Our Reading Lives

The Complex Narrative of the Strong Black Woman

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Enobong Essien

Staff Writer

Enobong is a former professional dancer turned publicity and marketing assistant and life-long lover of books. Fully Nigerian and fully British, Enobong now lives in Chicago with her nonfiction enthusiast husband and peculiar yet adorable cat roommate.

My mother is an amazing woman. She raised four children by herself in a foreign country while getting a Masters and a second degree. She epitomises what it means to be a Strong Black Woman and for years I have openly referred to her as such.

One of the great gifts of age is perspective. Because my mum did everything, I grew up believing she can do everything. She was invincible, like an armour-plated Amazonian. A few years ago my mum celebrated her 60th birthday and, for the first time, I began to see that she is human. From the moment I accepted her as a woman, not just my mother, and not just a Strong Black Woman, our relationship blossomed into new ground.

My mother is strong and she is black and she is a woman. She is also weak, she is also fragile, and she is also human. I have spent my life wanting to grow up to be a strong black woman but what does that even mean? Where did this title and stereotype, that at first glance sounds like a compliment until you realise how debilitating it is, come from?

The history of the black woman is one filled with persecution, torture and the tearing apart of her family. From slave masters justifying separating a black mother from her child by telling themselves that black women are not as sentimental or attached as white women, to fearing for the lives of their sons and husbands every time they leave the house, knowing that law enforcement is not always on their side. Life has been tough for the black woman and so she has grown tough to survive. Does this make her any less vulnerable than any other woman of any other race? No, it does not. But the perpetuation of a narrative that they are has led to higher levels of depression in African American women. It is an assumption that may even cost a black woman her life.

I’ve heard about the myth of the strong black woman but I do not think it is a myth. I call it a legend because there is a basis of fact that has been manipulated and turned against us. The reason black women are strong is because they’ve had to be. We live in a world where the colour of our skin and our sex have been deemed inferior. We have gone through a history of our men being taken away from us, and yet we have had to survive.

But it is important to remember that the black woman is not strong because of some innate superhuman power but because there was never anyone to be strong for her. It doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel pain. Or that she doesn’t feel the struggle or that she never has moments of failure, or that she doesn’t go through emotional turmoil. She still weeps, she still feels defeated, she still needs, at times, people to hold her up. She may have Michelle Obama arms but that does not mean that she doesn’t feel the weight of the burden she carries. If you prick her, she will bleed.

We look to the Strong Black Woman to support us all but who is supporting her? Whose shoulder does she cry on? Who does she turn to for help? For years black women in the media have been typecast as aggressors, crazy or sassy. They miraculously hold their families together and they never fail.

The Bride Price coverMy mother raised four young girls by herself, working nights and putting herself through university. People hear that and applaud her for being a Strong Black Woman. People tell her often that she is so strong, that she always manages to remain positive, and that she is an inspiration. Do you know what my mother tells them? She tells them her strength comes from God. And that she is weak. She has cried and gone through depression. The smile on her face is not always a reflection of what she is feeling inside.

My mum’s favourite author is Buchi Emecheta. After reading just one of her books, I can see why. It’s not only that she is a brilliant writer (because she is) but it is the description of beautiful women who look like my mum, metaphors relating to kola nut and yams, items from her every day that must have made my mum connect to this writer more that the Western ones she studied. Emecheta’s The Bride Price also depicts the portrait of a mother who is strong and does what she needs to do to care for her two children after her husband’s death but who also fails. Here is a mother who needs help and does better from receiving it.

Toni Morrison is another who wrote stories of multifaceted black women. Women, like the ones in Sula, who do not shy away from survival. Who might marry and settle down, might assimilate, or might defy all convention to get on in the world. Women who fail and rise up and then fail again. Real women.

Sula-coverThe danger of the legend of the Strong Black Woman is that it excuses everybody else from responsibility. Oh, she can handle it because she’s strong. It suggests that she doesn’t need help; that she doesn’t require support; that she not only can but should be able to handle it all without a word of complaint. It buys into harmful stigmas surrounding black women and mental illness. The stigma that says that a “strong” person cannot suffer from a mental illness and if black women are strong then we certainly don’t. As Eve L. Ewing writes about her mother in Electric Arches, “She is not completely immune from the many forces that would convince black women that mental health is a farce at worst and a luxury at best.”

This legend and its propagation in the media puts pressure on young black girls aspiring to be Strong Black Women that they must be able to handle anything at all times without help.

In Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, Celestial is scorned by her own father for not being strong enough for her wrongly incarcerated husband. What is noticeable is that characters do not ask her how she is or how she coped for so long but why she couldn’t be strong. Jones makes a brilliant point about the lines of deceit that come to black women. Even Celestial’s family would not allow her weakness. For she is a black woman and so she must be strong. In this character the reader gets to see the other side of this pressure. A black woman who wants to be strong but who is human.

One of my biggest flaws is that I find it very difficult to ask for help. When I struggle, I think of all the Strong Black Women that went before me and wonder why I have failed to reach the expected standards, not thinking about/not being allowed to know how the women before me have broken down and have been crushed. We cannot admit to weakness because then the oppressors win, right? But strength doesn’t come through never feeling defeated; strength comes from admitting defeat and then trying again.

Queenie-coverWe must continue to strive for more diversity in writers as we seek more diversity in fiction. Otherwise, we find ourselves with a plethora of stock characters of different races with no humanity. I love seeing the raw descriptions of a black woman suffering from mental illness in Freshwater or reading Queenie and seeing lines like “strong black women don’t cry” and identifying with the perpetuation of a false narrative that has left many of us feeling unworthy of help or sympathy.

It’s time to stop expecting black women in life, in books, in film, on TV to be strong and to start allowing them to be human.