“I’m Maggie and my family is from Ireland.” Next.
“I’m Jillian and I’m Italian.” Next.
“I’m Kate and I’m half German and about a quarter Italian.” Next.
It was part of their identity. It was where they were from. Imagine my dismay when the voices next to me and in front of me suddenly quieted, and it was my turn: the only Black girl in the classroom. I didn’t have anything snarky to say about the plight of my ancestors or the suffering my family had endured in the Jim Crow South. I remember stammering, “My name is Lorry, and I’m Black-Black. My family is from Chicago.” Between those moments, and questions of, “Are you sure you’re supposed to be in this class?” from my teachers, I began to feel embarrassed and out of place. I felt embarrassed of the long drive I would take back to the ‘hood every day. Embarrassed that I didn’t know much about where my family was from. Embarrassed that I sometimes couldn’t control the slang that would slip from my mouth before I could catch it. Embarrassed that I couldn’t get the hang of thesis statements. Embarrassed that the neighborhood school I had transferred from had neglected to teach me both parenthetical citations and how to balance my equations in algebra.
During my first semester in graduate school, what initially felt like excitement at the start of the school year became confusion, which became anxiety, and gradually I never even wanted to leave my bedroom. I wanted to sleep all day, and when I spoke to my colleagues and professors I felt my heart pounding in my chest. I questioned my ability to be successful in my program. Who did I think I was? I was gripped by loneliness and I felt like an imposter.
I contacted Mental Health Services and began to see a therapist regularly. One day, in one of our bimonthly sessions, I told her that I was angry because I felt the sting of independence and deep feelings of inadequacy; that I’m alone, and that no one is coming to save me. I complained that I felt I’d been inadequately prepared for my life. Who in my family had ever been in this position? Why had none of the older women I knew ever even lived alone or had to learn to take care of themselves, by themselves? Why didn’t I know how to thrive?
Unconsciously, I had been grasping all my life for “completeness” in people and places that would never satisfy the deep questioning that began in high school. Everywhere I went, I doubted if I was smart enough, articulate enough, skinny enough or beautiful enough. I wondered what people thought of me constantly. My therapist challenged me by asking who could have taught me to truly love myself and be completely self-reliant? Only a few generations ago, the only thing that the women in my family were concerned with was survival. Love for them meant provision and staying safe, not choosing between one-bedroom apartments and negotiating salaries. So, what’s my identity? What does my identity mean for my career? Where am I from? What’s the life that I’ll choose to create for myself? As Black academics, we bring our whole selves to the work that we do, yet we must balance our academic contribution with a deep commitment to our selves in order to sustain our effort. We have to dig deeply into our past, our faith, our families and find wholeness independently instead of looking for it in other people and things. How else can we be of service to others without deeply knowing (and loving) ourselves? I’ve learned that Love is the foundation of everything self-care. Here’s what I suggest as a good place to start your journey:
- Identity: Dig more into your family history and express gratitude for the richness that has brought you to where you are. Ask your grandmother or grandfather to tell you stories about their lives. Remember your own defining moments and how they’ve made you who you are today. Celebrate how you’ve become unapologetically you. Grab some Brene Brown and learn to be the most authentic version of yourself with your friends and colleagues.
- Faith: Get a belief system. I’m starting simple by reading the Bible and rediscovering who I am to God and what love means in my relationship with Him. I’m also being authentic with God by praying about my disappointment and doubts.
- Self-Romance: How can we expect to be loved well if we don’t know how to even love ourselves? Impress yourself. Speak tenderly to yourself. Clothe yourself for your best day every day. Smell good. Smile. Drink water and exercise! Feed yourself whole foods. Surround yourself with people who energize and challenge you. Go to that new restaurant you’ve wanted to try. Buy beautiful plates for your apartment. Don’t wait for someone to complete the “dream” with you. Live NOW. Lately, I’ve even be asking myself, do you love yourself enough to be disciplined and do what’s best for you even when you don’t want to do it?
- Wholeness: This is a tough one for me. I really think women are sold this idea of “independence”, but in practice, Black families often equate having a man with achieving stability. Seek stability on your own. Financially, emotionally, spiritually…honestly work toward living the life you imagine for yourself so that you can add a partner out of love instead of necessity.
- Lastly, find a therapist (read: therapist of color). I personally recommend Cognitive Behavior Therapy. This type of therapy in particular is useful to become a more intentional person whose thoughts, feelings, behaviors and actions are in alignment. If there’s only one thing you can invest in to take care of yourself this year, start there and you won’t regret it.