Browse Tag: depression

Love and Afrofeminism: Is the Self Care Movement Individualist or Revolutionary?

My first two posts focused on Love for Others (i.e., relationships), so this week, I wanted to focus on Love for Self. Here we go…

Hi, My name is Spectra, and I’m a recovering first daughter of an African family. Many of you may not know what this means, but if there are any Africans (or better yet, Nigerians) reading this: You are not alone. For the rest of you, let me explain.

My first name, Adaora, in Igbo (a Nigerian language) means “Daughter of the People.” The root, “Ada”(pronounced, “Ah-Dah”) always refers to the first daughter of the family. So, when one meets other Adas (Adaobi, Adaeze, Adaaku, etc.), you instantly know they, too, are the first daughters in their families, and therefore share your plight.

Being the first daughter of an African family comes with many rewards: constant praise just for being the first girl, early leadership training due to your parents believing (for the mere fact that you were born first) that you can handle anything, doting Aunties, Grandmothers, and community members the instant they hear your name, and first dibs at every aspect of family life, including the stew pot, Christmas presents, and parenting mistakes.

Now that you know this, you’re ready for the good part. My name is particularly interesting; the second root word, “Ora” (pronounced “Ore-Rah”), translates to “community.” Thus, Adaora (my full name, pronounced Ah-dore-rah) suggests a permanent relationship between the daughter of a Nigerian family and her community. Adaora is the pride and joy of her people, the girl who will always lead by good example. Adaora is the child that will shoulder the responsibility of her siblings’ welfare (because she is the oldest) and her community’s livelihood (because she is a leader). Adaora’s roles, responsibilities, and indeed, obligations to her family (to run the house), her community (to lead it and make it proud), and to herself (to be perfect, and never think of self), were decided for her at birth.

Most Adas will wear this ribbon proudly, never questioning their parents’ casual, yet persistent dictations of their careers, paths, and romantic lives. The mother of an Ada looks forward to the day when her daughter will finally marry, make her the proudest mother in the city/village/planet, bear children (an Ada of her own), and never once question if any of this is what Ada wants.

Sound familiar? You don’t have to be Nigerian to recognize the challenge of traditional gender roles—and women being pigeon-holed into caregiving. Some of us have these roles upheld through political systems or religious faiths. However, in my case, the gendered role (of caring for everyone else and sacrificing my needs, constantly, for the betterment of my family and community) happens to be dictated by my culture. Still, my Nigerian/African heritage is a very central part of my identity; our family values, community-centric approach to everything, and the strong sense of duty that comes with both of those things have guided me for as long as I can remember. Thus, even with the heightened awareness that perhaps an unusual amount of self-sacrifice came with my name, I was reluctant to deviate from this for a very long time.

For instance, as the first daughter of my family, it was my unspoken responsibility to take care of my siblings when they first arrived in the US for school. I was just a freshman in college myself, but there was absolutely no question that I would find a way to pay for things they needed, host them during holidays (in my single coffin-sized bedroom, even against school policy that prohibited long-term guests), and play the role of surrogate parent until my parents could get back on their feet. That never happened. And so, while my friends could go afford to go shopping, party on weeknights, and get their hair done whenever they were having an unpretty day, every single decision I made about money or time revolved around my responsibility to care for my siblings (who, by the way, resented me for playing mother all the time, and thus rebelled constantly). I had become so accustomed to ignoring my own needs that I sank further and further into depression.

It became too much. I eventually exhausted my capacity to continue shouldering the burden of being “the first daughter” and, one night, could no longer stay shackled to being a role model of duty and self-sacrifice. I attempted to take my own life.

I have since then adopted self-love and self-care as a framework, and a lifestyle. And though I really want to tell you that it was the love for self that moved me to take better care of myself and tend to my needs, it happened to also be out of “duty” that I decided to get better. The thought of my siblings (especially my sister, who was undocumented and living with me in my dorm room at the time) being forced to fend for themselves in such a xenophobic country post-9/11 made the decision to take care of myself easier; after all, it was for them.

Before I go any further, I have to mention how uncomfortable I am with this notion of considering “duty” to others even in the face of severe depression. As a survivor who often speaks about suicide and mental health, I can’t tell you how infuriating it is to hear people talk about people who died by suicide as “selfish,” as this places blame on the person, and not on the system/environment that pushed them to the act in the first place. Yet, I also cannot deny the reality of my own experience, and that there is something very compelling (perhaps, due to my cultural values) about assessing either the benefit or liability of one’s actions on the community(ies) to which one belongs. In my case, assessing the impact of my own mental health on my siblings’ lives motivated me to better take care of myself, but this obviously isn’t always the case, and won’t work for everyone.

