Self-care 1/4: The personal is political

ID: close-up photograph of a dark pink rose ©

Early last year, Australian activist Nayuka Gorrie tweeted:

Whoa! I remembered that name; I’d read some Lorde at some point, in my studies. Was I guilty? Gorrie followed up,

Hm, did I know that? I can’t remember. It was a long time ago and Lorde certainly wasn’t central to my work, but I do sometimes absorb theoretical ideas and incorporate them quite unconsciously – I read Althusser three times because I kept forgetting that the idea of schools, church, and media functioning as ideological state apparatuses, was his. I do *not* want to do that to vulnerable people, though, so I needed to dig into Lorde’s work to ensure I both understood her argument, AND wasn’t taking it for granted.

As Gorrie noted, Lorde was a Black lesbian.

But Gorrie didn’t mention that Lorde was born in 1934. She would have been two years older than my mum, who is 86 now.

That means, Lorde grew up in the pre-civil-rights era, when segregation was widespread (yes, even in New York City), when Black men had been disenfranchised, when lynchings were declining but still common enough for the NAACP to form and campaign against them in New York throughout her childhood. She was 21 when the lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till finally sparked the Civil Rights Movement.

It means, Lorde grew up when homosexuality was considered a disease by the medical establishment, which advocated ‘cures’ including drugs, lobotomies, and castration. It was the era when various government organisations enforced policies to identify, fire, and prosecute gays; the ‘lavender scare’ was part and parcel of McCarthyism. Police raids were common and many states, including New York, saw protests against their laws banning gays “congregating” in bars. Lorde was finishing college when New York began repealing that legislation.

Being born in 1934 means that Lorde grew up seeing white women’s role in society shift, into and out of paid employment around WWI. She heard the subsequent discontent that led to second-wave feminism. But her mother worked, like most Black women. Lorde would have known that though it was shifting, Black women were mostly relegated to domestic labour – that is, caring for white women’s homes and children, while white women campaigned for better access to and treatment in the workplace. Black women’s contribution to what we think of as second-wave feminism, was often silenced.

I learned two other things about Lorde, too: First, she was legally blind, and she had trouble with communication. She says she didn’t talk until age five, when she was learning to read and write, and that she later sometimes answered questions by reciting poetry. (Perhaps now, she’d be diagnosed as 3e—though given the gender and racial biases in assessment, perhaps not.)

Secondly, Lorde married and bore two children to a gay, white man; after divorcing him, her lesbian life partner was also white. This category-crossing REALLY complicated things. As she noted,

“As a Black, lesbian, feminist, socialist, poet, mother of two including one boy and a member of an interracial couple, I usually find myself part of some group in which the majority defines me as deviant, difficult, inferior or just plain ‘wrong’.” – Audre Lorde

No wonder Lorde became a queer, feminist activist! She grew up in an environment where the whole culture – not just the official apparatuses such as the government, police, media, medical sector, etc, but also, the ‘liberating’ social movements positioned against that – worked quite directly to silence people like her. THIS is what I remember about Lorde; that she charged us to think about how all the different axes of power intersect. It’s not enough to seek to raise a single social group; for people straddling those boundaries, equity is an all-or-nothing deal. 

And THEN, she developed cancer. THAT’s when she developed her idea of ‘self-care’.

Whereas, previously Lorde had worked hard to bring about big, social change, when her health failed, she realised that simply staying alive was the most radical thing she could do:

“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.”Audre Lorde

Powerful stuff, isn’t it?

And so very, very far from how the term is bandied about, these days.

So this is my first objection to idea the term self-care: it’s political. Sure, straight white women have to guard against over-extending ourselves – women’s care-giving is built into our gender ideology – but Black women still have to do more, with, on average, fewer resources, and with white feminists hindering rather than helping, more often than not.

Using Lorde’s idea, imagining that it applies just as much to me (a straight, white, woman married to a nice, white, employed, man, in the 2020s) is straight-up appropriation, and I don’t want to be part of that.

As it happens, though, I already had objections to current ideas of self-care, long before I came across Gorrie’s wonderfully provocative tweet. Next week, I’ll explore why.

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