Sainthood we never asked for- on black women, movement labor, and exhaustion

a story of exhaustion in three vignettes and two meditations


I have a classmate, a cis het black male. He’s probably one of the few friends I have at seminary. He likes to talk to me about all things black revolution. He thinks that I “get it” because he knows how much I read about radical black studies despite that not being my academic focus. He’s also one of the few people aware of my organizing life beyond the surface level antidotes I supply at school as to why I’m “never around” enough for diversity/interfaith photo opportunities.

He’ll call me sporadically, completely aware that I am busy, I am not attached to my phone (despite my heavy amounts of traffic on social media), and that I don’t like to talk over the phone very much. He’ll call me when something has happened in the news or on campus related to black folks. He’ll vent his frustration. I’ll listen, provide my commentary as my mind and mental capacity allows me. At some point, before we hang up, he’ll tell me that black women are the leaders of the future because:

“black men aint shit. you gonna have to lead us forward cause we know we aint shit. we know we aint shit, zaynab. we know we aint shit.”

I’ll laugh, all but tersely. What else am I supposed to say towards the end of a conversation I probably needed to end an hour ago to take care of other things, like myself. We hang up, and I file it out of mind.

About a month ago I recounted this pattern of conversation to my mother in a moment of exhaustion and frustration.

She said very bluntly, “well he just let you know how useless he is!”

In the moment I howled with laughter, but her comment still haunts me.


“we need your insight!”

“You’re so brilliant!”

“This is why black women are gonna make things better for all of us!”

Being a critical thinker, the ability to think quickly on my toes, and conceptualize in the abstract and tangible has gotten me into trouble. It’s allowed people to mistake my enjoyment of intellectual exercise and dialogue as a cue that I want to take up more leadership, more responsibility.

I often step into movement spaces and notice people looking at me intensely when I remain silent and just listen.

“Surely you have something to say!”

“Please speak!”

What remains unspoken: 

“we’re waiting!” 

We’re waiting for you(r words) to save us……


A week before my 27th birthday I come back from NYC after completing a month-long research fellowship. My body is sore from sleeping on a twin size dormitory bed whose dimensions and structure are not meant to accommodate fat, chronic pain bearing bodies. My knees are worn out from standing in a shower stall to bathe.

Barely two days after getting back the requests pour in: requests for free labor, for emotional support, for interviews whose only payment can be cashed at the bank of exposure. I look at my bank account, which is howling towards empty after spending more money on food than I had anticipated in the wake of provided research colloquium meals not panning out. I refresh my email account hoping for the news that back-owed freelance payments have finally come through and I can do what’s needed: pay bills. Payment fails to materialize, and while I hold fast to the solace that my class privilege and mother’s financial support will have to do until payment comes, I do wish that people who thought enough of my insights would pay me for them, and pay on time.

The first day of August rolls around. I post a purple hue facebook statuses about how I am taking the month of August off from free labor. Folks can catch me in September. I screen cap it, post it on Instagram and twitter. I am taking “sick leave” from a job that doesn’t pay, doesn’t have any stable benefits, and its rewards are few. The joy and the task of spreading information for free often has people assuming I am signing up to educate them as well. To walk them through the motions of thinking critically. Many of the people who make these assumptions are white. I fight back the urge to say that their laziness is a slap in the face to the philosophical modes of argumentation, reasoning, and abstraction their ancestors lorde over non-white folks who don’t bow to European schools of thought.

To believe that its my job to tell you the “right way” or the “right” thing to think to avoid being a bigot/racist/not progressive or “woke” enough isn’t the walk away from their European heritage that they might believe. If anything its reifying it, recasting it in a light that portents to care about justice instead of domination.

But it’s still a flex of dominion nonetheless, although liberal/progressive colored glasses will never see it that way.


I did not get into liberation movements because I wanted to carry a burden whose weight seems to defy the bounds of human capability and corporeality.

I don’t study the dialectics, fugitive blueprints, and star signs of those who came before me only to never transcend Nanny’s contention that “de black women is de mule of the de world.” 

When my eight year old self sat in my grandmother’s living room and watched Cicely Tyson play Moses and carry a literal plow on her back, I didn’t think I would be expected to do the same for the rest of my life.

I did not sign up for sainthood

to wear crowns whose weight threaten to snap necks

to be placed on pedestals whose height breaks the ankles of black women try to plot their way off the mount.

I didn’t think I would have to continuously forge my own escape from the undue labor of black women that is termed “liberation”. Who knew that when I first start reading about black fugitivity, how black bodies and minds escape, I would become a maroon in movement spaces. Who knew I would need a way out of alternative world making, a way to break free from what is thought of as the path to “freedom”.

This space of black womanhood is sainthood I never asked for, that I would gladly return to sender if I had the forwarding address, that I would give up in a heartbeat if I thought there was the remote possibility that I could understand myself outside of weariness, exhaustion, and mental fatigue.


Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib has a book of poetry called The Crown Aint Worth Much.

He beat me to the epitaph of my own life

I wonder how many others feel the same way


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