By Coco R'
Disclaimer: I strongly urge you to engage with all media attached for a better understanding of the discourse.
They kept my race alive, by wearing the mask. - Maya
When I think about myself
I almost laugh myself to death.
My life has been one great big joke!
A dance that’s walked a song that’s spoke.
I laugh so hard HA! HA! I almos’ choke
When I think about myself.
My shero, Maya Angelou recited this poem. (An adaptation of "We Wear the Mask" by Paul Lawrence.)
I am a strong black woman. My pedigree supersedes my own convictions in that respect. As much as I am uncomfortable with that reckoning, I also can not deny my societal disposition and the many ways in which I am forced to seek my survival as a result.
In the wake of this discussion, l am going to attempt to elucidate the morale behind the SBW and the ways in which it esteems and disvalues the black woman. Some article excerpts and references to ‘We wear the mask’ will be studded throughout the discourse.
The mask is a survival apparatus for a lot of minority ethnics. Black women are taught how to fasten their masks from birth. It might even be in our birth right (epigenetics maybe?). As a woman you must always be strong, always endure. But as a black woman you must outperform the ‘average‘ woman in the strength olympics. You may be wondering WHEN this precedence was set and better yet WHO set it? I don’t know. I think it boils down to various different origins depending on where you are from.…when you take the time to observe black heritage, precolonial black kingdoms, African American history, the Black British heritage and everything in between, you'll realise black women have invariably been the backbone of our mighty communities and constitutions across all continental bounds. No matter where you are from.
But the issue arises when the very thing we were always prided on being is the very thing disserving us in this millennium. And perhaps in many generations before but we will never know because our foremothers always wore their masks with so much grace…making it look easy.
As a shona woman, I have witnessed firsthand the reverence of the 'Amai'. Even in an otherwise patriarchal society women like mbuya Nehanda kicked down barriers and chaperoned a renaissance of afro-liberation to an entire nation and we are still reaping the fruits of her sacrifice to this day.
During slavery, internalization of these traits was likely necessary for personal, familial, and community survival. Today, Black women no longer have to contend with institutionalized chattel slavery, but they do have to contend with such significant intersectional stressors as racialized sexism and gendered racism. Given these realities, it makes sense that numerous Black female participants in several qualitative studies report embracing SBW, viewing it as central to their self-image (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2009; Romero, 2000; Shorter-Gooden & Washington, 1996; Woods-Giscombé, 2010).
From what I have observed, the burden amongst black women of always maintaining strength comes with a great indifference from everyone else, even our own, because it's expected. It is believed to be natural. So how can something that comes naturally, harm you? ‘Suffering whilst maintaining a graceful step and an overstretched smile‘ is a contributing factor as to why the plight of black women has been and will always be ignored. Cause if was truly understood, the 'strong black woman' stigma would have never existed. The world would understand the sacrifice that it takes to be a strong black woman. It is spending a lifetime solemnly suffering but it falling on deaf ears and blind eyes. It is protecting your own, blood first, yet never being worthy of protection. To behold but not be held. It's self sabotage whilst everyone else self preserves.
‘Black women face the double discrimination of race and gender... So who hears us when we finally speak up and admit we’re fragile and we need professional help?’ - the guardian,2018
The trope of the steely, resolute black woman is ingrained in society, and helps fuel a growing problem with depression and self-harm. The guardian, 2018.
For example, I was watching the Nina Simone documentary on netflix titled 'What happened, Miss Simone?' for the 3rd time (can you tell I have an addictive personality?). And it dawned on me how the media is so desensitised when addressing black trauma. Nina Simone suffered from lonesomeness, depression, bipolar disorder to state a few, while being a global music sensation and a prominent voice for the black power movement in the 1900's. She had to fight inner noise and external stimuli simultaneously, which at a basic human level would debilitate anybody. Yet, the western media painted her as an aggressive, violent and chronically unstable individual. All of that mass ridicule for merely exuding symptoms that were so overtly (and typically) associated with mental illness…as if black women can not also be predisposed to mental afflictions like every other living and breathing thing.
I think some of it stems from the commercialisation of black trauma, which is probably why we have thousands of slavery, apartheid and many other destructive themes in Black history exploited in media for comic relief and recreational consumption. The sting has been taken out of our pain so it is laughable now. (I am still yet to see white Hollywood recreating films on 9/11 or the holocaust in jest. Why is that?)
They say, but sugar, it was our submision
that made your world go round.
They laugh to conceal their crying,
They shuffle through their dreams
They stepped ’n fetched a country
And wrote the blues in screams.
I understand their meaning,
It could and did derive
From living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive
By wearing the mask! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!
I read a lot on social media about millennial and gen z black women finally rejecting the celebrated societal expectation of being the 'strong black women' and I have to say I am proud. Strength should be a choice, not an obligatory expectation. However, I also think we should be careful to not offend the ones that did not quite have that choice. Like our foremothers. It almost carries the same impertinence as Kanye West affirming slavery as having been a choice for all those 400+ years. It's a trope that lacks critical thinking and it actually reflects this generation's self-righteous nature. We stand on the shoulders of those that exercised the greatest strength, considering their unfavourable circumstances. The strength of silence and submission. That is how they were able to keep their children alive and their families together, by giving up their own voice to amplify the voices of future generations; so we can now get on our soapboxes and say "That could have never been me" or "if I was a slave, I would've...". That’s wrong.
So while I love this neo-perpetuated reconceptualisation of black femininity, let's not forget it was by their submission, that our world can go round.
What has Coco been listening to?
Please Don’t Go (Boys II Men)
Precious, Precious (Isaac Hayes)
Tired of Being Alone (Al Green)
Reason (Omah Lay)
Let me know what you think and see you on the next one cocobeans.
- Donovan, R.A. and West, L.M., 2015. Stress and mental health: Moderating role of the strong Black woman stereotype. Journal of Black Psychology, 41(4), pp.384-396.
- Cole, M. (2018) The ‘strong black woman’ stereotype is harming our mental health | Marverine Cole, The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/20/strong-black-woman-stereotype-mental-health-depression-self-harm (Accessed: 11 September 2023). - Romero, R.E., 2000. The icon of the strong Black woman: The paradox of strength.
- Abrams, J.A., Maxwell, M., Pope, M. and Belgrave, F.Z., 2014. Carrying the world with the grace of a lady and the grit of a warrior: Deepening our understanding of the “Strong Black Woman” schema. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 38(4), pp.503-518.