Black Lives Matter: Practicing self-care during a revolution

Outrage and pain used to drive Crystal Joy to protest. But she soon realized that honoring Black lives needed to include time for her own healing.

Ted S. Warren/AP
People view an upside-down U.S. flag that has had "Love + Rage BLM" painted on it, Sunday, June 14, 2020, inside what has been named the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone in Seattle.

As I watch the protests continue its fourth week I am quickly reminded of the past. I remember learning about the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Micheal Brown, and Sandra Bland. I was living in New York at the time. I was at work and was obligated to have the news on. Day in and day out I watched the media portray the victims in the worst light, bringing up petty crimes from their past and completely dismantling their character as if to justify the police’s actions.

As an African American woman, I saw my brothers in those young men. When a gunman opened fire in a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, I saw my parents and extended family among the slain. I felt compelled to use my voice and body to represent them. I protested, signed petitions, talked to friends, I even went to Washington, D.C., to march. After some time of protesting, I slowly started to feel my body and emotional health dive. I was not feeling well, but I ignored it.

There were back-to-back deaths of Black men, women, and children and I did not have the chance to process any of it. I knew nothing of self-care at that time so I kept on marching. One day at work, after hours of watching the news, I broke down. I couldn’t bear the images of bodies in the streets, commentary of news reporters diminishing the character of the victimized, or hearing another not-guilty verdict. I felt like all my marching, taking a stand, yelling “Black Lives Matter” at the top of my lungs went down the drain – I stopped protesting. 

Numbness took over. When a new case would flash across the screen I would either mute it or simply change the channel. Death after death, video after video, I drowned it out. I felt hopeless and disempowered.

While all this was happening around me, I was trying to cope with my father’s passing and issues around my personal life – I couldn’t bear it all. I became more involved in church but felt a disconnect between myself and religion. I wasn’t finding the solace I needed to soothe my sadness. Eventually, I started talking to someone who introduced me to self-care. My self-care journey has evolved, and it’s provided the tools I need to take care of myself during the current revolution. 

Fast forward to today, it’s the same narrative and the same images. I listen to my friends and family talk about having nervous breakdowns, crying, calling off work because they can’t handle the images and videos replaying in their head. I lovingly remind them of self-care.

Taking care of yourself is the greatest act of love you can give yourself. I learned if you’re no good to yourself, you’re no good to anyone else. Rather than rising to take a stand, you will melt into total burnout.      

One major lesson I have learned during this journey is that when we fail to address our traumas, we risk passing them down. When pain passes from generation to generation without proper tools, support, or love to release, it can manifest in both physical ways and general dis-ease in the body. This has been dubbed ancestral or intergenerational trauma by psychologists, defined as trauma passed down through generations.

When you look at African Americans’ history, our pain goes back 400 years. I think of my forefathers and foremothers who weren’t too far removed from slavery. I wonder if they practiced self-care or even knew what it meant. I don’t imagine when you’re fighting for your life you have time to think about it.

I look at Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Fred Hampton, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer – all of these leaders knew they had targets on their backs. How do you live a full life knowing that?

Fannie Lou Hamer was a voting rights and women’s activist, famous for saying, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired.” Throughout her life, she struggled with illness. She was jailed and white officers forced two African American prisoners to beat her. Did she ever have time to process or heal from that trauma or even take care of herself while dealing with her illnesses? Did she, or any of our leaders have opportunities to have a full life? My assumption: not when you’re fighting for the lives of others or constantly looking over your shoulder.

So many Black leaders didn’t make it past a certain age. When Black people come in contact with a police officer, they hold that same fear. 

This is the 400-year-old torch African American people carry, on top of the everyday struggles of being Black. Every time a Black man, woman, or child is killed I think of the families left behind, our civil rights leaders, and the wounds that don’t have the proper chance to heal.

Though I have not protested recently, I have found other ways to show my support. One of those ways is by engaging in my own self-healing and being present when friends and family need me. I have found that being a sounding board as well as focusing on my self-care is the best act of service I can give right now.

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