In today’s blog post, Pray with Our Feet founder and freelance writer Emelda De Coteau interviews Rowana Abbensetts, founder and editor-in-chief of Spoken Black Girl. The two discuss Rowana’s work in mental healthcare awareness for women, Spoken Black Girl‘s latest work, and Rowana’s upcoming book Departure Story.
I caught up with my good friend Rowana Abbensetts, founder and editor-in-chief of Spoken Black Girl (SBG), a publishing company and community that aims to “be a resource for millennial womxn of color who want to go beyond healing mental and emotional wounds and start thriving in life.”
Through their work, from events to publications, SBG is determined to shatter the stigma around mental health within our community and provide “space for womxn of color to tell their stories of joy, pain, growth, and transformation while sharing practical solutions for holistic healing.”
EMELDA: You know I am so thankful for the work you do through Spoken Black Girl Publishing and the community you are building. What, in your personal journey, birthed this passion for mental health awareness?
ROWANA ABBENSETTS: Well, like so many of us, I didn’t know the importance of mental health until it impacted me personally. Growing up, we didn’t really talk about mental health in a positive way. I grew up hearing people use “crazy”, “schizo” and “bipolar” like slurs against people who did not behave appropriately or live up to the societal norm. By the time I was a teen, I had started to experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, panic attacks, sleepless nights, and low self-worth thoughts became commonplace.
My mother always taught me to be my own advocate, and so I convinced my parents to let me see a psychiatrist, even though psychology and therapy have long been tabooed in Caribbean culture. I’m so glad I started this journey because it has been a journey of deep self-reflection every step of the way. Therapy allowed me to put words to my thoughts and emotions.
There is something about telling your story, pleading your case to an impartial party, that is so liberating. Talk therapy was a big part of my early mental health journey, but I quickly discovered that a wholistic approach was best for me.
Taking care of the mind doesn’t make much sense without taking care of the body. With depression being a chronic illness, I had to ask myself if I would be on antidepressants for the rest of my life or if I would find a way to heal without pharmaceuticals (although there is no shame in taking medication for mental health, and sometimes, it’s necessary). I started getting into studying healing plants, breathwork, yoga, meditation, and other healing practices.
I realized that my spiritual health was directly linked to my mental health. I’m a living testament to the fact that you can pray and go to therapy, in fact, a huge part of my self love journey has involved recognizing the God given divinity in me and really taking responsibility for my voice and my ability to create change. Sometimes, we shy away from our power, and this has been a journey of me slowly coming into my power and inspiring others to do the same. Running my business is like a daily practice in belief, hard work, and vision.
My vision is to create a future where everybody feels heard and represented and is able to express themselves to the fullest extent without the constraints of capitalism, racism, sexism, and all of the other “isms” that make it difficult for BIPOC & LGBTQIA people to exist in our full glory.
EMELDA: Black Womxn are known for our resilience and strength. Yet, in some ways, this is used against us as it relates to mental health. Everyone assumes “we have it together.” How does Spoken Black Girl create safe spaces where we can become open, vulnerable, and honest with ourselves and others?
ROWANA ABBENSETTS: Yes, every Black womxn I know is struggling with the myth of the “Strong Black Woman.” Usually caring for everyone else first, juggling multiple jobs, the family chauffeur, and the number one diaper changer. We seem to be able to do it all with such ease and grace, but don’t be fooled by the beauty of our melanin, as Black women we do crack, we crease, we can be hurt. I think that was one of my biggest motivations for creating Spoken Black Girl. I wanted the world to know that we hurt but we are resilient.
Black Girl Magic is our ability to turn lemons into lemonade. We are alchemists of pain. That’s the only way to be when the world seems set out to break you, to draw you into a box of stereotypes, and the message “You are not enough” is being overtly and covertly blasted into our consciousness. I wanted to create a space where our voices were not just “allowed” but valued and exalted.
Some may not understand the pain that Black women go through, being unseen and unheard. In the words of Maya Angelou, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I try to create space for those stories and space for multiple narratives and voices. We are not a monolith and each of us deserves to be heard.
EMELDA: Part of SBG’s focus includes the magazine which uplifts the voices of so many writers and varied perspectives. Your last issue, with the theme of resilience, resonated with us all so deeply, and I find myself returning to those words for encouragement along the journey. Talk to us about the theme of the next issue, and the inspiration behind it.
