Friday, May 19, 2006

The Myth of the Strong Black Woman

It's something my women friends and I talk about a lot. At dinner, running around, walking for exercise, or whatever. We are motivated, we are energized, we are cooperative and we are connected. Oh, and one more thing: We are TIRED!

Most of my girlfriends are still single. They may have a man, they may not. If they have one, it is a litany of what he is doing, what he is doing wrong, what he could be doing better and how can she continue to put up with this man. Our men are broke, broken down, tied down to two or three baby mammas, used up, tied up, playing games, uncommitted, unrepentant, unsure and timid. If they don't have a man, we talk about how they are making it, what their lives (or children's lives are like), how hard it is to meet a good man, how much easier it is to let their lives revolve around church, etc., etc. Oh, yeah: and we are TIRED!

Tired of having to make it work alone. Tired of being the only ones involved in the raising of our children. Tired of trying to make our relationships work. Tired of going to school so we can better ourselves cuz we darned sure can't depend on a man to take care of us. Tired of striving, tired of fighting, tired of 'keeping it all together', tired of taking care of mama, daddy, baby, boyfriend, sister, brother, nephews and nieces.

I want to talk today about the Myth of the Strong Black Woman.

See, Black women my age were raised with the notion that we'd only have ourselves and our mammas to depend on. A few girlfriends, if we were lucky. Maybe some daddy support every now and then (after mama had straightened him out), but, definitely, not ever, don't ever depend on it - support from our men. Or from society. All we had was ourselves, God, our mammas and each other.

So we built our own support networks, took care of our children, held down jobs, bought our own houses and proceeded to - make do. Make do without a man (or husband), make do without societal support, make do in our churches, accept leadership when they 'allowed' us and to take a back seat when they didn't. Be a good friend to other, similarly situated, woman. Be a good daughter and sister. Be a good mama, and in many cases, a good daddy as well. We made do.

But now we are tired.

I read a poem called The Strong Black Woman is Dead by Laini Mataka. In it, Ms. Mataka speaks about the mythological black woman who is now dead. One excerpt reads:

She died from an overdose
of other people clinging to her
when she didn't even have energy for herself.
She died from loving men who didn't love themselves
and could only offer her a crippled reflection.
She died from raising children alone
and for not being able to do a complete job

Sound like anybody you know? (The complete poem can be read here.)

Another article I read talks about the number of households now being headed by single black woman. It says:

I know the statistics: They say that when my grandmother was born at the turn of the century as few as 10 percent of black households were headed by females; when I was born at mid-century, it had crept to 17 percent; and now it is almost 60 percent. No longer a widow or a divorce as in times past, the single woman with children today probably has never married—and increasingly she is getting younger. By the time she is eighteen, one out of every four black unmarried women has become a mother.

And finally, an excerpt from "Soothe Your Nerves: The Black Woman's Guide to Understanding and Overcoming Anxiety, Panic, and Fear" by Dr. Angela Neal-Barnett talks about how black women tend to underplay their stress levels and hold it all in. The author conducted a study of black women where they kept a diary of their day while their heart rate and blood pressure were measured as well. The women never admitted to being stressed out, but their blood pressure and heart rate went up by 15-20 points during the day. An excerpt from the book says:

Interviews indicated that women were aware of their stress level; they were just unwilling to admit it was problematic. Several said to me, "Baby, I don't have time to think about that mess. If I did, I'd be stressed out about everything." Yet taking the time out to acknowledge the stress and do something about it would go a long way toward preventing the development of serious anxiety and the health problems associated with it: chronic upper respiratory infections, hypertension, heart disease, and obesity.

Black women - what are we doing to ourselves? When you get stressed out, how do you handle it? Are you a classic case of 'holding it all in'?

I can only speak for myself - but it sure would be nice to have the family structure be what it used to be. To have loving and supportive dads and husbands. To be connected to each other, with God, with the community. To have a sense of who we are and where we are going. Inter-connected. Bonded. In Unity.

But maybe that's just me.

I know for myself - the days of trying to pretend I have it all together are gone. I am not afraid to ask for help, to show that I am weak, or to depend on others at times to get me through. I am not afraid to admit my complete dependency on God, the helping hands (and strong shoulders) of my girlfriends, the love and support of my family and the consistency and reliability of my man. I need, want and desire all those things to help me make it through.

The image of me as a Strong Black Woman is dead and gone.

