We sat in a square, not a circle. There was grey patio furniture with black pillows that’d been repurposed as a sectional, accent chairs reupholstered in a dark floral pattern I wasn’t sure I liked, and a large, grey ottoman with tufts and peg legs that stood in the middle. There were also two black coffee tables not large enough to hold two cups of coffee and a years’ worth of Essence magazines, if they were fanned out. Candles burned and there we sat, a group of 10 women and 6-month-old baby Lydia. Some of us were strangers, others friends prior, but nothing like this had happened before for most. It was apropos we sat in a church (turned AirBnB). Even the heathens and ain’ts in our world admit church, at its purest, is about restoration and healing. So we sat. Shared. Laughed. Cried. Laughed. Passed tissues and cried some more. We healed.
You’ve heard it before, and if you haven’t, you’re not Black or don’t really have the Black friends you say you do: “Black don’t crack.” You typically hear it when you learn how old a Black woman is. “What?! She’s [insert number]?! … Well, you know Black don’t crack!” We pat ourselves on the back knowing, despite the hell we may be living through, the melanin saturating our skin, and our minimal daily skin-care routine, that we’ll likely be spared the wrinkled fate of our much paler counterparts. We expect someone will say “Black don’t crack” about us one day and sit up a little straighter, bat our eyelashes or do whatever our thing is—you know, your thing. But here’s the rub we all know is true: Black do(es) crack.
A couple weekends ago, Black women representing a few decades, upbringings and a spectrum of professions sat together, mostly strangers, offering up their unique styles and fashion senses to fashion goddesses unknown. The group had gathered for the first in-person meeting of the Ise Institute (a program of the Idella Project; “ise” is Yoruba for “to work, serve”). They looked good, as Black women so often do, but I quickly relearned what I already knew. Despite outward appearances, black does crack. And crack. And crack. That sanctuary and our time and space together were the genesis of a collective restoration, our flourishing power. The beginning of the uncracking.
Ise Institute fellows, Lighthouse staff and facilitators, including a licensed therapist, spent the weekend talking about the things that crack, shake, unravel and undo us from the inside out. The expectations and pressures of our families and work can seem nearly impossible to wrangle. The moms in the group, for example, talked about the challenges of nurturing and rearing well-adjusted children, as those who aren’t mothering children leaned in and listened intently. The more we talked, the more we realized how easily stories resonated and lessons translated, if we let them. None of this mentions the systemic battles we fight—misogynoir (misogyny directed toward Black women where race and gender are inseparable in the bias, coined by Moya Bailey), racism and reproductive injustice rob us of our vitality.
In fact, a study by Arline T. Geronimus et al, “Do U.S. Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?” found that Black women are at higher risk of having more wear and tear on their physical bodies due to compounded, chronic stress than both white women and Black men. This means though we may be chronologically the same age as our peers, we are biologically older. By the time we reach 50, on average, we’re 7.5 years older. That’s … a lot. A whole lot.
As the group talked, the masks we wore faded quickly. I hoped they would.
This fellowship’s purpose is centered on leadership development in a professional context. We can’t build power professionally (or anywhere else), however, without taking space and time to focus on our authentic selves—the selves we were before the world told and taught us to be someone else, perhaps like my friend Amanda Davis.
In late December, I sat on my mom’s sofa and mindlessly scrolled Twitter. My eyes began to mist. Amanda Davis, a beautiful woman who worked as an evening news anchor for the CBS affiliate in Atlanta died suddenly of a massive stroke. I didn’t know her personally, but she was a friend to me.
Living between two cities can fabricate unusual friendships. (That is, some of your friends don’t know they’re your friends.) Every weeknight I was in Atlanta, until that point, I’d turn to CBS46. I’d look to see what pair of spectacles were perched on Davis’ nose and would find myself mesmerized by her tawny-brown, perfectly coiffed, but-never-stiff hair, as she told me all the haps in the city. I trusted her. I’d never thought about how old she might have been and was stunned to read she was 62.
I became more curious about her than I’d ever been. I learned that she’d struggled with alcoholism and was let go from her previous job because of it. Everything I read talked about the grace and poise with which she handled that situation and how many people were glad to see her back on television in 2015. I’m drawn to people with struggles. But her face didn’t hint to it at all.
That’s another thing. Our faces usually don’t intimate, but our insides know. We try to mask the strife of our worlds from our faces; we prime then perfect with Fenty Beauty. But our insides are cracking. According to the Center for Disease Control in 2016, Black women older than 18 reported the following:
- 9 percent, feelings of sadness
- 4 percent, feelings of hopelessness
- 8 percent, feelings of worthlessness
- 9 percent, everything is an effort
These numbers seem small, until we realize there are nearly 12 million Black women older than 18 and of them, more than 1.1 million (that we know of) are walking around exerting extra effort to do everything—from getting out of bed to taking a shower and loving. What others see as destructive behaviors (I ran my credit card bill uhhhp / thought a new dress would make it better, Solange sings in “Cranes in the Sky”), are often just coping mechanisms and distractions from the dissonance between who we really are and are pretending to be.
The Ise Institute is an opportunity to unlearn and walk away with tools to combat micro- and macroaggressions, tokenism, emotional labor, etc. These, like institutional oppositions and oppression, are the often invisible things that create fractures, causing us the sadness and hopelessness we shrug off, push through and sometimes pretend aren’t there.
Consequently, tools are imperative. We can’t wave a magic wand and eradicate systemic racism. I’ve tried. We can, though, share what we learn about navigating spaces meant to exclude and isolate us with anyone who’s open to learn. This is especially the case from older women to girls, creating fortuitous intergenerational models.
Wholeness, too many of us believe, is just beyond our grasp, so we wear the veneer of wellness and don’t pay enough attention to the parts of our blackness that cracks. Praises be for the melanin and collagen that keeps our skin looking plump, supple and sometimes 20 years younger than we actually are. But we all know the truth, if we admit it or not. Black cracks, my friends, and it behooves us to spackle with all the energy we can muster. We owe it to Amanda, the women in the square and ourselves.