“How do you stay woke and be happy?”
This was the striking question someone asked me a couple of months ago and it’s been on my mind since. This question feels central to Black life in the US right now. As we continue to witness police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black people, as we hear about killings of Black trans people, as we witness the violence in Black communities, as we struggle to acknowledge the suicides in our midst, it is essential that we answer the question of how to stay woke and be happy.
There is so much turmoil in the world right now that it is easy to get overwhelmed and begin to feel hopeless about life and our futures. It does seem that being woke–aware of and fighting against the oppression, discrimination, sexism, racism, homophobia and transphobia that affect us and our communities–comes with feelings of distress and can exacerbate our experience of racialized trauma. Repeatedly viewing the murders of Black people as well as experiencing microaggressions and outright discrimination in our work and educational environments takes a serious toll on us as Black people. Engaging in protests and active resistance against these issues is essential and can be a constructive way to channel anger, frustration and fear. We also know that this activism is exhausting and can take a toll on our minds and bodies if we are not creating space to care for ourselves. It is tragic that at least a few young Black activists have died by suicide in the last few years. While I don’t know specific details or circumstances of their deaths, I imagine that in addition to the racial trauma they experienced, the stress and exhaustion of the activism they were engaged in took its toll.
As we continue to witness police brutality and the killing of unarmed Black people, as we hear about killings of Black trans people, as we witness the violence in Black communities, as we struggle to acknowledge the suicides in our midst, it is essential that we answer the question of how to stay woke and be happy.
Given these constant struggles, I find that many of us as Black people stay in survival mode throughout our lives. We often forget to slow down enough to cultivate joy and soak in the moments in our lives that are wonderful. It’s important to remember that life is about thriving, not just surviving. Many of us have witnessed our parents and grandparents operate in survival mode and have adopted this way of living without question. Part of living a joyful life involves capitalizing on the fruits that have been born of the labor of our parents, grandparents and ancestors.
Staying woke and being happy is all about balance. In some ways, the Black community has a legacy of striking this balance beautifully. We know how to make a way out of no way, how to fight and push for change. We create moving and life-giving music and art. We have unparalleled celebrations. We are exuberant and expressive. Below, I highlight some of the ways that you can work to achieve this balance of staying woke and being happy in your own life. Many of the things I am recommending are not new, but I hope that reading them will remind you of things that you can do to maintain your sanity in this world.
Take care of yourself
I love Audre Lorde’s quote: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Taking care of yourself is essential. You must take care of yourself in order to be able to resist and fight for the rights of communities that you care about. Further, engaging in self-care is part of claiming your humanity as a Black person. Treating yourself well and prioritizing your physical and mental health needs is part of acknowledging that you as a Black person deserve to be treated well and nourished. Self-care involves a range of activities/behaviors that often fit into the categories of sleeping, eating, exercise, personal time, and social time.
Decide when to engage and when to take breaks
We have constant access to news about everything that is going wrong in the world because of smartphones. While staying up to date about systems of power and oppression is a necessary component of staying woke, spending hours each day reading articles and opinion pieces about the latest racist or violent incident can become unhealthy. Additionally, scrolling through news sites, Twitter or Facebook has become habitual for many of us and we no longer have full agency of when we engage with news media and when we take breaks. I encourage you to consider when you would like to catch up on news and how long you would like to spend doing this each day. If starting the day with the latest news makes you feel hopeless and irritable throughout the day, the morning is probably not a good time for you. Another consideration should be deciding where you get your news from. There are some news outlets and websites that make it seem like everything that happens is the end of the world. This alarmist style can get us activated and cause us to feel more stressed than necessary. If you feel that the end of world is coming when reading the writing of certain people, consider finding another outlet that shares the information you want without making you feel that doomsday is near.
Remember how far we have come as Black people. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by every act of hate that we witness or experience, but remembering that we are not still stuck in slavery or the original Jim Crow era is important. Another aspect of taking perspective is contextualizing the oppression that we experience in the context of what is happening in other parts of the world. There are wars and political uprisings going on throughout the world. I don’t point this out to diminish our concerns. I highlight the presence of human violence and conflict across the world because I think it reflects the fact that as humans we have not fully figured out how to do this thing called life in a peaceful and equitable way. There are a lot of people in many places throughout the world that are struggling for their rights; some of the issues that we face as Black Americans are not unique to us.
Celebrate progress and accomplishments
We are in an era when we expect quick results and changes. We feel that if we see a problem, point it out and demand change, the people in power should completely change it immediately. However, if we look at the course of history, we see that change is often gradual comes after long periods of struggle. As we work towards progress and to eliminate oppression and the isms in our world it is essential that we celebrate progress. We cannot wait until everything has improved to acknowledge our accomplishments. In order to stay the course, we must recognize how far we have come and what we are getting done along the way. In your own life and in the work of broader movements, I encourage you to highlight the progress that you see. Maybe it’s a coworker who you’ve helped to understand what systemic racism is and how they contribute to it. Maybe it’s getting your local police station to sign up for implicit bias training. Whatever it is, celebrate it.
We must remember that our people have been through horrors before and have made it through with beauty and grace and I believe we can do the same.
Let go of finding fault in everything
It feels like we have gotten to a place where we find fault in everything. If someone says the wrong word or does the wrong thing, we write them off. This can lead to us feeling like everyone is wrong and can even cause us to worry that we will be written off if we have a misstep. Being hypervigilant about whether or not people know all of the right things to say and do to support our cause is exhausting. While I think we should have standards that we communicate, giving ourselves and others grace is important. Pay attention to whether or not you are actively looking for problems in what people are saying and doing, particularly if the person seems to be well-intended. If so, consider what it would look like to stay aware of what is going on while giving yourself and others some room to make mistakes while helping to promote progress.
Draw strength from your ancestors
We come from a long line of strong people. People who survived being kidnapped, sold and made it through the middle passage. People who built this country with their bare hands. Our people have been through unthinkable things, have experienced trauma and countless indignities and still managed to love ourselves, our children and each other. We are their descendants. Their blood runs through our veins, their strength is part of us. We must remember that our people have been through horrors before and have made it through with beauty and grace and I believe we can do the same.
Connect to art and music
Music and art have always been ways for Black people to process our joys and sorrows. Music and art can help us connect to pain that’s hard to communicate, and it can be healing and soothing. Music and art also help us celebrate the wonders of life. There’s a reason so many people from different cultures love our music and adopt it for their own celebrations. Whether it’s getting lost in your favorite song at home alone or getting down with your friends at a party, I encourage you to use these things to cultivate happiness.
Connect with others
Connecting to others is essential to staying happy. Make time to connect with people who you love and that love you. Cultivate these relationships and create the space to be open and vulnerable about your struggles. Celebrate yourselves and each other’s successes. Make sure to have times that are serious and times that are lighthearted. Use these connections and communities as a place to be. A place where you can have respite from the world.
Staying woke and being happy is an ongoing process for all of us. I hope this post will help you navigate this journey.