What’s wrong with being a strong black woman? Well, nothing really. The problem occurs when a strong black woman is the only thing you’re allowed to be. And being anything other than strong is equated with personal failure.
I’ve been listening to hip hop for a while, and through those lyrics I’ve become pretty familiar with the image of the strong black woman. In fact, when rappers aren’t talking about “bitches and hos,” I’d say it’s just about the only dominant image of black women in hip hop. Anytime a rapper intends to talk about women in a “positive” way, he writes about the strong black woman. Always it’s the same story: young children, no baby daddy around, two or three jobs, she gets no gratitude from those around her, yet she keeps on keeping on, despite all the odds. The strong black woman is a powerful force in many music videos too, and she is often pictured standing alone or with her children on a deserted street, staring resolutely at the camera.
While hip hop is a male-dominated industry, male rappers are not the only ones who write songs about strong black women. Nearly every female artist has referenced this dominant image as well. So here we have a deeply rooted image of black women, and it is not just white people who enforce, nor is it just men who enforce it. Black women themselves are in support of the strong black woman.
On the surface, the strong black woman seems like a very positive image. And it’s true, I’d much rather listen to rappers tell black women that they need to be strong than tell them that they need to be sex objects. However, the image of the strong black woman is very problematic in a less obvious way. By telling black women that they must always show super strength, emotionally and mentally, we are also telling them that they cannot simply be human.
This is why I found Melissa Harris-Perry’s chapter on the strong black woman to be especially powerful. There seems to be nothing but positivity surrounding the concept of strength, but no human being can always be strong. So how can we expect black women to do such an impossible task? We can’t. We shouldn’t expect this of anyone. When we expect it of black women, we are setting them up for failure. When we put this focus on strength, black women’s feelings of self-worth are determined by their behavior, rather than who they are as people. Any sign of weakness is a sign of personal failure. When we realize this, I think we will be able to begin taking apart the image of the strong black woman and reconstructing it into an image of black women who are strong but also human, and like all humans, capable of making mistakes and showing signs of weakness.
Oh, and here’s a video to a song which I listened to quite a bit when I was younger. I still give it the occasional listen. I think I like it because the women in this song/video are allowed to show weakness. They are allowed to feel scared, upset, and as though they want to just run away. Hence the name of the song. This is very different from most depictions of the strong black woman which assert that she must remain fearless, unshaken, and determined to make something out of nothing. However, there is the problem that two out of the three girls in the video are not black; they’re white. Of course white women can find themselves miserable, depressed, and feeling like they want to run away, but this is unrelated to debunking the very singular image of the strong black woman. For this reason I was a little disappointed in the video. But it could be worse I guess. I’d really be complaining if all three stories in the video were those of white girls. Anyway, let me know what you think of the strong black woman, or of this song/video!