‘Lifting as We Climb’: Black Wellness in the Context of Black Political Struggle

Welcome to the opening of the 2016 Black Liberation Month. I’ve been thinking a lot about black wellness in the context of black political struggle. Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”[i] Let’s read that again.

"Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

This month is about our history, about the ancestors who dreamed us and the struggles that define the past and define our present. This month is also about our future. The past and the future are not separate. As James Baldwin wrote, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”[ii] What does Baldwin mean that we carry it within us? What might it mean to carry the legacy of the ancestors with pride and dignity? I like the idea that my ancestors are alive and kicking in me; that the strength and grit that saw them through is within me; that in standing on their bones, I can see that I am not alone, but that I am a part of a great dream that they had.

"I like the idea that my ancestors are alive and kicking in me; that the strength and grit that saw them through is within me; that in standing on their bones, I can see that I am not alone, but that I am a part of a great dream that they had."

The strength of black folks is our diversity. It is white supremacy that would have us believe that we are all the same. Some of you want to look to our history this month and celebrate that legacy. We are preceded by great people who built lives of beauty and integrity in the face of cruelty and oppression. But we are more than our history.  Our ancestors exceeded always the single story that the oppressor had of them. Some of you are more interested in looking toward the future, thinking about how we build our visions and dreams. But as Avery Gordon writes, “We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there.”[iii] It is the weave and weft of the past and the future that generates the blanket with which we wrap ourselves in the pursuit of our collective wellness. We need to hold both of these. It is in combining our great legacy and our profound visions of tomorrow that we find our strength.

So, what does black wellness look like? Well I know what it isn’t. It isn’t schools that criminalize our young folks with police patrolling the halls. It isn’t in the toxins and other environmental hazards, which are disproportionately dumped in our neighborhoods. It isn’t the discrimination in the health care system, where doctors routinely prescribe inadequate pain medication to dying black patients because of some image of us as drug users. And it surely isn’t in the NYPD officer choking Eric Garner as he clearly says “I can’t breathe.” Right now, we live in a society that treats black lives as if they are disposable. We have over 2 million people in prison cages in this country, disproportionately black folks. Our society has failed to grapple with the persistent connections between this great confinement in prisons and the logics of enslavement that founded this country and enabled the wealth accumulation to make us a world power. We are living in a society where being named Jamal or Lakisha makes one less likely to get a job interview, than if your name is Emily or Greg.[iv]

What does black wellness look like? I have spent a lot of time thinking about this over the past year.

A world defined by black wellness would include an empowering educational environment where teachers can see the potential of their black students, quality housing in our communities, meaningful jobs that contribute to the collective, access to healthcare, the knowledge that one is accounted for- that society will notice when our daughters go missing, or our sons don’t come home at night. A world defined by black wellness would be one where our beauty and intelligence, creativity and spirit are valued for the rich resources that they are. So, let’s declare 2016 the year of black wellness, of black healing. This means looking around ourselves with fresh eyes. Seeing the beauty in the faces of the young black men around us, seeing the wisdom in the young black women here. Inviting in the deep knowing of our grandmothers and the laughter of our grandfathers. That doesn’t mean retreating from the hard realities that we face, it means renewing our commitment to black liberation, but knowing that the battle is long and we need beauty, art, creativity, good food, dancing, our spirituality, our love. It can seem really really difficult to imagine our own wellness in times like these. Ultimately we must listen to the wisdom of Sister Lorde’s words, that self-care is a central component of our liberation. When we work ourselves to sickness, when we don’t get enough sleep, when we stop laughing, when we fail to nourish our bodies with good food, we are working against our own liberation. The seeds of black wellness are already within us, we already know what it is, our bodies remember. Over the next 11 months, lets surround ourselves with images of black wellness, whether that is a picture of an old woman gardening in Arkansas’ red clay soil or a video on youtube of a black child breakdancing.


I titled this talk “Lifting as we climb,” for two reasons. One reason was to honor the black women who organized a club movement in 1896 that led to the formation of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW) in Washington, D.C.[v] The organization’s founders included some of the most renowned African-American women educators, community leaders, and civil-rights activists, including: Harriet Tubman, Frances E.W. Harper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell. ‘Lifting as we climb’ was their motto. The other reason that I chose to gesture toward ‘lifting as we climb’ is because of that ‘we’ in the phrase, — ‘ Lifting as WE climb”. Black wellness is not an individual goal; it is a collective goal. It is something accomplished in solidarity, in communion. It is not just about changing our individual mindsets, but the entire compass of American society’s inability to see that ‘ Blacks Lives Matter’/ that black lives are lives of intellect and feeling, meaning and dignity. We are bound together by a history of struggle, but also by a vision of our own wellness and that is a beautiful thing. I can’t find the healing that I need, I can’t live my purpose here, if you do not find yours. It is in the greatness of each of your soul’s purposes that I can come to know the beauty of mine. So, as we reach toward a greater place of wellness and healing, let’s lift each other up as well. Let’s see our own beauty in one another’s faces, our own joy in one another’s laughter, our own brilliance in one another’s ideas. By learning to really see each other, we can build a world defined by black wellness.


[i] Lorde, Audre. 1988. A Burst of Light : Essays. Ithaca, N.Y.: Firebrand Books.

[ii] Baldwin, James. 1985. The Price of the Ticket : Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s/Marek.

[iii] Gordon, Avery. 2004. Keeping Good Time: Reflections on Knowledge, Power, and People. Boulder: Paradigm Publishing.

[iv] Bertrand, Marianne and Sendhil Mullainthan. (2007). “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?: A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination.” In Margaret Anderson and Patricia Hill Collins (eds.) Race, Class and Gender: An Anthology. 7th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.

[v] Jones, Beverly W. “Mary Church Terrell and the National Association of Colored Women, 1896 to 1901.” The Journal of Negro History 67.1 (1982): 20-33.