13 Quotes by Black Women on Survival and Critical Self-Preservation

by Altheria Gaston In her essay titled “Sin, Nature, and Black Women’s Bodies,” Delores S. Williams writes about “spirit breakers” or “Ne...

by Altheria Gaston

In her essay titled “Sin, Nature, and Black Women’s Bodies,” Delores S. Williams writes about “spirit breakers” or “Negro breakers,” those who were hired by slave owners to break the spirit of slaves who seemed to be too confident, too uppity, and too independent. The sole purpose of these “spirit breakers” was to put slaves in their place and to convince them that their status as mere property would never change.

It would seem that the repeated offenses against Black women (and other women of color) serve what is perhaps a similar yet unintended purpose—to break the spirit of advocates and activists working towards equity and social justice. Those with broken spirits may be discouraged, hopeless, and just plain tired. The writers of The Combahee River Collective Black Feminist Statement articulate this point:
The psychological toll of being a Black woman and the difficulties this presents in reaching political consciousness and doing political work can never be underestimated. There is a very low value placed upon Black women's psyches in this society, which is both racist and sexist.
Since we can’t depend on others to uplift and encourage us, we must do so ourselves. I offer you these quotes on self-preservation and survival to do exactly that—uplift and encourage.

Audre Lorde in Oberlin College Commencement Address, 1989

“To face the realities of our lives is not a reason for despair—despair is a tool of your enemies. Facing the realities of our lives gives us motivation for action. For you are not powerless… You know why the hard questions must be asked. It is not altruism, it is self-preservation—survival.”

Sherley Anne Williams in “Surviving the Blight,” 1988

“And when we (to use Alice Walker’s lovely phrase) go in search of our mothers’ gardens, it’s not really to learn who trampled on them or how or even why—we usually know that already. Rather, it’s to learn what our mothers planted there, what they thought as they sowed, and how they survived the blighting of so many fruits.”

Elizabeth Alexander in “Praise Song for the Day,” 2009

“Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself / others by first do no harm or take no more than you need. / What if the mightiest word is love?

Love beyond marital, filial, national, / love that casts a widening pool of light, / love with no need to pre-empt grievance.

In today’s sharp sparkle, this winter air, anything can be made, any sentence begun. On the brink, on the brim, on the cusp, / praise song for walking forward in that light.”

Melissa Harris-Perry in Sister Citizen, 2011

“Sisters are more than the sum of their relative disadvantages: they are active agents who craft meaning out of their circumstances and do so in complicated and diverse ways.”

Angela Y. Davis in an interview with Jennifer Byrne, 1999

“Well of course I get depressed sometimes, yes I do. But at the same time these changes never take place overnight. They always require protracted struggles and I can look back at my life and add all of the struggles I’ve been involved in, and I can see that we made a difference. We really did make a difference.”

Audre Lorde in A Burst of Light, 1988

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

Patricia Hill Collins in Black Feminist Thought, 1990

“African-American women have been victimized by race, gender, and class oppression. But portraying Black women solely as passive, unfortunate recipients of racial and sexual abuse stifles notions that Black women can actively work to change our circumstances and bring about changes in our lives. Similarly, presenting African-American women solely as heroic figures who easily engage in resisting oppression on all fronts minimizes the very real costs of oppression and can foster the perception that Black women need to help because we can ‘take it.’”

Layli Maparyan in The Womanist Idea, 2012

“Self-care is a way of maintaining both wellness and balance in the energetic economy of social and economic intercourse. Activists and caretakers who do not attend to self-care are vulnerable to burnout, and burnout in turn can breed alienation from both issues and communities… Self-care and care of others needs to be balanced.”

Barbara Omolade in The Rising Song of African American Women, 1994

“Women of color warriors are constant warriors who dig in bare earth to feed the hungry child, who pray for health the bedside of the sick when there is no medicine, who fashion a toy to make a poor child smile, who take to the streets demanding freedom, freedom, freedom against armed police. Every act of survival by a woman of color is an act of resistance to the holocaust and the war. No soldier fights harder than a woman warrior for she fights for total change, for a new order in a world in which can finally rest and love.”

June Jordan in “Where is the love?” 1978

“I am a feminist, and what that means to me is much the same as the meaning of the fact that I am Black: it means that I must undertake to love myself and to respect myself as though my very life depends upon self-love and self-respect. It means that I must everlastingly seek to cleanse myself of the hatred and the contempt that surrounds and permeates my identity, as a woman, and as a Black human being, in this particular world of ours.”

bell hooks in Sisters of the Yam, 2005

“Black women have not focused sufficiently on our need for contemplative spaces. We are often ‘too busy’ to find time for solitude. And yet it is in the stillness that we also learn how to be with ourselves in a spirit of acceptance and peace. Then when we re-enter community, we are able to extend this acceptance to others. Without knowing how to be alone, we cannot know how to be with others and sustain the necessary autonomy.”

Shanesha Brooks-Tatum in “Subversive Self-Care: Centering Black Women’s Wellness,” 2012

“Black women’s self-care is also subversive because to take care of ourselves means that we disrupt societal and political paradigms that say that Black women are disposable, unvalued. Indeed, people and things that aren’t cared for are considered expendable. So when we don’t take care of ourselves, we are affirming the social order that says black women are disposable.”

Florynce Kennedy, Unknown Source and Year

“You can’t dump one cup of sugar into the ocean and expect to get syrup. If everybody sweetened her own cup of water, then things would begin to change.”

We all need refreshing from time to time. It is my hope that these quotes—some lesser known than others—from our foremothers and sisters in the struggle will invigorate your spirits in the days, weeks, and months to come.

Photo: Audre Lorde

Altheria Gaston is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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