Stop in the Name of Love and Mental Health
We applaud our mothers and grandmothers (read: Big Mama, manman, or any other cultural title synonymous with same) for bearing the brunt of reality and the accompanied struggle. We praise the women who work several jobs to "make ends meet" and who never bring a "strange" man into the home they're single-handedly heading. The chaste. The virtuous. (The implications of a woman’s right to her own body can be discussed here, but I’ll try not to be tangential...for the moment) Black women and the communities they occupy gladly accept titles such as "strong black woman"—titles that quite factually characterize the women in our lives. But we do not acknowledge the vulnerability that has to be lost in these women. In this way, inadvertently, depression and loneliness are also praised. Our consistent and high regard for these characteristics create a pseudo superhuman stereotype for Black woman--a standard that can never be ascertained in a healthy manner because, though metaphorically black women have a tendency to do superhuman things (see above), Black women are simply human. (It hurt me to say that!). This superhuman burden creates an unfair standard of what it means to be strong. To create expectations that glaze over human needs and instead harbor on fiction is to set Black women up for failure or for certain sadness, exhaustion or lack of emotion. Black women are forced into a world of stoicism while filling the unfair model that society (and let's face it, history) has created for us. And those that don’t acquiesce to these expectations face derision and exclusion from the strong Black woman club (disclaimer: this is not a real club).
We have myriad examples of superhuman Black women--women who had no choice but to go to work the day after picking strange fruit from trees, unwed pregnant women who were shipped away only to return with a “little sister”—thus having a child that her family would shame, women who performed at clubs where they had to enter through the back door for men and women who regarded them as mere spectacles whose sole purpose was to entertain, women who were experimented on, maimed, hated, disenfranchised, loathed, women who had to tend to cotton or sugarcane fields after being raped, women who were jailed unconstitutionally and women who fought for causes only to get little to no credit or space in history. But still, these women rose. Their legacy has been written. The legacy doesn’t stop there. These women exhibited strength and determination and resolve. They are amazing and they are praise-worthy. We can continue to portray the characteristics that allowed them to rise through the fire but we can fine-tune it. Because, quite frankly, I doubt these women enjoyed any of these experiences.
There are great lessons to be learned from our predecessors, but we don't have to re-live their legacies. We can re-create what it means to exist as a strong black woman with their experiences as a road map—a means of understanding the capacity of the human body, both physically and emotionally, not a model to which we should embody. When we speak of these women with reverence, we must acknowledge that we are creating a model for Black womanhood. We are creating expectations and letting others know what we imagine Black womanhood to be. And therein lies the issue—it is an imagination. These women lost something having to be so strong. How can we regain it?
This perspective of Black women has had the effect of not realizing that Black women have feelings, experience pain and are human. This translates to the way we treat girlfriends, wives, sisters, mothers and friends. In “Black Girls Only”, an article featured in Ebony, Tiq Milan states: “…culturally there is a universal lack of empathy towards Black women rendering her pain invisible and struggle self-imposed.” How do we perpetuate this narrative? How do we unknowingly continue the story that Black women are built Ford tough—not susceptible to hurt feelings or openness?
Ruth Jean-Marie is a recent graduate of New York University where she received her Master’s of Science degree in Global Affairs with a concentration in human rights and international law. Dedicating her life to the alleviation of misery around the world, her greatest goal is to become a superhero. Her interests include fashion, equality for women and Black people--that real equality, not the surface level stuff, traveling around the world and writing. She's excited about life and intends on living it. She also has a mild obsession with shoes, shopping and sharing her opinion. You'll hear all about it. Catch up with Ruth, honoring Black History, past, present and future at @toharrietwithlove.