I like to write, because I can state my opinion without using my voice. It’s got a slight tremble at times, slurred , a certain softness due to illness that gives me away. In my mind it has always and will always indicate, an imperfection, a vulnerability, a strangeness that has always meant that I inevitably and immediately fall below a threshold of normalcy for humanity, fall below expectations for gender, and expose a level of weakness in addition to vulnerabilities already tied to being Black. So I prefer to write. When I write I feel as though I can control the narrative. I can paint a story. I can make a myth seem like reality. If I want to, I can present an image that fulfills both the expectations and stereotypes of both the ways I am racialized and have been gendered. Or at least in fallacy can delude myself into feeling such a sense of security and pride.
The myth of the super Black women is equal part Mammy fantasy and bootstraps fallacy. It’s an unspoken burden that all black women and femmes on some level have to reconcile with. I remember coming in contact with one of the earliest Mammies I know of to date, Aunt Chloe from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as I flipped through the book for research. Aunt Chole is good. She‘s faithful to her husband Tom and she takes care of the children. She’s rarely heard from in the book, at least not in a significant way. At the end of the book she puts all her time, money and energy into saving her husband Tom when he is taken away by a white slave owner. She does as a good wife should. Aunt Chloe shows that mammies start their service at home, but as the Mammy stereotype developed she became more of of service to the white majority.
The phrase “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”, developed similarly but in reverse. The concept developed itself in the early 1890’s from Horatio Alger’s Novels on the American dream where boys where portrayed uplifting themselves out of there economic and social situations by individual means and hard work. The concept and mentality is often applied in ways that are racist,classist, xenophobic and is most often times applied to poor Black people in order to shame them for not being able to individually overcome the effects of systemic inequality and violence. The idea that one should be strong enough to overcome systematic inequality by one’s own individual means is an idea that has also infiltrated Black communities and effected Black women, creating expectations that Black women should be strong, independent, and able to overcome any obstacles thrown at them. Together, along with more modern stereotypes create the myth of the super Black women
Myths inform perceptions, perceptions create stereotypes, stereotypes create expectations. Black women are expected to be loud and outspoken but not too loud, bold, but no bolder than Black men. Opinionated but if she’s too opinionated she’s a bitch. Feminine, but never feminine enough to be allotted the womanhood white women are given. Praise, acceptance and tolerance come with conditions. Oftentimes conditions form around being of ‘service’. Black women are suspected to be our guardians, our saviors, our idols equated to god. Our expectations show up in the way we depend on and uplift women like Maxine Walters in congressional hearings, the way we look to Black mothers, aunties, grandmothers to lift us up and our community. The millions of Black women who voted against Trump and the Black women activists like Therese Patricia Okoumou, the Congolese immigrant activist who climbed the Statue of Liberty on July 4th demanding for ICE to be abolished. Even Beyonce for all the praise and admiration she gets on the conditionality of her performance and music serves as queen, as god, but what happens when Black women arent of service? What happens when Black women are human too?
Recently in both my words and my writing I’ve become more aware of these things. I’ve become aware that I’ve been pressured to feel at some point, that if I am not 100% confident in my thoughts and feelings, they should be left uncommunicated. I’ve become aware of the silences at crucial times this habit has created.
Eventually delusions fade and false images can’t be kept up forever.
How loud and bold I can be for others, but how when the focus comes to me I shrink into myself. How I shrink every time I try and give a piece of myself to please or to serve or to save others without first considering myself. I’ve watched this translate into my writings well, watched myself struggle to put words on paper, struggle and fail to mold myself and my online personas into things that don’t exist, that can’t exist, learning slowly that I cannot control the perceptions of others. I worry that both my voice and my words will eventually disappear but I also worry like so many marginalized people, that if I don’t concede to the gendered and racialized expectations put on me, I will eventually be forced to disappear either way.