How about you?

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ms mimi the mocha soulchild said...

Thanks Sonya.

You know, God says His strength is perfect in weakness. I agree with you that the myth of what "strong" means is troublesome. I find myself struggling with the same questions. You can be single and male and have few goals and get fawned over in this society, but a woman of faith, a woman of conviction, an educated woman who is independent without a man is a tragedy.

I'd like to share something with you that changed how I was going to respond to your post:

Today I was at a seminar helped organized seminar for women interested in starting their own business. A local successful businesswoman who owns a restaurant gave the keynote address.

Her story is so amazing everyone in the room cried. First off, she is a beautiful humble person with a wonderful spirit. She began her talk by apologizing that she did not speak "Beautiful English", but she wanted to tell her story so that everyone would know she was not ashamed of her beginnings.

Born in Ethiopia to a mother who could not read, but became a determined saleswoman, she watched her mother buy a 15 room hotel as a young child when no other women in her community owned anything.

Then she recounted how at about eight on Easter Sunday a man came into the hotel and shot her mother at point blank range.

The girl ended up with this man for a period of time and he abused her. She latered was reunited with a brother who put her through school. After a few years of college she decided she wanted to become an actress and made a name for herself as a succussful actress in her country.

She married a producer, and had a son, but her husband was abusive and burned her to scar her and "prove" that he was hers. to Soon her and her son fled in Italy to escape him. She was homeless with her son for some time, working minimum wage jobs, and then evintually she was able to earn enough to find a place to stay.

Then a few years ago she came to America, which she calls "the land of dreams". She said that she could have stayed in Italy, but she knew that there was something here for her. She came to my hometown, and she had no money. She was on section eight. She worked three jobs to send her son, who was a 4.0 student to private school.

She got a job at a little Italian restaurant off the marina making $6.75 an hour. She is such a beautiful person that everyone loved her. She was the only black woman in the resturaunt.

After a few years of working three jobs she saved enough to buy a house. Then the owner of the resturant decided he wanted to sell the place, and came to the woman and said," I think you are the right person to buy this place."

She was shocked. She didn't have the money to purchase it, had just bought a house, and was a single mother working three jobs to put a son through school.

But the more she thought about it, the more she liked the idea. Her customers kep asking her what she was going to do when the place was sold, and she said she didn't know. Then one of her customers who heard about the owner's offer said he would loan her the money to buy the place if she agreed to pay him back in four years. She agreed. She bought the place, and immediately cut the management staff to save costs. She did all the hosting herself.

She paid the patron back in 13 months.

At the end of her talk she said "The thing is, no matter what I have been through, I don't forget where I came from. I still love people." At the end of her speech she took a white envelope out of her purse, and she said," Remember I was homeless. I hear about the homeless here, and I want to donate $1000 to the local shelter."

By the time she got through, every woman in there including the elected officials I work for and with were in tears, because you could tell she was so real.

And my coworker said something amazing, that we always say, but I didn't believe until just then. She said "God keeps."

So while I find myself lugging my own groceries up the stairs, tonight, and providing for myself and others, being everybody's caretaker and thinking to myself, It sho' would be nice to have some help, I remind myself of how far I have come and know that God carried me.

God keeps. He still keeps.


We can bear it with God.

mmog37 said...

this is one of those post that make you go "hmmmmm"
Sometimes our solutions to the problems we face are "maladaptive" they actually add fuel to the fire rather than put the fire out...
Generations of Black women who had to fend for themselves produced generations who learned that they must also be independent and strong...and not expect help from the a man
meanwhile nothing was actually done to require a change from the male perspective...
Even now it would appear that not a lot is being done to encourage our brothers to step up...
I have heard the "voice" of black women crying out for help...but at the same time brothers are being rewarded for doing nothing...I truly believe that the black woman has proven her strength and ability to survive...but now she needs to realize that she has more power and say so when it comes to changing the way things are...Women always call the shots...I beleive when they raise the standards...and not settle for less than what they need...the men will have to step it up...

Jesmoi said...

The "Strong Black Woman"... It's something I've discussed with friends many times as well. How are we as black women, responsible for the nature of our relationships with our men? We get so angry when we can't find them, or find them dating non-black women yet when you come to look at it, our "strong black woman" attitude can sometimes be so strong, it pushes them away from us. We make them feel unneeded. We feel as though they are not to be depended on or trusted. But this attitude is prevelant and celebrated but even feminists realize that without men, communities die. Look at our black family structures (or lack of). Is this something we can change? Or is it so ingrained in our culture today that it will be an impossible struggle?

