The Cost of Courage: Life as a Black Woman in America
At a recent training I attended, participants were asked to describe courageous moments in our life. We were given a definition of courage as “facing odds that are largely internal…and steadfast ‘in spite of’—a self-confrontation in which we put ourselves on the line.”  I sat for a moment and reflected on what acts of courage I had exhibited so far in my life.
I reflected on moments when I may have been called upon to be courageous, and I immediately started my list with an unplanned college pregnancy. As a junior at a large, public university I made what I now realize was a courageous decision to carry an unplanned pregnancy to term. During those harrowing times, I thought I was just doing what I had to do. In later years, many former college peers would tell me how inspiring it was to see me continue through school under extraordinary conditions and with limited financial resources. My response is almost a puzzling “thank you”, but what I am really thinking is “you have to do what you have to do.” Apparently not.
As I moved through the courage section, I thought about fears I had overcome (such as riding a bike down hill) and the challenges I had faced while completing a Ph.D. as a working mother of three children, and all that really stood out as my biggest act of courage was living in America as a Black woman.
As a Black woman, leaving my home is an act of courage. Every time I dress in the morning I am placing an invisible suit of armor on that will prepare me to deal with the macro and microagressions of a world that refuses to acknowledge my experiences as real. That has historically targeted me. That believes I am the sum of all the stereotypes they have heard—mammy, jezebel, sapphire. That I must love rap and know how to twerk. That if I am passionate, I am angry. That I am all those things and, yet I am nothing.
As a visibly invisible target, I move through the world with the strength of my ancestors to guide me, and the knowledge of my sistah-friends to support me. I try to relax and engage in the frivolity my class privilege has afforded me, and instead, like the women on the wine tour, I am quickly reminded of my place. I am not expected to have too much fun, be too loud, or be disrespectful unless it serves to reinforce the needs and agenda of someone else.
On the days I feel overwhelmed, I know that it is important for me to press on…to speak up when no one else will…to push through the uncomfortable stares at meetings as I passionately express an opposing view. The reality is that living as a Black woman in America is still a very dangerous thing to do. Black women are still experience violence at a disproportionate rate.
In addition, untold numbers of Black women continue to suffer the losses of their children. Black mothers must process and deal with both the imprisonment and killing of their sons. In addition, a less discussed story is the alarming rate at which Black women and girls are entering the penal system and are also being killed. Who cries with, and for, these mothers? Who helps Black women prepare the script they share with their children on how to live as a marginalized person in America?
In spite of it all, Black women continue to demonstrate acts of courage. And in a nature true to physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. What is the equal and opposite reaction to the demonstrations of courage Black women engage in daily? Where do we put our grief?
The next chapter for Black women must include self-care. This needs to be expanded from “eat right” and “exercise”, to mental health care. Although the mental health statistics aren’t alarming for Black women, one could theorize that the cost of courage is traumatic. And trauma doesn’t just heal itself. Could the disproportionate health outcomes of Black women (obesity, heart disease, etc.) be correlated to the mental health status of Black women? And, if so, what can be done to mitigate the cost of courage?
I suggest the following as a start:
Do a quick mental health evaluation. If possible, see a counselor for a mental health check-up. Many times Black women have normalized their lifestyles, when in fact their workload, expectations and family responsibilities are extraordinary. Coping skills that may have worked for a while may need to be re-visited. It’s time to reassess the difference between being selfish and practicing self-care.
Seek out and utilize a mental health buddy. This can be as simple as checking in with someone daily just to see how she is doing. This type of “wellness accountability check” will only work if both parties allow themselves to be vulnerable and share how they are really The pat answer of “fine or good” should be investigated to gather a more accurate gauge on how she is doing. The majority of folks when they ask “how are you?”, are just practicing verbal niceties. Your mental health buddy should be the person you can be honest with—and they should be honest with you.
Listen to your body. Our bodies are amazing at self-regulation. Things we often ignore (such as headaches and body aches) could be signals of internalized stress. Headaches, fatigue, muscle aches, and tummy troubles are just a few of the physiological symptoms of stress. Unmitigated and unreleased stress roams around the body and sends us signals for help. The tendency to overlook these symptoms and push through, because “we have to” can lead to a host of long-term chronic health problems.
Find time to be still. Since I have been living in the south, I have learned an old saying “go somewhere and get still.” This saying was usually meant for children who were overly active; however, it has great usefulness is a world that has pushed everyone into hyperdrive with multimedia devices and expectations of multi-tasking and increased availability and accessibility. Spending 5-20 minutes a day in quiet reflection, meditation or journaling can help reset your body’s defenses. The fear of quiet and the distraction of busyness lead us around instead of the other way around. We are in charge of our minds, our time and our overall wellbeing.
Living in America as a Black woman is an act of courage. The cost of which is untold physical and mental health outcomes. Recognizing and mitigating these acts of courage will be another act of courage—one that can’t wait. Saying no. Rejecting the urge to internalize. Actively valuing ourselves in spite of the messages we hear we become the ultimate acts of courage that save our lives.
 W. Paul Jones, Courage as the Heart of Faith (Weavings, Volume XII, Number 3, May/June 1997)