This past year, closets were emptied, photo albums organized and old T-shirts finally tossed. We couldn’t do much, but we could get rid of our stuff. As we return to our routines – and our Target trips – how can we keep the piles from piling back up?
D.C.-based author Christine Platt tackles that very query in her new book, “The Afrominimalist’s Guide to Living with Less.” Most books about minimalism focus on what to get rid of and how to do it, but Platt’s book guides readers through the more emotionally charged question of: “Why do we have so much stuff in the first place?”
If you’re one of the more than 58,000 followers of the Afrominimalist on Instagram, then you know that Platt has not only cleared closets, but she has also found a way to infuse her 630-square-foot apartment with a version of minimalism that includes color, texture and the rich history of the African diaspora. Platt, who has a BA in Africana studies, an MA in African American studies and a JD in general law, created the kind of guide she couldn’t find when she started her journey in 2016. It celebrates her ancestors and speaks directly to other members of marginalized communities whose relationship with ownership is complex. By detailing her own maximalist-to-minimalist transformation, Platt puts readers at ease – there’s no stuff-shaming – with humor and a heavy dose of “been-there, bought-that, never-worn-it” empathy.
Here are edited excerpts from a recent conversation with Platt.
Q: When you decided you needed to live with less, you were met with White spaces and White faces. How did that affect your momentum?
A: I knew there were other minimalists of color out there, but I couldn’t find them easily. What did surprise me is when I followed all these unofficial rules and tried to mirror all these spaces, I was left wondering: “Where’s my minimalist joy that was promised to me?” That was the first indicator that this is going to look very different for me as a Black woman.
Q: You really get into discovering why we have so much stuff. Why is that essential?
A: Unless you know why you got to this place, you’re just going to acquire more stuff, because you never got to the root cause. For me, one of my big whys was memories of bargain shopping with my mom. So many habits and challenges around consumption are reflections from our childhood. I associate being at the mall and looking for deals with her as relaxing and having fun. I carried that with me into adulthood. When I first went through all my stuff, there were sales tags on everything – everything – but they were unworn. I knew that something much deeper was going on. I was addicted to the thrill of the hunt.
Q: How do you deal with deals now?
A: I have a mantra: It’s not a deal if you don’t need it. When I see something on sale, I ask myself: Do you need this? Will you use it? Do you love it? Is there room in your space and in your budget for it? Take that moment to pause. That gets you back into a place of mindfulness.
Q: To be clear, you ask yourself: “Do I need, use and love this item?” It has to check all three?
A: Yes. We love, or feel as if we love, most of our things because of our attachment to them. That’s why we still have them. When you get down to using and needing it, then that’s when it gets sticky. That’s when I get all these questions of: “How often do I need to use it?” and “When do I need to use it?” You’re already trying to convince yourself not to let go.
Q: Throughout the book, you offer “For the Culture” sections to speak directly to Black people. Why is this crucial?
A: It’s going to be harder for people in certain marginalized groups to let go of things because of the history and generational inheritance of things. I wanted this to be super pronounced in the text, because I wanted readers to know this is for us. I want people in our community to understand that a lot of the guidance and the wisdom passed down to us is rooted in systemic oppression. For example, in our community, we have told our children and our loved ones that you “live for today,” that “you better go ahead and buy it now, because, historically, you don’t know if you’re going to see tomorrow.” But now, as a community and as a people, we are living longer, fuller lives, so that guidance is no longer applicable, and it’s doing more of a disservice. Holding on to that philosophy means there’s no long-term planning, no wealth-building. It was so important to call this out, not only to identify the history, but also to show folks here’s what can happen if we don’t become mindful consumers. Getting everyone to understand that even though we are the poorest demographic, we are the highest spenders. The average Black family would need 228 years to build the wealth of a White family today. Those are important statistics that need to be called out, and that’s why they’re in this book.
Q: You outline four steps to begin and maintain a life of less. What are they, and which step was the most difficult?
A: The steps are:
1. Acknowledge that you have too much.
2. Forgive yourself.
3. Let go.
4. Pay it forward.
A lot of minimalism advice skips the forgiveness step. I get so many emails and direct messages saying: “I couldn’t stop crying once I started doing this.” People expect to feel all this joy, but plenty of other emotions may show up. You may feel super sad or ashamed or mad at yourself for spending so much. You have to forgive yourself and others who may have contributed to your overspending. The most difficult steps for me were acknowledging that I had too much and forgiving myself. It was a lot. It was heavy. If you’re just thinking about how much money you spent, it’s easy to get stuck. You have to move on, and to move on, you have to forgive.
Q: How can we get kids involved in letting go?
A: Here’s what I tell parents: Don’t go into their rooms and give them an ultimatum about getting rid of all this stuff – stuff that you bought, by the way. Give children a bag or a box and tell them: “There are a lot of children less fortunate than you. Why don’t you find a few things that you’d like to donate.” Close the door, and leave them alone. Never open the bag or box. It will hurt your feelings. All those items that you bought them and thought they couldn’t live without, they’re probably going to give them away.
Q: What about gifts?
A: Be honest. It’s up to you to tell your friends and family about your efforts to live with less. Once something comes into your home, you feel responsible for it, so don’t let it in. Tell them nicely: “There’s no way I’m ever going to use this.” I’ve been doing this for five years, and I haven’t had any issues.
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Amanda Long is a writer and massage therapist in Falls Church, Va. She finally cleaned out her overstuffed secretary full of ticket stubs, photo negatives and buttons while reading this book.