Embracing Afro-Minimalism: For Black Women Minimalism Can Be Revolutionary

By Nneka M. Okona

Two years ago I was preparing for the greatest trek to end all treks: a transcontinental move from the Deep South to Madrid, Spain. Although there were a myriad of things I could’ve been preoccupied with — making sure my Spanish was up to par, dealing with three new roommates, navigating a huge, sprawling city by public transportation I wasn’t familiar with, making new friends — I was consumed with one thing: my stuff.

What would I do with all my stuff? All my shirts, pairs of jeans, shorts, skirts, dresses and growing collection of handbags? Not to mention my beloved jewelry collection? Where would it all go?

One thing was clear: it couldn’t all come with me. The brand new luggage set I bought was roomy but it was only two suitcases. I had to figure out how to fit my entire life into two suitcases.

No small feat. But this was my inadvertent foray into minimalism.

Minimalism, at its core, is an attempt at a more simplified life. It’s ridding ourselves of the compulsive need to collect stuff and to streamline our lives. Collect less, own less, have less and feel freer.

When I was preparing for my move and knew I’d only have two suitcases (and a carry-on) to par down my life into, I began to hungrily search for examples of people who had done it before. People who had embraced minimalism. Mostly, especially, I wanted to see people who looked like me. I wanted to see Black women who were minimalists.

I still can’t say that minimalism is the new, sweeping trend among Black women, but I know now there are at least some Black women adopting it as a new way to live their lives. Women like me. Women like Rosetta Thurman of Happy Black Woman.

Rosetta has been a minimalist far longer than I have. She jumped into it nearly five years ago, when she quit her full-time job to give running her business a go. Minimalism initially, for that reason, was done from a money-saving aspect. “I wanted to have it all – have the money to invest in my business and be able to travel and enjoy the freedom that comes with being an entrepreneur,” she said.

In 2011, she gave up her apartment in Washington, DC and the hefty lease that accompanied it. Finding somewhere to live was a cinch: she looked up room shares on Craigslist and was immediately able to cut her living expenses in half.

Within the first year of being a minimalist, Rosetta traveled to Hawaii, where she lived for a month. Today, she’s traveled to more than eight countries, an accomplishment she credits to the simpler life she lives.

“I still don’t have a lease or an official home address for that matter,” she said.

Rosetta spoke at length about how confusing it has been for her to explain to family or friends why she doesn’t have a home base and why she’d rather not have as much stuff to enable her to live and work wherever in the world. “In the beginning, one of my challenges was explaining my new lifestyle to my family,” she said. “They weren't too thrilled about the idea of me being basically homeless and traveling this big, ‘dangerous’ world by myself.”

Discounting what friends or family have said in regards to my disinterest in amassing more things and wanting to own less, along with wanting to live a life off the beaten path in general, has been an inner struggle for me. I often am tempted to feel insecure, like I am missing the mark because I’m not reaching for the same goals I’ve been told I should be aspiring to: a fancy car, an envious job title and salary, a condo, expensive clothing and shoes whose designer labels I can barely pronounce. These things feel empty and contrived to want to embrace.

I know life is about more. I want more than “things” to make me feel good about myself and the life (and legacy) I am building, especially knowing that as a Black woman there are true disadvantages we face from the onset by the mere virtue of being Black in addition to our gender.

For instance, Black women have some of the highest higher education matriculation numbers, according to a report issued last year by the Black Women’s Roundtable, but we still suffer at the whims of economic inequity. Although the current wage gap states women earn 78 cents on the dollar that men earn, Black women earn even less, 64 cents on the dollar.

The intersections of money and class are a lot more real for us and a minimalist lifestyle challenges that assertion. It, in a way, delegitimizes the grand importance of owning material things which tend to be outward markers of success and achievement. If we don’t have things to prove that we “made it,” what do we have?

“Black people as a whole are always looking for validation and I think if we let go of our attachment to what other people think of us, then we can really be free to live different, and perhaps more fulfilling, lives,” Rosetta said.

This is why minimalism, for both Rosetta and I, hasn’t been just a shift in the way we live our lives but a complete shift on which to center and root our lives. It’s about agency and autonomy. It’s about defining your life on your own terms. It’s about determining what success looks and feels like to you — and not making it reliant on material and tangible things or a certain number in your bank account.

For Black women, who face so many obstacles and often have to go well beyond to prove ourselves with degrees and accolades to even get a seat at table (without adding in having our humanity recognized and respected), approaching life this way is damn near revolutionary.

“I’ve developed what I call ‘non-attachment’ which means that I am not attached to anything in my life. It could all burn up and I would be okay,” Rosetta said.

I value experiences more, as does Rosetta, especially travel experiences, and the memories to be made from such experiences is how we have been able to redefine how we live our lives.

Rosetta believes this is perhaps one reason that minimalism is empowering though, taking stock of what matters most to you and centering your life around it — the things that stand.

“You have to figure out what matters most to you. Of course, being able to travel to different cities and countries around the world is one of my values. Being able to put aside money for traveling is more important to me than having a ton of clothes and shoes. And once you get clear about what matters most to you, you can begin to organize your life around it.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Nneka M. Okona is a writer based in Washington, DC. Visit her blog, www.afrosypaella.com, her website, about.me/nnekaokona or follow her tweets, @NisforNneka.

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