I’m finally retiring my Black superwoman cape and learning how to take care of myself before everyone else.
Black women are many things. We are beautiful, #blackgirlmagic and if we’re being real, solid gold, baby. For the longest time we have been seen as the glue that keeps Black families, Black communities, Black men and pretty much everyone and everything else, together. We are expected to be resilient anchors in everyone's lives, forcing us to subsequently forget the lives that matter most - our own. What we've done instead of catering to ourselves, is wear constant selflessness as a badge of honour, reaching deep within ourselves to unleash a maternal and nurturing instinct that has manifested into a forced and stifling stereotype.
I've struggled to put a name to this for a long time. That is until I came across a tweet by the fierce Slumflower Our lives and every inch of them are an unceasing offering to our friends, children, partners, colleagues and even strangers walking down the street. We have been the revolutionary, although hidden figures, behind pivotal moments in history. Whether it was the abolitionist movement or the women’s suffrage movement, we continue to serve society despite the likely burden ourselves especially as it pertains to causes that may not necessarily promote or consider our wellbeing.
Even as powerful figures in the contemporary workforce, we are quick to ensure everyone is served refreshments during a meeting, and almost always around to tidy up afterwards. We can be heard insisting, 'I got it, I really don't mind.’ We are both unwilling (but more accurately, uncertain) of how to let go of our 'Black woman superhero complex' because it has come to define many of us in various ways.
The Eldest Child
I, for example, am the eldest of my parents' three children. As any firstborn in an African family will tell you, this position comes with the added pressures of having to be the 'first' in so many other spheres of your life - the first to graduate from university, the first to get a high-paying job, the first to get married and the first to give them a grandchild. Add to that my natural inclination to play the role of peacemaker, and it reveals that I am a prime example of a Black woman trying to be everything to everyone in every moment.
Despite my heroic exterior, there are many days in which I feel my personal reservoir is no deeper than a puddle of water on the road after a light rain, and I begin to vacillate between self-loathing and anger. I throw a pity party for myself wondering why others always seem to take from me but never give in return. As I fling myself time and again on my therapist's couch and ask her exactly this, she replies with the same answer she offers to me week after week: set boundaries. She reminds me that I cannot offer everyone else an overflowing cup while they barely offer me a quarter of that in return; I must practice the art of selfishness; I need to learn to say no.
As I reflected on her advice, I realized that I no longer wanted to play superwoman. I didn't want to be constantly stuck in the vicious cycle of giving too much, falling into an abyss of self-loathing, and then recharging my spirit, only to fall prey to the same pattern once again. I no longer wanted to define my Black African womanhood by how often I could place the needs and wants of others before mine, or by the number of times I would allow people to plug themselves into my spirit and leave recharged while I felt completely spent.
Chasing Our Own Dreams
Being the firstborn, I have placed many of my own dreams aside so that I could help raise my two younger siblings. I refrained from travelling overseas to study out of worry that my siblings would be unable to cope without me being there to guide them. Who would have those uncomfortable conversations with them that I knew my parents would not consider? How could I go off to another country when we had just lost our father? I treated (and still do) my brothers as if they were my own children. That's what we do as Black women. We want to fill every vacuum that occurs in the lives of others without asking ourselves whether we should in the first place.
I begrudgingly remember during a moment of frustration with my younger siblings, recalling all the good I had done (and was still doing for them). They responded with the unintentional callousness that came from children who didn't grasp the magnitude of the sacrifices I had made for them - they had never asked me to. What hurt the most was that they were correct. While we selflessly offer ourselves to others and they receive our efforts with open arms, the reality is that we are doing so freely. We are not staring down the barrel of a gun.
As Black women, we need to come to the realization that even when we do have so much to give, it's still no reason to physically, emotionally, mentally or spiritually bankrupt ourselves. This doesn't make us any less of the strong Black women we already are. In fact, it makes us better people not only to those around us but first and foremost, to ourselves.