I remember thinking to myself at nine years old how much more valuable I would be if I was emotionally and psychologically wounded. I imagined myself as the heroine in my own story who would sustain the cuts, bruises, and sores by walking through the forest that we call life, dress those wounds, heal from them and emerge from the forest victorious. These scars would be my medallions that I would wear proudly as I marched about the world and I would be known as the girl who triumphed. This girl was not only who I imagined myself to be, but who I saw myself as, and with the environment that existed during that time, becoming a bruised heroine was something I easily manifested. There were always plenty of opportunities to be cut and impaled by sharp thorns and thistles at home and to be scraped and burned outside of it. This point during my life was one in which I was forced to navigate a terrain that was treacherous. But the things that I was forced to do to survive it was arguably worse than the injuries I sustained. Still, nine year old me didn’t know this. Nine year old me didn’t realize that getting into survival mode was easy, but getting out was a whole other adventure altogether. Nine year old me thought suffering was the prerequisite to happiness. Nine year old me learned to take solace in her pain so she could one day take pride in the scars they gave her.
So when eighteen year old me watched media personality Draya Michele predicted that Megan and Tory ‘had some sort of Bobby and Whitney love’ that drove Tory to shoot her, nine year old me is why I could only feel pity when Michele revealed she wanted someone to like her so much they shot her in the foot too.
Before I elaborate, a disclaimer: what Michele said was absolutely wrong, vile and never should’ve been said in the first place. As I explained in a previous article, the public’s reaction to Megan thee Stallion’s injuries was reprehensible and she deserved better than what she got. The point of this article isn’t to encourage pity for Michele for I honestly don’t think she deserves it. What I want to do is encourage understanding for the language she used during this interview and how it’s reflective of the ways in which black women are taught to romanticize and celebrate our own pain in a way that I don’t feel anyone else is.
The romanticization of black women’s pain comes from a cultural admiration of it. Yes, we all love the story about how the protagonist defeats the villain and triumphs, but for black women that all that seems to be, a story.
If you’re familiar with Tyler Perry’s work or any film that places a black woman as the focal point, this romanticization begins with a story of a black woman pulling more than her weight in her life. This woman is struggling: spiritually, romantically, mentally, or financially. If we’re lucky it’s all of the above. As we watch this woman work to fight hard for her loved ones and herself (but mostly her loved ones) we become invested in her struggle, developing a sense of empathy for her as a result. By the time the credits roll, this woman has triumphed, slaying the demons that threatened those she cared for (and sometimes her own). The audience rises and applauds her. They are in awe of her ability to succeed despite all the hardships she faced. They are inspired by her selflessness and how she put the needs of others before her own without thinking twice. They love her tolerance for all the pain and suffering the world has to bestow upon her and her ability to continue to give and pour her love and energy into everyone she meets, even if that love and energy isn’t returned. Because she is a strong black woman, able to walk through the fires of hell and walk out an angel. She is Supergirl and she will save the world.
Being aware of the countless articles written about the strong black woman here on Medium, I know further discussing this topic will make me sound like another broken record that has spontaneously up and played itself. But the damage this archetype has wrought on the psyche of black women and the expectations the world has of black women can’t be emphasized enough. Regardless of the reverse psychology that many black women play to counteract it, the archetype has served to further justify and fuel the adultification, criminalization, masculinization and dehumanization of black women. The same things we’ve been working hard to fight against. By promoting the idea that we are “superwoman” it also inadvertently promotes the idea that we are “superhuman” and when black women are considered superhuman we are perceived to be ‘less than human.’ We can deal with more pain, and thus there’s less of a need to protect us. We’re more resilient, so sympathizing with us won’t really be necessary. Black women are capable of carrying the heaviest loads life has to offer, so there are probably much better things to do than to support them. We don’t need to be cared for and we don’t need to be worried or fussed over. In fact, with all of the labor and strength black women can provide they are the ones who should be protecting, supporting and caring for the rest of us. Because through this stereotype, black women are seen as overzealous givers to a point where giving back isn’t seen as necessary.
But regardless of the trauma this inflicts on black women, at the end of the day it is our tolerance for struggle and our ability to provide unpaid emotional, physical, and psychological labor that we are deemed valuable and loved by the same black men who use these qualities to strip us of our femininity, desirability and humanity. Despite the ways in which this archetype is wielded as a double edged sword, when you belong to a group of people who the world is constantly undermining and undercutting it’s easy to believe that the most beautiful thing about you is your ‘strength.’ So in order to increase your beauty, you learn to increase your strength. You suppress your emotions and build a firewall around your heart. You learn to walk the tightrope of invulnerability and practice martyrdom like it’s an art form. You learn to take on the burdens of the world and ask for nothing in return. Or so you think.
