The ‘Double-Edged Sword’ of Identifying as a “Strong Black Woman”

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Identity is a tricky pursuit. For black women in America, the pursuit is complicated by the stereotypes and image distortions put upon them by dominant culture—both male and white—and the ones into which they are socialized by their mothers, aunts, pastors, husbands, and friends. Every woman wants to be her own person; she wants to know and understand who she is for herself. But black women are shaped, pressed, and squeezed into a universal, truncated identity of superhuman “strength” that superimposes predetermined responses, beliefs, and roles onto an already complex existence. It used to be a source of pride and distinction to be called a ‘strong black woman’ but now women are awakening to the dangers of that double-edged sword. An identity that was thought to be protective and life-giving because it prevented hurt, pain, and damage is now being unmasked as a disguised death because it has brought illness, loneliness, and dysfunction. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes confronts head-on the ubiquitous identity of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) in her new book, Too Heavy A Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.

Dr. Walker-Barnes’ work is a welcome addition to a growing group of contemporary books that tackle identity issues of black women, for example: “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America“, by Charisse Jones and Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf“, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America“, by Melissa Harris-Perry, and Sophia Nelson’s “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” “Too Heavy a Yoke” is more in the tradition of Harris-Perry’s treatment of the subject: academic in tone and heavily intellectualized. It is not targeted to the mass market women’s audience, but rather is intended “primarily for pastoral theologians, pastoral caregivers (including pastors, pastoral counselors, and women’s ministry leaders), and Christian mental health professionals whose ministry and services encompass Black women.”[i] Readers outside those categories should be prepared to push through the didactic approach but will be aided in their understanding by the author’s personal transparency and patient delivery.

The book’s readability is also helped along by a logical structure and flow that makes it easy to follow the author’s discourse and to connect the dots from one thesis to the next. Her topical subjects go from a detailed and illuminating profile of the Strong Black Woman (Chapter 1), to naming and critiquing the historical and contemporary cultural forces that shaped and necessitated the identity (Chapter 3), to honing in on the unique role the black church has played in reinforcing the Strong Black Woman identity (Chapter 5), and finally to laying out her model of healing and recovery. Also, the “Purpose and Organization of this Book” section in the Introduction is particularly helpful because she gives insight into why she chose womanist ideology as her framework. Explaining her approach is smart because many black readers in her intended audience, particularly black pastors, are not necessarily well-versed in womanism, and if they are familiar with it, are likely to disagree with its tenets and philosophical slant, particularly those not of the Millennial age group. Case in point: her quotation of Alice Walker’s definition of a womanist: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…and women’s strength…”[ii]

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SOURCE: Urban Faith

Chandra White-Cummings is a columnist for UrbanFaith, a freelance writer, and nonprofit consultant. She also teaches and encourages moms to pray for their children at her blog and website, Hearts Like Water: Praying for Our Children in Times Like These

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