May 2, 2017 — I’m sure many of you have heard of the saying “black don’t crack” to describe the tendency for Black women to retain a youthful appearance as we age. When I hear the phrase, however, I think of a 2013 article published in The Root titled, Black May Not Crack, but We’re Aging Faster Inside.
According to the article, stress is causing Black women to become prone to such “ailments as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, susceptibility to infection, carcinogenesis, and accelerated aging.”
Unfortunately, I was recently reminded of this reality upon the death of my dear friend, Dr. Chandra Taylor Smith, who passed away at age 55. She died six months after being diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. So, you see, in my estimation, Black does crack. From the inside out.
Chandra was a leader par excellence. Educated at the finest institutions in the United States, at various points in her life Chandra held executive leadership roles in education, where she built a powerful reputation as an educational policy expert. Chandra’s last leadership assignments were with the National Audubon Society, where she was able to combine her educational leadership with her passion for conservation. At the Audubon Society, her mission entailed leading women and men of diverse backgrounds to a more conscious awareness of and engagement with the environment.
Chandra’s leadership journey was eclectic and transformative. It is fitting for me to share a few reflections on Black women’s leadership as inspired by the passing of my friend.
Black Women’s Leadership Is a Courageous Calling.
Chandra experienced her career as a series of “callings.” A calling to lead is not something you pursue in response to the cacophony of corporate ladder-climbing power grabbers, but something you hear within.
It takes courage to heed that call, as it is an opportunity to make a difference and leave a mark for good. We can never afford to let our leadership roles become something we do just to get a larger paycheck, bigger title, or more turf. Black women’s leadership must always remain a courageous calling.
Black Women Leaders Must Do All the Good We Can…Within Our Limits.
None of us knows just how much time we have on this earth. Chandra’s full but relatively short life epitomized the Methodist saying credited to John Wesley:
“Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”
Yet none of us are immune to limits. Here are some limits for you to consider:
• Aging is a limit. As we traverse each decade, we slow down a little. The pace we kept at 25 is not the same pace most of us can keep at 45 or 65. We must grow in wisdom and learn to do things smarter.
• Time and space are limits. Each of us can only be in one place at one time. We must stop overcommitting, adding multiple engagements to the same spot in our calendars. Overcommitting ultimately serves to disappoint others and heap us with guilt.
• The double assaults of racism and sexism are limits. They are not insurmountable. But we face them and overcome them at a cost to our very souls. Sister leaders—that is, my fellow Black woman leaders—we need space for healing our psychic wounds. We need friendship circles to process our experiences. We need prayer circles that help us access God’s grace and love. As leaders, we each need to build a sustainable infrastructure of support that includes coaches, advisers, mentors, promoters, encouragers, and the like.
• Death is a limit. I suppose it’s the ultimate earthly limit. Truth is, every one of us must be so mindful of living out our purpose to the fullest each day, that we do not get mired in the "stuff" that distracts us from leading a life of significance.
Black Women Leaders Have to Be Shapers of Significance.
Too often we as leaders get caught up in our organization’s efficiency and effectiveness and define success in merely quantitative terms—higher ROI, productivity, engagement scores, sales, or number of speaking engagements. Still others define success by the title on the nameplate of their office doors, or the other "accruals" such as fancy cars, houses, and planes.
Those cannot be the only measures of our success. Instead, sister leaders, isn’t our challenge also to create meaning? We have to make our efforts count toward leaving a legacy once we’re gone.
Black Women Leaders Must Tell Our Own Stories.
Legacy is ultimately about the story that gets told about you and the things you’ve left behind to advance your causes. If we live with legacy in mind, then we are more prone to create things of lasting value. Slow down enough to share your story—those things of lasting value that you stand for, that you create, and that you live for. Write it. Speak it. Share it for other women, especially younger Black women, who are coming along and need examples and role models who look and sound like them.
Black Women Leaders Must Learn to Care for Ourselves.
As Black women, we are so often trained and groomed to take care of other people: aging parents, spouses and partners, children, godchildren, members of our congregations, and coworkers. It seems that the nature of our work as leaders causes other-care and self-care to be completely at odds. That has to change!
We as Black women absorb a great deal of stress from the structures in which we work, no matter how much we might love our careers. We work hard to dispel the cultural stereotypes by over-working, over-achieving, and over-functioning. We are stretched to the hilt from living our everyday lives as women who care deeply, but who aren’t always cared for by the broader culture.
We must, however, take care of ourselves. We must remind ourselves of our value to this world even when the world doesn’t seem to acknowledge us. We must carve out space to do self-work; to care for spirit, soul, and body.
Remember, what you do as a leader emanates from who you are as a leader. That leadership identity starts on the inside. And too many of us are “cracking” on the inside.
I don’t know how much time you have on this earth. Neither do you. We have so much to do but we must learn to do it in ways that don’t damage our very being. Because Black does crack—from the inside out.