Throwback Jam: "Sister, Love Thyself"

Photo by United Press International, 1956

Dear Y’all:

I first wrote this blog post (see below) almost two years ago, when my blog was just getting started and I had just a few readers. One of my dearest friends in the world had kept asking me when was I going to write something just for Black women, and “Sister, Love Thyself”  is what was placed on my spirit. (I’ve added a dedication for my friend, but other than that and the correction of typos and mistakes, it’s the exact same post.) For a couple of months, I’ve been thinking about running this post for my newest readers; this week seems to be the perfect time for it.

Love,

Honorée

PS

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November 16, 2009

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“Sister, Love Thyself”

………….for Crystal Wilkinson

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It’s the Rosa Parks syndrome. We Black women are taught to be martyrs, to lay our bodies on the altar of our community, in the well-worn tradition of our mothers, and their mothers, and so on and so on and so forth, so that our children—preferably, our male children—can go forth.

Before Mother Parks sat down that day on the bus, she had done all sorts of work for the community as a civil rights worker, but she wasn’t given time to speak at the historic March on Washington–neither were any other Black women, except for one lone female speaker: Josephine Baker (who had lived out of the USA for quite some time by then.)

But I can bet you all that fried chicken the male speakers invariably ate—after the March—was cooked by Black women.

Every woman of every complexion is taught—outright or by observation—to ignore her own needs for the good of others; I think that’s a universal woman thing. But I don’t know any White women who are taught that White guys just have the right to listen to songs calling them “b*tches and h*es” because it’s part of White male rage, the need for them to blow off historical steam. Unless it’s Rush Limbaugh, nobody tells White women that White guys have had it so hard in this country, so let them play their mean-spirited, woman-hating music.

And though a lot of White people, men and women, don’t believe a White woman’s testimony when she accuses a White man of rape, a White woman doesn’t have the entire White community on her back, telling her to recant.

Even Black women’s magazines differ from “mainstream” (i.e. White) women’s magazines. You never get articles in mainstream magazines advising White women to marry men who have less education than they do and/or who make less money than they do or even, to marry men who have been to prison. You don’t have articles chiding White women for being uppity, reminding them that they can’t really be too choosy about their romantic partners.

Tangent: I’ll never forget years ago, in the aftermath of that “other” March—the Million Man March—Essence magazine had this whole spread on the March. But Black women weren’t even invited by Minister Louis Farrakhan to attend the March, which was billed as a “Day of Atonement.” I kept asking myself, if this is a March for men, why is it in a women’s magazine?

And then there were my other questions: if a brother wanted to “atone” for what he had done to his wife and/or the mother of his kids, how come he spent hundreds of dollars to travel hundreds of miles away from her to say so? I mean, he couldn’t get a babysitter and take a sister out to the Red Lobster within a twenty-mile radius or something?

The notion that Black women should never occupy an uppity space means that she must feel responsible for saving the community in which she was raised; she must never get above that community, even if she hurts herself in the process. I’m all for doing the essential work to help Black folks, but it’s time for us to find a way to keep this community going without destroying Black women in the process, and one of the ways I’ve decided is just to tell other sisters, “You matter, to me and to yourself.”

In my own life, I try to give my sister-friends affirmation, what I call the “woo-woo,” a term I stole from Sinclair on “Living Single.” Remember that show? It was the precursor to “Sex in the City,” only instead of living in Manhattan, those four Black women lived in Brooklyn before it was all edgy-like.

Sinclair was my favorite character, a quirky, strange-dresser woman who looked at the world the way she saw it: through nice, sweet, loving eyes. She was the quintessential, idealized Black woman, only without the crack-addict relatives sleeping on her couch, always asking her, “Can I hold five dollars?” And whenever one of her friends was feeling down, she would pat her and say, “Woo-woo. Woo-woo.”

Whenever one of my close friends has been depressed, he or she will call me. Most have to call instead of visit, because all but two live in other states, far away. On the phone, if I hear sadness, I will ask, “Do you need the woo-woo?” And then I’ll begin my litany: “You’re fabulous. You’re so cute. The world doesn’t know your power. You are touched by the hand of God.”

