Part I: The Messengers: Wellness Guides by Black Women Elders
The spiritual “Mary, Don’t You Weep” has been sung in Black homes and churches for at least 150 years, offering hope in times of despair to generations of African Americans. The song, a celebration of the power of faith, was first recorded in 1915 by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. In the decades to follow, this iconic song would be covered by a diverse array of artists from Inez Andrews of The Caravans—whose version is credited with popularizing the song in the 1950s and 1960s—to Aretha Franklin, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, Bruce Springsteen, Yolanda Adams, Fantasia, and dozens more.
“Mary” is best recognized as a gospel classic and one of the freedom songs that rallied civil rights marchers. Its lingering popularity also can be connected to another crucial, and too-often-overlooked African American tradition: how Black women elders, through their memoirs, have testified to the healing power of faith. Black women life writers who live beyond the average lifespan draw a straight line from their spiritual health to their mental and physical well-being. These traditions connecting mind, body, and spirit can contribute to discussions about mental health.
“Black women life writers who live beyond the average lifespan draw a straight line from their spiritual health to their mental and physical well-being.”
Spirituality is a contributing factor to global communities of elders, as discovered in the book Blue Zones, which traced worldwide locations of people who live to be over 100 years old. The National Geographic-published research located elders in five areas: Japan, Italy, Greece, Costa Rica, and California. Though not always concentrated in one geographic location, African American women reveal similar findings about longevity. Black women suffer disproportionately from trauma which can contribute to chronic stress that increases heart disease, diabetes, depression, obesity, and cancer; so, this information about wellness is crucial. Histories of Black women’s healing traditions such as faith, meditation, yoga, and spiritual community building are necessary guides—particularly amid social justice struggles where there are many responsibilities, pressures, and challenges to balance.
Harriet Tubman’s life story is one of the original narratives to illustrate this tradition of faith. Tubman escaped slavery and fled to Philadelphia, only to return to the South as an emancipator, nurse, and Union Army spy. She made more than a dozen trips to aid an estimated 770 escape enslavement, including over 700 during the June 1863 Combahee River raid in South Carolina.
We know details of “General” Tubman’s life because she produced a memoir. Though she was illiterate, Tubman narrated her life to writer Sarah Bradford, who penned the 132-page Sketches in the Life of Harriet Tubman in 1869. Sketches chronicled her early life, detailing the abuse and (as a young teenager) her injury from being hit in the head with a lead weight thrown by an overseer. The wound resulted in lifelong headaches, fainting, seizures, and epileptic spells. Yet Tubman cited her faith in God as the engine that enabled her to eventually free herself, her family, and scores of others despite the illness.
Sketches was one of the earliest examples of a self-empowerment narrative by a Black woman. It was also one of the earliest stories that exemplify what Black feminist scholars have called “creative survival”—where Black women have transformed their social and political challenges into effective self-healing strategies for health and longevity. I am amazed that slavery did not kill Harriet Tubman. She died of old age, in her 90s, at a time when the average American lifespan was around 50.
Tubman’s memoir can serve as a guide to future generations—what Maya Angelou called “letters to our daughters.” Elders have passed on messages of healing to younger Black women and forged a tradition balancing self-care as an individual ethic and self-help as a community imperative. Being “strong” is not enough. We must have tools to lean on and faith is one of those tools.
“Elders have passed on messages of healing to younger Black women and forged a tradition balancing self-care as an individual ethic and self-help as a community imperative.”
A host of long-living Black women followed Tubman’s example. Educator and feminist Anna Julia Cooper, who lived to be 105, wrote of the power of mindful meditation and spiritual belief in her life. Sisters Sadie and Bessie Delany, who lived to 109 and 104, described a 40-year-long yoga practice in their memoir Having Our Say. Civil rights attorney and ordained minister Dovey Roundtree, now 103, wrote an autobiography that emphasizes the importance of fighting for justice—but also the need for sufficient rest and getting help from mentors. Other inspiring memoirists include Chef Leah Chase, now in her 90s, Maya Angelou a writer who lived to her mid-80s, as well as health activist and Black Women’s Health Imperative founder Byllye Avery who turns 80 this year. I recognize these women as messengers of health. Their stories reflect fundamental strategies for wellness identified by researchers and leading advocacy organizations.
