Do you remember when Nanny told her granddaughter Janie that black women were the mules of the world in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece novel? I was 16 when I first read those words that were penned in the 1930s and at age 24, they still resonate with me. Nanny’s words held true for black women during the era in which Hurston lived, and they are still true more than 80 years later. Our country was built on the backs of black women, and we continue to carry its burdens; therefore, the perception of us as mules is an accurate one.
For hundreds of years, we were the property of white men. During slavery, who tended to cotton and tobacco fields and cared for the master’s family and household, as well as their own? Black women. We bore children only to see them sold away to faraway plantations. When white men crept into slave cabins at night, nobody heard our cries as they wreaked havoc on our bodies. And look at where we are today. Despite all of our accomplishments in the face of adversity, black women remain objects of exploitation. Sometimes corporations employ us in high-paying positions, but most use us for cheap labor (see Wal-Mart). The government attempts to deny us basic human rights. Legislators try to control our reproductive systems. Women have no choice but to act as the backbone of the black community, holding families together while our black men are wrongfully killed and imprisoned.
Positive portrayals of black women in the media are few and far between, and our screens are bombarded with images of black women whose goals revolve around men: finding a man, getting money from men, and obtaining fame through male counterparts. Society expects black women who are not celebrities to be welfare queens fluent in birthing multiple children and speaking Ebonics. Teachers, professors, and even family members are quick to crush our dreams, and we have to work twice as hard as everybody else in order to get what we deserve. Our voices are silenced in mainstream media, our stories are ignored, and our murdered are left out of the news. It is evident that patriarchy does not wish to see black women succeed.
In this hostile climate, it’s easy for black women to literally lose their minds. Many of our black women warriors have fallen due to reasons directly and indirectly related to mental health issues. Does a light at the end of the tunnel even exist for us? Personally, I believe it does exist, but how do we stay sane as we journey toward that light? I created the following list to be a brief, helpful resource and while I’m not a mental health professional (yet), I do hope it at least serves as food for thought.
How to Preserve Our Mental Health: A Non-Exhaustive Mini-Guide for Black Women
1. Build a strong support system. Sometimes, we have to create our own families because the ones we were born into are unhealthy for us. People in your support system should care for you unconditionally. They should be nonjudgemental about your life, but at the same time, unafraid of telling you when they feel you are making bad decisions. You should trust and respect the opinions of those in your support system.
2. Never let others silence you. Don’t be afraid of opening your mouth and speaking your truth. The world will try to silence you every chance it gets simply because you are black and a woman. A lot of people won’t like what you have to say, but if you don’t stand for what is right, who will? Always advocate for yourself, as well as for people who are scared or unable to advocate for themselves.
3. Refuse to live up to society’s stereotypes about black women. We don’t have to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and we can be whatever we want to be (within reason). If someone says you’re not good enough or not meant to do something, regard it as noise and keep it moving. Pardon me for being cliché, but in a nutshell: “Make your haters your motivators.”
4. Never lose yourself in your partner. Live for yourself because at the end of day, this is your life, and in the words of a wise Canadian prophet, “you only live once.” Don’t let anyone else sway your decisions. While your partner’s input is valuable, ultimately, you should do what feels right for you.
5. Rid your life of toxic friends and family. Even though we may care deeply about others, it does not mean they deserve a place in our lives. You don’t have to put up with others’ drama, instability or negativity. If someone’s presence constantly brings you down, he or she does not belong in your life.
6. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. You don’t have to share with the world that you are seeing a therapist or a psychiatrist. It’s nobody’s business, but your own. Be proud of yourself for being proactive and preserving your mental health, which is surely as important as maintaining your physical health, if not more.