7 Bridging the Academy and the Community, One Breath at a Time: The Healing Power of Africana Women’s Studies
By Brea Stevenson, Sonja Andrews, NaTasha Robinson, and Donielle Pace, Clark Atlanta University
Africana Women’s Studies (AWS), as an academic field, emerged because Women’s Studies and Africana/Black Studies failed to address the unique needs of Black women. (See Sears’s essay in this collection.) By centering Black women’s lived experiences, AWS creates a safe space that promotes positive mental health. In these spaces, Black women’s standpoints and epistemologies (Collins 2000) are affirmed, and we define ourselves outside of a white patriarchal gaze. Furthermore, the goal of AWS research and theory is to improve the lives of Black women.
In The Black Woman Anthology, one of the earliest canonical texts of AWS, editor Toni Cade Bambara writes of the book’s contributors: “Some are mothers. Others are students. Some are both. All are alive, are Black, are women. And that, I should think, is credential enough to address themselves to issues that seem to be relevant to the sisterhood” (1970, 7). Bambara dismantles academic and community divisions and establishes AWS as a field created by and for all Black women. Fifty years later, AWS is providing us the space to BREATHE.
In Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability, Evans, Burton, and Bell argue, “the modern Africana woman just wants to breathe… get some air…release… Refresh and feel anew…love…and be loved… and she does not want to be made to feel guilty about it” (2017, 4). Breathing allows Africana women to exhale, be free from expectation, realize our humanity, and find healing. The BREATHE Model is a set of principles that, when utilized, develop positive mental health and well-being. This essay will use the BREATHE model to examine how AWS concepts translate into practical tools for Black women’s healing inside and outside of the academy. We conceptualize AWS as a movement, and it is our intention that this writing will inspire its growth.
Balance: Evans et al. define balance as “engaging in the purposeful repositioning of one’s commitments such that all priorities are addressed” (2017, 4). Similarly, according to Audre Lorde, for Black women, self-care is an act of political warfare (1988). Centuries of systemic oppression have resulted in the internalization of the Eurocentric image of the strong Black woman. Internalization of this image complicates our ability to practice balance and manifests itself in deleterious health consequences for Black women (Hoytt and Beard, 2012).
The practice of balance for Black women, therefore, begins with deconstructing ideas of strength. Because of the strength required to survive the daily onslaught of discrimination, micro-aggression, and oppression, total annihilation of Black women’s conceptualization of ourselves as strong does not improve Black women’s mental health. On the contrary, it deprives Black women of a critical tool needed to live in an anti-black society (Brown and Cochran, 2003). Black women, then, cannot afford to deny our strength, but we must define it for ourselves. The Black Women’s Health Imperative promotes health and wellness while honoring Black women’s strength. Self-preservation of Black women is directly aligned with the goals of AWS. Barbra Smith writes, “the bias of Black Women’s Studies must consider as primary the knowledge that will save Black women’s lives” (2000, xxv), and BWHI is fulfilling this AWS legacy by causing us to reflect on our strengths and vulnerabilities.
Reflection: For years, Black women have been conditioned to endure trauma, suppress our feelings, and just move on. This contributes to the failing of our physical health and our spiritual well-being (Walker, 1983). Therefore, we must develop methods and practices that provide us the space to evaluate and examine our lived experiences. Evans et al. defines this as reflection, to “set aside time for contemplation and performing emotional and cognitive audits” (2017, 5). Reflection, then, is a self-analytical praxis that must be done carefully so we do not recapitulate our own trauma and abuse. We must be intentional with the reflective methods we choose to implement.
