Language matters. The words and phrases that we use to describe people and circumstances cannot always be taken at face value. What we often consider to be innocuous descriptions or even flattering depictions can actually be self-defeating mantras that become self-fulfilling prophecies. Applying that concept to a sub-culture born of oppression and originating in exploitation can reveal some disturbing subliminal messages. Such is the case with the black American community and our often perpetuated myth of the “strong black woman.”
What does that phrase really mean? Why don’t we ever hear of any other race of women described or depicted this way? Is there any less diversity of personality amongst white or latina or asian women around the world? Because the term “strong” carries a positive connotation surface appearances suggest that this is a compliment to black women. The idea that they are “strong” must mean something good because who doesn’t want to be “strong” when the opposite of “strong” is weak, right? But there’s more going on than that simple dichotomy.
Let’s explore the circumstances that typically surround the use of the term. My experience with black women and the black community is as extensive as it can be for man. My entire context is grounded in my relationships with black women so my insights are as valid as they can possibly be despite the fact that they are necessarily subjective and anecdotal. So here goes: When we hear the phrase “strong black woman” we automatically turn a switch in our minds to the image of a woman who has had to make do without something that she should have had in order to survive or achieve basic normalcy.
If she had to spend her life working two jobs or toiling in the fields from sun up to sun down and endure all varieties of hardship along the way, there is no questioning that this is a woman of great fortitude. But shouldn’t our focus be on the fact that her circumstance was the result of a lack of basic support? Rather than celebrating the circumstance shouldn’t we be figuring out why this woman’s basic needs were being neglected for so long? Somebody somewhere was absent or awol in order for her to have to endure all of this hardship. And if somebody was there for her to provide her the support that she should have had, does that make her weak? That notion is patently ridiculous.
Did the man or men in her life wind up in prison or dead from poor life choices, leaving her to fend for herself and her children alone? Or did they just disappear one day- hitched a ride to another town and just started all over again. I am cool with giving that woman whatever credit, kudos or love she is entitled to for surviving that burden without falling to pieces but I’d rather we gave her some fucking help and support so she didn’t have to go through all of that.
The reason we need to examine this mythology closer is because when we adopt and embrace the “strong black woman” narrative, we are divesting those women of their femininity and their identity as a woman above all else. And to take it a step further, we are planting the seed in our minds that because she is “strong” that it is ok for her to be burdened to death- that it is ok for her not to have any help or be supported like every other woman in our society. That bullshit has to stop and women need to be the first ones to put a stop to it.
Ladies, be careful if a man is making a bunch of noise about applauding you for being a “strong black woman.” He is signalling that he sees you as something other than just a woman- which carries tremendous natural benefits that you are absolutely entitled to by birth. This is not slavery days or the post-bellum South anymore. We have culturally moved beyond the time when women may have to labor like oxen and yield like cows just to keep their children and their children’s hopes alive. We can respect the women of that bygone era without emulating that experience.
This is painting with a very broad brush but if somebody points to any woman that has ever belonged to me or lived under my care as a “strong black woman” I am immediately feeling like I failed as a man. Nobody should ever perceive them as weak or incapable in any way, but if they are having to give off the signal that they are “strong” to the world than that is also a signal that I, the man in their life, have been weak. Like I said, that is painting with a very broad brush but we are talking about emotions here, not a mathematical equation.
As we move into a new era of black identity in this rapidly changing American paradigm, we should seriously reconsider how we deal with the mythology of the “strong black woman.” Can’t our women just be women like everybody else? The answer is yes if we stop making them fill the roles that we have abdicated. They have only had to be seen as or regarded as “strong” because we have been weak. It has not always been our fault historically but largely, in the modern era, it is entirely our fault.
And ladies, be cool. I know you do your kick boxing classes and work out 8 days a week and can shoot a gun like a Marine sharpshooter and you can bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan and all of that. I get it. And I know a lot of you still have Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women” on your playlist. That’s cool too. Do your thing- feel and be empowered. But if the order of things gets recalibrated properly, rather than somebody seeing you as “strong”, they will see you and describe you as “highly capable” or “self-sufficient” or just “bad as f@ck.” Those are the descriptions you get when you are carrying only your own weight like a champ rather than carrying everybody else’s weight like a mule. It is time for us to carry you when you want to be carried- the same way that all of the other women in the world are. Embrace it and demand it, ladies. It does not make you weak.
You have had to do what you’ve had to do historically but it is time to move into the future- and leave that “strong black woman” narrative and moniker in the past where it belongs. And that process starts with you. On this issue, if you lead we will have to follow.