Black Women’s Historical Wellness: History as a Tool in Culturally Competent Mental Health Services

“Rosa Parks practicing yoga at an event.” 1973 March.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, [LC-DIG-ppmsca-58369].
Photo used with permission of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.
“Rosa Parks practicing yoga at an event.” 1973 March.
Image courtesy of Library of Congress, Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, [LC-DIG-ppmsca-58369].
Photo used with permission of the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development.

On June 7, 2019, actress Taraji P. Henson delivered emotional testimony to Congress about the vital need for mental health services in African American communities. Henson passionately attested to the dire need to destigmatize challenges such as anxiety and depression that disproportionately impact Black families. Historical research that focuses on balanced models of mental illness and wellness must be included in what Henson called “culturally competent” tool kits used by service providers to address this ongoing crisis. Black women, in particular, are vulnerable to failures and lapses in mental health services.  

Black women’s mental health and wellness is essential because, as we seek to heal ourselves, we are also faced with familial challenges. In addition, we are charged with taking part in social justice efforts to radically challenge systems of personal, cultural, and structural violence that are root causes of individual and collective chronic stress. Notably, life stories and historical accounts of Black women elders are available as practical guides for how to manage both self-healing and social healing—a principle “change yourself (inner work), and change the world (outer work)” articulated by scholar Layli Maparyan.

One of the most compelling examples from this archive of historical wellness practices is Rosa Parks (1913-2005). Parks practiced yoga for three decades and shared yoga lessons in her community. According to published family narratives and papers held at the Library of Congress (LOC), as early as 1965 (at age 52), Rosa Parks learned yoga with her nieces and nephews. By 1973, she was demonstrating yoga practices at events in Detroit. While Rosa Parks is most widely known for political resistance that led to the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, she lived to be 92 years old and her “quiet strength” life-work developed to include public health advocacy.

In the 2015 Library of Congress exhibit, “Beyond the Bus: Rosa Parks’ Lifelong Struggle for Justice,” photographs include documentation of Parks supporting Shirley Chisholm’s 1972 presidential campaign. This exhibit also reveals that “the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement” was an advocate for mental and public health. When I recently discovered the previously unpublished 1973 picture of “Rosa Parks practicing yoga at an event” in the LOC digital archive, I recognized it is a poignant illustration of how Black women’s healing traditions are historical, spiritual, creative, and political. Revealing the Rosa Parks yoga picture publicly for the first time  underscores the ability of Black women’s historians to inform national efforts like Minority Mental Health Awareness Month (July) while also bolstering vital community health work of organizations such as the Black Yoga Teachers Alliance.

At a similar time as the LOC exhibit, twenty of Rosa Parks’ nieces and nephews released a book honoring her life and commemorating what would have been her 100th birthday. In the collection, Our Auntie Rosa: The Family of Rosa Parks Remembers her Life and Lessons, both a niece (Sheila McCauley Keys) and nephew (Asheber Macharia) recount Parks accompanying them to yoga class as well as cultivating her own private practice. They wrote,

I came to realize Auntie Rosa had interests that not too many people knew about. Her receptiveness always left me pleasantly surprised. This was especially true when she decided to join us at yoga classes. She really enjoyed it. … (Macharia)

Well into her senior years she has only recently begun practicing yoga. Splendid silver hair gives her away as the oldest student in most of the classes she occasionally attends with family, but she doesn’t care. She’s reached a point when she considers herself a student of life. … Eventually, she learns the movements and yogic principles well enough to practice alone in her home. She’ll answer the door wearing yoga pants…. (McCauley Keys)

Yoga’s popularity in the United States increased exponentially in the 1970s and ample research links yoga practice to decreased anxiety and depression. African American women, disproportionality impacted by social stressors, also have a long history of yoga awareness and practice.  

In her appeal to Congress for mental health support, Henson noted that religious communities often suggest we “pray away” problems. Rosa Parks, a Deaconess at the AME Church in Detroit, personifies the possibility of incorporating a holistic health approach to personal and community health in Black spaces. Yoga was incorporated into programming at the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, founded in 1987, and is still taught there in several forums. Fittingly, yoga is also a routine activity at the Rosa Parks Elementary School in San Francisco, California. As health professionals begin to prioritize restorative and preventative public policy that includes practices like yoga, they can turn to historical examples for support and proof of efficacy.

            Mental health-centered practices include and extend beyond self-care routines. Angela Davis, who wrote about her yoga and meditation practice while imprisoned for her political activism the 1970s, is one of many voices that rightly cautions against “individual” conceptions of self-care. Long-time advocates like Black Women’s Health Imperative (BWHI) founder Byllye Avery clearly state the need for community building around self-care discussions as a form of consciousness raising. For over forty years, public health educators like BWHI in Washington, D. C. and Center for Black Women’s Wellness in Atlanta, GA have trumpeted education about self-care practices as crucial tools for mental health and advocacy groups like No More Martyrs and Black Ladies in Public Health continue to push in that direction forward.

In a recent study of fifty Black women mental health professionals, Dr. Kanika Bell asserted that Black women need to practice peace and that, “many Black women have practices and traditions that assisted in their mental health maintenance….” Guides for self-care practices and healing traditions can be found in life narratives of long-living freedom fighters like Harriet Tubman (who lived to be in her 90s), lawyer-minister Dovey Johnson Roundtree (who passed last year at age 104), and chef Leah Chase (who recently passed at age 96). In addition to Parks and Davis, several other African American women elders specifically mention yoga in their life writing, most notably Sadie and Bessie Delany (who lived to be 109 and 104) and author-activist Alice Walker (who just turned 75). Narratives by these and countless other historical authors can serve as much-needed case study resources for Black women’s mental health mentoring and counseling, especially for social justice activists who, as Angela Davis emphasizes, too often face burn out.

There is much work to do to increase the quality of life and the quality of mental health care in African American communities. As always, when we study diverse historical sources and #CiteBlackWomen/#CiteaSista, we will get much farther, much faster.

Dr. Stephanie Y. Evans is Professor and Director of the Institute for Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Georgia State University. She is author of three books: Historical Wellness: Mental Health and Healing in Elder Memoirs (forthcoming), Black Passports: Travel Memoirs as a Tool for Youth Empowerment (2014), and Black Women in the Ivory Tower, 1850-1954: An Intellectual History (2007), and lead co-editor of Black Women and Social Justice Education: Legacies and Lessons (SUNY Press, 2019), Black Women’s Mental Health: Balancing Strength and Vulnerability (SUNY Press, 2017), and African Americans and Community Engagement in Higher Education (2009). Follow her on Twitter @Prof_Evans.