Or if I’m depressed, I’ll call up one of them and say, “I need the woo-woo bad.” In this way, I can cut through the preamble, and get right to what I need, which is reassurance that I am loved and accepted, just as I am. Sort of like an emotional quickie, without the need for condoms and such.

There’s one friend I have, Kim, who doesn’t even wait for me to tell her I need woo-woo. She just knows. Kimberly is the can’t-live-without sister I’ve been friends with for thirty years. She’s the one I’ve shared every cycle of my life with. And I do mean every, if you get my drift.

Kim was the one who insisted that I start this blog. Really, she pushed me to start it because she knows that I needed to say certain things out loud, in public, even if it makes other people uncomfortable to hear them. She’s not in this crazy, writing world of mine, where the publication of a poem in a journal that only a thousand people read—out of the three hundred million people in the country—can define a person’s self-worth, and can determine whether your peers will speak to you at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference.

And because Kim and I go back so far, have grown up together, we know that when you’re a young girl, you say you are never going to ignore yourself for others; you promise yourself you’ll never be your mother. Kim and I talked about that–laughed about it– just a couple of weeks ago. It has been on my mind ever since.

If you’re a Black woman, in your secret heart, you insist you’ll never sing your Black mother’s blues song–but then suddenly, you are your mother, for better and worse.  Sure, you’ve inherited the good things, like her great skin, her cute and (mostly) firm breasts, her love of God and her recipes for cream biscuits and peach cobbler. But you’re carrying her emotional loads, too.

You’re taking care of others who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. You’re waiting in vain for somebody to say, “I appreciate you” for the work you do at home or the office. You have an inability to stand up for yourself because “ladies” just learn to suffer with grace. You’re depending on God to change the hearts of others because Jesus can work miracles on even the worst person. (We ask a lot of Jesus in this community, don’t we?)

Everyday, you’re driving yourself crazy while repeating that same “keeping it together” mantra that your mother did– and you’ve probably also inherited at least one of her health problems, too. The same extra thirty pounds.  Her grapefruit-size uterine fibroids. Her high blood pressure. Or her diabetes.

Usually, I blog about something that strikes me that I’ve read about in the news, but this issue with Black women and self-love is something I don’t need to read about, because it’s going on with me every day—in my body, in my life, in my family, or on my job. It’s also going on with all my Black female friends, whether they are married or single, child-free or mothers, and I see it with sisters I meet when I travel or who email me because they read a poem I wrote somewhere.

As a Black woman, I have to give the woo-woo to myself, if I want to do more than just survive–if I want to thrive.  And I am determined to do that. No disrespect to the mothers of our past, because they’ve given us some real gifts. But I decided this year that the Black Woman Martyr Look ain’t cute for me. I want my reward now, not in heaven, and I don’t care who thinks I’m selfish or unloving or  “un-Christian” or too loud or too pushy.

When I say “reward,” I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about peace of mind. I’m talking about health of spirit and body. I’m talking about self-love.

I understand now that sometimes, you have to fight for self-love. It just doesn’t get handed to you–not when you’re a Black woman. I strongly suspect it doesn’t get handed to anybody.  And people can stand in the way of your self-love. If you can’t be ladylike and just calmly walk around them, then sometimes, you got to learn judo in order to kick people’s you-know-whats. Then you carefully roll them to the side of the road, so you can walk peacefully on your way.

The lesson about claiming self-love and leaving some people or causes to the side is a difficult one, because we sisters want to help and maintain our community and also, honor our mothers who kept this whole thing going for so long. And also, let’s face it: co-dependence has been going on a long time in the Black community under the guise of “No brother or sister left behind.”

The girl-children–even the grandchildren– of those Black women from Mother Parks’s self-sacrificing generation are grown now, and some of us are even mothers. For those of us who still need to learn self-love–and that’s a whole bunch of us–we can’t say that we’ll start valuing ourselves only once we’re fully valued by others, love ourselves only when we’re fully loved by others, because that time may never come.

We can’t wait for God to give us our reward in heaven or for someone nice to hand us glory now. Remember what even the most self-sacrificing of Black grandmothers used to tell us, back in the day?

“God helps those who help themselves.”

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Are You Too Fly To Be Fit?

