Commentary
By Jennifer Bailey 5-12-2017

She died on Mother’s Day Eve at 9:32 a.m.

The sun was pouring through the lace curtains surrounding the big picture window illuminating her chocolate skin as it always had. Granny stepped out of the room to take a telephone call. It was just mama and me. I put my head on her chest so that I could hear her heartbeat. The hospice nurse told me that hearing was one of the last things to go. So, during the pauses between her last few labored breaths I whispered, “I love you” into her ear. She took in one last gasp of air and the beating stopped.

Last year, I had the opportunity to accompany my mama on the final stretch of her 14-year battle with metastatic breast cancer. It was the greatest honor of my life. My mother was my compass. Whenever I felt lost I knew that if I could find her, I would find my way home. I saved all the voicemails that I could just to capture her particular cadence and tone. I listened to some this morning. I heard her worry, her joy, her snark, her laugh, and most of all her unconditional love.

The best gift she ever gave me is to know what it feels like to be loved, seen, and know that I am enough. That love is the closest I have come to tasting the fruit of the divine in this reality.

During that journey the words of former ESPN anchor Stuart Scott became a refrain of comfort in my mind, "You beat cancer by how you live."

My mama lived with grace, resilience, and courage and in the process taught all who loved her how to fight. Like so many black women, her back was strong from carrying so much and so many people upon it.

It is a reality I both lament and celebrate. A bittersweet reminder that for women of color, strength is often not an option, but a necessity for our survival. Within my own community the cultural narrative of the “strong black woman” is one that is readily reinforced from pop culture tropes that amplify #blackgirlmagic to politicians such as California Congresswoman Maxine Waters who, after being criticized and dismissed because of her physical appearance on the now-defunct O’Reilly Factor, declared, “I am a strong black woman, and I cannot be intimidated.”

To be sure, there is something deeply admirable about our tenacity. Yet, far too often what is absent from our conversations about the need for resilience among communities of color is the underlying role of trauma in defining our lived experiences.

For black women, our trauma is by nature political. Our very embodiment places us in a never-ending cycle of entanglement with systems, people, and policies designed to perpetuate violence and domination.

The work of generative somatics teaches us that trauma is both an individual and collective experience that is held in our bodies. Everyday experiences of racism, classism, and sexism often show up in the form of stress, mental illness, and disease. Research shows that chronic stress can disrupt metabolic, vascular, and immune systems and cause cells to age quicker. A 2006 study published by Arline Geronimus, a University of Michigan Professor, and others in the American Journal of Public Health, posits that black Americans’ health deteriorates more rapidly than other groups’ because they bear a heavier chronic stress load.

The impact is particularly true among black women, who face the burden of both racial and gender discrimination. For example, the Black Women’s Health Imperative notes that African- American women diagnosed with breast cancer, the illness that claimed by my mama’s life, are 40 percent more likely to die from the disease than their white counterparts.

Because our trauma is political, our healing must be as well. Healing is justice work. The words of Audre Lorde, a black lesbian writer and activist ring as true today as they did decades ago: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

For black women to engage in the act of loving themselves, fully, in a society that deems them and their labor disposable is both counter cultural and revolutionary. One of the great lies of our American culture is that rugged individualism is the highest form of self-expression. Politicized healing for black women looks like creating brave spaces to see and be seen, to hear and be heard. Spaces for black women to surface the trauma that we carry and to uncover the strength that can be found in our vulnerability. It is work that cannot be done in isolation and must be held in community with others.

I often wonder that if my mama had such spaces consistently throughout her life, she might be here today. Sometimes I give myself the space to feel the depth of my sadness around her death, which has been lingering just below the surface of the past 365 days. It comes in waves. Sometimes it engulfs me and I feel like I'm drowning. Other times it comforts me and lulls me back to her and thus to God herself.

Named one of 15 Faith Leaders to Watch in 2015 by the Center for American Progress, Rev. Jennifer Bailey is an ordained minister, community organizer, and emerging Millennial leader in multi-faith movement for justice. She is a Founder of the Faith Matters Network a new interfaith community equipping leaders in the American South with tools to challenge economic injustice in local communities through story and action. Rev. Jen is currently a Nathan Cummings Foundation Fellow, an elite cohort of innovative leaders combatting issues of economic and social inequality with outside-the-box thinking. She is an ordained itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.

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