The difficult role of the Strong Black Woman
- Published: 10 July 2010
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Why do so many black women seem to accept Strong Black Womanhood as their natural calling, even if it’s detrimental to physical and emotional wellbeing? Sheri Parks reports.
I did not expect them to cry.
I started to research the history and meaning of the Strong Black Woman to explain my life to me.
Why students I did not know passed by the offices of other well meaning professors to come to me, expecting me to be interested in their problems, to take up their battles, even against the university that paid my salary.
Why white men passed by other women to ask me to help them pick out the best sweet potatoes.
I was expected to be wise, compassionate and willing to share those qualities with anyone who asked. I learned that a group of mothers in New Jersey were passing around my name, telling each other to have their college kids come to me to fix their problems in Maryland.
It was if I entered the scene after a bargain had been struck, without my being at the table, that black women would be interested strangers who looked after anybody lucky enough to be in their purview.
I admit it-- I took on the responsibilities they laid at my feet, even to the point of physical exhaustion. But why?
I needed to understand the forces shaping the way the world saw me, the way I was coming to see myself so that I could be more fully in control of my life.
I traced the Strong Black Woman back to her ancient origins, to the Sacred Dark Feminine, an archetypal image present on every continent, usually from the Creation. The Primal Darkness, Mother Earth, Sophia, Isis, the Mitochondrial Eve—is the Strong Black Woman carrying memories of the blood?
When I gave talks about what I was finding, black women began to cry.
They would take my hands in theirs and say that their lives made sense to them now. A graduate student sitting on a stage beside me at the Chicago Institute of Art turned to me, tears streaming down her cheeks. “You have just explained my life to me.” She said later that other graduate students, people her own age, came to her with their problems, so that she carried the weight of their lives as well as her own.
None of the women I interviewed set out to be anyone special. They never remembered making a choice, never remembered a time when they learned how to be or even decided to be Strong Black Women.
Over and over, so often that it became a refrain, women who had never met each other told me, “It is in my DNA.” They knew what was expected of them, from the time they were little girls. They watched their mothers and other women and knew that they would work, often behind the scenes.
After an interview on the Brian Lehrer show on the New York National Public radio station, WNYC, African American women called in to say that I had just described every black woman they knew, that they did not know any other way to be.
I asked the women why they did all that they did. “Who would do it if we did not?” they said. “There is no one else.” They were not angry, not anti-male. Many of them had good men in their lives but there was still a lot work to do for their extended families and their communities.
One woman had taken in the children of her three sisters so that at one time, there were 13 children in her and her husband’s house. The women who talked to me did what they did because they could not bear to ignore the conditions they saw around them.
In a 1971 interview with a young Alice Walker, Coretta Scott King said, “The black woman has a special role to play. Our heritage of suffering and our experience in having to struggle against all odds to raise our children gives us greater capacity for understanding both suffering and the need and meaning of compassion. We have, I think, a kind of stamina, a determination which makes us strong.”
Joan Hairston is an example of the Strong Black Woman. She is a grassroots leader who has become somewhat of a legend in the coal mine towns of West Virginia. She started her SBW line of work to help her father. The mine was trying to deny him his pension and she fought to get it.
She went on to help other people. Dirty and dangerous work, the mines offered the only jobs with living wages and they were reserved for men. Joan started pestering the mine managers to hire women. She knew that if the mines were working federal government contracts that they had to hire the women she brought to their offices. One mine official told her, “I don’t like you but I respect you.” That’s all Joan wanted.
Other women said they started out of love of children, community or race; theirs was not the sentimental and fragile love too often associated with women, but protective, compassionate and fierce love.
The role of the Strong Black Woman can be difficult, even dangerous. Black women die of stress-related disease more than other women, even when they are affluent and take preventive care. It is most dangerous when they are not in control of their own energies, when the role is co-opted as it often is.
The black women I interviewed were fully aware of the costs of the role. They were tired and they knew it. They did the work they felt they had to do anyway.
The most successful of them had found a way to balance it with joy. They surrounded themselves with people who took care of them right back, who made sure they rested and played to restore themselves.
I wrote my book Fierce Angels so that black women would have the information they needed to make their own choices but I recognize that only the most privileged black women think they have any choice at all.
Even the most affluent black women still choose to take up the role. Billionaire Sheila Johnson, cofounder of Black Entertainment Network, is building waterlines in Rwanda and Tanzania and financing independent activist women’s film. Artists, businesswomen, educators all said that they felt compelled to help, to do what they could because they could not be still when so many others suffered.
The Sacred Dark Feminine is the patron saint of resistance movements around the world, from the Solidarity movement in
Black women have preserved a traditional, organic model of female power, a model that once openly belonged to all women.
Women of all cultures are obviously fierce. Yet as patriarchy advanced, the wives of white men were increasingly stripped of the public chances to be fierce, their qualities celebrated in darker women who did not play the role of ladies.
Now my book is catching the attention of radical women. Red Emma’s, the highly respected radical book store in
The black women to whom I spoke have taken an ancient model and carried it into the 21st century, where they feel they are strong and effective. They are also brave, willing to take on a role that, if not balanced with self care, can cost more than any human should ever be asked to give.