Part II: The Message: Learning to BREATHE
The history of Black women’s healing traditions exemplified by the song “Mary Don’t You Weep” is at the center of my motivation for creating the book Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability. My research in Black women’s intellectual history has always been grounded in narratives of memoir and autobiography. By investigating life writing, I have identified ways Black women have defined ideas of education and empowerment. When it occurred to me that stress and anxiety in academe had taken a major toll on me during my career, my research agenda moved from narratives of academic success to documenting historical wellness. Despite being “successful” by professional measures, my anxiety level continued to elevate, even as I moved toward promotion to full professor. I noticed that reading wisdom of Black women memoirs held keys to improving both quality and longevity of life. I realized that life writing contained life lessons on stress management and memoirs of Black women educators were essential as personal guides as much as professional guides. Eventually, I moved from appreciating Anna Julia Cooper as a Black feminist intellectual to also appreciate her as a centenarian who left clues about how to live a “life of the mind” while simultaneously nurturing the body and spirit.
“I noticed that reading wisdom of Black women memoirs held keys to improving both quality and longevity of life.”
The social threats Black women face is staggering, from historical barriers of slavery and segregation to enduring experiences including sexual assault, domestic violence, and police brutality. These are numerous triggers that increase Black women’s stress. As a survivor of sexual violence myself, I was well aware of the recurring trauma of rape culture so began to expand my community engagement, mentoring work, and research in 2013 to specifically address survivor issues. I wanted to use intellectual history to create a resource for Black women that addressed mental health stressors in all six areas of human rights: universal, personal, familial, social/cultural, political, and global.
Part of the motivation to write my chapter (then invite others to create a book project) stemmed from my own struggles to find work-life balance and inner peace amid a world spinning out of control. In essence, researching and writing wellness became an act of resistance. In October 2013, Toni Morrison tweeted, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” This book on mental health was one I personally wanted and needed to read.
Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability builds on the work of Byllye Avery’s health activism and exemplifies the tools and strategies advocated by the Black Women’s Health Imperative in Washington, D.C., which Byllye Avery founded, and the Center for Black Women’s Wellness in Atlanta. More than 30 authors have come together to produce 15 chapters that deal with many pervasive issues: surviving various types of violence (state, community, domestic, or sexual); struggling through depression and battling the mandate to be “strong” for everyone else—to our own detriment; pushing back against stereotypes and social media pressures; finding appropriate models to traditional therapy (including feminist and womanist therapy); learning loving attitudes between mothers and daughters; and exploring lesser-recognized practices like contemplative writing, travel, and yoga to facilitate healing. This collection builds on research of Diane Brown and Verna Keith who in their groundbreaking book In and Out of Our Right Minds: The Mental Health of African American Women (2003), recognized balance as a central life skill needed in Black women’s lives. This collection also expands on main themes found in BWHI publications like the IndexUS: What Healthy Black Women Can Teach Us about Health and Health First! The Black Women’s Wellness Guide, which outlined pathways to health, healing, and activism.
The foundation of our book is the BREATHE model, and each chapter connects to some aspect of the affirmation. B – Balance
R – Reflection
E – Energy
A – Association
T – Transparency
H – Healing
E – Empowerment
My research focus on Black women’s wellness is an act of faith. The journey has been deeply satisfying. For example, during the editing process, several authors put this principle into practice as we gathered together in healing spaces (including a spa) to write and edit the work in a spirit of critical but positive support. We gathered together to “amplify Black women’s voices,” as BWHI states in its mission, but we did so in a way that adhered to a less antagonistic or hostile model that is too often normalized in academe. Research, writing, and publishing are already challenging. It was important for us to find ways to practice the central value of breathing espoused as the model in this book.
By engaging the principle of Sankofa (go back and get it), I sought to recover messages that give us the regenerative spirit to face today’s challenges and help prepare the next generation for the inevitable struggles to come—especially those involving both preventative and corrective health care. Tamika Carey writes in Rhetorical Healing: The Reeducation of Contemporary Black Womanhood, that writing-as-healing traditions are well established in our history. Yet, like Carey, I must acknowledge that “wellness” practices are sometimes problematic due to commercialization, capitalism, and opportunism. Popular culture that focus on money and consumers—from trends like “beer yoga” to high-priced beauty products like “Goop”—shows the downside of uncritical self-care. In addition, self-help gurus often create a sense of dependency from those they claim to heal. And religion can absolutely be an opiate where charismatic leaders might take advantage of those in dire need of help. There is no cure-all for mental illness and ailments; however, wellness guides based on historical models are useful and have much to offer public health research and practice.
As a key historical example, Dr. Anna Julia Cooper well understood that religion and science are compatible. In 1892, she wrote an essay titled, “Has America a Race Problem? If So, How Can It Best Be Solved?” In the essay, by using examples of natural elements found in earth, air, fire, and water, she argued that conflict is healthy, natural, and normal. In the same essay, Cooper also cited that both Buddha and Christ, in their own way, had the same quest: to end “race tyranny and exclusiveness.” Cooper’s essay on womanhood (in the same book) presented the concept of regeneration—looking backward for wisdom, inward for strength, and forward for hope. These were vital keys to personal and collective progress. America—and the world—definitely still have race and gender problems that disproportionately impact Black women. Her answer to both the “race problem” and the “woman question” involved the need for social balance. She wrote that there will always be “sharks and vultures” and conflict is inevitable, so peace requires a commitment to finding equilibrium. Sustainable struggle means learning how to maneuver around tyrants, resist oppression, and find ways to avoid violence without totally exhausting our personal energy. Writing on the unique position of Black womanhood, Dr. Cooper laid the groundwork for Black women’s balance between strength and vulnerability. In essence, she provided a model to fight for the human rights of Black women and offered a template for how to rekindle our spirit in the process. Finding our balance—to breathe in and out—is the only way forward through conflict, stress, and pain.
Every day, the news cycle and social media show gory details of suffering—revealing the need for increased focus on Black women’s mental health, healing, and wellness. Black Women’s Mental Health, co-edited with Kanika Bell (a psychologist and psychology professor), and Nsenga Burton (a media scholar) provides a wealth of knowledge to help increase impact of health programs. This book of resistance and resilience is a toolkit that has certainly made my heart weep less and smile more…I hope this effect is felt far and wide. BWMH is a clear guide on how to learn values from past generations—values like faith, meditation, rest, and the need to build healing networks. As poet Sonia Sanchez wrote, “peace is a human right.” Peace work is human rights work and BWMH provides tools to help define, analyze, and apply principles of stress management and conflict resolution in daily life. This book is a guide for how to BREATHE and find inner peace, especially for those of us who struggle most to do so. A luta continua—the struggle continues.
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.