BY TENI ODUNSI. PHOTOGRAPHY BY DEUN IVORY.
“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership to that freed self was another.” Toni Morrison, Beloved
It never seems to occur to the world at large that a woman that has been labeled as strong her whole life that she could end up alone if she lets that stereotype go to shit. Some might entertain the idea. Others perform sympathy, suggesting that it shouldn’t be the job of one subset of women to “save the world.” Ultimately though, the actual act of failing at rising from the ashes and shooting down the bad guy is made distant, even when we feel that we’re at rock bottom and even by our own. In this time of depictions of domestic violence, winning white actors, Emmys and movements to acknowledge sexual harassment and assaults seem to erase the experiences of Black and Brown women, where can we go to breakdown?
My own experience with toxicity left me hollow. My anger was palpable. I’d seemingly lost it all, most of all my sense of self. I was supposed to be smarter. I should have known to run as far away as possible. I was the one who had given abuse a place to rest and make a home. Getting out didn’t fully improve things, either. The next few years, I considered myself to be gelatin—constantly moving, easy to bite but firm and structured after abuse of my body, character and esteem of self. Clear and invisible but able to take on any color or form. I joined whatever group that I could find and held on for dear life, never revealing the greatest betrayal I’d ever experienced. I held the labels of going through trying times with grace and poise as badges of honor while I was dying inside.
Finally, that cycle has broken. Today. With this piece, this confession that I have experienced abuse, been hard on myself for it and left messes in places where love should have flourished. After a year of therapy, forgiveness, resentment that almost crusted my heart in bitterness. That changes today. This is where silky, smooth acceptance of myself starts.
Surely I, and you, can begin our journeys toward softness right this moment. We can define ourselves, for ourselves. We can save our world—that inner world with entire cities that move at breakneck speed and great green valleys of calm and quiet. Wake up every morning with an intention to feel everything, good and bad, and start by simply wiggling our toes and breathing.
To heal now, I do things to establish permanence. Growing locs, meditation, writing poems that will live in my heart forever. There is nothing quite like having your being displaced by another and having the expectation be that you will stay strong—be a fighter—because others ascribe it to you because you are a Black woman. Let us remember, this Women’s History Month, that for every sister who has survived, there are far more who didn’t live to see us able to coin a phrase for the care of self and practice an ethos where Black Girls Rock. Let us stay vulnerable and allow our failures to be facts of life, rather than a reason to stay closed off. First, we must allow it and then we can be free.
Teni Odunsi is a non-profit professional and poet. She is based in Chicago, Illinois. In her spare time you can find her drinking tea as a form of self-care. You can follow her on Instagram (@teniola_o) and Twitter (@therealtenio).