Dec 21

The Performativity of Self Care

by Aisha Sidibe | 12/21/2020 12:30PM | Racial Justice

 Aisha Sidibe

Aisha Sidibe is a writer of Haitian, Cuban, Ivorian, Malian, and New York heritage. She received an MFA in nonfiction writing from Hunter College and during her years as adjunct professor at the City University of New York, received praise for her classroom treatment of complex topics, including racism, masculinity and disability, as well as her instruction on writing craft. Herself a mother of two boys, Aisha also founded an organization serving mothers in the Bronx. Since 2019, she has been teaching at Georgetown Day School in Washington, D.C., which she was drawn to because of its exceptional commitment to inviting the whole child and community into the process of education. Aisha speaks four languages and writes in a variety of genres, including poetry, memoir and non-fiction.

As a Black Queer woman born at the intersection of multiple ethnicities, nations, and ideologies, I can attest that Black folk are rainbows: inclusive of all the things we can see and all the things we can’t. Black folk are art and poetry; the bearings of the soul. From my maternal grandfather’s love of Fidel Castro and his native Cuba, I learned about the complexities of fear and exhaustion. Fear of human impulse when the impulse is highly individualistic. Exhaustion from the consistent failure of capitalism, dreams, and personal wealth. From my paternal grandfather, a respected Chief of a tribe spanning across five African countries, who resides in his adopted land of Ivory Coast, I’ve learned that joy and self-cultivation can only exist when we strip away false narratives of culture and identity that are performed rather than lived. 

Right now, as I write this, there is a movement of Black folk and their allies in this country and across the world. With our rise, our demands, and our self-cultivation, our society is encouraged to reckon with beauty, nuance, and our own mortality. Yet, often, even in our search for knowledge, the Black body becomes a blank page. A thing open to interpretation, addition, and even a volatile repugnance. Because empty spaces force us to take a look at ourselves. Who are we? What do we want? How do we want it?

In a capitalist society that rewards constant fatigue disguised as unending energy, it is no wonder that we have arrived at a cultural consensus that we should, in fact, all search for respite-- a true rest. And yet, the yoga mats, Enya, and tote bags that loudly promote self-care ignore the complexities of exhaustion while Black. The body remains blank. 

Not too long ago I listened intently to friendly white faces in little squares on my computer screen as they contemplated self-care in a world ablaze with a racial reckoning. We had been given a prompt and a guiding quote by the civil rights activist Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

“I believe in self-care, as a mother,” one colleague began. “But an ‘act of political warfare...’ what does it mean?”

No one knew the answer. I sat there dumbfounded by their utter lack of context -- the blank page. They had not yet adopted the lens that would allow them to see the intersection of race and self-care as a political issue:

Audre Lorde is denied sabbatical after being diagnosed, at age 44, with cancer. She keeps going. 

My son, when 12 years old, is sent to the emergency room because he says his heart hurts so badly. I try to offer him some sort of salvation by encouraging him to sit, in stillness, with his emotions. He keeps going. 

I look at the screen, unmute myself, and explain that in order to understand what Lorde is saying, first, you must understand the rate at which Black women are dying: sitting, standing, driving, giving birth, buying food, and sleeping. Then you will see that self-care, at its core, is a luxury afforded only to those whose respite is built in by the other social comforts they enjoy. 

Part of what Black folk want is to completely revolutionize our broken concepts of love and self-care. Instagram captions rave about the power of minding one’s business.  My mother, who is the champion of minding her own, has reiterated this to me time and time again: It will add years to your life. In her own affect, aloof, forever looking up at the stars, she has found a way to exist firmly and yet softly by being completely herself. Perhaps she learned this after spending countless nights alone in her native Haiti. Left behind by parents who had their own forging of peace to do. To exist softly in a land that is built upon your hardness is no small task. Indeed, it is radical; a one-woman revolution. However, as Black women understand the whispers of a political act in every movement we make, it is not yet clearly voiced to - or by - those who proudly champion their yoga classes. Not in the intellectual spaces and certainly not in the spiritual ones. There are many ways to do it. 

Self-care says: Pause. Love yourself. 

To us, Black folk, self-care says: Do more. Perform. 

While self-care encourages an individualism rooted in commodification and navel gazing, self-cultivation asks us to examine our positions in the world and working towards self in all of its contexts and intersections. As I care for myself, I do so against the background of the many years my father was denied work on account of his accent. I do so against the many years my mother raised my brother and me with no support and barely any money before going to college to “better” herself.   Self-cultivation asks us to reflect deeply on what we see. With the ability to draw connections between lived experiences and imagined ones, past and future, the Black experience becomes nuanced and fully alive. When crying, raging, laughing and living while Black becomes a reality to everyone, we break down the oppressive system by which Black folks must perform. These complexities already exist and shouldn't be erased by the ignorance that self-care will save us all. 

Self-cultivation is an issue of equity. When we ask ourselves what we want and how we want it, we see a clear path forward: the integration of the mind and body through self-awareness, racial sensitivity, and moral responsibility.

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