African culture prioritizes the welfare of the whole over the individual—perhaps too much so. But on the flipside, the individualism I’ve experienced in the US isn’t much better. For instance, LGBT people of color and members of the faith community are often judged by coming-out-obsessed mainstream “Gay, Inc.” for not being “strong” or “selfless” enough, essentially devaluing how strength is defined within their own contexts, perhaps as self-sacrifice. As such, people who literally “choose life” by prioritizing their self-care and general livelihood over family expectations are celebrated (whereas they’d be judged harshly in other contexts).

The tension between self-care and community care (or individualism and martyrdom, as I prefer to label them in extremes) are evident in the media: The ongoing debate about whether celebrities should be forced to come out (e.g., Queen Latifah’s ongoing battle with the media trying to out her), the way praise is delivered à la remarks of self-sacrifice when they do (e.g., Frank Ocean’s recent coming out in the face of a homophobic hip hop industry), and the incessant policing of how survivors deal with their trauma (e.g., Rihanna as a controversial role model for domestic violence survivors) are just a few examples.

But it’s not just celebrity that is plagued by the question of whether taking time out to care for oneself is individualist or truly a revolutionary act in a system that restricts women to caregiving; unhealthy nonprofit martydom culture, too, often celebrates the poor, harried, unappreciated activist while admonishing those who prioritize their financial stability over world peace.

Despite this tension, however, self-care is undoubtedly becoming increasingly popular, to the point that some debate has already been sparked about its tendency towards individualism, and lack of accountability. I certainly am not for a culture of shirking responsibilities under the guise of “self-care” and self-absorption—disregarding the impact of one’s actions on our community/environment/others is no better. Yet, as more and more people adopt self-care as a way of life, I potentially see irresponsibility charading as self-care as a trend.

Ultimately, here’s what I believe: We need balance. I believe that by taking care of ourselves, we’re in a better position to care for community. Whenever my mother was strained, I preferred she disappeared for a few hours into her room then came out in a better mood then stay nagging and snapping at us the entire day. As an activist, I find that I’m no different. I’m much more efficient, tempered, and capable of supporting others when I feel nourished and spiritually centered.

Historians often hail Mother Theresa as the icon of selflessness; a woman of meager economic means, she dedicated her life to serving others who were less fortunate. Yet, even she—the most popular saint in the entire world—preached the importance of self-love and self-care. Her quote, “Love begins at home,” is a constant reminder that our communities are only as strong as we are; caring for ourselves must be our top priority if we desire the capacity to continually care for others. So, despite the messages that tell us we’re selfish for caring for ourselves, we must remain steadfast in the belief that when we’re kinder to ourselves, we’re better to each other and stronger for our communities.

What do you think? How have messages around servitude impacted you? Do you feel guilty when you take care of yourself? How do you manage it? What factors determine your decision to ultimately care for yourself and act for the benefit of your community?

Previously: Queer Bois and the Gendered Politics of Partner Dancing, Gender Roles and First Dates, Who Pays?, Love and Afrofeminism: My New Blog Series, #AfroFemLove

Activism and The Dark Side of Leadership

Last weekend, QWOC+ Boston hosted our annual fall social to welcome newcomers to Boston, build community, and celebrate both my birthday and achievement via my Lavender Rhino Award — given to an emerging activist whose impact on the local LGBT communities deserves recognition — from The History Project. My birthday had already happened earlier in the month, but as an astrology-enthusiast who believes in manifesting the energy within the “realm” of Virgo, I’ve always made it a point to award myself a month-long period of reflection, celebration, and life planning each year. Indeed, my birthday marks the beginning of my new year, and I’ve never taken this lightly.

Perhaps escaping the shackles that were my last relationship freed up some long-time buried aspirations, ’cause this past year was filled with more creativity in the form of my writing, photography, and drawing, new social entrepreneurial business ventures, deepening relationships with friends and a wonderful new partner, punctuated by an amazing award from a prestigious organization, coming out to my parents, and applying to business school. Craaaazy. And even though the fast pace of my eventful life was overwhelming at times, it felt good to be finally investing in myself, for a change.

