‘The strong Black Woman’: Reflections on trauma and survival

I was recently invited to sit on a panel to review and discuss a play centred on Black women entitled Still Barred. The play features four characters entangled in stories of sexual abuse, neglect, violence who are in constant dialogical exchange and disconnection with themselves and reality. A powerful mix of fantasy and reality and a compelling attempt at portraying the complexities of Black women’s psyches. 

The panel discussion like the play, focused on mental health and in particular, how Black women cope with trauma, in a context of intersectional violence and invisibility. The panel discussion was pretty much led by the audience’s questions, comments and responses to the play. The audience composed primarily of Black women and the panel was entirely female and Black.

Unsurprisingly, discussions soon enough turned to ‘the strong Black woman’ trope and the burden it places on us. One panellist spoke of her hospitalisation for severe depression.  A depression which she felt was the effect of patriarchy and anti-Blackness and, which caused her mother to become alienated from her as the latter did not know how to be with a daughter who was struggling to bear the weight of everything that society threw at her.  A daughter who did not seem ‘strong’ enough. Another panellist spoke of having been told to keep strong ‘just like other women in her family’, when she disclosed the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of an uncle, as a child, to her mother. 

I have never experienced myself as particularly strong but I know that story too and the impossible standards it imposes. This expectation of strength did not simply come from my family. I discovered early that there was something very peculiar about living in a world that imagines you as unbreakable when so much of your breathing time is focussed on surviving. 

I was five or perhaps six when I first experienced that double consciousness. When for the first time I realised that there was a discrepancy between how I experienced myself and how the world viewed or defined me. It was after a silly dispute between children in the neighbourhood which got out of hands. One child who was being teased fetched her father. Unfortunately for me, I was not a fast runner. So while most of the kids involved disappeared within seconds, pretty quickly an angry father caught me, grabbed me by the collar of my shirt, lifted me into the air with one arm and, threatened me with a clinched fist with the other. 

It took the screams of a Black woman, a neighbour who happened to walk past, for this enraged man to release his grip on me, free me and walk away. ‘She’s a child’, ‘she’s a child’ she repeatedly shouted at him. I don’t remember the little girl’s name or what the argument was about but I recall that days or perhaps weeks after this incident, we were friends again. Such is the absurdity of childhood drama. Yet, that father had forgotten my vulnerability when his face turned red with heat and his fist was trembling with rage. It is clear that in that moment, he did not see fragility or childhood. And, I saw what he saw me as, in his eyes.  I never forgot. Anti-blackness sometimes has a look. 

When I was hit by a motorbike a few years ago, as I regained consciousness, I recognised glimpses of this look on the face of the police officer who I saw comforting the upset driver who had hit me as I was left unattended on the road. I was then encouraged to get up and walk away from the site of the collision. This was after I had been propelled a few meters into the air, fell onto the ground and lost consciousness albeit for a minute or two. And again, as though the universe was looking after me, I remember a passer-by (a Black woman again!) who had witnessed the accident screaming at the officer ‘Don’t move her’ , ‘don’t move her’. I must have looked pretty robust (to the policeman) then too.

So here lies my conflict with the demonisation of those who have had to reenact and reproduce the strong Black woman narrative. Historically, rarely has there been spaces where Black women could attend to their trauma and suffering. In fact, it is only fairly recently that the injustice of imperialism has been conceptualised as collective trauma. And still, this is contested. 

The constructions of us as superhumans, unable to feel pain or psychological distress has a long history which is rooted in slavery and in colonialism. It formed the foundation of the commodification of our bodies and of capitalism. This history has left an enduring legacy. Today still, there are few places where our vulnerability is seen and attended to because of perceptions that we are strong or fierce or resilient or whatever term en vogue, used to imprison us and to erase our wounding socio-political contexts.
To account for this by alleging that we have some kind of ‘superwoman syndrome’ (I’ve read this a few times) which we need to be ‘cured’ of, is quite frankly insulting.  So, to those who might struggle to see the link between social constructions of Black womanhood and smothered personal stories of sexual abuse, of violence or of maternal rejection or of distress, I would kindly ask that they consider the impact of social injustice on family stress and, of chronic stress on family functioning.

Or that they explore internalised oppression and the notion that marginalised groups must not expose their ‘dirty laundry’ lest they arm the oppressor with further ammunition against them. Or that they consider the origin of our, often fragile, sense of worth and its relationship with honour and respect. I would ask them to consider that perhaps, if families or mothers had experienced warmth, care and compassion themselves when in distress or if their trauma had been seen, perhaps they might trust that the world may show their daughters the same consideration.

Of course, there is much more than that but that would be a start. The truth is, there are very few other ways Black women have been allowed to be in the world than ‘strong’ and so, the prison of that fantasised notion has had to be internalised at least to a degree. It has served the fundamental function of our survival and as such has, on balance, served us well. Yes – and, I am the first person to say so – we do need to prioritise our wellbeing. We need to redefine ‘strength’ so that it leaves room for help seeking, for vulnerability and for self-care. But what we do not need, is the same old victim blaming and erasure of our histories and socio-political realities. 

Thank you for reading. 

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2 comments

  1. So touched, heartened, and educated by your words. You have helped shaped my eyes to bear more loving and true witness to the experience of black women. Further, while I don’t live in a black body or a woman’s body, instead in a Jewish man’s body, I still find aspects of myself in your experience and see. Out of my the ashes of my parent’s survivor story, I was raised to be “strong” – a kind of “Israel” that can take on any attacks and give it back 10 fold. (Forgive the allusion to politics; I am deeply pained by Israel’s unfolding – what my Jewish sisters and brothers have made out of our history.) Now, in my 60th year, the vulnerability in my body and emotions has been given more space. Having to be strong/stronger and invulnerable never suited me. I find a universal resonance in your words. Thank you for that!

    1. Hi David, always humbled by your words of support. I am glad my writing resonates and I appreciate your taking the time to read. Interesting parallel you made re: trauma, politics and Zionism, it’s a question I have pondered upon from an outsider looking in perspective and which evokes deep feelings and at times, much anger. Complex issues of course.
      I think the need to be unbreakably strong ultimately stems from a deep sense of unsafeness so I can see why it might be common amongst groups with histories of trauma and why you, as a Jewish man may be able to relate to that expectation.
      Thank you for sharing a little bit of your story. Always grateful. Guilaine

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