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Musings

Isolation and the Myth of the Strong Black Woman

*There are some people – an exceptional few – who are paragons of emotional stoicism. These people have all the emotive sensibilities of a fragment of driftwood. This post is not about you. It’s about the rest of us.  Just FYI…

Strong.

Black.

Woman.

What comes to mind when you hear these words? Close your eyes… or not; really think about it. Perhaps an image of a woman at the bus stop with all her plastic grocery bags arrayed around like a field of rotting posies her pops into your consciousness. Perhaps it might be a powerful woman in a pencil skirt and lab coat barking out orders. Is she the nameless janitor that cleans your building every night? Whoever she is, I’d wager 99% of you have imagined her alone. Not supported by family; not surrounded by friends; just strong – and ALONE. And you would be right.

I was chatting with one of my dearest and oldest friends last night who is going through a very difficult time with her would-be fiancé. “Would-be”, because although he has continually promised on several occasions to propose to her by x date (the most recent being spring of this year), he has yet to do so. His reasons are his own, although as her live-in boyfriend, he does enjoy the benefits of married life with the bothersome commitment. She told me as of last night she had had enough.

“I keep choosing people who don’t want me,” she said in measured tones. I could tell from the quality of her voice she had been crying for hours. “I give and give, and I don’t get anything in return. Not a word of thanks. Not a word of encouragement. Not a hug in public. In fact, I was inspired to write on my vision board ‘B*tch, sit down. You doing too much.’”

I hummed in agreement. This particular friend (we’ll just call her Jayden) does do a lot in her relationship. She surprised her boyfriend with Coldplay  tickets and he pitched a fit.

I told you I don’t like surprises! he roared. Why would you buy these??

Jayden planned and purchased a trip to the islands for a getaway. He acted like it was a bother to leave the room.

She washed and put away his clothes when they returned from said vacation. He never acknowledged the act of consideration.

Recently, in the midst of an emotional breakdown, he discovered her in the room crying, drinking, and downing pills. His advice?

“Oh stop it. Send back the invitations to the pity party, address Jayden,” and walked right past her room.

Screw all that. Maybe that behavior is good and acceptable for those emotive deadwoods I mentioned earlier, but for the rest of us breathing, living, sweating women it’s downright hurtful! As a woman who has had more than one emotional breakdown herself, I can attest that those utterances were NOT what my friend needed in that moment.

She needed assurance. She needed compassion. A light touch on the shoulder or a strong bear hug would absolutely suffice. But she didn’t get any of that and the only reason I have been able to conclude is that she is perceived as a “strong Black woman.”

Let me tell you something: the Strong Black Woman doesn’t exist. The Strong Black Woman is just that: A woman. She has deep emotions and spiritual needs. She has a hear that gets broken just like any other woman. She has orgasms or not, just like any other woman. If you tickle her she will laugh and if you punch her, she will cry. She is just a woman.

Sometimes I feel as though I have been living under the umbrella (or shadow) of the strong Black woman persona. Since I’ve put my friend’s business out there, it’s only apropos that I do the same for myself. One of the biggest contentions in my marriage has been the sense of isolation I’ve felt since moving to Atlanta to be closer to friends, only to have those friends move back to Ghana or some neighboring state. I’ve blogged about this before, so it’s no secret to the MOM Squad. Atlanta is not my home. I have no familial ties or emotional connections to this city. There have been days when I have felt so alone I thought the loneliness would kill me and almost prayed that it would. I felt it in my body, and the sense of despair, brought on by loneliness, produced in me a headache of the most exquisite nature that I thought my head might explode. My husband, who neither needs nor craves social interaction, thwarted every hope of my ever establishing social re-connections outside of the limits of this city. I thought I was crazy until I had a chance conversation with one of my friends (who lives in another state, of course). She told me about an NIH conference she attended.

“Malaka, I have attended hundreds of conferences over the years, and they’re all pretty much the same: boring. But this NIH conference I went to last month resonated with me in a way no other one has before.”

I sat quietly, signaling that I was ready for her to continue.

The topic of the conference was the maternal mortality rate. It was discovered that women of African descent, whether in the diaspora or on the continent had the highest mortality rates. The numbers, as she put it, were staggering.

“Well, I would attribute that to poor healthcare and FGM if you’re on the continent,” I said confidently.

Not so fast, she admonished. As it turns out, unlike other races, the numbers did not improve whether these women moved up within income brackets, better education or geographic location. In fact, when they studied women who lived under inverse conditions (very poor and moderately educated) within Hispanic communities such as the Dominicans, their mortality rates were significantly lower.

“Overwhelmingly, Black maternal mortality rates are attributed to eclampsia, pre-eclapmsia , hypertension , congestive heart  failure and diabetes,” she said.

“Ugh. Sounds like stress to me,” I muttered, remembering my own bout with pre-emclapsia, courtesy of Douche Bag.

“And that’s exactly right,” she said affirmed. “Black women are dying not only from stress, but from stress compounded over time with little or no relief.”

Unlike Hispanic communities or homes, most of whose inhabitants are multi-generational, Black women live in pockets of isolation. Some because they’re chasing a professional dream. Some because their partners are locked up. Some because they don’t feel accepted within their own communities for whatever stigma they carry (i.e. they’re too dark, they have afro hair, their mother was a corner whore, etc). Some because their husbands don’t see the value in living to close proximity to family.

Said another way: Black women are dying of broken hearts.

Scattered.

Divided.

Discouraged.

But because we are and always have been placed at the bottom of the totem pole, no one sees it and no one cares. It’s assumed that we are strong enough to bear the weight of misfortune that is heaped upon is – because you know, we’re STRONG and BLACK. However any structure that does not have its foundations tended to will crack. And let’s face it: the darker the woman, the greater her presumed capacity for strength, right? Go to MOM Mode and pit Alek Wek against Namoi Watts in your mental  boxing ring. Alex wins, doesn’t she?

Alex!

Alex!

Poor Naomi...

Poor Naomi…

Admit it. (And stop laughing.)

It didn’t occur to me how much I needed my sisters around me until my cousin died a little over a year ago. He was in his 20’s and died in his slumber from a sleep disorder. No one was home when he passed. My aunt, distraught from the pain of losing a child so young and just coming into promise sat in her house and mourned. She is one of the lucky few who has a community of sisters in her midst. They came to her home, circled around her, and rubbed her scalp, limbs and feet and just let her moan her lament. Me? If such a tragedy should occur, I’d be reduced to a cryptic rant on Facebook. How does that even compare? How many women have been empowered to carve out and create circles of support to raise their families in or exist within themselves?

Even God said in Genesis 2:

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.

Selah.

Here’s my proposal: think of Black women as a berry, the darkest of which is the sweetest, and in turn the most fragile. Have you ever noticed how delicate ripe fruit is in your hands? Press it too hard and it will fall to pieces. For the love of all that is good and pure, give us the privilege of falling to pieces! And if one is so inclined, take those fragments and lovingly transform them into something new and wonderful.