Collage by Adee Roberson
We are the fighters. We are the women who don’t take shit from no man.
We are the women with the sharp tongues and hands firmly on hips. We are the ride-or-die women. We are the women who have, like Sojourner Truth, “plowed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head us.” We are the sassy chicks. We are the mothers who make a way out of no way. On TV, we are the no-nonsense police chiefs and judges. We are the First Ladies with the impressive guns.
Strong. Black. Woman.
The words fit together like blue oil, sizzling hot combs, and Sunday afternoon. They embody the idea of African American women as perpetually tough and uniquely indestructible.
But there is a dirty side to the perceived uncommon strength of black women. Ultimately, the “strong black woman” stereotype is an albatross, at odds with African American women’s very survival. Because, according to pop culture and media, we are also the workhorses. We are the castrating harpies. We are the brawling World Star “hood rats.” We are the cold, overeducated, work-obsessed sisters who will never marry. We are the indefatigable mamas who don’t need help. We are the women and girls who are unrapeable; who no one need worry about when we go missing. We are the scary bogeywomen on America’s doorstep in the middle of the night. And we are angry. Always angry.
For many women, there is undeniable truth, liberation, and empowerment to be found in the “strong black woman” meme. “Marginalized people have to be strong to survive,” says Heidi R. Lewis, assistant professor of Feminist and Gender Studies at Colorado College and associate editor at The Feminist Wire. “There are times when I assume that black woman resilience—the kind that allows you to face racism and sexism and heterosexism on a daily basis and still maintain your sanity and your health. I love that part of the strength that black women have had to have. That strength is real.”
Educator and social-justice advocate Deborah Latham-White remembers embracing the idea of black female strength as a teen at the dawn of the Black Power movement. “Black women were disrupting American beauty culture. We were starting to wear our hair natural as a political statement of acceptance and self-love.” But the currency of cultural strength wasn’t just halos of kinky hair and Afro-chic sartorial tastes. “We were also throwing up our fists in a sign of solidarity with the Black Power movement, as well as being actively engaged in struggle,” says Latham-White. Who would not want to be Angela Davis, Fannie Lou Hamer, Ruby Dee, Audre Lorde, Shirley Chisholm?
Today, loving profiles of another public figure—Michelle Obama, our nation’s first black First Lady—often focus on her personal and professional strength, particularly her exceptional education and career achievements, her egalitarian marriage, and her athleticism. An online search for “Michelle Obama” and “strong” reveals a host of images with America’s First Lady flexing her impressively toned biceps. Michelle Obama is no Mamie Eisenhower: This FLOTUS is positioned as a “strong black woman,” both literally and figuratively, making her not just a modern role model and icon to other black women and girls but to other Americans as well.
But in a society that finds little to praise in black women, other groups’ appreciation for perceived black female strength can feel like a reductive appreciation. Strength becomes one of few positive adjectives black women can own.
“I spend a lot of time around gay men, and I think I hear the phrase ‘strong black woman’ (or see it being performed) most in their company,” says Erin Millender, an attorney living in New York City. “There are moments when it bothers me—the appropriation of stereotypical gestures and phrases. But most of the time it fills me with a kind of pride that in seeking an ideal of femininity, these men would turn so much to black women to model dignity, resilience, and boldness.”
Black women also look to strong female figures for motivation. We evoke the historical strength of our foremothers to tell each other, “You can do it.” College administrator Adrianne Traylor says she is moved by the strength of her late grandmother, a devoutly religious rural Texan who farmed alongside her husband while working other jobs and raising nine children. She left school after the eighth grade, but seven of her children went on to receive college degrees. “Her example transferred a desire for aspiration and achievement to succeeding generations. She is the embodiment of the best of what ‘strong black woman’ can mean.”
Latham-White says she uses the phrase “in my personal sista circle to compliment, encourage, and also as a form of chiding each other when our weaknesses were hindering or obvious.” But she balks at the sense of being narrowly defined and contained. “I do not allow people to lay it on me these days—even though I realize that strength is my motivating force. I am unwilling to be the mule for the nation.”
Latham-White is surely not wrong to worry about being cast as a beast of burden. Alleged superhuman resilience has long pushed black women into just that role. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Nanny imparts, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” And for centuries, the notion of black female strength has been used to challenge our humanity and femininity. When antebellum middle-class white women were “angels of the house”—beautiful, pious, chaste, and delicate—black women were thought to be the beasts in the fields, who did not need their bodies, sensibilities, and virtue protected. While the 19th-century slavery-based American economy depended on this distinction, the bestial view remained long after black bondage passed away.
