Reclaiming Audre Lorde’s Radical Self-Care

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·9 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Women hugging on city rooftop
Women hugging on city rooftop

Around this time last year, on one of the many difficult personal days of the hellscape that was 2020, I walked through my door to find meticulously placed notes around my home. Handwritten reminders drawn onto shirtless photos of whatever celebs I was crushing on at the moment — Michael B. Jordan, of course, and embarrassingly, the character Wade Kinsella from Hart of Dixie (in my defense, I had just finished a binge of the series) — were waiting for me. Each photo had a different prompt: MBJ was in my bedroom encouraging me to sleep while Wade was hanging out on my fridge.

“Don’t forget to eat!” was written in a thought bubble over a smirking Wade. A couple of my girlfriends (one who lived across the street and had a set of keys to my place) had stocked my fridge and left the notes out of concern because in my most anxious and stressed-out state, basic things like sleeping and eating become afterthoughts. Forget “self-care,” I was barely functioning. Doing my job in 2020, which entails processing grief publicly and quickly, made all of this worse. Burnout wasn’t something I pushed through, it was something I buried into and made myself comfortable. Self-care was something I preached, but rarely practiced. I’m not proud of this behavior and my friends scold me constantly, knowing that it’s just not sustainable, but sometimes it feels necessary. Sometimes, working to the brink feels like the only option. And for many Black people, it is. That’s where community comes in — or at least, it should.

My friends’ gesture made me cry, not just because I was tired and hungry, but because it reminded me of how much caring for others is a form of caring for ourselves. And that I needed to start taking care of myself so that I could show up for my friends the way they showed up for me. And so that I could contribute more to the community I write for: Black girls, women, and specifically, Black women organizers doing work on the ground every day that is more exhausting than mine will ever be. My friends reminded me, even though it was just a small-scale example, that we are nowhere without our village. If self-care feels selfish (which it has for me many times), I go back to its OG intent: self-care is supposed to coincide with community care.

Somewhere in the overexposed gloss of Instagram selfies paired with contrived quotes, the glaring whiteness of the wellness industry and the Goop-approved must have self-care routine guides including $110-dollar moisturizer, the idea of taking time for yourself in order to better take on systemic anti-Black racism, class inequality and political injustice got lost in an overfiltered translation. That’s even being too generous. The term was insidiously co-opted by white people and stripped of its BLACK radical meaning. When Audre Lorde first wrote about self-care in her 1988 essay collection A Burst of Light, the activist and poet was battling cancer while still doing work that continues to inform and inspire movements of resistance. We all know the Lorde quote that dominates our timelines. It’s so prevalent, it’s become a cliche. But what Lorde initially wrote in full was anything but banal:

“I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Self-care cannot be an “act of political warfare” if the only battle you’re waging is against your frown lines with $110 moisturizer.

There has been a lot written about the last line and what Lorde meant by those words. There have been calls to reclaim the sentiment of self-care as “an act of political warfare,” not as a thing rich people do in isolation. The class aspect of the self-care social media era is one Black women have been discussing for a long time. It needs to be at the forefront of the conversation. As Sarah Taylor wrote in a blog titled “Self-care, Audre Lorde and Black Radical Activism,” the version of self-care that is thrust upon us now is not for everyone. “Self-care has become synonymous with Treat Yourself, which is shorthand for Spending Copious Amounts of Money to Feel Marginally Better,” she wrote. Aimaloghi Eromosele continued these thoughts for Urge writing, “The problem with what I’ll call ‘new age self-care’ is that it can become too capitalistically driven and centered on luxurious pampering that has very little to do with sustainable nurturing and all to do with spending money, which for the communities that actually need the most care, they cannot access!” As “new age self-care” focuses on the individual instead of the collective, it reinforces the very structures Audre Lorde devoted her life to dismantling.