I’ve been working my tail off for QWOC+ Boston in the spirit of community for over four years. And I’m only just now beginning to realize that I’ve never actually thought about all that I have compromised on (and, at times, sacrificed) in the name of community: definitely lots of money, my mental and physical health — I had to have surgery last year due to high stress levels creating too much cholesterol and thus, gall stones, for chrissake! — and, most importantly, my privacy.

For instance, last year I went through a painful breakup and had to suffer through the effects of this publicly. At nearly every QWOC+ event, people inquired (or demanded) to know the whereabouts of my other half. I avoided these questions at first, but this only led to whispers and speculation happening all around me. The woman who I’d thought I’d be with forever had just dumped me right before the holidays (ouch!), but I didn’t have the luxury of mourning in private; I was continually forced to relive the breakup with each question and judgment that was passed by people who didn’t know who I was, what I was going through, or even really cared about me…

They say that leadership is lonely. We tweet cute paraphrased quotes about this on the daily but so many of us never know this truth until we get there. And funny enough, the closer the HistoryMaker awards ceremony drew near, the more overwhelmed I became with the task of writing this speech, a speech that no doubt had to include some passionate call to action filled with strength and rhetoric. After all, I was the first woman of color recipient of the Lavender Rhino Award, no doubt it was my responsibility, for instance, to get up there and call out The History Project for asking the community for nominations and then essentially uninviting them by setting the ticket prices at $125 in the middle of a recession. I’d be surrounded by a room full of “white people that could benefit from hearing what I had to say.” At least that’s what someone told me.

At my birthday party, when I was already feeling disappointed that none of my organizers thought to bring out the cake, let alone get people to sing Happy Birthday or make a few remarks to acknowledge the occasion, several other activists (no doubt with a chip on their shoulder), reminded me that I was the “token person of color of the moment”, and my award was “nice and all” but that the History Project was just using me to make money. Sure, we all know that’s the way award shows work — you honor people of value so that you can sell tickets of value (cause someone’s gotta pay the caterer). But it still stung to hear other organizers/activists — who know what it’s like to toil and sweat over a community you love for no money and little to no recognition — attempt to ruin my moment with bitter sentiments and thus trivialize all the work that I have done, consistently, creatively, and collaboratively, for the past four years.

However, before permanent resentment had the chance to sink in, it occurred to me that we, as activists — whether you’re an educator, community organizer, youth worker, artist, parent, lawyer, etc — probably all feel used and unappreciated in some way. Almost every activist I know complains about feeling under-appreciated, tired, regarded with the admiration and disdain of a celebrity (for way less to no money), and yes, at times very lonely. I wondered about how that could be, when there are so many of us complaining about the same things, commiserating in the fleeting moments we walked by each other during community events during which we all had to be “on”. Was it possible that we still didn’t know that we each weren’t alone in this struggle to consistently rise to the occasion on behalf of others? Was it possible that we’d fallen into the dark side, resenting everyone else for the lack of empathy, encouragement, and support we ourselves were failing to give each other?

With this in mind, I decided to write a personal speech. I simply needed to express the conflicting emotions I’d been experiencing over the past month — coming out to my African parents, feeling tokenized, burnt out, unappreciated, proud… ? I didn’t have it in me to get up on a soapbox and rally – yet again – for a cause. For once, I wanted to advocate for myself. In so doing, I really believed I could touch someone else, the way I was touched when  first saw a woman of color speaking at at a Dyke March, openly and vulnerably about, well, being a gay woman of color in a sea of white people. At the time, I was feeling exactly the way she did (organizing with the Dyke March will do that to you), and the inspiration I felt after hearing her, moved me to create QWOC+ Boston.

I fought against the feeling that I was letting people down and committed to writing something deeply personal I hoped would resonate with other activists in the room. I wanted to be brave enough to out myself as human if just to reach one person with this message: “You are not alone.”

Still, the guilt of selfishly using my moment for my own personal therapy vs educating people as the public persona that is the sassy afrofeminist warrior woman continued to weigh me down. Could I really get up there and whine about how hard it was to be an “activist”? Or how I’d often felt a sense of estrangement being surrounded by fans all the time (vs. my real friends)? Would people, as they do with celebrities, go “Boo hoo, how hard it must be for you winning awards and having so much attention.”?

