By JENNA WORTHAM
August 27, 2016
The first bloom appeared in the crease of my right elbow, an itchy cluster that I ignored. It was well into summer, so I wrote it off as heat rash, or something similarly seasonal.
But then it started to spread. The topography of my body transformed into a foreign mess of hives and scaly patches.
I had just come back from to Puerto Rico, but my doctor ruled out Zika. Dermatologists were baffled. Allergy panels came back negative. Relief was fleeting: My skin would heal for a few days, only to burst back into a weeping rash.
I spent the first few weeks of summer on my couch, comatose under the influence of prescription-strength antihistamines. Not long after, an extended heavy menstrual cycle left me feeling so ill and lightheaded that I almost fainted at work, alarming my co-worker Sue so much that she escorted me to an emergency room.
Again, doctors found nothing they could pinpoint as the culprit. My acupuncturist was the first to suggest a potential trigger: Could my rash be stress-induced, he asked kindly, as he slid needles into my face and arms.
I thought back. It wasn’t completely outrageous: The first outbreak started in June, around the time that a man threatened to shoot up my local gay bar in Brooklyn, “Orlando style.” And it flared as outrage and grief over the killing of two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, by police officers began flooding my social media feeds, in a macabre loop that swooped from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram and back.
The video that emerged in July of a young black woman named Sapphire Williams being forcefully arrested while giving an interview to a reporter still gives me nightmares. Each time a photograph of Korryn Gaines, a young mother killed by police during a standoff in her home, floated across my screen, I saw my 19-year-old niece who attends college in Baltimore, and wept at the thought that it could have been her.
All the rage and mourning and angst works to exhaust you; it eats you alive with its relentlessness. These slayings obey no humane logic. They force you to reconcile your own helplessness in the face of such brutal injustice, and the terrifying reality that it could happen to you, or someone you hold dear.
Recently, in an attempt to unwind and de-stress, I switched off my phone after a relaxing day at the beach, and returned home only to see my feeds full of more crushingly depressing news about another killing, in Milwaukee, and the fatal shooting of an imam and his assistant in Queens that was attributed to a wave of anti-Muslim hostility being stoked across the country.
It was during this period of poor health that I came across the work of Simone Leigh, a renowned artist with a history of examining social movements and black subjectivities, with a focus on women. As part of her summer residency at the New Museum, Ms. Leigh decided to conduct a series of drop-in wellness sessions aimed at the black community in the age of Black Lives Matter.
These included acupuncture, herbal remedies, group meditation and dance classes, and the ones I attended felt lifesaving. I contacted Ms. Leigh to find out more about her programming. She said the need to care for the black body felt like “an emergency.”
Ms. Leigh cites, as inspiration, the community health efforts of the Black Panther Party and a network of black female nurses who have been working since the days of the Underground Railroad.
Ms. Leigh’s work is carried out in the black radical tradition, one that declares that holistic health care is not a luxury, but rather an act of resilience, survival and disobedience — a necessity. “If you can’t be a human being in public, you take it to a private place,” she said.
Making space to deal with the psychological toll of racism is absolutely necessary. In the aftermath of the deaths of Ms. Gaines, Mr. Sterling and Mr. Castile, I found myself sick with grief and astonished at how little it seemed to affect my white peers and colleagues.
Ms. Leigh said she was troubled by studies that found racism to be as damaging as environmental hazards like pollution, and data showing health disparities between black and white women. And black women are more likely to die from heart disease and stroke before age 75 than white women.
But she was most disturbed at research demonstrating that black pain was deprioritized over white pain. In April, a study by researchers at the University of Virginia found that African-American patients were routinely undertreated for their pain, compared with white patients. Ultimately, black patients were conditioned to underestimate their own pain.
“We don’t even have the empathy for ourselves,” Ms. Leigh said mournfully.
It’s becoming much more common to see yoga studios offer classes aimed exclusively at people of color who are searching for ways to cope with racism and fears around police brutality.
Earlier this summer, Sacred, a yoga and meditation studio in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, dedicated a month of classes to reducing racism and channeling frustration into fuel for positive change. Each class was by donation, with all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter.
The class I attended was overflowing with black and brown bodies of all types, and began with a small ceremony to acknowledge those whose lives were lost. That recognition nearly brought me to tears. And the relief came from the affirmation that I wasn’t the only person suffering. The room was at capacity.
Lauren Kelly Benson, the founder of Aditi Flow, who teaches regularly at Sacred, said she volunteered to teach a class after observing how the violence and blood-soaked summer had had an impact on her own well-being. Mr. Castile’s shooting, in particular, left her numb with horror, she said. She retreated to bed for two days.
“I was having a traumatic response, and I couldn’t force anything,” she said. “It really drove home the need for this space. Inside of the trauma, there’s a desire for connection.”
A few days later, Dara Cole, the owner of Sacred, sent a note to her teachers, asking if anyone was willing to participate in a week of healing sessions. “The response was overwhelming,” Ms. Benson said. “Every idea made it a class in that series.”
Ms. Benson pointed out that Ms. Cole is a white woman, and that she led by example of how white people can support black people by “listening when we’re speaking about our experiences.”
Ms. Leigh’s residency ends in September, and Sacred’s programming wrapped up in August. Both women said they felt the need for more, the demand is just that high.
The cause of my rash is still a mystery. But I’m thankful that it’s dormant for now, and balance has largely been restored, however temporarily. My wellness strategy now includes more yoga and acupuncture, to fully embody the urgency that Ms. Leigh felt when she told me, “We need to step up the care to match the stress.”