Anna Julia Cooper (1982) states, “reflection looks backward for wisdom, looks inward for strength, and looks forward in hope and faith” (in Evans et al, 2017). Evans proposes writing, especially poetry and memoirs, as one coping mechanism used to alleviate anguish of trauma survivors (2015). For example, Charlotte Pierce-Baker invited rape survivors to share their stories for her book Surviving the Silence (1998). Pierce-Baker explains, “Surviving the Silence is the mapping of a new space. A space in which black women can learn to trust and speak to ‘one other’ and then to ‘one another’ in a sharing recovery of memory, of sanity” (18). Although Black women’s trauma is often unspeakable, writing our stories provides us with a safe space to convey our lived experiences. As a result, when Black women participate in reflective practices, we not only shift the narratives about ourselves; we (re)gain ownership of our narratives and selves.
Energy: Evans et al. defines energy as “one’s ability to reinvigorate goals and set upon a path to achieve them” (2017, 5). For Africana women reinvigorating goals involves challenging the dominant narrative about Black women’s lived experiences. Often times Black women must navigate systemic oppressions that devalue our worth and limit our opportunities. When we are successful, we overcome barriers of racism, sexism, and classism that seek to keep Black women at the bottom of the socio strata. AWS helps Africana women reimagine our lives, and thus renews our confidence in our ability to affirm our own ways of being and definitions of success.
Decentering dominant ideologies of success frees Black women to achieve goals previously thought impossible. For example, Michelle Obama, who grew up on the Southside of Chicago, rejected the notion that applying to Princeton University was overreaching for a Black girl. She eventually graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School. Michelle Obama’s story is one of countless stories which affirms the limitless potential of Black girls and women. Despite a barrage of messages communicating our worthlessness, affirmation, in the form of representation, allows Black women and girls to understand their value. By defining her own success, Michelle Obama helps deconstruct the Black woman in the white imagination. This deconstruction helps Black women break the barriers to our collective progress.
Association: For years, Black women have been the subjects of a false narrative that imagines Black women’s relationships as spiteful, manipulative, and hostile. We have determined this is a lie! According to Evans et al. Black women need “association” in order to “create and maintain social networks that promote, affirm, and encourage wellness” (2017, 6). Similarly, Clenora Hudson-Weems argues that sisterhood is a key component for our survival, and, when we are in unison, it strengthens us (Black women) and (Black) communities. Having a solid association is vital to AWS (2001). As The Combahee River Collective argued, Black women need spaces that allow us to be vulnerable, transparent, and authentic (1978, 9-10). Sisterhood provides us with the inclusiveness that is essential for our mental health and wellness.
In The Crunk Feminist Collection, Cooper, Morris, and Boylorn, affirmed sisterhood is a practice (2017). My cohorts and I (Pace) put this ideology into practice when we began our doctoral program at Clark Atlanta University. Beside the rigorous workload of the program, each of us had to adjust to living in a new city without family. Even worse, we were experiencing a lack of support from our loved ones. The disconnect we felt from our families increased our desire for association with one another. Eventually, an authentic sisterhood was formed, where we found ourselves crying, venting, laughing, engaging in healthy discourse, holding each other accountable, and just being with one another. Through our safe space, we have learned the value of sisterhood and its necessity to sustaining our mental health while navigating through this challenging program. For Black women, sisterhood encourages us to remove the walls that were meant to divide us.
Transparency: Oftentimes, Black women are not provided with a safe space to voice our opinion, be vulnerable, share our experiences, and speak our truths. As a result, Black women are being silenced, experiencing anxiety and depression, and, not accessing the healthy practices necessary to ensure mental wellness. However, AWS provides Black women with the necessary space, language, and practices to break our silence and be transparent.
Evans et al. describes transparency as “actively avoid[ing] remaining silent about painful experiences” (2017, 6). Transparency is an imperative component to AWS and for Black women achieving mental wellness. Audre Lorde expounded on this concept within The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action. Lorde expresses how speaking our truth leads to self-revelation, connection with other sisters, bridging differences, and transforming silence into language and action (2007, 42). In other words, transparency is revolutionary, and we need it to survive!
These revolutionary acts are not only implemented within AWS classrooms, but scholars are also using these acts within Africana communities. For example, my sister scholars and I (Tasha) often share AWS content on our personal social media pages as well as our cohort page. When we share content, it allows the digital community to have a space where we practice transparency and share our stories. Thus, AWS is a movement that not only provides the space and tools to achieve mental wellness, but those tools also reach the community to provide healing for all.
