The Snob tried being a “Strong Black Woman,” but it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
That by the sole virtues of my race and gender I was supposed to be the consumate professional, handle any life crisis, be the dependable rock for every soul who needed me, and es the classic–require less from my lovers than they did from me because after all, I was a STRONGBLACKWOMAN and they were just ENDANGEREDBLACKMEN.
Retirement was ultimately an act of salvation. Being an SBW was killing me slowly.
— Joan Morgan, “When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost”
When I first read the opening to this chapter years ago in some old, dusty copy of Essence Magazine it blew my then 22-year-old mind. To read someone finally acknowledging that the notion of the strong black woman was mythology. That we were not supremely capable of staying silent and taking on everyone else’s drama and pain. That I was not supposed to “do it all” and pretend like it wasn’t a burden. That I could not admit I needed help or love or support and was not allowed to fall apart because these are things black women don’t do.
Crying and crazy. That was for the white folks. Black people let their pain simmer and turn into rage or chemical dependence or death. It’s simply too shameful to say, “Help me. I’m drowning.” If you can’t save yourself you weren’t meant to be saved.
Despite reading Morgan’s words and agreeing with her, the pathology to be stalwart and unstoppable was so deep I found myself acting it out anyway–in my failed, youthful marriage. In those turbulent years afterwards when I battled with depression. Black women weren’t supposed to get “depression.” We don’t have mental illnesses. That’s a dirty word. You’re just supposed to try harder, bury yourself head first into the shit and keep tunneling even if what you were digging was your own grave.
Some of this mythology comes from slavery. Black women and men were equal in the fact that we were both beasts of burden. We were pack mules. We were chattel. We were not people. A black woman wasn’t supposed to have feelings. She wasn’t supposed to mourn the loss of her child, sold on an auction block or complain that “massa” raped her. She had no voice because her voice was in bondage. Like the black man, she was a commodity and this carried over pass slavery.
You just weren’t a woman. You were some resilient beast meant to drudge along. You were the bitch that refused to die. You fought back. You would not be denied. You would not be broken like a horse. You were strong because you had no other choice. That was your option after slavery, fight or die.
And we’re still living with remnants of that mentality.
White women, traditionally, had the opposite stereotype to live up to. They were supposed to be shy, delicate and demure. They were supposed to be submissive. They were put on a pedestal as the “origin of the species,” seen as delicate playthings, the extensions of their men. Of course, this too, was a myth. White women also worked, especially poor white women, in a time when people celebrated the nuclear family. Poor white women didn’t get to live out this Donna Reed fairy tale. But they did not share the burden of blackness where there was something in our inate being that said we could kick the world’s ass all on our own.
This mentality is killing black women. We have told ourselves that we are strong because we can raise children alone, never acknowledging that more often than not, raising children alone was not a choice. We are told we can’t cry, we can’t feel pain, we can’t break down. And those individuals who dare to crack the facade of indomitable black womanhood are ridiculed. They are told to get it together.
So what if your man left you, your mother died, you lost your job, your landlord put you out, you are sick, you are tired, your father abandoned you and your mother is cold. So what if you grew up poor or marginalized or neglected. So what if you feel unloved and unwanted. So what if you are filled of anger and self-hate and turn to alcohol and the worst of men for comfort. So what if you’ve considered suicide when the rainbow wasn’t enough. Shut up. Lock that shit up into a cage and hide it in the recesses of your mind. Burn it all so that the pain so your heart doesn’t grow back. Sew your mouth shut and hold your head high.
You’re a strong black woman. You need no man. You need no help. You need no love. You need no redemption.
As if you ever had a choice.
I had my first breakdown during my marriage. I was so unhappy, trapped with an uncaring, unmotivated man. I prayed for two hours to a God I didn’t know if I believed in or not. But I prayed that He, She, It would take this burden off my heart because I could not bare it.
Then when the marriage ended I thought I could just power through any lingering depression. I thought I could overcome. I moved to California before the divorce was final. I started going to the gym five times a week, be became obsessed with my physical appearance, yet my apartment had not been cleaned in months. I had not paid a bill and I was not eating. But I was a strong black woman. I was supposed to bounce back from a psychologically abusive relationship that broke my heart so badly I would passive aggressively take it out on men who were nice to me. I was in pain but I’d burned and salted the earth of my heart. I would not ask for help.
It took me, someone who didn’t drink in college and didn’t drink as an adult, to get wasted for the first time in Bakersfield, Calif. to realize something wrong. I had to get so completely wasted because I was in denial that I’d ever been married or hurt. I told myself I would not drink, per usual, but let the Lemon Drops and Whiskey Sours and cheap beers drizzle down my throat until I was euphoric. Despite my obsessions with looks and working out and my job, I had not been happy. But dancing freely, tossing my curly tresses around to music I don’t remember made me long for the days before I met my ex-husband, back when I could create this bliss all on my own.
I was so happy that the liquor had unburdened my mind that I did it again, and again, until I finally realized what I was doing.
I was not a strong black woman. I was a woman who needed help.
I could be broken. I could hurt. I could admit that my heart was so heavy and devastated, decimated, destroyed. I could admit that my finances were a mess and that my apartment was filthy and that I was obsessed with looking perfect at all times to hide the pain. Always smelling fresh and clean because I didn’t want people to sense, see, feeling m
y breaking down.
Everyone thought I was so happy when the anxiety attacks were so bad I was having Tequila for lunch.
That was years ago, and I have since gotten better, but it has not been easy. There was no easy way out of a depression I didn’t even want to admit existed. There was more pain. There have been set backs. But I’m not afraid to ask for help. I’m not afraid to admit that I made mistakes. I’m not afraid to admit my heart was broken.
I am not a “strong black woman.” I am “strong” in the sense that I will fight for what I believe in. I am “black” in the sense that is my ethnicity, my culture and my heritage. And I am a woman, fully formed like Athena bursting from Zeus’ skull. I am brilliant at times, charming even. Sometimes even like my old self, before my marriage. But I am not above human. I am not below human.
I am a woman.
And it’s OK, to just be that. Don’t burn up your soul and salt the earth, so that your feelings never grown back. Don’t become hardened and cold. Don’t shut down. Thought that chip on your shoulder may be a boulder, it is OK to stop and access. It is OK to break down.
You’re only human.