“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

These words, by Audre Lorde, a Black, civil rights activist, writer, lesbian and feminist who was especially prominent between the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, encapsulate an early notion of self-care that will be alien to many today, especially when compared to the current, Whitewashed and highly commercialised interpretation.

For Lorde, self-care wasn’t buying a candle, a new herbal tea, or any other form of consumerism, self-care was both the sustenance that sustained her ability to enact change and was in itself a radical act.

Before her death in 1992, Lorde solidified her powerful voice as a spoken word poet, and published a series of highly successful works, including A Burst of Light (1988) which, like many of her publications combines a mixture of creative prose and essays to convey her thoughts and perceptions on gender, sexuality, race and class.

In A Burst of Light, after being diagnosed with cancer for a second time, Lorde reflects on how she - a queer, Black woman who had given much of her life and self to civil rights activism - might utilise the act of self-care to not only function in the face of adversity, but as an extension of political warfare.

Lorde - here was expressing an experience that has been discussed much over the past year, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer in May 2020. The insidious prevalence of institutional racism and white supremacy in western society, and around the world in other forms of colourism and anti-Blackness, results in a common experience of trauma for all people of colour and Black people.

The complex dynamics of both institutional and interpersonal racism for people of colour are compounded when they interact with other socio-economic factors

This means that Black people of colour often experience compounded discrimination and trauma owing to anti-Blackness, Black women and queer Black people, especially Black transgender women often experience their own compounded effects of trauma owing to their sexuality and gender, when all these factors intersect with class, those living close to or below the poverty line experience their own increased risk of trauma.

All of this trauma can lead to a perpetual state of ‘survival mode’, where people experience hypervigilance, avoidance, dissociation and other trauma responses. Dedicating time so self-care, in whatever form it may be, when living in survival mode, can feel quite unattainable.

Speaking on practising self-care this past year, Dr Dwight Turner, Psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) told us:

“The murder of George Floyd for many black people triggered the wounds of racialised trauma, many of which had been repressed in order to survive within majority cultures... This meant that the need to discover or practice self-care became more urgent than at any time over the past 50 years or so.”

“For Audre Lorde, in her words, the body is political for black people and self-care for black people took on a very different angle from those from white cultures."

“Whereas for those who may be born in the Global North self-care might look like taking a holiday, buying a new car, or moving to one's second home in the countryside. The socio-economic reality for many black people is that these options are not open to them.”

Dr Dwight Turner reflected on how this self-care might look for Black people, “For black people, the detrimental psychological impact of living most of one’s life adapted and integrated into a system not of one's own, means that self-care is an act of returning to the self in which one's racialised authenticity becomes paramount.”

“The socio-economic and racial differences mean that self-care for black people more often than not involves activities such as being able to go to church on a Sunday, to eat a healthy meal, to get a good night's rest, and at a stretch to visit the seaside with a boot full of homemade food for a picnic in the car.”

Finally he commented on the ways, he personally has inserted the radical act of self-care into his life this year:

“For me, during this period, self-care has involved the taking of more staycation holidays and breaks out from seeing my clients. It has involved time by the sea, or walks and drives in the countryside. It has involved sleep and creating a space free from social media.”

For Audre Lorde, honouring herself through self-care as a Black, queer woman was a vital part in sustaining her work as an activist whilst simultaneously seeing it as an extension of that very same activism. Lorde saw the systems of White supremacy and institutional racism as a way to not only oppress Black bodies, but Black minds also and the mental health of Black people, to suppress their social mobility.

So, to Lorde, prioritising her mental health and the other Black people around her doing the same, talking about their struggles openly, was a way to dismantle that system, to give voice to the anger and pain it was so determined to keep silent.

One of the many reasons that the writing of Lorde in A Burst of Light still feels so relevant today, and might be a salve for many keen, young, Black activists who have over the past year been faced with unprecedented trauma, is that she understood and perceived the fine line between honouring yourself and your community through activism and art, and how this can so easily slip into over-extending one’s self – which for many Black people might be understood as another manifestation of this survival mode and the compounded effects of trauma.

In the full quote, which the now famous point about self-care as ‘political warfare’ appears in, Lorde writes:

“I had to examine, in my dreams as well as in my immune-function tests, the devastating effects of overextension. Overextending myself is not stretching myself. I had to accept how difficult it is to monitor the difference. Necessary for me as cutting down on sugar. Crucial. Physically. Psychically. Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

One way to infuse self-care with awareness around ‘over-extension’, as Lorde put it, whilst marrying it with activism and self-preservation is to understand self-care as a communal effort. To reject western, individualist, capitalist notions of self-care that spotlights ‘me time’, often turning the self-care practitioner into a consumer.

Self-care in the community

On Audre Lorde and the vital communal aspect of self-care, Anthea Benjamin, a psychotherapist who runs racial trauma groups in London, and who is also a spokesperson for UKCP, spoke to us saying:

“Lorde’s perspective is critical in understanding devaluating projective processes into black and brown bodies, particularly Black women who shoulder the burdens of others with little concern for our own wellbeing. The intersection of oppressive power relations rampant throughout society means that Black women are at the hard end of navigating an anti-black world. As we seek to thrive rather than simply keep our heads above water, self-care becomes an everyday essential.”

“One of my acts of political warfare is creating safe spaces to address racial trauma. I run groups supporting people of colour to process past and continuous racial trauma and build resources to become more resilient and build community with other like-minded people.”

“In our groups, we work to address the internalised impact of racism by decolonising our mind, body and spirits. We assert the reality of our own experience and spit out the racist poison many of us are forced to drink on a daily basis.”

“We draw on our own creativity, celebrate our culture, wisdom and authenticity, and experience liberation, and lightness in body and soul. We reconnect to our own innate healing and bring community-based healing as an antidote to community-based trauma. As we dare to move, we see ourselves for who we really are rather than how the world positions us. Honouring our beauty and worth and prioritising our needs and wellbeing becomes self-care as a radical act.”

In a culture where so much of what we enjoy and what progresses us: music, art, literature, politics, philosophy and academic criticism are appropriated and diluted from it’s origins with Black creatives and thinkers, it is essential to celebrate those origins and where necessary, re-learn.

Our concept of self-care today might seem vastly different to how Audre Lorde wrote about it in the 1980s; one could argue it has been hijacked and twisted beyond recognition. But as Dr Dwight Turner and Anthea Benjamin made clear in their comments, for Black people as individuals and as communities, Lorde’s words ring just as true now as they did then, and in many ways, they are more crucial today than they have ever been.