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The Facade of the “Strong Black Woman”
A necessary reminder to uplift Black Women
DISCLAIMER: The content and views expressed by the writer of this Opinion are hers and hers alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of LCISD, George Ranch High School, The Wrangler Online or any of the employees/staff of any of the entities mentioned above.
We have seen her at the forefront of every social movement, household, and stage. Her rich brown skin, her bold and beautiful hair, her poise, and her voice that captures the attention of everyone. She is labeled as, “strong,” “powerful, or “independent.” But are we missing another side to this strong Black woman? Are we oblivious to or ignorant of her suffering? Is her strength also her burden?
The, “Strong Black woman,” has been the glue that holds together many aspects of the world. Her character, presence, service, and knowledge are coveted descriptions that make this Black Woman admired.
“The Strong Black Woman character type onscreen can be identified by some key features. She does not tolerate B.S, she has a strong moral compass and holds others accountable, she’s a natural nurturer and she is a high performer who’s had to overcome extreme hardships,” narrator of social commentary channel, “The Take,” Alana Barrett-Adkins said.
Overall these descriptions of this character have led to a seemingly positive perception of Black Woman both on-screen and off. However, there have been many negative effects to this identity as well.
Because the image of the Strong Black Woman characterizes Black Women as powerful and almost superhuman beings, or joyful servants who often times help others while sacrificing their well being, the Strong Black Woman myth has inadvertently managed to perpetuate negative stereotypes about Black Women by devaluing their identity as complex human beings with normal human emotions, needs, and desires; which is why it is indeed a myth.
History of the Strong Black Woman:
The origins of the, “Strong Black women,” come from the three primary caricatures of Black women that have dominated their roles in film.
Common Portrayal of the, “Mammy,” late 1800’s and early 1900’s. (New York Public Library)
First is the, “Mammy,” caricature. African-American professor, author, and political commentator, Melissa Harris-Perry, defines this caricature as a figure who,”…was not a protector or defender of black children or communities. She represented a maternal ideal, but not in caring for her own children. Her love, doting, advice, correction, and supervision were reserved exclusively for white women and children.” Therefore, the mammy figure’s identity revolved around her service rather than her identity as a valuable human being, so many Black women to this day are still characterized only for their service to others even if it comes at their expense.
Secondly, there is the, “Jezebel,” caricature. This idea was created during slavery in order to paint Black women and girls as inherently lewd beings, in order for slave masters to justify the sexual assault of Black female slaves.
Actress, Eartha Kitt, was widely categorized for her Jezebel-like nature in 1967’s, Batman,” (commons.wikimedia.org/)
American author and historian Herbert Gutman contextualized the origin of the Jezebel figure by explaining how, “Young black girls were encouraged to have sex as “anticipatory socialization” for their later status as ‘breeders.’ When they did reproduce, their fecundity was seen as proof of their insatiable sexual appetites.” Many years later, this stereotype has manifested in movies, particularly Blaxploitation films such as, “Coffy,” or, “Blacula,” depicting Black women as lewd objects of desire with no morality or depth.
The final caricature that makes up the, “Strong Black Woman,” trope is probably the most prevalent of all. The, “Sapphire,” caricature is what is known today as the, ” Angry Black Woman.” The Sapphire was defined by the social commentary website, Abagond, as ,” tart-tongued and emasculating, one hand on a hip and the other pointing and jabbing (or arms akimbo), violently and
Is she really the, “Angry Black Woman,” or is she just expressing emotion. (Tima Miroshnichenko)
rhythmically rocking her head, mocking African American men… She is a shrill nagger with irrational states of anger and indignation and is often mean-spirited and abusive.” Racist rhetoric inherently promotes the notion that a Black Woman’s Black-ness is synonymous with danger, hostility, and senseless violence. Because of this, many Black women are automatically labeled as angry or aggressive simply for showing emotions or existing.
"As a Black Woman, our passions for topics are often mistaken as aggression and our “tough-love” is not seen as inspiring, but ridicule. The grace behind the Black Woman’s strength is not viewed nor praised for its complexity.”
— Ms. Joia Emery
All these stereotypes of Black women come together in order to make the, “Strong Black Woman,” come to fruition, and although the cliche seems positive at first, due to its oppressive origins, the negative effects still stand.
Emotional Impacts of the Strong Black Woman:
So what are the impacts of the,” Strong Black Woman?” This figure isn’t just a character that we see onscreen. It is a very common concept that cause Black women to suffer medically, socially, and politically . So in order to explore the impacts of this trope, there is no one better to ask than the amazing Black Women who are, and have been a part of the George Ranch High school staff.
“While I appreciate the acknowledgment of my hard work, persistence, and endurance in even the toughest circumstances, many times I haven’t been afforded the space and allowance to feel or have natural emotions that others are entitled to,” former Assistant Principal Judy Momanyi said.
Since the Strong Black woman has dedicated her life to her work, which typically includes service to other people, many of her authority figures, and peers, fail to realize that she has an identity outside of her service to others. Therefore, the, “Mammy,” caricature continues to operate in a subliminal manner through Black women being stripped of their vulnerability and emotional honesty.
Similarly, Black women experience this same concept of being robbed of their inner selves through the Jezebel stereotype, which causes others to never see her past her beauty.
“In college I had my first-ever boyfriend. I felt as if he was parading me around as the exotic Afro-latina. After we broke up I felt as if nobody saw me, they only saw me as a foreign object of desire.” English teacher Michelle Portillo said.
