Deconstructing the Myth of the ‘Strong Black Woman’
Posted on March 21, 2016
I still wince when people call me strong. It’s intended to be a compliment, I know. Yet, as a black woman, when I hear the word strong I can’t help but to consider the subtext of the nomenclature.
Black women, as it seems to the world, are monolith in that we are expected to shoulder the brunt of any and all moral indiscretions. In the context of history black women have long been encouraged to sit, oxen-like, at the center of the black community bearing the burdens of our people. After centuries of being stripped of our culture, enslaved, beaten, lynched, raped, and hyper-sexualized; yet still rising to the stations of First Lady of the United States, the first black woman as Attorney General, and the first black female billionaire it’s no wonder why people would deem us as strong. But this strength with which the world has bestowed on us has been romanticized—used to justify the erasure of black women from society as a whole. Because of our ability to progress in the face of tyranny the troubling assumption is that, for black women, anything is permissible. In her book, Ain’t I A Woman, Bell Hooks addresses the romanticizing of black female strength head-on by arguing:
“When [white] feminists acknowledge in one breath that black women are victimized and in the same breath empathize their strength, they imply that though black women are oppressed they manage to circumvent the damaging impact by being strong…”
When someone suggests that a black woman is strong it is taken to mean that she has drudged her way through the muck and mire of society only to be seen as half human. And as we’ve climbed out of our pits we’ve acquired such an abrasiveness that offends the very world that has knocked us down in the first place. Any vulnerability, any softness we might display is dismissed because black women aren’t expected to be soft in the way our white counterparts are afforded. We are not allowed to be multifaceted, multidimensional and complex. Strength is our lot in life. It is the benevolent gift of marginalization.
It is the cross we carry as melanin rich women. And it is this strength that casts us as impenetrable—undesirable even. Better put: we are not considered the girls next door. Black women don’t have the agency to be carefree because there’s too much we’re supposed to care about. In the 21st century despite black women’s transformation from Mamie in the big house to the White House, our existence has been reduced to arbitrating the moral temperature of our communities.
Spike Lee’s most recent film Chiraq so clearly illustrates the world’s expectation of black women to police black men that it is disheartening. The plot, based on the Greek play Lysistrata suggests that if the women in a predominantly black Chicago community withhold sex from their men then peace will be restored to the land. The film is obviously intended to be satirical in nature, but Spike Lee’s praise for such school of thought—that if black women would just keep their legs closed then men could finally get their act together—shed light on an ugly truth.
When it goes awry: when our men are incarcerated, when our youth don’t reach their potential it is black women’s fault. We didn’t withhold sex, or have enough sex. We didn’t pray hard enough, or spent too much time praying. We didn’t march, or raise our voice. When we did raise our voices the cry was too loud. Black women are both the quandary and solution all at once. The very men we are posited to police are the ones who at many points in history disowned the battle for black women’s rights. From the suffrage movement to today’ #sayhername rally, black men are reticence to lock arms with who should be their closest allies.
The absence of black men from black women’s issues has been justified as a singular focus on black men’s issues first and foremost. Our role, they insinuate, is to make our backs stronger to withstand the oppression until it is our time to finally be free. But who makes that decision? When does that time come? When black men finally feel vindicated? And then who can say for sure black women will be remembered? What this underscores is that, yet again, black women are left to fend for themselves while at the same time also maintaining the integrity of the black race.
The problem, if it hasn’t already become clear, is that black women are no more capable of dictating the moral rightness of our men and children than we are capable of keeping it all together for ourselves. The imprisonment of our societal-imposed fortitude leaves little room for black women to engage in the full experience of humanity. What goes unspoken, but should be obvious is that the resilience black women have displayed has been more a matter of necessity than innate characteristic.
Black women do not live in the vacuum of super human strength. We were not placed on this earth to be the footstools of white and black men. We are not the butt of the world’s jokes.
We are nerdy, and quirky. We are tender, and endearing. We are full of love, laughter and joyfulness. We are bearers of light and openness. We are comedic and intelligent. We are melancholic and shy. We are sexy, and sensual.
At the moment someone wants to pay homage to any strength that they think they might see in me I say: oh no, what you don’t know is that I spent the night crying balled up on my bathroom floor because strong people don’t need others and I, being frail in my humanity, need the comfort of my friends and family. I need the intimacy of a man covering me like shade on a sultry day. And God, oh God. He has assured me that I needn’t concern myself with being strong because it is in my weakness where His power is perfected.
The strong black woman is a myth, passed down through generations like an urban legend. It is a cop out to keep the world from truly seeing who we are. We are not strong. We are as varied as there are stars in the sky.
And if nothing else, we are beautiful.