The world recently watched Meghan, Duchess of Sussex provide a window into the harm inflicted upon her as a member of the British Royal Family, and Black women across the globe, could relate.
This year has been dubbed the “Year of the Black Woman,” and although it’s well-deserved and long-overdue, the question is, what toll does shouldering the issues of the world on one’s shoulders take on Black women?
In the U.S., it was Black women who organized and mobilized voters to secure a Biden-Harris 2020 presidential win. It was Black women who launched a global movement to proclaim that Black lives matter — earning them and Georgia Gubernatorial candidate and founder of Fair Fight, Stacey Abrams nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. And even on the frontlines of a worldwide pandemic, it’s been Black women who’ve been working as essential health care providers, vaccine developers, teachers, caretakers, and service industry providers.
Anthropologist Leith Mullings coined the term Sojourner Syndrome, named after abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Syndrome represents a survival strategy that has helped the African American community survive through slavery and Jim Crow segregation. This survival mechanism is communal and relies on Black women coming together for a common cause. Black women have long formed formal and informal organizations (i.e., church groups, sororities, National Coalition of 100 Black women) to support one another and serve their community’s needs. Sojourner Syndrome describes Black women’s adaptive response to stress and notes the resulting cumulative effects that negatively impact our physical and mental health. Despite this negative impact, Black women have survived because we had no other choice.
But, is simply surviving the best we can do for Black women?
The average life expectancy for Black women in the U.S. is 78 years old — three years shorter than white women. Data shows that Black immigrants have a longer life expectancy than their U.S.-born children, suggesting that despite the U.S. being a well-resourced country, our surroundings can have a negative impact on the health and well-being of Black people.
Black women are dying from preventable and treatable diseases that can often be alleviated by affordable and quality healthcare. They’re diagnosed later and have a higher risk of death compared to white women.
Black women are more likely to be the primary, sole, and co-breadwinners than Latina and White mothers.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, women in general, and Black women in particular, are incarcerated at some of the fastest-growing rates in the U.S. in the past forty years.
And even though Black women are one of the most educated groups in the U.S., they have the highest student loan debt and make less money than their counterparts, earning 63 centsto the dollar paid to White men.
Unsurprisingly, Black women, particularly those living below poverty, are experiencing a rising rate of mental health issues including psychological distress. Despite suicide rates among African Americans being generally lower than the White population, African American girls in grades 9-12, are 70% more likely to attempt suicide in comparison with their White counterparts.
The social, economic, and political conditions of Black women in the U.S. are all intersect.
A few years after Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to congress became the first Black woman presidential candidate, a group of Black women known as the Combahee Collective said, “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”
Black women face misogynoir, or misogyny directed towards Black women where both race and gender play roles in bias that directly impacts our health and well-being. Yet, Black women remain defiant against the restraints placed on us. We must take stock of our wins without allowing them to make us complacent. While we see the advancement for a proportion of Black women in some sectors, an increasing number of Black women find ways to engage in radical self and communal care, finding rest and joy to be forms of resistance and healing.
While Black women are saving everyone, who will save us? The answer is and has always been “us.” Black women are envisioning and manifesting a new reality. A reality in which Black women not only survive, but thrive, and this thriving is not based on diminishing the very aspects of ourselves who make us who we are or subsuming our needs for those of others. Black women have to recognize that taking care of ourselves ultimately benefits our community. There is often guilt associated with the notion of “self-care.” Self-care needs to be decolonized and repurposed so that taking care of our communities does not require Black women to become martyrs and sacrifice our own well-being. There will be no prince to come along and save us, instead, much like Meghan, we may have to do the saving, but must start with ourselves.
This article was written in collaboration with Rebekah Sager, an award-winning journalist with over a decade of experience covering news, lifestyle, entertainment, and human-interest stories. She’s contributed to the Washington Post, Hollywood Reporter, Playboy, VICE, AARP, and other national outlets.