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Fri May 23, 2014, 09:05 AM

Precious Mettle: The myth of the strong black woman

The myth of the strong black woman
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.


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Reply Precious Mettle: The myth of the strong black woman (Original post)
ismnotwasm May 2014 OP
Squinch May 2014 #1
Tuesday Afternoon May 2014 #2

Response to ismnotwasm (Original post)

Fri May 23, 2014, 03:37 PM

1. That article is great, but it's also exceptionally beautifully written.

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Response to Squinch (Reply #1)

Sat May 24, 2014, 03:02 PM

2. it reads like poetry, yes. Beautifully written.

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