ROWANA ABBENSETTS: Thank you for saying so! I come up with the themes for the magazines by some kind of divine intuition. I’ve become so attuned to the needs of my community. I do the best to curate what we need to hear according to current events. Resilience was definitely needed through the pandemic. By creating that issue, I gave myself something to believe in, as well as my community of friends and supporters who poured into the project with such dedication despite all of the despair.
After Resilience, which sold worldwide, I began to connect with a whole global community. I started hearing stories of Black people in so many different places, I wanted us to come out of this difficult time connected and understanding each other better. The Diaspora has been divided by colonialism, violence, and white supremacy. It’s time we start envisioning Black futures together in an intersectional way that cares for even the most vulnerable among us.
“Black Girl Magic is our ability to turn lemons into lemonade. We are alchemists of pain. That’s the only way to be when the world seems set out to break you, to draw you into a box of stereotypes, and the message “You are not enough” is being overtly and covertly blasted into our consciousness.”Rowana Abbensetts, Founder of Spoken Black Girl
EMELDA: In what ways do you suggest we continue breaking down the stigma within our community around mental health which prevents so many Womxn from speaking up when they are in pain, and need help?
ROWANA ABBENSETTS: I think a shift in consciousness is taking place slowly but surely. As Black women, we are learning to give ourselves grace and as we do that, we should give other women grace. This means checking in with people, giving folks a break when you can, being generous when you can, normalizing rest, and enforcing boundaries. More and more of us are seeking out mental health resources and also becoming therapists ourselves. It’s beautiful to see. I would say, lead by example.
All my life, I’ve done what I had to do to take care of myself, even when I wasn’t very good at it, but I still give myself credit. So, I would say to anyone struggling right now, give yourself credit for all of the time you spent doing your best to take care of yourself. It is enough, you are enough and you’re not any less because you ask for help. Asking for help is actually one of the most beautiful ways we can connect as humans.
EMELDA: How are you caring for yourself as you juggle running SBG and preparing to release your first book, Departure Story?
ROWANA ABBENSETTS: I’ve had to be so patient with myself. I’m the kind of person who wants to see results immediately, but I typically don’t spend much time celebrating my wins. I also tend to be hard on myself and expect a lot out of myself very quickly. Sometimes there is this cognitive disconnect between the fact that I’m an entrepreneur, and my own ability to maintain my mental health.
Not practicing what I preach has gotten me into so much trouble over the years. This year I know I’m taking on a lot. The book and the magazine are coming out pretty close to each other, so I’ve been strict about things like spending too much time on social media, not overcommitting myself by saying “Yes” to everything, setting strict working hours, and staying organized. The journey of writing a book has been the most twisted roller coaster ride. I’m so happy to finally publish Departure Story so I can get to all of my other manuscripts!
ROWANA ABBENSETTS: Departure Story is my love letter to the Diaspora. It’s a novel about displacement and creating home. I think people are really going to fall in love with Celestine, the main character. She’s tackling what it means to be Black, a woman, and an immigrant in a completely new environment.
It’s also about finding your voice within the chaos and making a stand for what you believe in wherever you are. Celestine gets to a new country, and she’s testing the boundaries of her power in love, friendships, and politics. I try to strike a balance between funny and tragic, but there are a lot of heartbreaking moments on her journey. For me, the book has many parallels to my real life although with a fictional twist. I hope it will make some Black girl who is reading white male authors in her American lit class feel seen.
EMELDA: How can folks support SBG and stay connected?
ROWANA ABBENSETTS: The best way to support is by buying a publication. You can order Resilience and preorder my novel Departure Story. Issue 3 Diaspora will be on sale soon! Join us for events and workshops all year long to find community and inspiration. Follow us on Instagram @spokenblackgirl. Thank you for the opportunity to share.
Emelda serves as the founder of Women Creatives Chat, a community centering wellness and empowerment for women of all artistic disciplines through events (both online and live), workshops, and mindful products and services. She also writes about wellness and holistic healing practices for Modestine Tea and Breaking the Silence…Healing the Pain.
You can read Emelda’s other features on Good Life Detroit here and here if you like. Special thanks to Emelda for sharing her insight on the importance of Black mental healthcare. Look out for more of her writing on GLD!
SBG photo credit to Rowana Abbensetts.
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