Originally uploaded at www.swaymag.ca

Some of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while (or who are friends with me on Facebook) might know that I’ve been working on my health on a continual basis for the past year.

Since November 2009, I have had (much-needed) uterine fibroid surgery; I gave up sugar (and I thought I would stab myself through the eye, I was so miserable, but now I’m completely okay); and I gave up eating meat and fish, though I don’t call myself a vegetarian because I must admit that in the past year, I’ve cheated four times.

Sidebar: I know cheating with the meat or fish makes me a very bad person, but I don’t feel bad about being a very bad person. I eat far fewer dead things than the average American, I recycle, and I drive a really small car that doesn’t use much gas, so maybe God will forgive my occasional carnivorous lapses. And if I ever get solar panels on my house, I’m hoping to get my express ticket into Them Pearly Gates.

Other than changing my diet, the biggest hurdle for me was exercise, which I began in real earnest this May. I went public on Facebook with my thirty-day exercise commitment, which meant I would work out for at least thirty minutes each day for a month. I kept that commitment and after the month was over, I kept going, though I now rest one or two days a week.  It was plenty hard at first, but now, it’s part of my daily schedule, even when I don’t want to be bothered. And sometimes, no, I don’t want to be bothered. But I do it anyway.

But since I’ve started on this journey, I’ve encountered many Sisters who won’t begin this same healthy journey, and not because they don’t have time or they have too many responsibilities. No, they won’t start because they insist on being cute twenty-four, seven.

The estimates are that 67 percent of Americans are overweight and obese. That’s really bad. But according to the website GirlTrek: A Challenge to Black Women and Girls, 80 percent of Black women are overweight.

So what’s up with that?

Well, some of it is about how we eat, sure enough. Byron Hurt’s film-in-progress SoulFood Junkies touches on some of these issues. (You can see a teaser for the film by clicking this link.)

Our steady diets of beloved traditional African American cuisine don’t help us any. For example, out here on the prairie where I live, when I go to a “Grown and Sexy Set” at a club (i.e. a gathering of adults who are over-35), there is liable to be a vendor selling some form of grilled pig meat at that club.  Hot links, ribs, etc. The “healthy” alternative is fish fried in (probably) some form of trans-fat.  And then, folks be drinking brown liquor to wash all that mess down. I mean, dang.

Sidebar: I can’t tell you the number of Black folks out here who have looked at me with disbelief when I say I don’t eat meat on a regular basis. The shock I receive after I mention my dietary changes is about the same as if I said I receive nightly visitations from Martians and we do the Dougie together all night long.

Some Sisters noticed that I had dropped a few pounds—and added much needed (and let’s face it, cuter) muscle tone—and asked me how I did it. And I was shocked to discover that many of them refused to exercise because of their hair. I’m not talking one or two Black women, either. I’m talking a lot. (That doesn’t even include the fly-but-obese Sister who said she couldn’t do push-ups because she was afraid she would break her nails.)

So then, I started talking to my other Black women friends who don’t live where I live, and they told me their anecdotes about Black women who won’t work out because of their hair.  And I gotta tell y’all, I don’t think this is just a phenomenon of only a few Sisters.  I think this is rampant.

When I googled, “Black women, hair and exercise,” all sorts of links popped up, including an article about a study done on the subject. (Click here to read the article.) And a “viral” Facebook note, “Black women, hair, and exercise: Let’s get moving!”

Despite having what some (ignorant) people might call “good hair,” I do have my own hair issues when it comes to working out. Years ago when I was in graduate school, my mama used to press and curl my hair; I would drive an hour and a half every two weeks to go see her. In between, I had one of those old-fashioned rain bonnets I had purchased at the drugstore—I don’t even know if you can find those things anymore—and any time the sky became cloudy, I would whip that thing out hysterically and wrap it over my head.

And anytime I sweat, my hair would go back. And then, that would require an elaborate ordeal of combing my hair out, oiling it profusely—you could fry a chicken in all that grease I put in my head—and rolling it back up to restore it to a semblance of the Hair Beauty that my mother bestowed on me. So finally, I just gave up working out altogether.  And got even fatter and unhealthier than what I already was.

