Barbara Pamplin discusses her work toward health and acceptance

by Carla Bell

Barbara Pamplin was fat, Black, and unlovable. She was also dead.

She had lived from year to year with high blood pressure and other types of inflammation, until one mid-October morning last year when something tipped the scale. Pamplin, disoriented, yet aware of a sudden physiological change, was rushed to the emergency room for open heart surgery, and at just 45 years of age, she says, “My heart stopped and I was dead.”

Over the course of a 50-day stay in intensive care, Pamplin, who had been a busy wife, mother, and a marketing professional, would recover and die again, twice more. She somehow had a level of consciousness in her death experiences, she says, but didn’t know she was dead.

In gratitude, wonder, and purpose, she recounts, “I had three open-heart surgeries, three deaths, and three resuscitations. What happened to me is something rare.”

Doctors have her in ongoing drug therapy and continued monitoring, but her aortic dissection was met with the quality care of Overlake Hospital in Bellevue.

“To this day, I hug the doctors,” she said, warmth and a smile in her voice. “I have a bond with those people now.”

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In Fat, Black, and Unlovable scheduled to release in November, Pamplin writes about this experience, as well as the many behaviors and toxic beliefs she had adopted in her youth and held throughout her life as her own. On its cover is a butterfly, signaling the transformation story inside. It’s a story as remarkable and unique, as it is familiar to most Black women. In some ways, Pamplin’s story feels almost like our own.

She talked with South Seattle Emerald about the core beliefs and the work involved with change, hopes for her event, Beautiful.Powerful.Love: Celebrate!, born from her life altering experience, and the BPL kick-off happening this Saturday, October 13, at Langston Hughes Performing Arts Institute.

Carla Bell: Why the title Fat, Black, and Unlovable?

Barbara Pamplin: I chose the title Fat, Black, and Unlovable because this was the belief I held about myself for most of my life. When I talk to Black women about this, it’s “GASP!” It’s shudders and goosebumps. They immediately recognize it, as though I’ve spoken what’s in their minds. Our core self-beliefs can be toxic and so detrimental.

CB: What is the motivation behind Beautiful.Powerful.Love: Celebrate! (BPL)? What’s your overall plan?

BP: Thousands of Black women die every year from heart disease related issues, and I almost was one of them.

I’m doing this in obedience to my ancestors and particularly my mother, Quessie Ingram Williams. She passed away in 2006, in large part due to years of untreated high blood pressure. Heart disease runs in my family, and I have sisters with a number of vascular ailments. My mother still inspires me by her examples or the absence of them, to keep living, and living fully. She’s with me now, in my heart, still teaching me.

With Vanessa Meraki, a key partner helping me to realize this vision, BPL will create opportunities for community to come together and begin to identify those problem core behaviors — sometimes cultural — that keep Black women unhealthy. We’ll begin to repair those behaviors together, in joy and beauty.

My intention for the book and BPL is to give inspiration to women, especially Black women, for the difficult soul work that can transform us.

CB: Will you talk more about what that “soul work” entails?

BP: I think it starts out with admitting. Looking in the mirror, and really spending time with “me” — literally looking in the mirror. What are the crazy things we believe about ourselves? Where did those beliefs come from?

For me, it was an observation of what I call “plantation proverbs” — things that my parents said, that their parent said. Things a lot of Black people have heard and said, a method of survival for generations, but also a cause of stress, self-doubt and self-loathing in this one.

CB: In stepping away from your deep and successful background in marketing, including time at Microsoft, and into this very personal, restorative spiritual healing work, you’ve reconciled two very different tracks. How and why did you make this shift?

BP: Yes, I’ve done the corporate thing, but after going through so much, I felt that my life had to focus on healing and health in order for me to be as healthy as I can. So, I started to think about what I could do to apply my skills in something that matters — not about buying stuff — but to get people to look at themselves, to do the work, and make the changes.

I formed S.H.E.goat with Vanessa Meraki. S.H.E.goat is an acronym for “Spiritually Healthy Events Giving our Ancestors Thanks.” Changing beliefs is hard! I want to convince people that it’s worth doing. This is the work I want to do through this collaborative venture.

CB: Tell us about what’s happening this Saturday?

BP: Beautiful. Powerful. Love: Celebrate! is the first in a series of transformative events exploring methods that we can use for healing.

Tomorrow evening we’ll have a show in the theatre and then an after-party.

The next event scheduled for November 17 will be a day of workshops, and a look at self-healing methods that were important for me like Afro-Cuban dance, Afro-Brazilian dance, yoga, Pilates, herbalism, and plant-based medicine. We’ll just explore, because everyone heals in different ways, right?

The third event in the series is scheduled for December 22. Here, we’ll get a bit more introspective. We’ll go through some reflective writing with creative representation. Then, a jazz concert with original music by Seattle artist Mark Lilly, followed by a soulful dinner.

We don’t want financial barriers to stop Black women from coming to BPL events, so we’ve provided a “Pay What You Can” option. (Click “Buy Tickets” to get there.)

Carla Bell is a local freelance writer focused on social consciousness and impact, civil and human rights, culture, and arts. Carla’s work has appeared in Ebony Magazine, City Arts Magazine, Crosscut, The Stranger, Real Change News, The News Tribune, Parent Map Magazine, and South Seattle Emerald.