Radical Self-care: A Refusal to Partake in One’s Own Mortality

A recent conversation that Black Women Radicals created, a space that featured some of my all-time fave African radical feminists like  Jessica Horn, Rosebell Kagumire and new faves Blessol Gathoni, Kinna Likimani, and Dr. Wuupini Mohammed- has had me thinking a lot about self-care. 

I want to begin by highlighting that self-care as a concept has been overly romanticized and is easier said than done. Before and after the virtual convening I have been asking questions like, what does a practical self-care look like in a world that doesn’t politically care about black radical feminists. A world that not only rejects black radical feminists but facilitates and works day and night towards our demise!

If I have to define self-care, I will define it as an intentional process that constantly works at a refusal to die. It is direct combat with aggressive systems of oppression and a win at each breath taken -at every second, minute, hour, day, month, year. It is each moment of life. It is each breath! One way of practicing self-care to me is deliberately situating oneself in radical feminist thought and action. Identifying oneself as a radical black feminist and an everyday evolving is an informed decision of self-care, self-love, and collective-preservation.

White supremacist – heteronormative -capitalist-able bodied -religious patriarchy has waged a direct war on our bodies, minds, emotions, spirits, and our meaningful existence on this universe. It works day and night to cut short our intended time on earth and the super weird part is, it has made us active actors in our self-destruction. It has not only created the material conditions for devaluing us but also it has fashioned environments, institutions, and systems that are at direct odds to our right to life. What is more, this patriarchy has somehow facilitated our self-volunteering in its recruitment process of our own withering away.

Then, what does it mean to care for the self in this bitter earth?

What does it mean to care for the self in a world that hates Africans, women, girls, queer folks, radical feminists, etc.? What does it mean to be unloved, to be uncared for, to be so completely neglected to the extent that one willingly participates in one’s own self-disregard? What does it say about this efd up system that allows the ultimate decentering of the self that one feels guilty for wanting to be better at meaningful co-existence?

Two ways of looking at this:

One, it is disqualifying the self of worth, thinking of oneself as less deserving of care, not extending the tenderness and free labour of all sorts that we gladly give to others. We are essentially very much missing from the social justice work that we do, we are absent both in the imagination and praxis of revolutionary freedom work. It appears that we refuse to live for us and prefer to live through others. A kind of approach to life by vicariously living through others because we are afraid to live for ourselves.

These intersecting systems of oppression have injected fear in us, that we are often immobile and stuck. Lacking ‘the why not life’ stance adequately many of us have considered leaving this earth while many more of us self-medicate, to make the unbearable livable. That is why some of us self-inflict pain, to maybe tell the world to its face how unpleasant it is to live in it, in its current form. What if— since our own bodies never belonged to us— our only atrocious way of reclaiming our bodies is by way of self-abuse. I have found many of us say, it is my body I can do whatever the fuck I want with it. And that ‘whatever the fuck I want’ unfortunately is expressed in the form of a myriad of self-injuries. It is a case of a hopeless mess, it is saying to the self what more is one wound when my whole being is a wounded dead case. A tortured being torturing itself!

 What this then means is, self-care is the realization of the existence of external abuses as well as suicidal tendencies enacted in many shapes and actively shrinking that, one step at a time. It is negotiating with the self to want to change and be better. It is a process of apologizing to the self, it is a refusal to accept the conditioning that our very creation is a crime of some sort and must be punished. It is saying no to substance abuse, eating disorders, and sleeplessness. It is no longer waiting for a saviour, a self-rescue in community action.

It is the meeting of the self, anew as full, whole being, with ease, without anxiety. 

I get it fam when you are constantly pestered to do this and that with your own body, to move this way, not move that way, when your very existence is policed there is not only an emotional numbness but a physical one. Self-care is a choice, willingness, a wanting to deal with underlying issues, to seize it by its root, and the self-inspired decision to deal with it. So perhaps self-care can be an active choice to be present, to notice the body, to cleanse the pain with water and ocean, with silence and voice, with mountain and power, with sun and touch, with movement and stillness, with prayers and, self-sex with whatever the f works.

Two, Western self-care as it is often fronted is rooted in capitalism, it is utterly individualist, classist, toxic, and a primarily fatphobic expression of care. Often formulated as an over-emphasis on physical exercise which is unattainable for people like me. Gym, fit, exercise culture that tells everyone who is not mainstream that we are less than. Self-care defined in the capitalist world is disjoining, is heartless, it is incomplete. Its rhythm is not dedicated to breaking the cycles of trauma. To me, this focus on workout ethos dismiss the very fact that most of us who live in this world of patriarchal misery can barely make it out of bed, forgets that the gloominess of confronting anti-blackness on the daily demotivates us, ignores the fact that there is nothing to look forward to in encountering daily oppressions.   

Our ancestors in our homelands are a good example of the manifestation of an old but fresh self-care through collective action, when they farm and make love to the earth, they do it in fellowship drawing strength from each other. That is why the act of labour and sweat doesn’t become chore-like, imposed but is more organic, raw. We as radical African feminists are disoriented because our collective care traditions have been fractured by a capitalist norm and we find it divorced from community self-care. T

hat is why those of us good at self-care have the responsibility to a committed radical feminist community care plan. A feminist coping mechanism to deal with trauma head-on! As the opening line of Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters asks “are you sure sweetheart, that you want to be well.” We must ask the self ‘do you want to be healed?’ While living in a very sick world and acting accordingly.self-care is a detox, it is being accountable to the self by reclaiming control, it is being transparent with the self, it is setting boundaries to allow only things that are uplifting to the soul space. It is choosing a love that is whole, complete, full and rejecting anything that falls short of magic. It is seeking light in a cold, cold world.

Also, Self-care is not this grand unachievable thing but simple daily regiments that we do without the labels like reading, writing, drinking water, applying oil and butter to scalp and skin, pleasure infused sex, cooking listening to music and SHARING AND BREATHING!

And to end, my favourite self-care demonstration reaffirmed by my Ethiopian heritage is the Buna ceremony: a community-based therapeutic ritual that is centered in collective healing. It is a community-initiated care practice that rejuvenates the self, with yellow songs, infusions of repair, green aromas, flowers of light, herbs of health, smokes of freedom, frankincense of essence, liberation of prayer, popping of pain, spiritual spin, a dancing of ideas, scents of sisterhood, cries of laughter, commotions of flames, eating of fire, circulation of trance, roasting of tear, smells of resistance, brewing of freedom, drinking of power, reign of justice.

Do I deserve love, do I deserve health, do I deserve peace, do I deserve justice, do I deserve a home? a country maybe? Do I deserve laughter? How about a dance! How about a come? How about a life?

YES.YES.YES to unapologetically and to radically love the African self and do it in Feminist kinships. 

Feature photo via Flickr by YoHandy via

Zemdena Abebe is a kind, pan-Africanist-womanist justice seeker, pushing the Afro-Feminist kinship agenda. She writes, tells stories and cares. She disrupts oppressive systems while dancing. Link up with her @Afrowomanist

  1. Thank you for this article. It incites self analysis into self care, it’s intricacies, need but starting off with defining it not by what we’ve often believed it to be, but by how best we individually define it; coz that’s it’s definition to us, to me.

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