“I want to feel what I feel. Even if it’s not happiness.”: Exploring The Strong Black Woman Archetype
I wish I knew how
It would feel to be free
I wish I could break
All the chains holdin' me
I wish I could say
All the things that I should say
Say 'em loud say 'em clear
For the whole 'round world to hear
Nina Simone- I Wish I Knew How Good it Felt to Be Free
Defining the Strong Black Woman
What is a strong black woman? What qualities does she possess? How do we define her? Is she immune to certain thoughts, feelings, and actions? Is she supposed to be? In the BuzzFeed article, “It’s Time to Say Goodbye to TV’s Strong Black Woman” by Nichole Perkins, this archetype is defined as a woman “who can take on the world with no though of their own needs, without emotion, and without complaint.” This image of black womanhood puzzles me. While this superhero image of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, why do we have to suppress our emotions, neglect our needs, and suck up how we feel in order to not appear weak? In order to be what we need to be for others, how does neglecting ourselves help? Women, especially black women, have to be everything for everyone at the same, all of the time. As we define ourselves, we notice that the intersectionality of our identities is quite a list. This archetype is supposed to re-imagine and re-define black womanhood in the place of the negative stereotypes that have been the faces of black womanhood. While this model of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, it is dangerous as it causes black women to suffer in silence as we are thought to be superwomen.
What I mean by this archetype being dangerous for black women is psychological affects it has on us. Within the black community, mental health is not a topic that is discussed often and therapy is not an option for many for various reasons. Within the community, mental health tends to be stigmatized and most would say that going to church would solve all problems. Among black women, depression is one of those unspoken dangers. Within this past couple of years, I think of the number of black women such as authors, entertainers, and bloggers/vloggers who have committed suicide and afterwards it came out that those sistas were suffering from depression. In addition, when it comes to the mental health of adolescent girls, no one talks about the black girls who suffer from eating disorders, cutting, and depression. Growing up, when an incident of a black girl cutting herself came up, people would say, “Only white girl’s do that” as if suffering is colored coded. When it comes to entertainers/celebrities, people tend to forget that they are people as well and suffer just as much as anyone else. Recently, I watched the Netflix documentary, “What Happened Miss Simone?” and Nina Simone too suffered from depression and bipolar disorder. Being a historian, I do trace these behaviors back to slavery when our many great grandmothers were supposed to suppress their feelings. They were physically and mentally brutalized and forced to keep such incidents to themselves and keep moving along. While the times may have changed, people’s attitudes about how we are to handle our mental (in)stabilities are often handled the same way, “keep it to yourself,” “don't tell nobody,” “just don’t think about it,” and “you're too strong to let that get you down.” These sayings are dangerous and detrimental to our health. We should not and do not have to suffer in silence.
There is also another side to the image of the strong black woman. Strong black women catch a lot of heat for being angry and independent. This image of black womanhood enrages me. I think that people do not understand what independent truly means. This term is used loosely and incorrectly. Since when does wanting to take care of yourself and not needing or even wanting to always have to rely on someone else for anything? Growing up, it was men in my family who told me that when I am in a relationship with a man to make sure I am with him because I want to be not because I need to be. I was taught to be independent. I was told to take care of myself. Not once was I told to emasculate men or tear down men. I never thought and still do not think that I need to tell men off to let them know that I am more than capable of taking care of myself. While working towards my PhD, I also work as a Teaching Assistant. This past spring semester, in an undergraduate US history survey class, we were discussing colorism, sexism, and racism and the topic of strong black women came up. One of the male students complained about his mother not asking her boyfriend for help when she needs it because she rather figure out how to get back on track. There were different responses to this story. Some of the other male students wanted to know why she refused help especially from a man who wanted to help her. The female students who spoke out took up for his mother arguing that they saw nothing wrong with a woman doing what she needed to do. The male student who shared this story had also at one point during the semester complained about people asking for handouts. It is mindsets like his that contributed to so many problems. If we ask for help, we always have our hands out and are deemed lazy, like we are the reasons why our social system is as jacked up as it is. When we do not ask for help, we are berated. We cannot win with this shit.