Every time I see a post asking Black women to “take care of ourselves” in superficial ways like putting on a face mask or taking a bubble bath, I feel personally attacked. I’ll even say out loud to no one in particular, “OK, but can you lower your voice?” when a post hits a nerve. The reaction is partly because I am fortunate enough to be able to do these things and I just don’t, and also because for so many Black people, the system isn’t set up for them to be able to take a break. Freelance writer Justice Namaste tweeted about the well-intentioned but misguided nature of this statement, especially in the context of the pandemic and the past year of uprisings against anti-Black racism. “… acting as though there is much that individual Black people can do to mitigate the physical & mental harm caused by the constant threat of state violence is silly,” she wrote. “I’m so fucking TIRED of the onus being put on Black people to ‘find a way to heal’… This is a time when the concept of self-care is rendered essentially useless without community care, this is not the kind of thing that *can* be survived alone, and it is also the kind of thing that is all the more devastating in isolation.” Eromosele put it like this: “The realities of racism cannot be outrun, out-bought, or pampered away, only lived with, yet simultaneously resisted.”

This content is not available due to your privacy preferences.
Update your settings here to see it.

That resistance must have a communal approach or the most vulnerable among us will be the ones who hurt the most. After the past year, when some of the biggest changes that came out of the “racial reckoning” were more opportunities for already advantaged Black people (most of this was hirings or promotions Black employees had BEEN deserving of but the wealth divide cannot be ignored), we can’t turn inward and only focus on a self-care that only benefits the individual. What’s radical about that? Self-care cannot be an “act of political warfare” if the only battle you’re waging is against your frown lines with $110 moisturizer. Community care is about using our power and bandwidth to support and provide for our communities when the systems we exist in don’t. We need to ask ourselves what we can do politically, socially and in our relationships to offset the harm our governments and institutions are already doing to our communities. If that seems like too big of a burden to bear, maybe it is, but that brings me back to the roots of self-care.

Lorde interrogated, “the devastating effects of overextension” and the difference between “overextending” herself and “stretching” herself. To me, this distinction is at the crux of understanding true self-care. It isn’t about not working hard or ignoring our solo ambitions, mental health or self-worth. It’s about making sure we aren’t measuring that worth by our weariness. In Lorde’s case, she was literally dying of cancer when she wrote these words. It’s not unreasonable to assume that her overextension contributed to her waning health and therefore, her demise. We must use Lorde’s life as a cautionary tale. What does it say about America that one of its most visionary and brilliant Black minds deteriorated while she was fighting against the conditions that work us to death? And how can we create better conditions in our communities so that history isn’t repeated?

As “new age self-care” focuses on the individual instead of the collective, it reinforces the very structures Audre Lorde devoted her life to dismantling.

Right now, in the midst of a pandemic (yes, it’s a shot girl summer but this panini isn’t over yet), we need to ask ourselves how we can better show up for each other when our governments fail us, at best through neglect and at worse, intentionally. Mutual aid networks are a beautiful thing, and if you don’t know where they are happening in your neighborhoods, now is the time to find out. There are also so many women of color-led resources for self-care that you can share with your tribe. One of my favorites is “A Burnout and Vicarious Trauma Toolkit” by Larissa Pham. Ultimately, I think it’s about looking around and making sure your life is sustainable and your people are protected as much as possible.

It’s important to remember that we can stretch — push our minds to their utmost potential like Audre Lorde did, and contribute meaningful work to the world, but as soon as we adopt a capitalistic mindset that the work is our worth, or as Dr. Omolara Uwemedimo tweeted, that “busy is a badge of honor,” that’s when we’ve pushed too far. “Exhaustion is not a sign of excellence,” she wrote. Wow, drag me, Dr. Omolara. But seriously, she told me over Instagram that she experienced burnout and developed an autoimmune disorder because she “didn’t realize the physical effects of weathering as we continue to try to overproduce in hopes that it will make this system value us.” Whew. There it is. Our self-preservation is not self-indulgence when we exist in a system that is literally killing us and is not designed for our lives to matter.

None of this is easy. Self-care can feel onerous sometimes but it’s really more spiritual. It takes constant gut checks, commitments to self-reflection and restraint — maybe even reminders in the form of notes written on Michael B. Jordan’s abs from the people you’re fortunate enough to have in your village. It requires rest and revolution. You can’t have one without the other.

Like what you see? How about some more R29 goodness, right here?

How 3 Women Are Prioritizing Self-Love

How Spa Days & Self-Care Help Viola Davis

The Reparative Masque I Swear By For Stronger Hair