things sisters in my circle have said to help me through the ugly-cry moments.

  • “Girl, I got you like I know you got me.”
  • “You don’t need to carry everything for everybody.”
  • “Find that next breath and take it. That’s all you have to do right now.”
  • “God’s got you and I do, too.”
  • “You don’t have to move the whole mountain. Just find a path upwards.”
  • “It’s a LOT. But you got a lot of love around you to help you through.”
  • “Girl, sit on down. For real. Sit. Breathe.”
  • “Let some things fix themselves, Sis.”
  • “You’ve got one body. Listen to it talk.”
  • “Take yourself off the backburner, Babygirl.”
  • “Loving the community means loving you first.”
  • “It’s okay to take the ‘S’ off your chest, Superwoman.”
  • “You are lifted up and prayed over.”
  • “Melanin makes you beautiful. Rest makes you whole.”
  • “Chile, take a nap!”
  • “If the ancestors brought us this far, we know we can go the rest of the way.”
  • “He ain’t finished with you yet!”
  • “You’re gonna be okay. I claim it.”

 

But what my sisters give me is bigger than even these powerful and amazing words that give me permission to step out of the Strong Black Woman role and care for me. They have done things that have meant more than they knew to keep me upright and moving.

You don't need to carry everything for everybody.

These are things you might do, too.

  • They’ve sent me gift cards for restaurants and delivery services when I was too tired to cook.
  • They’ve sent texts just to check on me and written cards and letters to make sure I know that I am loved and not alone.
  • They Zoom and Facetime me so that we can see one another, be in the presence of each other’s spirits and feel a part of the circle of love that we are.
  • They’ve sent me books on our history and culture and magazines that focus on the beauty of our skin, hair and aesthetics.
  • They’ve sent me care packages of wipes, masks, hand sanitizer and other things to keep me safe and healthy when I have to go out.
  • They’ve sent me artisanal chocolates and body scrubs so that I can treat myself.
  • They’ve shared recipes from their grandmothers’ kitchens so that we have one another’s family histories.
  • They have worked hard to stay connected even now, sharing everything from meme to scripture to lift me and wisdom and jokes to remind me that life’s heaviness must be balanced with lightness and joy.

 

But mostly, they let me be me—the real woman who hurts, cries, doesn’t need to always be strong, who just wants to take her hair down and let her breath out.

 

Things you can say to your girls, sister-friends and other important women in your life.
Here are some messages I’ve made sure to send the Black women in my circle. I want to let them know that I see each of them in their own unique lives and that they and what happens to them matter to me. You might find them useful for the women you love, too.

  • “I believe in you.”
  • “Even when you feel scared, when you are tired down to your marrow, you’ve still got power.”
  • “Like our ancestors say, ‘Trouble won’t last always.’”
  • “Trust the voice inside that says, ‘This is what my soul needs.’”
  • “No ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ or ‘buts,’ you got this, Queen.”
  • “Melanin-Poppin’ beauty, can’t nobody tell you a thing.”
  • “I’ll always be out here rooting for you, Sis.”
  • “We are ride-or-die, even through this.”
  • “Girl, you can have tears and be fire at the same time.”
  • “Sis, if you need someplace to rest your head, my shoulder is right here.”
  • “#HeGotYouGirl”
  • “Remember that Sisters always work it out together.”
  • “You my people.”
  • “When you got your girls behind you, you got the world.”
  • “Faith will handle this.”
  • “Not without my sister.”
Strength is knowing that it's okay to be fragile sometimes.

I’m learning to practice what I preach about self-care.  

A couple of years ago I wrote a book about women, self-love, self-care and self-acceptance called Ready to Give No Damns: Loving, Living, and Laughing Like You Mean It.

I wrote about how many pressures we’re under as women: about giving up the ideas of perfection, guilt and being strong all the time; about being on our own side; about understanding that we are already enough; and about putting ourselves first on our to-do lists.

I wrote about how self-love isn’t selfish and how self-care without guilt is soul-saving.

As I’ve been thinking about self-care for us as Black women, I’ve found myself going back over and over again to follow my own advice. And I’d like to share a few quotes that resonate especially deeply with me now:

  • “Strength is knowing that it’s okay to be fragile sometimes.”
  • “A woman only lets herself go because she’s holding everyone else together.”
  • “Sometimes a ‘no’ to someone else is a ‘yes’ to me.”
  • “This woman is guilt-free.”
  • “The path to happiness is paved with a lot of ‘I don’t give a damns.’”
  • “Every woman who ever flew started with a leap of faith.”
  • “Each time she stood up for herself, her legs grew stronger.”
  • “Mess up. Own it. Move on. Grow.”
  • “I am a big defender and protector of me.”

 

I wrote of hard things happening in my life, of losing people I love, of watching a child—my only child—live with a brutal and incurable disease, of being a clinical depression survivor for five long, lightless, hellish years. And I said this:

“When I was lost in the solid dark of depression…I had to develop a practice of thorough self-care and intense self-protection just to keep going—to get up every day, to keep moving, to keep living. And I promised myself that if I were ever allowed to feel joy again, I was going to grab it and hang on to it like a life raft on the high rolling seas.”

That fierce self-love, dedicated self-care and militant joy saved me. And that is just what I want for the beloved sisters of my community.

I’m putting out the call to all of us, Sisters. Won’t you respond with me?