[This is a greatly abridged version of an essay I submitted for class last week. In womanism, personal, everyday narratives hold great value, so I aspired to merge my personal and academic trajectories. This shorter version should be more accessible to my friends outside of academia, but please let me know if there are any glaring inconsistencies or questions.]
“Social change, for womanists, begins with healing.” — Layli Maparyan, The Womanist Idea
Second to shutting up and listening, the most important action I’ve found for shifting perspective as a person of privilege is to serve someone else in a holistic way. Beyond parenting or merely putting a friend up with a broken leg, the type of care I mean is on the magnitude of years; in my case, the care recipient gradually declined (as opposed to improving, or adapting to a new baseline) and both parties were irreversibly changed. My time as a caregiver, which began in 2011 and only ended last month, allowed me to see deeply into my loved one’s humanity and, simultaneously, gave me my first glimpses into the womanist perspective. The parallels were not apparent to me at first, but as I have begun to study womanism formally, they appear as relevant as two feet conveying one person. Early on, I had a mirage of “community”. For four years (about twice as long as I’d been caregiving at this point), I’d invested my time, energy, and money into a local network of people around an ideal of ethical sexual liberation; my instincts were telling me my grandfather would need me, and that I would need a community space to return to once he was gone, but I had no religion, no core friends groups, not even an alumni association or book club. I did not, then, recognize the difference between a “community” and a “network” (let alone an online one), nor even really how you could convene hundreds of people around a single word or phrase and end up with radically disparate values there. It would take another two years years to realize “my people” were not really my people at all.
Early on, I was trying to make sure that no matter what his state, there were still two lives being lived between the two of us, but a person who is losing their mind can be hard to anticipate and to reason with. Because I was always primed for an emergency, I developed physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, which I would then replenish by leaning hard on the dwindling friends who remained close (most of my peers, I have since learned, simply didn’t know what to say, so they remained silent). I prepared for worst-case scenarios, but got a very gradual, very smooth decline. Poised as I was for an emergency at any moment, I learned some hard lessons about self-care, but they only slowed my descent. I even tried to re-envision it as a spiritual practice — what better practice for mindfulness than tending the every need of someone whose worldview was shrinking? — but I lacked the discipline, training, and support to see it through. Any and all negativity that arose was redirected toward picking apart my lifetime of misspent advantages and unfixable transgressions. As his light faded, so did mine.
I discovered womanism on Twitter, but did not immediately see the connections with my experience as a caregiver. When time came to move my grandfather into a memory care facilitiy, I resolved to study and support other caregivers, but also to include and humanize the broadest range I could. Who knows better about the delicate balance between caring and obligation than those whose framework is grounded in a generational history of caring for other people’s children and chaotic affection for their own. In an introduction to her The Womanist Reader, Layli Maparyan states that women of color, particularly black women, are the most qualified to lead social change because they “have been at the bottom of every social hierarchy created by man, particularly during the four centuries of the modern era, and multiply so, based on the interaction of race, class, and gender hierarchies and systems of identity”. In her second book on womanism, The Womanist Idea, Layli Maparyan invokes spirituality not just as a corollary of womanism but as an essential component, including six detailed qualities of womanist spirituality, “eclectic, synthetic, holistic, personal, visionary, and pragmatic”. Caregiving is, for me, a spiritual exercise for these same reasons (as if my “instincts” hadn’t been enough of a clue!).
Beyond spirituality, Maparyan also cites the following as qualities of womanism: antioppressionist, vernacular, nonideological, and communitarian. Caregiving is antioppressionist because it shows us a dynamic where privilege is irrelevant. Serving in such silence must needs demonstrate to the caregiver who they REALLY are when no one is looking. Vernacular also takes on new meaning in a caregiving dynamic, as the caregiver must communicate at whatever level possible with the care recipient, be it an accent, be it a mumble, be it a gesture and a specific hallucination. The caregiver must be nonideological not only with the care recipient but also with the limited resources available. Caregiving, like womanism, is about real life, not about politics. Finally, caregiving is communitarian, because caregiving calls for absolute compassion and absolute service, to see the humanity in a person or persons who may not see it themselves. Everything caregivers practice on their care recipients and on themselves will make them more compassionate and understanding community members — if it does not break them, which reiterates the community’s investment in the individual as well. Like many womanist texts, an absolute choice of the individual or the community (and not some balance of the two) harms all parties involved.
Academia is the only realm I know where a smart-but-broken white guy can research what just happened to him in a broader social context while also developing a lens created by people historically oppressed by his predecessors. The death of my grandfather has created emotional and financial hardships, but it has also tempered my resolve to help others and has cleared the way for me to focus on my studies as never before. The rest of my story, however interesting, no longer feels important; I am simply writing from where I am.