decolonizing healing: reflecting on bell hooks’, “sisters of the yam”

“Just so’s you’re sure, sweetheart, and ready to be healed, cause wholeness is no trifling matter. A lot of weight when you are well.”

—Toni Cade Bambara, The Salt Eaters

bell hooks references Bambara’s beautiful words in the introduction of Sisters of the Yam. I needed this book. Truly needing her writing in times like these where I am consistently juxtaposed. I mean, reality was difficult to deal with before covid-19; hundreds of thousands of people were and are dying everyday regardless of the virus. In 2016, it was estimated that 8,000 people die from hunger everyday. How am I supposed to just pretend that is not happening?

There has been no clear answer for me. I simultaneously wish to remember and ignore. To hold close, fight for, with all those who are hurting, but in doing so, I am ignoring my own hurting. The weight of carrying the world’s trauma on your heart is no easy feat. It is of course easier than experiencing the trauma itself, but the goal of liberation is not for one of us to experience the horrors the other is experiencing, but to find ways to break free and liberate those very people from the oppressive state itself. To do so, we have to be open. Intimately ready. Completely immersed in understanding and compassion. Those are not easy feats.

Healing is no one step process, where I magically unravel the years, decades of simulation, ignorance, and learnings. It is simultaneously infinite. But it’s longevity does not excuse me from actively practicing healing. I embody this, but it is often easy to forget. bell hooks seldom lets me ignore the work I must do, to arrive to the revolution, to participate in the movement as wholly, fully, and intimately as I can. For the revolution and healing are inexplicably intertwined.

Like me, hooks makes claim on the ways self-care and healing have been made into a white woman’s practice. Healing has traditionally been that of black and brown women, of poor women, lesbian women, disabled women, fat women, dalit women, ‘third world’ women, detained women, migrant women, immigrant women. Healing has been utilized in the truly darkest of times, for that is when it has been needed most. Healing is no superficial practice, it is a deliberate engagement individually and collectively, with the necessary political consciousness, to resist, transgress, oppose, and transcend.

She writes,

“This book, however, like many other self-help books for women, disturbed me because it denied that patriarchy is institutionalized. It made it seem that women could change everything in our lives by sheer acts of personal will. It did not even suggest that we would need to organize politically to change society in conjunction with our efforts to transform ourselves.” (12)

With a frame of consciousness that transcend the individual, we must still find pathways and mechanisms to heal that are personal to our lived experiences. Individuality does not necessarily mean our practices cannot be illuminating of the experiences of others, but that we must deliberately create blended paths that combine both scales of experience into our healing practices and journeys.

hooks writes,

“Knowing when to quit is linked to knowing one’s value. If black women have not learned to value our bodies then we cannot respond fully to endangering them by undue stress. Since society rewards us most, indicates that we are valuable, when we are willing to push ourselves to the limit and beyond, we need a life-affirming practice, a counter-system of valuation in order to resist this agenda. Most black women have not yet developed a counter-system.” (69)

It is difficult to develop such a system. I recall Sara Ahmed, a feminist queer theorist’s, phenomenal work on feminist resistance in everyday life, as she writes “sometimes: to survive a system is to survive in a system”. Without deliberately placing blockades around and through these systems that attempt to limit, force, derail, and stress our work and bodies, we can very rarely survive without intentional effort to do so. This is a harrowing reality: we must work deliberately, continually, and purposefully to survive these multiple oppressions, to heal with, through, and past them.

This process of healing is a process of consciousness, of decolonization, of (un)learning. hooks further eloquently elaborates:

“We have resisted continued devaluation by countering the dominant stereotypes about us that prevail in white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy by decolonizing our minds. Here decolonization refers to breaking with the ways our reality is defined and shaped by the dominant culture and asserting our understanding of that reality, of our own experience.” (10)

In times of covid-19, I understand truly, that healing can be brushed off as ‘unimportant’. Like I asked before, how can we focus on healing when thousands are dying


I still don’t have an answer, but I know I practice healing with intention to the collective for I can only show up as closely as I have met and shown up for myself. That is non-negotiable. And I hope you find the process that enables you the flexibility to explore your liberation as simultaneously your own and beyond yourself during these times.