Scroll through the photos and you’ll see a bunch of motivational quotes, face masks, steaming bubble baths, elaborate yoga poses, and manicured nails.
And yet these beautiful acts of wellness sometimes carry negative connotations of selfishness and guilt, particularly for women, who are often expected to care for others.
But as Audre Lord, self-described "Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," once said:
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgent. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
As we kickstart Black History Month, we wanted to take this time to reflect upon some of the women who were fundamental to Women’s and Civil Rights Movements and how their resilience and strength were rooted in self-care.
Delve into the history of self-care and you may be surprised how it entered the mainstream.
The term ‘self-care’ was adopted in the 1950s to encourage institutionalized patients to retain some of their independence. Physical activities, such as personal grooming and exercise, supported dignity and inherent worth.
It wasn’t long before those experiencing PTSD were also urged to practice self-care, including nurses, social workers, and other frontline workers. The idea was that one should look after themselves before grappling with the problems of others.
From the 1960s onwards, this sentiment was shared more broadly by women and people of color. Activists had established the correlation between poor health and poverty and realized that taking care of oneself was integral to the dismantling of a white, patriarchal social and medical system.
Civil rights leaders began to prioritize health and self-care and the Black Panther Party (BPP) set up a national network of free clinics. Self-care was survival. It formed a collective political will and built resilience against the repeated injuries inflicted by systemic racism. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
Source: Spotlight Africa
So as you can see, Black history is built on self-care.
According to Jennifer Nelson, author of More Than Medicine: A History of the Feminist Women’s Health Movement, poor or working-class women were perceived as ‘vectors of disease’, and many of the health clinics set up by the BPP did not cater specifically for women’s needs.
Source: Smithsonian Mag
Therefore, in the face of rampant sexism, the self-care movement has been particularly important for Black women. This disparaging attitude towards women of color led numerous women’s rights groups to set up their own clinics. Moreover, Angela Davis and Ericka Huggins, female Panther leaders, were great advocates of the benefits of yoga and mindfulness, which they initially practiced while in prison for their activism.
The self-care movement has boasted several shining lights who have demonstrated these principles in their daily lives.
Here are just 4 of them:
Holistic Nurse, Abolitionist, and Spy
After escaping from slavery in 1849, Tubman continued to make the trip from the South to the North to free her family and many others. Her role as a conductor of the Underground Railway earned her the title “Black Moses”.
“I had reasoned this out in my mind, there was one of two things I had a right to, liberty or death; if I could not have one, I would have the other”
Tubman went on to serve as a nurse, spy, and cook during the civil war and would donate generously to the Black community for the rest of her life, despite economic hardships. Not only was she an advocate for health and healing, but Tubman was also concerned with holistic nursing, including the human spirit and human rights.
A passionate suffragette and inspirational speaker, Tubman’s advocacy extended far beyond the clinic. She was at the forefront of change and continued to have a positive impact on the colored community’s well-being. In 1908, she opened the Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged and died there herself shortly after.
Her last words are perhaps unsurprising: “I go, to prepare a place for you.”
Self-Made Pioneer and Black Beauty Advocate
Born as Sarah Breedlove to emancipated slaves, Madame CJ Walker changed history with her Black beauty products. She employed a national sales force composed of Black women to sell her popular hair loss pomade, shampoo, and hot comb. Additionally, Madame CJ Walker also provided plenty of employment opportunities at her manufacturing company.
In the post-slavery era, her inventions came at a time where Black women were overworked and de-feminized. The products promoted Black hair as beautiful, helping to position Black American women in the sphere of femininity once again.
For Madame CJ Walker, self-care was not inward-looking or self-indulgent; it was about empowering women to uplift their communities and helping Black Americans to create their own opportunities.
Her creations allowed Black women to pamper and care for themselves using products catered specifically to their needs, dramatically increasing their self-worth. She even established schools to teach her employees how to style and aptly named these women “beauty culturists”.
It doesn’t end there. Madame CJ Walker’s endeavors to support the welfare of the Black community extended far beyond her beauty products. Thanks to the success of her business, she was able to donate generously to both the women’s suffrage movement, the anti-lynching movement, and many other African American organizations.
Mother of the Freedom Movement
Source: NBC News
Best known for her refusal to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks triggered a year-long boycott that signaled a critical juncture for the Civil Rights Movement in 1955. But, instead of being the quiet seamstress that many have made her out to be, Parks was already an active member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
In fact, since a young age, Parks had a penchant for speaking out against racism and the mistreatment of women. In a letter recovered after her death, Parks recounts an experience where she defended herself with a brick against a young bully. Her activism continued throughout her life and she played an essential role in investigating crimes committed against black people, as well as pushing for an equal voting system.
“There is just so much hurt, disappointment and oppression one can take … The line between reason and madness grows thinner.”
This was why self-care became such an integral part of Parks’ routine. One way that she practiced this was through yoga, with pictures surfacing recently and going viral on Instagram. According to Professor Stephanie Evans, Georgia State University: “What Mrs. Parks teaches us is that self-care is part of resistance — she lived to the age of 92 because she began to center her own health needs, even as she continued with lifelong activism in Detroit and beyond.”
Scholar, Activist, and Author
Source: Little White Lies
Having grown up in an area nicknamed “Dynamite Hill” due to the high volume of families targeted by the Ku Klux Klan, Angela Davis was no stranger to racial discrimination. Influenced by her experiences, Davis joined a number of civil rights groups, including the BPP and a Black branch of the Communist Party.
After being fired from her professorship at UCLA for her communist ties, Davis was also charged with conspiracy, murder, and kidnap upon her apparent involvement in a botched escape attempt of Black radical George Jackson. She spent 18 months in jail before her charges were cleared in 1972.
It was during her time in prison that Davis began practicing yoga and meditation. These self-care rituals continued to support her activism as Davis has advocated for social justice, political reform, gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality.
According to an interview she had with Afro Punk in 2018, Davis believes other activists should practice radical self-care because: “It means that we’re able to bring our entire selves into the movement. It means that we incorporate into our work as activists, ways of acknowledging and hopefully also moving beyond trauma. It means a holistic approach.”
And self-care is just as important as ever.
As we celebrate Black History month and remember these great women, we owe it to them and to ourselves to prioritize our wellbeing.
“Anyone who’s interested in making change in the world, also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, theirselves.”
Comments will be approved before showing up.