At the dawn of the 20th century, black women’s clubs worked toward community and racial uplift, but also sought to confer respectability on African American women, proving us as capable of refinement as white women and possessing the quiet moral strength socially acceptable in the feminine.
By the era of the Equal Rights Amendment, when middle-class white women fought to come down off the pedestal of idealized womanhood and progressive folks celebrated the strength of various marginalized peoples, black women were still seen as uniquely tough.
“Black Woman Power,” an interesting but flawed article by second-wave feminist Caroline Bird in the March 10, 1969 issue of New York magazine, deems black women capable and independent (read: strong) by necessity. Black women fight, Bird says, because they have no one to fight for them, unlike white women with proximity to white, patriarchal power. “Whatever the reasons, the fact is that Negro women in America have escaped some of the psyche-crippling education of white girls. They haven’t been carefully taught how not to fight. On the contrary, some of them fight hard and develop a personal style of fighting that suggests that ‘grace under pressure’ which is supposed to be the essence of courage.”
Bird’s piece spins allegedly distinctive black female strength as a powerful weapon, giving African American women an edge over white women and black men—a dubious message. It also paints black women as possessing a durability that is nearly inhuman. For instance, Bird asserts that “The absence of Negro fathers hurts growing boys more than girls, and saved Negro girls from some of the dissatisfactions with their sex that have brought many white women to psychoanalysis.” Abandoning black girls does not hurt them, this suggests; instead, it makes them stronger. Bird also pits black female achievement against black male success (“Without half trying, Negro women are better able than their men to cope”), unintentionally illustrating the double bind strong black women face: In a society where strength and power are reserved for white people and men, these women are always at the precipice of overstepping their bounds.
Society remains uneasy with female strength of any stripe, and still prefers and champions the angel in the house—an outdated sentiment that limits all women. But because the “angel” is still viewed as unequivocally white, it is a particular problem for black women. As long as vulnerability and softness are the basis for acceptable femininity (and acceptable femininity is a requirement for a woman’s life to have value), women who are perpetually framed, because of their race, as supernaturally indestructible will not be viewed with regard.
This is why we so rarely see black women who are victims of violence on true-crime television, despite the fact that black women are more likely to be victims of sexual violence and domestic homicidal violence. Instead, we overwhelmingly see young white women who fit the picture of idealized true womanhood. (Journalist Gwen Ifill coined the phrase “missing white woman syndrome” to describe this disparate media attention.) Young, blond Natalee Holloway and mommy-to-be Laci Peterson are damsels, beneficiaries of sympathetic national media attention and a drive for justice; Tamika Huston and LaToyia Figueroa, black women who disappeared under identical circumstances, are not.
Sheri Parks, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, described the significance of this reporting bias in a 2006 CNN appearance, explaining that stories about missing women capture the national attention, “uniting people to save a soul.” The woman “becomes a symbol, and if we save her for a few days, we’re okay.” If lack of media coverage is any indication, the media does not believe strong black women need saving.
Lack of empathy for black women has far more serious implications than lack of time on the eleven o’clock news. When Staten Island mother Glenda Moore’s car became submerged by water during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, she was able to free her children, boys aged 2 and 4, from their car seats only to have the rushing water sweep them away. When the distraught Moore attempted to receive help from her neighbors—to simply convince them to call 911—she found only closed doors. Said one, before shutting the door in Moore’s face, “I don’t know you.”
In response to news coverage of the tragedy, a commenter at the Christian Post defended Moore’s neighbors asking, “How many people are going to let a muscular, screaming black woman into their house? How would you know whether it was just a trick and you were about to be the victim of home invasion, robbery, rape…. That is the problem, you just don’t know.”
Lest this comment simply sound like your average Internet troll, consider what happened when 19-year-old Renisha McBride knocked on Theodore Wafer’s door in the early morning of November 2, 2013. McBride was seeking help at Wafer’s suburban Detroit home after a car accident, but instead of offering aid, he shot her in the face.
On her blog, writer DJ Freedom Fighter responded to the transformation of 5'3", 130-pound Moore from distraught mother to a burly, duplicitous beast as “optic whiteness,” but the blogger could also have been discussing McBride. Optic whiteness allowed Moore’s neighbor (and Wafer) to “permissibly deny her help that he would have certainly offered to someone who embodies a picturesque version of the standards of womanhood and motherhood.”