Or would they listen if I said that I was almost one of those kids I’d just read about on the news? That I was almost a teen suicide statistic because I wasn’t given enough opportunities to feel accepted, heard, and truly be myself. Shouldn’t we as adults, learn to value human beings as they are — open, vulnerable, complicated, diverse — rather than talk and orate ourselves into thin air…? Sometimes to prevent others from feeling completely hopeless, all we need to do is listen, not harp on about societal expectations or worse, send insensitive messages to people who are struggling to “get over it” based on some self-serving hierarchy of oppression.

By noon on the day of the ceremony I’d written a personal speech (which was originally intended to thank my close friends and family for a wonderful earthly-bound journal of letters they’d just given me for my birthday). But, just in case I lost my nerve, I had also crafted the beginnings of another speech, which was way more risque — calling out elitism and tokenization within queer organizing, urging people to consider their role in creating safe spaces for youth to feel accepted, namely, by being all of who they were, themselves —  and was stuck on which speech I should’ve been rehearsing for the evening.

Naturally, I did what any smart millenial leader would do, I tweeted and posted a Facebook question about what kind of speech to write. “Personal or Call to Action?”, I offered. The responses I received were overwhelmingly for the Call to Action. “It’s what people need to hear right now,” someone said, including “I think you’d write a compelling call to action.” I was flattered by all the votes of confidence. But a part of me was angry with the idea that, once again, giving of myself, I’d have to go against my emotional needs for the greater good, for the sake of invigorating others, for the sake of giving visibility to yet another important issue (in my mind, mental health and suicide prevention) when I was running on empty due to the same issue. How about what I needed to do? How about what other leaders needed to hear to encourage them to continue fighting?

My closest friends urged me to go with the personal and last minute, I decided to trust them, and myself. After all, these were the people who actually knew who I was, who were privy to the late nights brainstorming, the bar tab looming at poorly attended events, the fake displays of affection from others for the sake of associating with the “woman who runs QWOC+”… These people knew me simply as “the introvert who loves writing” and supported my need to express myself, personally. Moreover, the news about TWO recent teen suicides touched me in a way I couldn’t explain. I just needed to express somehow that depression and feelings of isolation based on your identity affect everyone, not just kids.

Dear reader, I am SO glad that I followed my heart and shared my personal story with all those people in the room. After my speech, during the mingling portion of the evening, so many people come up to me to share their appreciation of my words and bravery in being open and honest during my soapbox moment. A handsome boi of color (there were just a few of us as you can imagine) came up to me to shake my hand for acknowledging the er, lack of “culture” in the room. An Asian guy who had come out to his mother recently shared his story and offered his comfort. My friends stood up for me — including a few others in the room (I mean, there were a lot of elderly people so…). One of the members of GCN news — a pioneering paper that existed long before Bay Windows sold their soul — said she’d gotten choked up listening to my story, and that it reminded her of the need for friends and family in this work. And a distinguished gentlemen expressed being so filled with admiration that he looked forward to seeing and hearing more of me. This was far more rewarding of a post-speech experience than what I’m sure would’ve included firm hand-shakes and kudos for “sticking it to the man.” What we need is to be able to relate each other. What we need is comfort and inspiration from knowing that we are all human, and that anything — even the things that other people get awards for — is possible.

I didn’t offer a call to action yesterday because sometimes I think our lust for rhetoric and “big ideas” makes us lose sight of what’s important: people, and their connection to other people… in the room.

We all need to feel like we can be ourselves, no matter what. That’s why diversity is important — it creates a sense of belonging for more than just the majority. Creating spaces where people feel like they can be themselves and be both accepted and loved, unconditionally, as whole and complex human beings should be our TOP priority. Without a deep connection to humanity and all that comes with it — pride, culture, togetherness, oneness, vulnerability, support — so many of us would still be in the closet, spewing hate unto others, or as the recent teen suicides should tell us, simply not around when and if equality does finally come around :-/

So here’s my call to action: SPEAK, even when you feel like no one’s listening. STOP SPEAKING, long enough to listen to what others need around you need to say to feel SEEN. And BE ALL OF YOURSELF, all the time. You never know who’s watching you in the present, envisioning you as a future holding all that is possible. Oh, and always surround yourself with good friends :-)

Here’s a copy of the original Thank You note I wrote to my friends, family, and girlfriend, which became the motivation and parts of my speech yesterday. I want to share it with you in case you’ve ever felt like me, and in case it gives you comfort, as it will for me always.


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