Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Burying the "strong black woman" stereotype

As anyone who's read Don't Bring Home a White Boy knows, I really hate the strong black woman stereotype. In my opinion, this unrealistic image robs black women of their vulnerabilities. It steals from us the ability to ask for help or be cared for. It helps to burn us out and send us to earlier graves.

And so, while at the National Book Club Conference in Atlanta last weekend, I was pleased that so many women step outside of the stereotype and share their experiences, their hurts and their needs.

I know what you're thinking: things got that deep at a gathering of ladies book clubs? Sure why not! Especially when the discussion is led by several powerful women who, instead of turning the spotlight on their many accomplishments, chose to open up about their many struggles.

Terrie Williams and Ntozake Shange were among the speakers around the topic of "Black Pain"-- but in a roomful of black women talking frankly about their lives, it could have just as easily been a eulogy for "the strong black woman." For those who don't know, Terrie Williams runs the eponymous Terrie Williams Agency, one of the largest and most successful minority-owned public relations firms in the country. Her client list includes a raft of famous names in sports, media and corporate America (Eddie Murphy, Sean Combs, Janet Jackson, Coca-Cola and GE to name just a few) but over the weekend, she wore her author hat. Her latest book, Black Pain: It Only Looks Like We're not Hurting delves deep into a topic that most Americans find uncomfortable: depression and mental illness.

Ntozake Shange is the is the author of the 1973 stage play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. For Colored Girls is a series of monologues performed by seven different women, laying bear their most intimate pain. It won the playwright the Obie Award. She won it again in 1981 for Mother Courage and her Children. Carving out her identity as a black feminist at a time when doing so was contrary to the notions of black male and female solidarity, she also created her own name: Ntozake, which means “she who brings her own things” and Shange, which means “who walks with lions.” To list all of her awards would take more space than I have: but it’s sufficient to say that her talent has been recognized with nearly every major award available. Her first novel in 14 years will be released in September; it's called Some Sing, Some Cry.

Obviously, these two "Super Sisters" could have chosen to talk about their paths to success. Instead, however, they chose to talk about their struggles. Ms. Shange allowed her introduction to include a mention of her three attempts at suicide and her ongoing health challenges. Ms. Williams started the session by admitting that she felt overwhelmed and exhausted. "I feel like I might burst into tears at any moment," she confessed while the audience nodded supportively-- because we all knew the feeling.

I found it refreshing to see women of Ms. Williams and Ms. Shange's status opening up the doubts and dark corners of their lives, claiming their sorrow, claiming their vulnerability, claiming the right to cry in public and, yes, claiming weakness. Doing so may knock them off some people's "strong black woman" pedestal-- but I think it allows them to wear a much nobler crown:

That of simply being human.
PhotobucketNtozake Shange and Terrie Williams, National Book Club Conference 2010. Photo by Sid Tutani/GoLiveFoto

Obviously, revealing our weaknesses isn't appropriate for every circumstance or gathering, but I sometimes think that many black women wear their shields to high, too much of the time. In an attempt to avoid pain, we attempt to seem impervious to it. Nothing gets to us. We are cool, unflappable. We are strong black women. It works: we seem capable, but others are often afraid of us. We don't get assistance-- even when we desperately need it-- because our mask of resilience suggests that this "strong black woman" has it under control. Instead of expressing sadness, fatigue or fear, we only release anger... and turn into SBW's evil younger sister, ABW--the angry black woman, and is used as yet another stereotype to dehumanize our feelings.

What women like Ms. Williams and Ms. Shange are doing in sessions like the one I attend this weekend is encouraging all of us to rip aside the masks and be willing to let our true feelings out. In doing so, they're leading the way toward some new definitions of black womanhood, definitions that allow us to be strong,weak and everything in between-- just like women of every other culture.


  1. Great post. I have an older sister struggling with this as her only child, a son, slowly succumbs to schizophrenia. I'm afraid she's going to break at any minute.

  2. Amen. We are human and at times frail just like women of every other culture. It's time for us to be free of the crippling pressure of this stereotype!

  3. I'm one person who hates it. It seems that every other women could be ladylike and soft but us(white, Asians, etc.) I'm happy to show that we are 'daughters of Eve' as well and could soften up and be feminine. I know a few black women who are interracially married to white men that are allowed to be soft. Some black men can be that way as well; we just have to learn to let go

  4. Right off, I'll say that I've read DBHWB and generally agree with your position on "the strong black woman." I hope it's something black women can bury in the part at some point.

    However, single life is difficult. The lopsided population created by the Baby Boom (too many early BB girls for too few pre-BB boys) had its role in creating the strong, independent white woman. The poor marriage market for black women leads them to take on the same characteristics. You have to be strong to compete in the labor force. You have to be strong to defend yourself against those who make it a point to prey on vulnerable single women.

    I'm mixed, and I grew up in a predominantly white, Christian, conservative, homeschool culture, where vulnerability and femininity are glorified. But now that I'm older, I've learned that those traits don't really help a woman who's alone in the world. I end up being caught in a pickle: my strong personality repels potential husbands, while my femininity attracts creeps. What's the answer?

  5. @Jenny-- From my limited experience, I think time corrects this. As we get older-- and as men get older, more accurately-- these ideas about what's feminine and what's masculine are more malleable. I don't think women should "play down" their independence to attract men. I doubt you'd be happy in a relationship with a man who was repelled by your strong personality--to me, that's the definition of a "creep." But I know what you mean: sometimes being perceived as "strong" attracts men who want to be taken care of and that's not attractive, either.

    What's important, it seems to me, is to be ourselves-- all of ourselves. The right man is someone who loves us-- warts and all, as they say. Perhaps expanding your horizons outside of your more traditional environment might allow you to meet some new "characters"? If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always gotten! That applies to men, too!

    Good luck!

  6. the 'Strong Black Woman' myth and reality developed because by and large black men have been absent from the development and progress of the black community.....black children in particular. I agree with you, I'm sick and tired of the strong black woman diatribe, its another way for black men to obsolete their own responsibility as husbands, fathers, brothers and so-called community leaders (that is if its not the kind of leadership where they get rich off the black of the stagnated middle and working class blacks in this country).

    Every other ethnic and racial community have social norms that allows their women to be vulnerable and even divide the responsibility between men and women.....while in the black community, black women are the only one carrying on the burden.

  7. Attitudes are changing, and more of us are realizing that it's ok to be a little weak sometimes.

    By the way, just finished the book this morning. I will post a review on my blog, right after I do a review of Khadija's book, which is overdue.