Liberatory Self-Care Means Unlearning: How Rest Can Help Heal Intergenerational Wounds

Unpacking racialized myths of the Sambo and the Strong Black Woman is essential spirit work to Black folks learning how to practice radical self-care.

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When it comes to liberation practices, no concept or idea can be enacted without doing the work. We see this often in direct action campaigns, organizing, and protests. What would it look like if we approached napping with the same mind frame and why don’t we already?

Social media and western marketing can perhaps provide clues as to why it’s been so difficult for most of us to see our self-care as liberation. After all, brands have found ways to capitalize on the self-care movement for their own economic gain.

On the other end of that, there are well-meaning folk who often consciously and unconsciously relate self-care back to beauty routines and other rituals that often provide surface-level relaxation and even more so require disposable income in order to participate in.

While it’s wholesome to view self-care as an in-depth wash-day routine or calling off of work to lie in bed reading belle hooks’ “all about love”, it’s necessary that when we think of self-care we view it as an intentional healing practice that often requires us to access an important question: in times of exhaustion, why is it that we still feel unworthy of rest?

When we talk about doing the work as it relates to self-care, that work that we should be doing is an unpacking of the inherent intergenerational trauma that all Black folks carry about not only myths of us not deserving rest, but the very real ancestral history of our people who were often severely and brutally punished for resting or even giving off an air that they were in some way tired.

Some examples of the ways intergenerational trauma has been perpetuated through media for centuries can be found through different racist tropes such as the Sambo and the Strong Black Woman.

The Sambo is a stereotype of a Black man whose sole interests in life include eating, joking around, and napping. This stereotype was used to create the myth of the lazy Black man, as well as a false narrative that Black men and people are simple, docile creatures not capable of intellectual or sincere thought.

Of course, on the other end, there is the Strong Black Woman stereotype that implies that Black women are beings of superhuman strength — mostly emotional but also sometimes physical — whose capacity for emotional labor knows no bounds, and often this woman has no interests or desires that relate to her own life, because she is more invested in the needs of white people and Black men (and sometimes Black children) around her.

*note that superhuman here does not mean “marveled at, or given praise” but quite actually means the opposite: dehumanization*

Both of these tropes are essential to understanding how Black people have been conditioned to view our rest. On one hand, there is the false narrative of Black men as being lazy whenever they dare to take a day off or enjoy rest in any way. Complementing that, there is the idea that Black women somehow don’t even need rest and they will always be available for the labor of others with no questions asked.

It’s important to note that though these stereotypes were birthed during the Antebellum South (roughly mid to late 19th century), they are still aptly present in contemporary media and are not only perpetuated by white racist media, but have also been internalized within our own communities. Meme posts like, “you’ve got to be a bold mf to wake up broke and just lay there” come to mind as one of many contemporary examples of rest-shaming.

When we begin to criticize these tropes and reflect on ways that our ancestors were forced to labor through exhaustion, we begin the psychological process of unlearning. Unlearning requires not only looking into these tropes and reflecting intently on them (through journaling, therapy, conversations with loved ones, etc) but also digging through our own ancestry and seeing where these myths about resting may be present. Often, Black folk don’t have to go too far back in our familial past to find the grandma who aided everyone but herself or the uncle who loved making “jokes” about broke n*ggas.

These types of internalized wounds are called ancestral trauma and healing them are most definitely part of doing the work. In order to view ourselves as worthy of resting, we have to combat the mythos around Black folk and relaxation to open up the possibilities of Black people experiencing a type of deep therapeutic rest, spiritually and physically.

When we talk about doing the work, we are taking about processes that require emotional labor, sincere reflection, and communal gathering of some sort. To put it simply: yikes. This is a lot.

When we allow ourselves the time to rest, we give permission for our ancestors to do the same. Yet, in order to arrive at a place where we as Black folk consider ourselves worthy of rest, a lot of intentional healing must take place and it’s often a very intensive process.

Ironically enough, perhaps if Black folks viewed resting as “the work”, we might feel less guilty for doing it.