I was 15 when I met Jacqueline Labbé. She was the one who told me that the soap I was using everyday wasn’t made for my “melaninated” skin. Jacqueline was a Martiniquean poet, writer and activist who taught me to embrace myself and let my natural, curly and tangled hair down
In those days afro-enhancing products were not the norm, women straightened their hair and sometimes lightened their skin.
The benefit of growing up in Martinique between age 7 and 17 is that many Martiniqueans still shared the wisdom of the “neg marrons”, the Africans who were brought as slaves but escaped the plantations by running to and living in the inaccessible mountains of Martinique. They taught the medicine of nature and the pride of their ancestors.
Jacqueline opened my eyes and taught me that the world I lived in did not take my unique nature into account and that beauty products and ideals were not made with me in mind.
It was then that my conscious emancipation journey started. I was a slow process because the conditioning of the euro-centric model ran and still runs deep.
At 16, I walked into the footsteps of the first model of color for Yves St Laurent, Mounia, who also came from Martinique.
When I came to the U.S. my birth land, for the first time in 1987 I was grateful for Beverly Johnson and Iman who were trail-blazers, expanding the definition of beauty.
Today 33 years later, the shelves are abounding with Afro-centric products, women of color are gracing magazine covers, though not enough in Yoga Journal magazine. Women of color are now asserting themselves in the way they wear their hair, their complexion and the way they dress.They’re accepting their bodies and recognizing that they do not fit the mold of the predominantly white, patriarchal ideas nor do they need to.
Yet, there are still more molds to break, particularly in the way people of color care for their health.
According to the American Heart Association website, heart disease is the number 1 killer for all Americans and stroke is also leading the list. The risk of getting those diseases are even higher for African Americans.
Among non-Hispanics blacks age 20 and older, 63% of men and 77% of women are overweight or obese. And African Americans are more likely to have diabetes than non-Hispanics whites.[i]
All of which begs the question, “why?”
I contend that these variances in statistics reflect where modern western medicine does not serve the needs of people of the African diaspora, much like beauty companies did not serve our skin and hair needs.
Western modern medicine is a euro-centered and fragmented approach to health, or more accurately, to non-disease. It does not recognize the body-mind-spirit connection and in the case of a broken bone this approach works. However, in the case of heart disease, diabetes and obesity it’s sorely lacking.
For example, on my personal search for greater health, I recognized that sometimes I eat to soothe my emotions even when I’m not aware of what I’m feeling. My body has a holistic intelligence that seeks balance to the point that when it perceives a neurological imbalance like emotional stress it will seek to balance it out by craving soothing foods, “soul” foods to manage my stress.
Many African Americans are soothing/suppressing their deep, unresolved hurts with sugary, fatty and salty foods otherwise known as “soul” foods.
And western medicine can only provide temporary relief, pharmaceuticals and dieting, because it won’t acknowledge the root cause.
I believe that only health-centered medicine, a medicine that heals our hearts, our minds as well as our bodies is needed to turn these numbers around.
This kind of medicine is known as traditional medicine. It was the natural and feminine wisdom of the medicine-women, the midwives, the “griots”, the shamans. The only true holistic medicine.
After trying to suppress it for centuries, modern nutritional science and to some degree western medicine is trying to appropriate it and selling us a watered-down version of it.
One such indigenous medicine that has survived European imperialism and colonialism is Ayurveda, a 5000 years old system of natural health care designed to care for the whole person.
It is the medicine that teaches and supports you as you are, not as you should be. In Sanskrit, the language of Ayurveda, health known as swastha, literally means “established in yourself”.
Like Yoga which I took on at 13 years old, not as a physical practice but as an option to the catholic paradigm, (That was about the time I questioned my allegiance to a religion that participated and condoned the enslavement and burning at the stake of human beings who looked like me: black and female) Ayurveda has taught me to care for my colorful soul.
It has taught me what true health and balance is: radical self-love, self-knowledge and self-sufficiency.
We can’t deny that health in this country is a socio-economic issue as well.
When you live in a community where whole foods are virtually unavailable, fast food restaurants litter every corner and the simplest of prescription medications are financially out of reach, optimal health is a luxury few can afford.
Ayurveda along with indigenous wisdoms, as taught by its peoples can enable us to transcend socio-economic barriers, source effective and sustainable solutions to our unique bio-spiritual challenges and needs so we can take the best possible care of ourselves as women of color.