To mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Sierra Fraser plans on attending the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s virtual tribute from the comfort of her home. Then, she plans on bingeing Season 6 of “Schitt’s Creek.” Other than a possible walk outdoors with her immediate family, she’s staying home.
These days, there seems to be little relief from a world of trauma and outrage and threats. She’s hardly the only one who feels this way.
After a year of facing down constant threats and stress, including the coronavirus, police brutality, a presidential election and intense Senate runoffs, many Black women say they were exhausted. Their work was constant and unyielding.
Then came the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, a day meant to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory. The nation absorbed more upheaval by groups that flaunted gear, tattoos and clothes brandished with emblems of white supremacy.
“I’m just really exhausted between college and advocacy work,” said Fraser, a freshman at Smith College who is remote-learning from her home in New York City. Earlier in the day, she had testified at a city council meeting on youth services. In high school, she became active with Teens Take Charge, a group of students fighting inequality in schools.
“I think it’s always important to have rallies and marches, but safety over everything,” she said. “The political climate of the country is extremely terrifying right now.”
Even if she were to attend an event with a police presence, the 18-year-old New Yorker said she doesn’t feel safe around law enforcement right now.
The observance of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is usually heralded as a national day of service in the United States. Like so many other movements, these efforts are often led by Black women. But this year especially, many say, it is finally time for them to rest.
Fraser, like many of the Black women interviewed for this story, said she was prioritizing safety, self-preservation and self-care on Monday.
“Since covid sparked, Black death has been through the roof. Black women have been doing work for years, even if we were not obligated to, whether that be in schools or organizations, small groups, small things. It’s really overwhelming. We deserve to just take a break, especially for a day that symbolizes such an important person to our community,” Fraser said.
“It’s time for privileged people and White people or people that have never had to really go outside and do anything because they can look away — it’s their time to start doing work on their own without having to be educated every second,” she said.
Over a dozen Black women leaders, advocates and artists spoke about their exhaustion and concerns about their own safety leading up to a holiday they wished to spend retreating from living in service. Often, they said, their work is unseen and taken for granted.
For many Black women, there is a constant expectation to teach others about racism and White privilege in every setting they’re in, often without remuneration and on top of their other work and duties.
“We’re Black every day. We cater to our community every day. MLK Day is a day for White people to do community service, give back and support our businesses. It should be something that’s done regardless,” said Pariss Athena, founder and chief executive of Black Tech Pipeline.
In both the presidential race and the Georgia Senate runoffs, analysts credited Black women, most notably Stacey Abrams, for working to register voters with a well-organized, tireless ground game.
She said she fears violence directed at Black people, particularly women. Last week she tweeted out recommendations for Black people to grocery shop ahead of time and fill the gas tanks in their cars in case of an emergency.
As for Monday, she said that she plans to spend the day bingeing TV shows.
“No one asks the Irish to be of service on St. Patrick’s Day,” she said.
Like Crayton, photographer and documentary filmmaker Allysa Lisbon plans to lie low, mostly indoors. As someone who has made D.C. her home for the past six years, she’s active in several groups for artists and civil rights. She considers it important to attend counterprotests for gatherings of groups tied to white supremacy.
“I think a lot of people forget that people actually live in D.C.,” she said. “D.C. is not just government, D.C. is people.” It’s important to send a message that such groups are not welcome in the community and work to protect it, she added.
As a Black woman, Lisbon says she understands King and embraces him as a whole person beyond what White popular culture has distilled him into. “As much as he wants us to serve, he also wants to take us to take care of ourselves. And we haven’t had a lot of time to rest in the midst of 2020 and, so far, 2021.”
She hopes that non-Black people learn about King beyond the popular speeches — his teachings about labor and education, for example. As someone who works in digital communications, she’s used to seeing the quotes like “I have a dream” emblazoned across social media on MLK Day.
“People are very performative on MLK Day, and they always want to share the same quotes and a very sanitized view of him,” she said.
Instead, she says, read King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.”
It’s important, too, that people consider what role they are playing in their own circles when it comes to race and privilege, she said.
“If they’re not actively building in the community, then they are actually helping it be destroyed.”