Every Mother’s day, every Day of the Girl Child, I hear cheers and jubilation for the strong black women of Africa and the diaspora.
The strong black woman has become a cultural icon across the globe, used to praise and appreciate the work of black women everywhere. It was a phrase created in good will, to recognise the women who often go overlooked. The strong black woman is used to refer to every black woman fighting for her place in this world. She is the single mother struggling with a baby on her back in an East African village. She is the twentieth century African American suffragist petitioning for the woman’s right to vote. She is the black woman battling to create a place for herself in a male-dominated STEM career. She is the constantly criticised black woman politician trying to change her community for the better. She is the little black girl studying for her exams by candlelight.
But what does that statement mean today? I believe that the notion of the “strong black woman”, once beautiful and powerful, has evolved into a caricature of suffering.
Let’s take a moment to analyse what it means to be a strong black woman in Africa today. More often than not, it means having the strength to bear pain, endure the worst of circumstances, and have the creativity to make the most of out of nearly nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong, these are all laudable and useful traits. But why is it exactly that the black woman must be strong?
The black woman is not strong because she wants to be. The black woman is strong because she has to be. The strong black woman is only strong to survive, because otherwise she will fall to pieces.
The top four countries with the world’s highest rape rates are in Africa, and of course the biggest victims of this are black women. In America, black women experience higher rates of depression compared to white people or even black males. Black women bear the brunt of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. In almost every category and in almost every place, black women get the short end of the stick. Back in the sixties, Malcolm X famously said; “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” It was true then and it is true now.
Even with all the advances in human rights, the world is still weighed down with misogynoir, the hatred and discrimination of black women. To illustrate, look at the way we raise our little black girls. We raise them not to enjoy life, but to endure it. A black woman’s life is usually pre-supposed to be painful and difficult, so we raise our girls to become the “strong black woman” she must be to survive.
I see this so much here in Uganda. Because of the of the patriarchal relationships demanded by tradition, marriages are not expected to be happy for a woman. Society only needs it to be bearable for it to be considered a good marriage. Our girls are raised to be “strong” in marriage.
Because most careers are still male-dominated and racially segregated, black women are not expected to succeed, and if they do they must have clawed their way up amid jeers and jabs. Our girls are raised to be strong in their careers.
Because sex and intimacy is still perceived from the male lens, black women are not expected to enjoy sex, they are simply expected to be okay with it. Female pleasure is simply an afterthought. Women’s reproductive health and rights are still taboo in most places. Contraception still revolves around what is most comfortable for men, even if the burden usually lies with women. Yet again, our girls are raised to be “strong”.
Family and inheritance rights still overwhelmingly favour men. Even with laws put in place to protect women’s interests in land and family, so many girls spend years tilling land that they know only their brothers will inherit. So many black women are thrown out and dispossessed once their husbands die. So many black women spend years building up a family so that they can have a shaky, revocable claim to it.
Black women have to be on high alert the moment they step out of the door. The black woman is burdened with the knowledge that the world she lives in was designed to attack her. She is strong so that she can survive this world.
The strength we so lovingly place on black women has become little more than a burden. It is the reason so many black women never seek help from their terrible situations until they are at breaking point, because we are taught to grin and bear it. We are taught to smile through the pain. Even if our mental health goes down the drain, even if we break and crack in ways that cannot be fixed. Black women are raised to help everyone but themselves, to work and grind to raise their families, to protect their communities, to simply stay alive. We are taught that if we ever take a break, if we ever live for ourselves, if we ever loosen the shackles just a tiny bit, the world will come crashing down around us.
And unfortunately, a lot of the time, it’s true.
We need to create a world in which black women do not have to be strong. In which strength is an optional character trait, not a necessity to stay alive. In which little girls do not have to walk out the door with keys strategically poking out between the fingers of their trembling fists. We need to have the option of being delicate when we want to be. We need equal rights for women to be the norm and not a point of debate. We need the hunting and rape and ridicule of black women to be a thing of the past. We need to be spoiled and loved and protected by the people we fight so hard for.
We need a reality in which black women do not have to carry the weight of the world.
Yes, I am black. Yes, I am a woman. Some might even say that I am strong. But when I say that I do not want to be a strong black woman, I mean that I want no part of the historical romanticisation of our suffering. I want to be able to live a life in which pain is not the default. I want that for me, and my future children, and my future children’s children. I want that for you too, dear reader.
What about you? What is your experience with the notion of the strong black woman? Let us know in the comments.