The romanticization of black women’s pain comes from a cultural admiration of it. Yes, we all love the story about how the protagonist defeats the villain and triumphs, but for black women that all that seems to be, a story. We live in a world that is invested in our suffering and that thoroughly enjoys the giving of our labor and energy for free. Through this investment society is able to uphold a culture that permits our exploitation and reaps the benefit of our magic while continuing to maintain the hierarchy that white supremacist patriarchy has created. It is so much easier to keep up this system when black women buy into the ‘strong black woman’ and all that she is and represents. When we buy into an archetype that supports dozens of storylines that tell us that pain is the prerequisite to happiness, we learn to buy into the systems that give us that pain. When we buy into an archetype that tells us that we aren’t in need of help, support, love and respect then we come to believe that is so, and thus investing in a system that criminalizes, neglects, and kills us. When we buy into an archetype that tells us to wear our scars and heartbreaks with pride, we buy into the idea that changing these systems that give us these scars is unnecessary. In short dear reader, it’s easy to maintain a white supremacist patriarchy when black women believe that asking for better is wrong and/or unneeded.
Regardless of the reverse psychology that many black women play to counteract it, the archetype has served to further justify and fuel the adultification, criminalization, masculinization and dehumanization of black women. The same things we’ve been working hard to fight against. By promoting the idea that we are “superwoman” it also inadvertently promotes the idea that we are “superhuman” and when black women are considered superhuman we are perceived to be ‘less than human.’
But I believe there is hope… at least a little bit. As we see little black girls thrust onto the frontlines of protest, featured in paintings depicting them as vampires who eats pig cops for lunch, and hoisting ‘Black Lives Matter’ flags in their spare time, black women are beginning to put our foot down. When we watch our sisters put the lives of their unborn children at stake and our the safety of our teens at risk for the sake of the cause only for us to face continued disrespect and misogynoir by the same men we risk our safety and lives for, we’re beginning to say no more. It’s not ok for our labor and energy to be exploited and if we’re going to march, protest, and organize for you- whoever you may be- we expect the same energy in return. We are finally beginning to wake up and realize that our energy is too precious to be given away for free. It is essential that our energy be protected, preserved and cared for with all the tenderness it deserves.
And reader, so should our pain.
Black women are taught by each other, this archetype, and by society at large that our pain and our ability to push through it is our most defining characteristic. We learn that a black woman’s usefulness and beauty comes from her suffering. Then we learn to take that pain and carry it with pride. Not to address it, or heal from it, but to brag about it. If black women are truly invested in dismantling the systems that seek to oppress us, we need to learn to let this go. We must learn to ask for help and if society refuses to give it to us, we must learn to demand it. We must learn to be vulnerable with those who we feel safe to be vulnerable with. We must not seek to wear our pain but to hold it like a baby. We must ask it what it needs, comfort it when it cries, and do whatever is needed to soothe it. Then we must look within ourselves and ask: “what things are more beautiful than my pain.”
I can say with absolute gratitude that although it’s not perfect my home life is much better than what it was nine years ago. But regardless, much of the behaviors and characteristics I internalized to survive that point of my life were reflective of the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype. I’m not mad at my young self. I recognize that I did what I thought was best to protect my emotional and psychological well being, but like stated in the beginning, it’s easy to get into survival mode but can be incredibly difficult to get out. The characteristics I adopted are still with me to this day, impacting the way I interact with the world and shaping how friends, family and even my teachers view me. In high school and by my friends I was- I am- still seen as the ‘strong black woman.’ Every time I’m labeled as the one who would most likely throw hands in a hostile situation and praised by my mother for my ability to move through the world with no assistance, I’m disheartened, saddened and exhausted. There are days when I wish someone could look through the armor I’ve worked hard to put on (and am currently trying to figure out how to take off) and see that I too, need help and comfort even if I may not realize it. But I know that this isn’t realistic, so I promise to try to advocate for myself and do what it takes to heal.
I tell you this, dear reader, for several reasons. One: to show that I have yet to graduate from novice to master. I’m only eighteen years old, still coming into myself and finding out about the world. I too, am still undoing the damage this archetype has wrought upon me and healing the wounds of my past. I hope you find solace in knowing you’re not alone. Two: to show you an example of how easy it is for young black girls to internalize these stereotypes. While I learned to adopt the unhealthy emotional behavioral patterns of the strong black woman via meda, I also learned via people. I come from an African family and an African mother who also took pride in her ability to overcome social, economic, and interpersonal hardships. At a young age, I was encouraged to buck up and do the same. I want this to be a word of warning to not only be very careful about the kinds of media you expose your young black girls to, but to also treat the pain of your girls with kindness and empathy. The world can be a cruel place for us and most of the time children don’t need to be offered advice to buck up. Sometimes they just need a safe haven to allow those feelings to be felt. They’ll have their entire lives to learn how to develop thick skin, I promise. Lastly, talk to your girls about the stereotypes that seek to teach them how to uphold their own oppression. But remember that it also doesn’t hurt to teach them that there are things more beautiful than their pain.