During Black History Month we devote time to honor those who have sacrificed and struggled to make society better for others. While contemplating this, I started to think about whether people like Audre Lorde, bell hooks and even Harriet Tubman ever took time to take care of themselves. My experiences this past month have illustrated that no matter who you are and where you are in the struggle, you need to care for yourself.
One day last month I woke up to pain and discomfort. Although I automatically knew something was wrong, I hesitated to make an appointment to see the doctor. As a black woman who is in the early part of her career, I felt that I could not afford to take time out for “discomfort”; I went to work, taught classes and attended meetings. Besides, I am a healthy person. I try to eat right, and I exercise at least four times a week. What could be wrong? Later in the week, I disclosed my problem to some close friends who persuaded me to go to the emergency room.
I didn’t want anyone to know. I wasn’t ashamed, but I didn’t want anyone to worry about me. I became so accustomed to caring for others that I didn’t know how to handle someone worrying about me. I am the one who makes sure my parents make their doctors’ appointments and avoid illness because both have had numerous health issues. I know the status of their health better than my own!
I realized, thinking about all of this, that I often have an exterior that gives the appearance of invincibility, that I can deal with anything that comes my way. In the process I forget to take care of myself. In fact, I am often last on my list. However, as black women we must take care of ourselves.
Consider the following statistics:
According to the Black Women’s Health Imperative (2015):
- More than 34 percent of the 45 million Americans who lack health insurance are women of color.
- The breast cancer death rate for women aged 45–64 years is 60 percent higher for black women than white women.
- Diabetes affects 1 in 4 women ages 55 years and older and is listed as the fourth leading cause of death for all ages. Diabetes is more prevalent among black women than other ethnic groups.
- Black women suffer rates of heart disease that are twice as high as those among white women.
- Black women account for nine out of 10 new HIV infections among women.
Although my problem turned out to be something that can be treated, what if it had been more serious? I thought about those who on a daily basis ignore signs that something is wrong with their health. As black women we must realize that self-care does not mean the lack of care of others. I constantly struggle with not perpetuating what author Michele Wallace calls the “myth of the superwoman”: