Die, Strong Black Woman, Die!

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.

25 thoughts on “Die, Strong Black Woman, Die!

  1. The old saying goes, “He may not come when you want Him to, but He’s always on time.”As I sit here surrounded by a desk full of deadline oriented crap and my mind heavy from all the things I “have” to do, I want to say thank you, because your post is ON TIME. Thank you for this post that lets me know that it’s okay to say “no” or “get the hell away from me with YOUR random bullshit!” when I am not able to shoulder someone else’s needs and demands. Thank you for letting it be known that it’s okay to be sad, okay to be hurt, okay to put down the armor when it becomes too much to carry.Thank you for saying in your own way that it’s okay for the “tough, resilient, all knowing, intelligent bitch” to be vulnerable every once and again & have feelings that need to be addressed and attended to.Thank you for sending out the reminder that WE are truly only human and there is no shame in taking the cape off.Be Blessed, Snob. 🙂

  2. Wow.As a person who is just coming out of a decades long depression…one that bears many similarities to your own…I am very thankfulf for this post.It truly is right on time.I’m 28 and have been struggling with anger and depression (that I never identified as such)easily sense my junior/senior years of high school.The last few years have been pretty bad, culminating in panic and anxiety attack and ending with me leaving my Masters program.I have NEVER been as happy and content as I am now…but there’s a long road ahead. 12 years of my life spent in a fog and now trying to put a life back together…yeah I do feel your pain.

  3. Another beautiful, poignant and honest post that we are blessed to have you share with us. You have really been firing on all cylinders lately, and I am so glad you are in the ‘sphere for all of us to read and LEARN from (sorry for the poor sent. structure).Wishing you a restful and peaceful weekend. I hear you on the difficulty in admitting we need help, and managing to asking for it without feeling ashamed. I am still learning how to do this. And to let down my walls.

  4. I think what you did…by submitting…sharing…you have opened up the opportunity for a new language that we need to speak.When Joan Morgan wrote her book, it was taken more as her exhibition eventhough she wanted it to create a healing. And many schools use it as required reading but no one goes public and testifies about their pain…their collaboration and cooperation in it…and simply not being able to handle it at the time it introduces itself to you.I am so passion to get more women to be like YOU…HONEST…COURAGEOUS…PASSIONATE. These characteristics makes one so dynamic.I honor your conviction to not hide this. I honor your commitment to not carry your life in quiet shame. I honor your bravery to show us how to take leaps of faith. Thank you!I always wanted my students to see people like you who were not afraid of his or her emotions and could tackle them. Inner-city kids were taught to be ashamed of their heart so they killed it. They needed to see someone like you. You “get it”. You cracked the code!

  5. dang, girl, you’re good…what a great post…you’re a really good writer…i just saw your blog yesterday for the first time, but I’ll keep coming back…hang in there…

  6. The “letting go” of what was so wrong is just the beginning of the pain. Realizing that it’s okay to want what you haven’t yet experienced, is what brings you through it.Andrea:”Inner-city kids were taught to be ashamed of their heart so they killed it. “Many folks are taught to refuse the heart. Life experiences will also make you refuse the heart in defense of the spirit.

  7. This post touched me personally. I was a single mother who had a beautiful boy who got sick, lived and struggled, and passed away. Surprisingly the SBW syndrome struck me and my parents, especially my dad who expects me to pick up and dust off and move on. It’s created a gulf between us. I’ve never touched a drink. I refuse anti-depressant because it’s just not what SBW do. It’s painful. I don’t know how to change my mindset. In a way, it feels like you’re either a SBW or you’re nothing. No middle ground. I keep working on it.Thanks Snob.

  8. I am 20 yrs of age and in my state of youth, I have felt the pressures and burdens that has jaded my youth. I was raised that feelings were private and not meant to be worn. I was taught to wear the mask as W.E. B DuBois would say. And I’ve watched my mother, grandmother and many other black women in my life loose everything or endure trying circumstances, to only attempt to hide it from outsiders and even their children. I am now 20 and have seen a therapist. I find myself hiding pain and anguish from her out of fear that my raw emotions would be taken as weakness or I was seen as needy and co-dependent. If I have learned one thing from my hurt which turns in to pain and rage, is that it can be a vicious cycle and a growing beast inside that will soon be unleashed on someone else. We see these TV shows and we always ask “Why she gotta be angry mad black woman?”, as if being opionated or upset makes her an outcast. Women, we need to come together and allow each other to vent/grieve w/o seeing the next as someone who needs to to keep it together, but help us keep our spirits in tact. Thank you Snob for bringing this up. I feel as though being black is threatening enough to others, but when women express pain its overlooked or under rated as another hurtle we can jump. *If you are a parent I urge you to have this talk with your children, because when we get older its disheartning to think you arent as strong as your parents, and we become paralyzed with grief because we cant see how we cant cope.*If you are a man, and a blackman at that, sometimes we just want to be heard. And when we are heard and you dont understand 9 times out of 10 it may be something deeper. AND THATS OKAY. Trust me, black women are not the new species of Rambo. It seems like a lot to handle, but she handles so much of it all the time w/o missing a beat.Just because we can cary the burden and wear the mask well, does not mean its healthy to do so.-Thank You again.

  9. all: I’m so glad everyone was able to get something out of the piece. I’ve been wanting to write it since I first read Joan Morgan’s book years ago. It and another non-fiction book, “Love Awaits” had a huge affect on me and what it meant to be a black woman in modern America.For a long time I’ve debated whether or not to write about blacks and mental illness and other ailments that we often don’t seek help for because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we don’t need help. But that’s just a lie. Everyone needs help. Whether it is someone working two jobs with a child, trying to go to school while their family looks on or a person with mental illness who is homeless because their relatives are convinced he could come home if he would just “get right.”Like there are choices in these situations.Like SDCHI, I once covered a news story on a support group for parents who lost a child. While the group was largely white, they shared in you the same feeling anyone has when they lose a child, whether it be a 6 week old baby or a 40 year old man.They told me when your child dies all your dreams die with them, because after you have a child he or she becomes your world. All your hopes and dreams are invested in them. And for the younger parents it hurt that people would tell them they could have another child, as if that would replace the unique one they could never have back. Or the older parents who were told by surprised friends that “you’re still not over that.”People just don’t get it. They don’t get pain until it happens to them. It’s like people who don’t believe in the disease because they’ve never gotten sick.A lot of black life in America is about survival. To me, we should be moving past survival and on to familial support, friend support, medical support. No one should have to suffer in silence alone.I think the only thing that saved me was that I wasn’t “good” at hiding my pain. I was labeled “emotional” as a child because I would actually cry when my feelings were hurt. My parents were understanding, but they wanted me to toughen up. I did some, but I remain, to this day, a tender hearted person. I’ve accepted that I cannot even pretend to be some sort of Superwoman. I tried that and it was not for me. I’d rather focus on being a good person, friend, daughter, sister, mentor and citizen than pretend to be some hard rock who never smiles, who’s never warm and is always angry because of that boulder on the shoulder, slowly breaking their backs.They may not notice it today, or tomorrow, but the weight they carry will eventually bring them down. One day they won’t be able to talk and they won’t be able to walk. All they can do is survive, and that is not living. That is a walking death.

  10. WOW,I first read this post this afternoon,and it was heavy; too heavy for me to reply right then.I am a nurturer…to my own detriment sometimes. When you are a nurturer, you attract persons to you who need nurturing. Being a nurturer can be lonely, because when you need a shoulder, the people you nurture disappear, either from their own inability to cope with your problems, or worse yet, they don’t ( or incapable of) caring.I have learned to cut off people who aren’t reciprocal human beings. That to me is the ultimate form or selfishness there is; the inability or lack of desire to lend an ear to someone after you’ve listened to their bullshit. I started cutting these folks off when a former friend managed to take my concern and hurt feelings about being snubbed by a mutual friend shortly after I became disabled, and managed to take my pain, ignore it, and turn the ssubject back to her and her issues. I was flabbergasted.But, it was my fault. She was always self-centered; i just didn’t see it. She was an emotional vampire, and I had to cut her off.That experience left me feeling that I had to examine all of my friendships. Guess what? They all were self centered. Every single one.So, I cut them all off. I had to say no to them and yes to me. I am no longer let anyone dump on me again. BUT…this experience has me questioning my judgement, and now I feel like I cannot unburden myself to anyone. I can’t trust anyone enough to tell them when I am hurting inside, about my fears and my doubts.When I became disabled, most of these people disappeared. Maybe they saw me as weak; I don’t know.All I knew was this: When they were low, I was there; When I was low, they were gone.So it is okay to say no when someone is dumping on you about bullshit. It is okay. And I WILL BE OKAY. God Willing.

  11. Snob nation: thanks for sharing.Snob: I saw that play (for colored girls …when the rainbow isn’t enough) when I was 23 or 24, but it took me until the world bit me in my butt to truly appreciate it. Thanks for the reference.I had one response after reading your post, but it has changed after reading your comment.Your comment took me back to a moment when I was having a REALLY hard time a few years ago. Laid off twice, very single, and facing eviction. So in my very non-SBW moment I tried to confide in my mom about what was going on and how f*cked up I felt about the situation. And she hit me with the “you just need to pray”. My response was that I have prayed, but I still feel like I am about to lose it. Grandmother gave me the same response. There I was dealing with the feeling of just giving up and going to sit under a bridge or a park bench, compounded with the task of having to defend my faith to the people who knew me best!It was like that was ALL that they knew to say. As SBW that was it! Getting emotional with me was too much for their psyche.No offer to share a similar experience and stories about how they got through those situations. No I understand, or how are you feeling. I had to tell my mother “don’t do that; don’t act like I don’t have the right to be upset, worried, confused and yes DEPRESSED! I am a freakin human being for goodness sake. I told her that I was NOT a machine and even they give out eventually.I refuse to go out in a stroke or heart attack, like so many of our SBW carrying all that garbage around. I refuse!So thank you for writing about something that our community refuses to acknowledge, Mental Illness is real. Just look around at some parts of our community and it is self evident.You are the best

  12. I think, as my eyes are so heavy I want to just drop, that this post is the reason why I was supposed to look on the computer tonight. I’m going through a bad time right now that will only end with part of my heart being permanently broken; my mother is dying. I’ve accepted it, but that don’t make my heart hard to that fact. Thank you for your honesty, I needed it tonight.

  13. kenya w: I totally had what happened to you happen to me at my old job. I was going through the worst of the worst of my depression. I could barely grunt hello at people and a woman I worked with noticed how miserable I looked and asked me how I was doing.I mean, it was obvious I was doing crappy since I was being snippy with my bosses, on probation at work, not eating, bathing or sleeping and crying in the bathroom, like, everyday, and she stopped me in the restroom to tell me that when I’m down I should just think of Jesus on that cross. And then she just smiled as if it were that simple. And I wanted to punch her in her throat. Because while I knew she thought she thought she was meaning well, but she basically spat in my face by saying that if my faith in Christ were stronger I wouldn’t suffer from severe depression and I wouldn’t be on the verge of being fired. That if I just believed stronger that this would all just magically disappear.I started avoided her because she said it every time she saw me, as if saying it alone would make me sane.It’s amazingly insensitive, but most people who say this are clueless. When I told my friends (the two aspiring priests — one is actually about to be ordained this month) what she said to me they were appalled, but not surprised. After all, they knew the woman because we all worked together and they’d taken the alternative approach that if Danielle couldn’t walk we were going to help carry her right to the hospital if we have to. Not tell her to “go pray on it.” I’m like, what the fuck do you think I’m doing? OF COURSE, I’m praying on it. Now give me a cure for clinical depression!That’s what frustrated me about church. All I ever heard was “put it all on Jesus” or that “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle” which is basically a nice way of saying “shut the fuck up. You don’t have real problems.”I’ve been there and it sucks.

  14. wow.Message to all “strong black women” out there. This post is what real strength is all about. Real strength isn’t putting up a facade. Real strength isn’t a marketing gimmick, and you can’t get it from a magazine, a book, or a movie. Real strength is being able to admit when you’re wrong. Real strength is the ability to recognize your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Real strength does not have to tell anyone they are strong, because people already know by observing some of the actions I listed above. Snob, you are the true definition of strong black woman.

  15. dewfish: Thanks. I wish more black people, male and female, could learn that it’s much better to seek help than die of diabetes and hypertension at 55. It really, really is. It’s OK to be human. No one should have to bare that cross alone.

  16. Holy wow.You really laid bare. I had wanted to comment on the new banner, but, um, who cares???You Are a strong black woman. I’m really not into gospel tunes nor am I into dismissing faith as conservative theory over liberal practice (I’m more into liberal theory over conservative practice). However, occasionally, one of these gospel tunes slips itself into my psyche. It was featured on that Queen Latifah 4-black-woman show “Girlfriends”: “…’cause a saaaaviour’s just a sinnnner who fellll dooowwwnnn….” What I’m saying DCB is that people who can’t ask for help are Not strong people. Recognizing our weaknesses does not make us strong, it makes us weak. ~As per the New banner =) , it is more sophisticated and chic, but also stronger and more subtle. Is this what you’re going for? I mean, your target audience? If so, fine. The other banner was more youthful and relaxed, more in your face and fun. This is not a good or bad thing, it just is. Neither is better or worse than the other, they are both bold in different ways.

  17. moody: I think the only reason I’ve survived this long is because I am “The Black Woman Who Would Not Shut Up.” I talk so much that when I did fall into depression it was so obvious to everyone around me. Me saying hello with a grunt was just unheard of. Even when I “faked” happy I would have my mother on the phone crying, begging me to tell her what was wrong.Needless to say, that is partially the reason why I returned to St. Louis. But I like that this has touched so many people thus far. It’s OK to not be Superwoman/Superman. There is nothing so special about blackness that requires such stoicism. Per the banner. I’m still tweaking. It’s still not “right.” I’m going to keep experimenting until I get that right mix of artsy-fartsy ands snobby-wobby.

  18. I am late on this but just want to add another wow. Wow. This is powerful. This is really important. I don’t think I can express how important this is. I am so impressed with your ability to be multidimensional: smart, funny, silly, insightful and more. Black women have been pretty invisible – globally – and here you are just putting your full self out there. It is really inspiring!I am trying to overcome this stuff too in my own life. I only allow myself to be smart and insightful and work hard for a cause other than myself. I’m funny in private. I get the “pray on it” stuff from my mother too who is otherwise this new age bohemian but adversity gets her back to being straight up, old school Methodist. I get that she can’t be available for me like that because no one was ever there for her like that but it still hurts (Can anybody recommend good reading on black mothers? My mom would walk coals for us but emotionally it’s hard for her to be there). I get the cycle and respect the women, but I want to break the cycle. However the idea of showing weakness scares the sh*t out of me. It’s true we have moved past survival and now is the time to thrive. I just have no idea how. I know how to achieve and show “them”! I have the master’s degree, I have a great job, I have a great boyfriend, I own my own home but I don’t know how to get happy for me. For my own sake. The thought scares me but hell if I am not living for me, who am I living for? I can’t do it for me at the moment (the whole happy thing) but maybe the idea of showing the world that it’s possible to be a happy black woman is a start and then I might end up just doing it for me. Thanks for what you do!

  19. Anon 9:16: you weren’t late. You were right on time. You gave voice to another bad habit of the SBW. To her detriment, she can put other people’s happiness before her own. Your input is truly appreciated.I will check for some books on black mothers. Excellent point… I am with you on looking at the environment that my mother came from, with her own mother. As a woman I am learning not to judge her so critically. I remember when my grandmother confided in me that my Great grand- Hattie, always favored her youngest daughter over my grandmamma. My grandmother said that her Papa favored her so she did not get any extra comfort from my great grand-mother. So I had to wonder how tough that made her in raising my mother. She could only give what she had been given. Now we are looking at four generations of SBW with little or no emotional outlet. Lord help us all. (hand to me forehead)Thanks for sharing.

  20. I am also sick of the strong, black woman stereotype along with the ones in which all black women can “burn” in the kitchen, sing, fight, etc. Good post! One stereotype down, many more to go!

  21. WOW! I came for my Obama family fix, and found this. If you ain’t a therapist, you oughta be! Your words hit home in ways you can never know. Thank you for your honesty, your clarity and your truth.I have wanted to strangle that strong black bitch for years. You just let me know that I am not by myself. Peace…

  22. Hey I love you post. I love your blogs. Yes I am a victim of the strong black woman syndrome. I had to be a strong black girl when my father was abusing my mother. I had to be a strong black girl when my mother fled the household and I became the unofficial housewife while going to high school and working a part time. And I had to be a strong black women in a ten year long marriage with a self sabotaging mama’s boy of a husband I recently divorced.I was numb and in denial of my needs. As Strong black women what is the undercurrent. Is that we are cut of from our basic human wants and needs (love, security, respect, acknowledgement, joy, support) We are always force to make a way out of no way. I knew that I had to get out of my marriage cause many years of being a strong black women I was literally lost in a fog. I no sense of who I was and what I wanted and what I need.Even after the marriage, I was in a fog. Until one day I had a mini breakdown in front parents in the school auditorium of during a PTA. I knew it was time to not be strong and not try to forgo self to get everything together. I decided to seek therapy. I am still in therapy. I no longer engage in Strong Black Woman activities that I was programmed to do. I just let go and let go. (Though it is a struggle. I still find my self trying to be all to everybody. I am a work in progress).Yes die strong black women die, because strength is killing the rest of us

  23. I know that I am a few days late on commenting on this post. I tell you I really and been through this type of thing more than 5 times in my life. I am trying everyday to beat the big D. I thank you for this entry. Mahogany

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