And I know other Black women with so-called “good hair” who still maneuver their workouts around their blow-dry and flat-ironing schedule. So what’s underneath this “fly before fit” issue, and why are so few people are talking about it?

I haven’t found an article stating why we are obsessed with our hair to the point where we will let our health suffer. Surely, we still have issues with White beauty standards in our community. The discussion of that is nothing new.

But I believe that “fly before fit” also stems from the fact that Black women’s self-esteem is constantly assailed.

For example, just in the past year, there have been an ABC Special explaining why we can’t find husbands in our community(ies)—with no mention at all of the epidemic incarceration of Black men, by the way—and an article yanked off the Psychology Today website that talked in “scientific” terms on why Black women are not as attractive officially as other women, especially White women.

The Psychology Today article was particularly hurtful because it didn’t take into account any cultural issues. It stated that we Black women weren’t attractive and that there was empirical proof for that; after an overwhelming public outcry, the article was taken down. (And do you really want to read about what some racist [insert expletive maternal noun] has to say about Sisters? No, you don’t.)

Besides the overt media beat-down, what Sister hasn’t encountered the good old-fashioned “talking to” at the hairdresser’s, the family reunion, or even at the bus stop about what is wrong with Black women, and in particular, her?

She’s “too loud, too sassy, too bossy, too unfeminine, too-messed-up-in-some-kinda-way”, and that’s why Black women are alone and lonely. It ain’t nobody’s fault but her’s. We are deserving of the abuse that gets heaped on us. But if Black women could just be more like White women—that’s the implication, sometimes real or spoken out loud—we could be happy.

We’ve been getting that message for three and a half centuries now. Yay, slavery and colonialism.

So, we Sisters can’t control much in the world or how it looks at us. But we can be pretty. We can spend money on our clothes, our nails, and our hair to provide armor against what other people–sometimes other Black folks–say about us. And when we are hurting, we can turn to the food that is killing us to provide that temporary chemical rush of pleasure and then, sit in front of the TV and watch images that never reflect us. And put on more weight.

I know. I’ve been there. I am not going to lie to y’all. I have battled serious food issues (and the resulting self-hatred) for years and that battle has been slow-going and sometimes humiliating and also, frightening. So I know what I’m talking about.

Y’all, I am one of those 80 percent of overweight Black women, which is one of the reasons I had to make some hardcore health changes.  I am overweight tending to obese—despite other people calling me a “big, fine woman” or saying I have “big bones.”

But another reason I have made the change and stuck to that change is that I keep running into other Black women with preventable health issues and it scares me.

They are taking blood pressure medicine. They have high cholesterol (but still eat lots of meat). And an alarming number of them have diabetes.  And then there are the issues that might be helped by a better, healthier diet and exercise—like migraines, very heavy periods, or fibromyalgia. Yet even those women who already have health issues will put up barriers to lifestyle change. But their hair looks really, really good.

I know that it’s a lot easier to say to someone, “I can’t work out because I don’t want my perm to look like a hot buttered mess with nacho cheese on it,” instead of, “If my hair goes back, then I won’t look conventionally pretty, and then what do I have? What can I lean on besides looking fabulous, in this world that tells me I’m literally nothing?”

In past blog post, I talked about how I ignored the pain I was in from uterine fibroids while I spent hundreds of dollars on clothes to feel good. And now, I can’t believe I ever did that.

It’s the same with my hair. I wear my hair natural all the time these days, and so, I look back on my rain-bonnet era and laugh at myself. Now, when I work out, I sweat like one of my Uncle Alvester’s prize pigs. So, I just put my hair in a ponytail. I do grease it daily with coconut oil to keep it from becoming dry, because I wash it more often now.

And no, my hair’s not adorable on a regular basis, and sometimes, that really upsets me.  But I have more than my hair. I have me. I have my health. I have the love of a good God who has kept me through all those trials I went through to get to this better—but still not perfect—place. And I have self-love, finally, so I know it’s possible to capture.

And further, to be completely shallow here, I can still wear a fabulous outfit and foundation and lipstick and gold earrings. My hair might be in a ponytail, but I can still look very fine and sassy. And so can you, my Sister.

Just think about it. That’s all I ask.