Following the Moore and McBride tragedies, a 2013 Time article asked, “Why are black women seen as more threatening, more masculine, and less in need of help?” UCLA historian Sarah Haley answered, “Black women have been seen as different than black men, certainly, but they have not always been seen as women either; to be a woman is to be seen as deserving of protection, and black women are not always seen that way.”
Even little black girls are not protected. During the 2013 Academy Awards ceremony, The Onion mocked Hollywood’s contrived catfights by “satirically” tweeting out that 9-year-old African American actress Quvenzhané Wallis was “kind of a cunt, right?”
Black women’s strength has also been blamed for our relationships. While we are half as likely to marry as white women for a variety of demographic, social, and economic reasons, the most popular explanation seems to be that black women are too independent to be wives. In his 2009 juggernaut relationship-advice book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man (heavily targeted to an African American audience), comedian–cum–relationship counselor Steve Harvey warned successful women that having your own money, car, house, and alarm system tells men that there is no need for them to come around. Singer Robin Thicke shared more unasked-for advice in a 2011 Essence article, when he told black women to take better care of their men: “Maybe you’re being too stubborn. Maybe you’re not saying you’re sorry. You have to take good care of him, too. You have to give love to get love.” Maybe we’re being too damned strong for our own good. The consensus seems to be that black women are too tough to love or be loved.
Many African American women are increasingly ambivalent about the “strong” label, and not solely because of how we look through society’s eyes. The label also distorts how we view ourselves and, more important, how we take care of—or fail to take care of—ourselves.
Stories of black families are filled with sacrificing Ma’Dears and Mamas, whose ability to nurture and work was seemingly limitless. Too often we lose sight of them as human beings and, in efforts to emulate them, dash our own health and well-being on the rocks. We believe, to our detriment, that preternatural strength means that we can and should bear any physical and emotional burden without complaint.
Black women are more likely to suffer from chronic health problems that may be alleviated by self-care, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stress. One in four black women over the age of 55 has diabetes. We are more likely to die of heart disease than any other group in the United States. Black women have a rate of depression 50 percent higher than that of white women, but in 2003 the California Black Women’s Health Project found that only 7 percent of black women with symptoms of mental illness seek treatment. And, according to a 2009 National Institutes of Health manuscript, a 2008 study of African American women’s perspectives on depression found many “believed that an individual develops depression due to having a ‘weak mind, poor health, a troubled spirit, and lack of self-love.’”
Lewis says, “I am raising a daughter. The reality is, a certain kind of strength will be required for her to make it through this life with her sanity and health—to not let racism and sexism kill her. But I have to be very careful about telling her to be strong, because I also want her to be fully human.”
Sofia Quintero, author and creator of the Feminist Love Project, a telesummit on feminism and love, concurs, saying that there are times when she embraces the idea of strong black womanhood “as a way to practice resiliency and protect myself. But the flip side is that it allows little space for me to be vulnerable, seek support, and otherwise be fully human.”
And that is what the enduring meme of the “strong black woman” obscures: It ultimately flattens black women’s humanity, making it harder for others to see us as complex beings. Worse, the myth of our extraordinary strength makes it difficult for us to see ourselves.
Laini Mataka’s celebrated poem “The Strong Black Woman Is Dead,” begins:
On August 15, 1999, at 11:55 p.m.,
while struggling with the reality
of being a human instead of a myth,
the strong black woman passed away.
Medical sources say she died of natural causes,
but those who knew her know she died
from being silent when she should have been screaming,
milling when she should have been raging,
from being sick and not wanting anyone to know
because her pain might inconvenience them.
She died from an overdose
of other people clinging to her
when she didn’t even have energy for herself.
I am not sure that the “strong black woman” is dead. But she should be. And it is black women who must kill her. Others are far too invested in her survival. For black women, the most radical thing we can do is to throw off the shackles forged by the stereotype and regain our full and complex humanity—one that allows us to be capable, strong, and independent, but also to be carried and cared for ourselves. Allowing for physical and emotional vulnerability is not weakness; it is humanness. More, it is a revolutionary act in the face of a society eager to mold us into hard, unbreakable things.
Tamara Winfrey Harris’s work on race and gender and their intersection with pop culture and politics has appeared in Ms., Bitch, the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Newsweek, and Psychology Today. She is working on her first book, interrogating stereotypes about black women and the lived realities behind them.