Healing: Africana Women’s Studies encourages Black women to challenge Eurocentric epistemology and embrace an Afrocentric epistemology. This includes the way we understand mental wellness and healing. Black women traumas take up residency in our bodies and influence how we interact with ourselves and our communities. If we do not intentionally consider our well-being and actively contribute to our own healing process when addressing traumas and experiences as Africana women, we will not physically, emotionally, and spiritually thrive. Evans et al. describes healing as “Look[ing] for ways to nurture wellness in self and others” (2017, 6).
Africana women implement healing through acts of self-care. According to Cooper et al., self-care consists of intentional acts aiding towards a person’s, or community’s, mental, physical, and spiritual care (2017, 297). Black women have been discovering different avenues to practice self-care. For example, there are several programs that provide the space for Black women to workout together. Within these programs, not only are they creating ways to improve their physical health, but they are also having motivational conversations to improve their mental and spiritual health. Personally, when I (Tasha) attended “A New You Wellness Center” sessions, the attendees and I prayed before and after the sessions, meditated, and gave tips on how to survive for the week. Healing is an ultimate act of self-love. As Africana women discover self-love, the journey to recover Afrocentric practices, used by our ancestors to achieve healing, will prevail.
Empowerment: Audre Lorde said, “…if I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive” (2007, 137). Through this proclamation Lorde acknowledges that we have to (re)define and (re)claim ourselves. Black women have been defined based on hegemonic, dehumanizing stereotypes, and, as a result, we have been disempowered and dissociated. Evans et al. argue that Black women must have agency over our empowerment by reclaiming our history, accessing our “internal power,” and obtaining authority over our own well-being (2017, 7; 14-16).
In addition, Evans argues that in order for Black women to achieve transformative change, we must control our personal power. For instance, I (Pace) decided to let my sons live with their dad while I pursued my PhD at CAU. After making this decision, I endured criticism. The dominant ideology insists that the mother, seen as the most significant parental figure, must live in the same household as their children. My decision, however, challenged this ideology about motherhood and affirmed African value systems that believe it takes a village to raise a child. As we have noted, becoming active agents in our own movement begins by renaming and reclaiming our history, defining our experiences, and determining our futures as Africana women.
The incorporation of the BREATHE principles in the curriculum and culture of the AWS program support Black Women’s health and well-being. AWS, then, is more than an academic program; it is a healing space that puts Black women on the path toward self-discovery and wholeness. Its visionary principles should be utilized to practice bridging the gap between community and academy. As scholar-activists, we understand the necessity of AWS in Black communities, and we accept the responsibility to revitalize Black consciousness. The existence of Black women depends on us making, taking, and being provided with the space, language, and practice(s) to write, speak, and create our own identities. By disrupting the silencing of Black women’s voices, specifically pertaining to intra-racial concerns, AWS is revolutionary!
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Burton, Nsenga K. 2017. “Representations of Black Women’s Mental Illness in HTGAWM and Being Mary Jane,” in Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability, eds., Stephanie. Y. Evans, Kanika. Bell, and Nsenga. K. Burton, 64- 67. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
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- We would like to send a big Black woman thank you to Dr. Stephanie Evans! Thank you for your mentorship, belief in our work, and commitment to saving Black women’s lives. We would also like to thank Dr. Shayne for providing us with a platform to share our work as we begin our journey as Black Women’s Studies Scholars! [ ↵
- Throughout this writing we will use the words Black and Africana to refer to all people of African descent. ↵
- As an acronym, each of the letters contained in the word represent one principle that, when focused on, can improve Black women’s mental health. The letters in word BREATHE stand for Balance, Reflection, Energy, Association, Healing, and Empowerment. ↵
- The Black Women’s Health Imperative was founded by Byllye Avery with the goal of ensuring the health and wellness of Black women and girls. https://bwhi.org. ↵