The Legend of the Strong Black Woman

Last Sunday was Mother's Day in England or, as we also call it, Mothering Sunday. Geeky historical fact: England has a different Mother's Day because Mothering Sunday in England is the third Sunday before Easter and traditionally the time when everyone goes back to their 'Mother' Church – the church they were christened in. 

My mother is an amazing woman. She raised four children by herself in a foreign country whilst getting a masters and a second degree and all of her children went on to higher education and managed to reach their twenties without giving birth to any illegitimate kids (I come from a county with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in England so that is an achievement). My mother 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 about getting older is gaining perspective. Because my mum did everything, I grew up believing she can do everything. She was invincible, like an armour-plated Amazonian. My mum turned sixty last year – you wouldn't believe it to look at her – and, in my eyes at least, she became human. She came down from the pedestal of superhuman that I had placed her on and became a human being that it was my duty to support. It sounds sad but I don't mean it to. For me it was a good thing, a great thing, because my relationship with my mother has never been more open and honest than it has been from the moment I accepted her as a woman, not just my mother and not just a Strong Black Woman.

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 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.

I have 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 super-human power but because there was never anyone to be strong for her. That doesn't mean that she doesn't feel the struggle or that she never has moments of giving up 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 and be ready to cuss you out if you disrespect  those she loves but that does not mean that she does not 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?

My mother raised four young girl 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. Women come to her with marital problems and tell her they are leaving their husbands because she raised her children alone and she survive. Do you know what my mother tells them?  She tells them her strength comes from God. She tells them in her weakness, he is strong. She tells them that she has cried, that she has gone through depression, that the smile on her face is not always a reflection of what she is feeling inside. She tells them that if they can make it work with their husbands then they should stay because it isn't easy doing it alone. And she ask me, if they could see how hard it was for her for all those years, if they saw enough to come to the conclusion that she must be strong to have survived it, then why didn't they help her?  

The 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 also puts pressure on young black girls aspiring to be Strong Black Women to feel that they must be able to handle anything at all times without help.

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. And strength in numbers is far more powerful than strength alone.

Maybe it's time to stop expecting black women to be strong and to start allowing them to be human.