Much as memoirs by elders have modeled a well-lived life for younger Black women, “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” also delivers a message of health from generation to generation. The song’s lyrics caution Biblical sisters Mary and Martha not to despair the death of their brother, Lazarus, who was ill and died four days before Jesus arrived in their town of Bethany. Jesus reassured the sisters that faith was the foundation of life and raised Lazarus from his tomb. This message of the power of belief resonated with generations of African Americans who were beaten down by systematic oppression and faith was their only rest. The refrain that spirituality is an essential part of healing is a nuanced point central to Black experiences that is not always present in mainstream health research.
Like Tubman’s memoir, the song “Mary” promises two types of deliverance. The first, embodied in the song’s reminder that Moses witnessed the liberation of God’s chosen people and that “Pharaoh’s army got drown-ded in the Red Sea,” is a communal salvation, promising vindication of the persecuted through God’s punishment of oppressors. This is the message that resonated so strongly with performers who shaped call and response songs during the Civil Rights Movement. But “Mary” also offers a message of individual deliverance. “Don’t you weep, don’t you mourn” (a lyric often mistaken as “don’t you moan”), Mary and Martha are told, because Jesus will raise the dead. The lyrics have evolved over time, but a popular refrain from Aretha Franklin’s version also shares, “cheer up sisters and don’t you cry, they’ll be good times by and by.” The focus of many memoirists on the need for mental health reinforces the message of this song and the tradition of seeking inner peace.
Black women have seen many meaningful improvements over time, but challenges persist, including segregation, economic disparities and poverty, state violence, character assassination on social media, and sexual assault. These traumas cause stress, which has been shown to increase health challenges, from poor birth outcomes to chronic depression. To promote Black women’s wellbeing, a new generation of activists from diverse faiths, like Zen Buddhist and memoirist Angel Kyodo Williams, are centering spirituality. Some agnostic and atheist Black women writers who use non-religious but spirit-connected therapies are also becoming more visible. These efforts demonstrate the popularity and endurance of Black women’s healing traditions. Similarly, new generations of younger singers are flocking to the message of hope in “Mary” to point the way for listeners, urging them to maintain conviction, even as they face great stress and strain.
Fantasia Barrino’s performance of “Mary, Don’t You Weep,” on BET’s Black Girls Rock! is an example of how this old message of finding one’s center is still trending. Barrino has experienced many of the types of social stresses that impact Black women’s health today: she was raped as a teenager, dropped out of school, struggled with literacy, had a baby at 17, and attempted suicide, reeling from the pressure of skyrocketing stardom. As she sang on the Black Girls Rock! stage, images appeared on a screen behind her, projecting a familiar backdrop of struggle. Declarations of “Women’s Liberation” scrolled behind an all-women’s choir and band, and close-ups of imposing police images (presumably Pharaoh’s army) served as a reminder of the structural violence still making an indelible impact on Black communities.
Barrino’s performance of “Mary” conveyed frustration, but ultimately assured triumph promised by generations of Black women singers, writers, actors, and artists. Fantasia shouted up Black women’s narratives of wellness and hope. In a uniquely 21st century way, she was carrying forward the message of elder authors’ struggles: if we sow in faith, we shall reap in joy. Fittingly, one of the pictures that flashed behind her as she sang was of Harriet Tubman.
My work in mental health began with a desire to share inspiring life stories with survivors of sexual violence and racial trauma. Elder Black women who wrote memoirs and autobiography left roadmaps for us to follow that can be especially useful for those who experience violence, racism, and sexism. Part I of this blog highlighted these “messengers of health.” In Part II, I discuss the messages they left behind…especially lessons about how to breathe.
Stephanie Y. Evans is professor and chair of African American Studies, Africana Women’s Studies and History at Clark Atlanta University. She is the author of several books and lead editor of the newly published collection, Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability. Her full portfolio is available online at www.professorevans.net.