A common theme within the, “Strong Black Woman trope,” is her dehumanization and animalization. These two systems promote the notion of Black Women being aggressive, cold, and heartless beings who don’t have the ability to experience sensitivity. Furthermore, these concepts come together in order to create arguably the most prevalent concept of all, which is the, “Sapphire,” caricature.
” As I stood outside my classroom thrilled about greeting each student personally, the teacher next door shared this, “I know your students will all be on their best behavior all day today!” I smiled and said that the majority of my students did well every day. She proceeded to say that they will do especially well today because I am wearing my angry black woman hair… Since then, I sometimes have students who share after a while that I surprised them and that I am much nicer than they thought when they first saw me. When I ask what their first impression was, they thought I might be loud, mean, or ghetto,” long term substitute teacher Mrs. Jones said.
Additionally, since many Black Women fear the repercussions of this stereotype they feel as though they must control their emotions even in stressful situations.
“There was an instance where I was challenging the comments of my white male counterpart, and he responded with throwing my papers out of the doors and telling me to leave. I picked up my papers and sat at his desk. I was determined to stand my ground. As upsetting as it was, I held my composure because I realized I wasn’t just representing myself, but I was representing other Black Women who are often stereotyped as the, “Angry Black Woman,” Math teacher Ms. Clay said.
These three very meticulously curated systems of misogynoir, which has been defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary as the, ” misogyny (hatred of women) directed towards Black Women,” have helped spread the harmful stereotype of the, “Strong Black Woman,” but inherently the title itself is not a bad concept. Although the “Strong Black Woman” has been defined by racial stereotypes, that doesn’t mean that Strong Black Women in reality have to be defined by the distorted view that this cliche has been made of.
What does it mean to be a Strong Black Woman?:
So let us ask ourselves. What does it, truly, mean to be a Strong Black Woman?
“My advice to younger women is to view themselves through their own lens as an individual that determines their worth and the trajectory of their life unapologetically”
— Ms. Bridget Branch
“The character of this, “Strong Black Woman,” is misunderstood. The image of this woman is defined in a stereotypical setting. But the strong Black woman loves; she is vibrant and enjoys life; she’s a mother, she embraces her children, she cries. She’s poetic and she works hard in every career field,” Human Growth and Development teacher, Chrystal Jammer said.
The Strong Black Woman is a self assuring being who does struggle with doubt and insecurity, but learns how to build up her confidence and sense of self when nobody is there to do that for her.
“…I would like to come across as a leader or someone that knows what she is doing. And I think to myself, what does that look like? Who does that look like? And then I think that person does not typically look like me. So, what can I do about that situation? Well, I strive to stay confident in my decisions and to trust my professionalism. Because if I am looking for someone else to confirm or reaffirm my choices and decisions, then I will always second guess myself,” Economics teacher Stephanielynn Blowe said.
The strong Black woman may have to overcome prejudice, but she always achieves everything she puts her mind to.
“If I was assigned the manager of a project, it was very obvious that I was unexpected. The look, the whole demeanor showed that they assumed that the manager would be someone other than a Black woman. You could see it, you could feel it. It took me a while to win their confidence with my abilities and skills, but I was always successful in everything I did,” English teacher and former public accountant, Ms. Cherry said.
The Strong Black Woman does not let anyone police her joy, expressions, or personality. She makes sure to stay true to who she is.
” My advice to young Black girls is to always accept who you are. Trying to fit in, and be somebody else will only lead to resentment. Make sure the culture fits you, instead of you trying to fit the culture,” Assistant Principal Marqueshah (MAR-KEE-SHUH) Coy said.
And most importantly, she makes sure that she spends every possible moment uplifting, comforting, and accepting all Black women and girls just as they are.
“It is a privilege, it is a right, it is a must, to encourage that they are more than just who they are physically, but emotionally and mentally. It is important to let these girls know, ‘You are Ms. Emery, Ms. Washington, Mrs. Pierce, and every single Black Woman who have once walked these halls,”
— Alicia Dutch
“When I walk around here and I see our beautiful Black girls of George Ranch, I make sure to tell these babies that they are beautiful both physically and emotionally. I make sure to tell them they are intelligent. I tell the beautiful Black girls of George Ranch the same thing that I tell my own daughter, ‘You don’t have to be the tough girl.’ It is ok to show emotion.’ It doesn’t matter where they are in life, they need to understand that they are wonderfully made. And I have that privilege, it is a privilege, it is a right, it is a must, to encourage that they are more than just who they are physically, but emotionally and mentally. It is important to let these girls know, ‘You are Ms. Emery, Ms. Washington, Mrs. Pierce, and every single Black Woman who have once walked these halls,” Alicia Dutch said.
Gratitude to Strong Black Women:
Before I conclude this article I would love to thank all the Black women who made this possible. Your poise, your grace, your love, and your vulnerability inspire so many more people than you could possibly ever know. Please remember that you are appreciated, not just for what you do, but for who you are, whether you consider it to be perfect or not. I wrote this article to uplift the voices of Black women and girls, and it is because of you, Ms. Portillo, Ms. Clay, Ms. Blowe, Ms. Cherry, Ms. Emery, Coach Dutch, Ms. Jammer, Ms. Jones, Ms. Momanyi, and former educator in the district Ms. Bridget Branch, that I was able to write this article.
“I have resolved to pen my own narrative and give zero credence or acknowledgement to anyone’s definitions or expectations. My advice to younger women is to view themselves through their own lens as an individual that determines their worth and the trajectory of their life unapologetically,” Mrs. Branch said.
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