Anonymous said...

Ms. Mimi -

Thank you for sharing that story. It was very helpful to me and, hopefully, to others as well. It's always good for me to be reminded that many women struggle with burdens unimaginable - and still manage to make it through with grace and dignity. And, yes, God will definitely see us through.

Higher -

You sent me to the dictionary for that 'maladaptive' (which means 'Marked by faulty or inadequate adaptation' for other interested parties)! And, yes, I agree with you that the way black women have had to adapt to circumstances around them have, in many ways, made things worse. But, as I always say, I'm strong because I have to be, not because I want to be. And I totally agree with you that we are 'rewarding' black men for doing nothing - by supporting them, letting them live in our homes, and letting them off the hook for being emotionally and financially responsible for their children. 'As long as I have a man' many of us think, we put up with almost anything, or we get caught up in the game of competition with other women (boy, do I have more to say on that topic - stay tuned). Hopefully, one day men and women will meet somewhere in the middle - we won't have to be so 'strong' and they can be more of who they were destined to be.

(My disclaimer - I don't think all Black men are lazy, disinterested or dysfunctional - I know many men(and am involved with one) who are upstanding, determined, proactive and dedicated. With this post, I am addressing a general phenomenon, not focusing on any specific person or circumstance.)

J. Lynn -

I visit your blog periodically and you always seem to be moving in the right direction. I only wish I had been as smart as you in my 20's :) And, yes, I think that we often push our men away with our 'attitudes' (and all you have to do to pick a fight with us is accuse us of having one!). I used to think it was a game to see how much I could put down, enrage or emotionally drain my men. Yes, I had a lot of emotional problems, but my biggest problem was that I was raised in an environment that taught me little respect for men (and my own dad died early). I think many of us share this problem. But - I still think there is hope! I still believe we will meet somewhere in the middle and that, one by one, women will take control of their own destinies and realize their very important role in building the family. Which may mean being a little more moderate in our bearing (read: stop being so mouthy and pushy), more open to what our men are saying (Listen - without automatically telling them what they think), and more submissive and yielding instead of all fired up and truculent (Higher has inspired me). And, Ms. J. Lynn, if you model that behavior and I model that behavior, that's a very positive step in the right direction!

Thank you all for visiting me!

Anonymous said...

what a wonderful post!

Anonymous said...

Al's Wife:

I just visited your blog and what an interesting site it is! I have bookmarked it and will be returning often. I am fascinated by the topic of marriage - what it involves, what it's like and how it really works. Mostly because I am still single, but would like to be the best wife I can once I enter the blessed state of marriage.

Thanks for commenting!

katrina said...

I read this at work and send to every women i no this dicussion was so good i cryed thinking am not alone thanks I love you sisters in the name of GOD

Sonya Triggs-Wharton said...

I think we've all been extremely tired at one time or another. There is no shame in needing help and asking for it, because I am convinced that, whatever our needs are, God will provide!

Be Blessed :)

Kala_P said...

this post makes me really sad. that so many black women feel like they have to do everything by themselves is really unfortunate.

people need to stop blaiming others for their situation and look at how they can improve themselves and their community, instead of tearing it down by always complaining.

maybe your baby's father doesn't help you out, but maybe if you encourage your kids to have a positive image of men and relationships, they won't take that negativity with them into their own relationships.

maybe it's your "i can do it all by myself" attitude that's driving them away.

black women need to stop lamenting their problems and licking their wounds and figure out how to do better without the whole "big bad black woman" attitude

giving men a chance and not tearing down the ones in our lives, don't make us weak or doormats -

Lena said...

I think women wouldn't have a reason to complain if they had men and family members who were supportive.

I despise the strong black woman myth because I think people who want to use black women use it as a means to walk all over and abandon black women and children.

I think if a man is worth his salt the woman in his life won't have much to complain about.
I think these women have an attitude because the men in their lives aren't doing their fair share of the lifting.

Relationships are like a team effort. Telling the woman she should stop complaining when she might have legitimate complaints is only going to make her madder and more disgruntled.

Anonymous said...

GOD = Love. Quit fucking for love,,,, just love mankind. From man/woman on earth, looking for GOD. Only, when you die! Regards, Marcel.