In Brene Brown’s book, I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Wasn’t), there is a chapter on Critical Awareness that addresses this, while interviewing a Black women named Sondra. Like many Black women Sondra struggles with her voice, her opinions and assertiveness and the expectations around it, and in her case her husband in-law’s expectations that she back down at times, especially when he speaks, to be what a ‘good wife’ should be. She talks about the stress it puts on Black women and girls and I found myself resonating when she voiced her frustrations “I can’t be superhuman sometimes and then back down others. I’m really somewhere in the middle, All these expectations keep me quiet. If I’m not perfect I can’t speak.” (102). In looking at my own silence I began to wonder how many black femme, women and girls find themselves in similar states of silence. How many of us work hard to appeal to others, to be perceived humanely, to be seen as strong and not weak. How many wake up one day realizing they can not control the way people perceive them, and find themselves disappearing in the process of trying to. Expectations take their toll eventually.
Along with expectations, all Black women also struggle against the systematic problems that come along with racism and the patriarchy. The effort taken against defending against daily occurrences of microaggressions, the lack of opportunity and other constant forms of degradation serve as constant struggles. According to The Status of Black Women In The United States a collaboration of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the National Domestic Workers Alliance Black women struggle in disproportionate rates in areas such as employment, health, poverty and opportunity, violence and safety as well as in matters dealing with work and family. In matters dealing with both racism and sexism Black women almost always lose out, facing the harmful effects of both compounded. Struggles become more severe for Black women who are further marginalized. For Black trans women high rates of violence and homicide, their general narratives often times go ignored by the media and larger public. Due to the trauma that many Black women endure at these intersections, Black women with health and mental health issues, for example the overwhelming amount of Black women on the south side of Chicago who suffer from PTSD. Against this type of marginalization, maintaining appearances and expectations of being perfect, being superhuman, the strong Black women at all times is impossible, and doing so invalidates the very real struggles and humanity of Black women who are suffering.
There are times when Black women can not be strong. There are times where they must be allowed to be weak, can only be weak, and they should be allowed space to be that. The myth of the super Black women is only a myth because a strong Black women can not have bad days, a superhuman black women can not rest and a perfect Black women can not exist. No one is invincible, no one is invulnerable, this is what makes us human and Black women deserve to exist struggles, vulnerabilities and all . While myths and stereotypes about the strength of black women can serve as a point of pride for some, treating black women as if they are invulnerable universally reinforces racist and sexist stereotypes a creates a world does not recognize the struggles and humanity of black women and therefore refuses to be accountable for violence committed against them, because they aren’t human enough to really feel it
In reality Black women aren’t super human. They are just human. Like all humans Black women come with their gifts and struggles, strengths and vulnerabilities, neither necessarily bad, none a cause to be shamed. Although Black women and femmes who fit into the stereotypes and ideals set by society’s understanding of Black women as strong, as super human are set on pedestals to be praised, these same pedestals tend to be built on misogynoir, coming from violence perpetrated against Black women such as the Mammy stereotype, and the expectation that one can overcome oppression by pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. My own pride in the ways that I’ve found to hide my own vulnerabilities and appear “perfect” to make myself seem stronger has taught me that I do not become strong by hiding myself and that my struggles are not solved by hiding my vulnerabilities. Black women have struggles and vulnerabilities and diversity in experience, many due to both violence against them and just human difference, we should be able to talk about and express these things without shame.
The more we don’t talk about these things the more Black women and femmes love and to an extent all of us are negatively affected. People shouldn’t have to feel like they have to become the unreal just to be accepted, shouldn’t have to be perfect to be worthy of love and praise. Black women are here to service themselves to create their own stories, go through their own struggles. Black women have the power to unwrite the rules set by the world’s expectations their narratives are their own to decide.
I don’t need to be perfect, I should just be allowed to be.
[Featured Image: A person with short, curly dark hair. They are sitting on a box and are wearing a black, gray, and red striped shirt and a red skirt with white trim and black buttons. Behind them is a white brick wall. Source: pexels.com]