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Wellness is a beautiful resistance

Racism is a public health crisis. Systemic change is vital, and so is caring for oneself.

Wellness is a beautiful resistance
Racism is a public health crisis. Black folk being well is part of an anti-racist future. Meet Taylor Rae Almonte, an actor, activist, and Reebok athlete. (Concept & curation by Jeneé Osterheldt/Globe Staff, Video by Caitlin Healy/Globe Staff, Additional video by Sebastian Jimenez/Special to the Globe, Photo by Steven Eloiseau/Special to the Globe)

How are you taking care of yourself, a friend asked.

I don’t know, I said, laughing. I’m existing.

For all the green smoothies I drink and all the ways in which I stretch into yoga, I know my wellness counts on so much more than meditations and copious amounts of kale. The stress of society — be it the brutalization of Black people breaking our hearts and amplifying our angst or our everyday war with microaggressions — isn’t easy.

Depression is a dance partner I know well, as many of us do when we breathe in racism as naturally as we inhale air. And it’s killing us in a million different ways.

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So we speak out. We protest. We lobby. We write. We do the anti-racist work of radically imagining new ways of being.

But do we rest? Are we tender with ourselves? “They sleep, we grind,” is the toxic adage so many of us embrace. And the way Black women are expected to save the world with a smile and never show pain only hurts.

Taylor Rae Almonte, a Brooklyn-based actor, activist, and Reebok athlete, used to suffer from shame when it came to self-care.

“I feel like, especially as a Black woman, I know that I feel a lot of extreme guilt, or I did when I first started really spending a lot of time taking care of my own body, my own self,” said Almonte, 27, cofounder of Activ-ism, an anti-racism wellness program.

“We have these stereotypes of Black women as either being like a motherly figure or being like a superhero. And like, I’m a whole person. You kind of have to recharge yourself, otherwise you’re just so depleted when you try to give to other people. I’m going to care for myself and my body because this is my home forever.”

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Taylor Rae Almonte co-founded Activ-ism, an anti-racism wellness program.
Taylor Rae Almonte co-founded Activ-ism, an anti-racism wellness program.Steven Eloiseau

The first fight for freedom starts in our own minds, bodies, and spirits. Our lives depend on us loving and caring for ourselves.

Am I well? I have privilege. I have health insurance and a home and a career and so many things. But wellness is still a struggle I fight and hope to win.

To unteach yourself the lies society tells you about your Blackness, the ways in which people threaten your life, all the ways in which you feel unworthy? It is like being on a teeter-totter with no guarantee of someone on the other end to balance you out.

Michell C. Clark, author and digital strategist, found his footing with affirmations. Clark’s messages of self-love inspire people, from Cardi B to Ijeoma Oluo.

He started writing the mix of life lessons and things he learned from his therapist in 2016.

“I know how it feels to not take care of myself, to not feel like I can talk about what I am going through with anybody. I think vulnerability builds bridges, ” said Clark, 31, from his D.C. home.

Mental health and destigmatizing therapy, he believes, are important to maintaining our wellness.

“Adopting a mindset that is rooted in affirmation is an incredible way to show up for yourself as far as health across the board,” he said.

Michell C. Clark started writing affirmations for himself. Thousands of people were inspired.
Michell C. Clark started writing affirmations for himself. Thousands of people were inspired.Kenny Bundy

To heal, to see yourself as worthy in spite of a system that teaches us we’re not, is radical.

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“We live in a world where we almost have to fight to be seen, to be respected, to fight for any bit of space we can get in this world being Black and living in a society that is rooted in whiteness and driven by economics,” Clark said. “So to be able to exist and find joy in who you are in the present and be confident in what you stand for and who you are while not falling into white supremacy, that is a remarkable form of resistance. It’s liberating.”

Racism is a public health crisis. It affects everything we do. To wake up in the morning really is a blessing.

For generations, we’ve been living in unhealthy conditions in an education system that erases our history and criminalizes our children.

Red-lining and gentrification disproportionately put us in neighborhoods with environmental injustice, with food deserts and air pollution. Economic injustice keeps us working side gigs and long days with short periods of rest. And we often grapple with broken transportation systems that require long commutes to get to work.

Between a lack of health care access and health care discrimination, the people we are supposed to trust with our care do not care for us.

America sought to use the Black body as property, to dehumanize us to be used as currency. The toxic side effects of that framework are present today in every facet of our lives.

Meghan Venable-Thomas, a doctor of public health, works to decolonize wellness.
Meghan Venable-Thomas, a doctor of public health, works to decolonize wellness.David Hill

“We know that the systems that we are told serve our health and wellness are still grounded in the same overarching system of oppression, racism and capitalism,” said Meghan Venable-Thomas, a Boston-based doctor of public health and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Culture of Health Leaders fellow.

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“When we talk about ending racism and its impact, we have to talk about decolonizing wellness. We have to talk about the function of capitalism and how we internalize these narratives that increase our stress and burden us. When we talk about decolonizing health, it also starts with decolonizing ourselves.”

There is a lot we cannot fix instantaneously. But loving ourselves? We can do that in ways that contribute to our well-being.

The wellness of Black folk is an investment in our future. We cannot fight if we are not well. We cannot be free if we are not well. We cannot be well if we don’t rest like The Nap Ministry is teaching us.

We have to breathe, to get that checkup with doctors, but also check in with ourselves. That will mean different things for different folk.

Wellness is not something we can weigh in pounds and calories. Wellness is health of the mind, body, spirit, and lived experience. It’s healing, too. I cannot just exist. I must live.

As we celebrate Black history, I want to advocate for Black futures.

What I have learned is wellness is not one thing. It’s a long walk towards longevity in a world that consistently aims to cut your legacy short.

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And every little step? Take it with love.

Coming next: Running toward dreams is a beautiful resistance. Sign up to be notified of future events. In the meantime, the conversation continues @abeautifulresistance. Find the A Beautiful Resistance Black History Month Playlist, below, and also on Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube Music. See more at Globe.com/ABeautifulResistance.


Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com and on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.