Black womanhood in Popular Culture
A friend posted a question on Facebook asking women, are they first, a woman, or their color/ethnicity. My answer is I am both, first, at the same time, all the time. I clicked on this post, curious to see how women were answering and the answers varied. Some women stated that they were their color/ethnicity first; some stated they were women first, and a number of black women stated they were black and woman first, at the same time, all at once. One of the comments to this response from white women alluded to misunderstandings about how black women chose both their womanhood and blackness instead of one or the other. I think this misunderstanding is grounded in the long-standing protection of white womanhood. For white women, their womanhood has been placed on a pedestal and protected while black womanhood has not been. For white women, their gender because of their color/ethnicity has afforded them protections that black women have not and do not have. Speaking of privilege, the case of Rachel Dolezal has been on my mind for various reasons.
I find her problematic and delusional. One reason is that her definition of black womanhood boils down to hair texture, being able to braid hair, and skin tone. When it comes to our hair, black women have a multitude of textures. There are many hair-typing charts out there but our hair is as diverse as we are. Not all black women can braid hair. Not all black women enjoy doing hair. Her ability to braid hair was a point she kept trying to push when she sat down with Melissa Harris-Perry for an interview. We all know that the skin of black women comes in many shades from pale to dark. In that interview with Dr. Harris-Perry, Rachel kept defending her imposition of black womanhood as being able to identify with the black experience. What does that mean? When I hear the phrase the ‘black experience,’ I cringe because it sounds like the experience of black people is linear. Again, our experiences, wherever we are, are as diverse as we are. Being a black woman, I feel that Rachel could never truly understand black womanhood unless she was a black woman. No amount of makeup, nor no natural hair textured wig, could lend themselves to understanding our experiences. While black women were voicing their discomfort and disappoint with this situation, many black men were coming to her defense. Again, white womanhood being protected while black women were attacked for feeling violated. Imagine if a black woman decided to identify as white, no one would come to her defense. First, everyone would remind her that she is black. Secondly, people would attack her for hating her blackness and herself. Thirdly, her mental stability would be questioned big time. No protection there! At all!
Another thing that puzzles me is black women’s participation in the violation of black womanhood. For example, the Lifetime television show entitled “Girlfriend Intervention.” A group of black women with different skill sets helps white women find their inner strong black woman by making them over. What the hell? Whose idea was this? It is mess like this that weakens our annoyance towards Rachel Dolezal. How can we truly be mad about Rachel when black women are participating in bullshit like this?! Honestly, I have not watched the show. There is an NPR article that discusses the show and based on what I read, the black women involved in it have certainly put on a minstrel show. I am so not here for that. At. All.
One of the most recognizable public figures is first lady Michelle Obama. She is see as the epitome of the strong black woman, she is educated, a wife, mother, and is one of the most visible and outspoken first lady’s. When using the Google search engine, results range from elegant and stunning to deeply disturbing. However, she is depicted; she is physically and literally shown to be strong. This strength is often used as a weapon against her as many pictures show as a militant caricature of a primate or flexing with superimposed muscles photo-shopped onto her body. Earlier this year, Mrs. Obama gave the commencement address at Tuskegee University where she voiced her concerns regarding the public’s perception of her especially during the 2008 election season. “As potentially the first African-American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations; conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others," she said. "Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?” These questions and concerns encompass many of the problems black woman face every single day. Being loud, angry, and emasculating are also traits of the Angry Black Woman (see post: Stereotypesand Images of Black Women in the Media).
(photo credit: Ebony Magazine)
Black women need to give ourselves permission to cry, speak about our feelings and emotions without fear of neglecting others or being ashamed of our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and wellbeing. We have to give ourselves permission to take care of ourselves, whether that means, taking one night a week to relax, speaking to therapist, picking up a hobby, weekly massages, whatever. To quote Toni Morrison, we also have to allow ourselves to feel what we feel, not matter what those feelings are- the good, the bad, the ugly. Not only do we need to allow ourselves to feel, we need to know what to do with them and how to do something about them. We can be strong black women, but as strong black women, we need not feed into other people’s definitions and images of us. We need to define ourselves for ourselves. For too long, we have been defined and imagined by other people. Take that power back and be the woman you want to be. That makes you a strong black woman- at your worst and at your best. Yeah, I am still learning how to do this. I'm growing...
*For further reading, I suggest checking out Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance by Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant. Lafontant explores how the performance of the strong black woman is mentally and physically detrimental.