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The Strong Black Woman Syndrome

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I am afraid that we are unintentionally breaking down our families and creating a dangerous legacy. 

african american mom helping son tie shoes

Kimberly Seals Allers: Recently, I had an epiphany. It was actually more like a frightening realization, to be honest. And it came to me on the television set of a BET taping, of all places. During the taping, I was sitting next to a young black male who was just singing his mama's praises. He spoke lovingly of how she raised him as a single parent, giving tough love and setting high expectations. Then, he began to talk about how, when his father left, his mother "didn't miss a beat" and just got on with their lives. This struck me. I interrupted him gently, to remind him that her resilience is just what he saw or what she allowed him to see, and that he didn't know what happened to his mother when he went to sleep, or when his mother was alone -- she may have cried for hours.

The problem with what this young man saw is that he was left with the impression that his father left his family and there were no consequences. No repercussions. This is dangerous thinking for our young men -- and, in my opinion, dangerous behavior on our part as black women. My fear is that our Strong Black Woman Syndrome is unintentionally breaking down our families and creating a dangerous legacy.

I know saying this is tantamount to heresy, given our proud history of carrying the black family. But what if our history and our future are at odds?

You see, I too was caught in the Strong Black Woman Syndrome when my husband left my family two years ago. I too thought I was doing what was best for my children by putting on a strong front. By telling them I was fine, when I was really crying my eyes out every time they turned their heads. I told them, "We'll be just fine," even when I had no clue how I would maintain, having recently left my six-figure job to launch my dream business.

But on this day, sitting next to that young man, it became clear to me that I was doing my children a great disservice. And perhaps millions of black women like me were doing the same. On that day, I realized that I didn't want my son to think that a man walks away from his family and all is "fine."

I didn't want him to ever even consider that there is no impact when a husband or father abandons his responsibilities. And even when a father is still present and involved, we women grieve the loss. We feel the loss. On that day, I began to share with my son, in an age-appropriate way, that we are hurting and forever changed by his dad's departure. I was hurting. Yes, we will survive. But we will have a few scars.

And then it occurred to me that perhaps, just perhaps, black women across the country are doing themselves and our future generations more harm than good with our strong front-itis. What happens when everyone thinks we can handle anything, shake off anything, and we don't care? I am also now unequivocally convinced that my "wasband" can walk away or be negligent about child support because he knows "I got this." He knows that I will do what I have to do to make it happen. After all, isn't that what I have been doing all these years?

When our men see us as strong women who handle everything thrown our way, or when we give a "I don't need that ____" (enter favorite expletive here), we send a message that we don't need our black men. And that our children don't need them. And this is the farthest thing from the truth.

Are we shooting ourselves in the foot and damaging our families with our strength? What happens when a generation of young black boys and girls are raised by women who lead them to believe there is no consequence to fatherless families? Who tell their children, thinking it is in their best interest, "that we don't need that so-and-so"?

And what about how we are damaging ourselves? When we perpetuate the dangerous myth of black women as indefatigable, unshakable, and tireless, we are not allowed to be whole human beings with a full suite of emotions. Some of those emotions, which we as humans are entitled to experience, include being vulnerable, needy, and, for lack of a better word, scared sh*tless. We have a right to be that. We are not machines (BTW, think about where that concept originated). Sojourner Truth's "Ain't I a Woman?" speech sure does come to mind.

I don't know if I have the answer. But I do know that black women need to reclaim our womanness, our femininity, our right to be damsels in distress and the "weaker vessel" if we want to. Sometimes we do need help, and sometimes we are not okay.

I also know that black families are in serious crisis. We've spent a lot of time and analysis pointing the finger at the other side of the gender line. Much of that is deserved. But maybe, just maybe, we can spend a little time thinking about the person behind the other four fingers. Our families are worth the thought.

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58 comments so far | Post a comment now
Cheryl September 22, 2009, 5:01 AM

Interesting view point, I never thought of it this way. Thank you for sharing your perspective.

Joceline September 22, 2009, 5:56 AM

Although I am not Black/African-American, I can so relate to this article. One thought though is that… its not that we don’t want to show our kids, but that we can’t afford to not just keep moving… can’t afford to fall apart.

chris September 22, 2009, 6:29 AM

Like Joceline, I am not Black but I know women of all color who feel that they always need to be “the strong one”. In my family the men don’t seem to fair as well as the women do. I’ve noticed that the men when they are young boys seem to get babied more than the girls to. I myself have a boy and a girl and I’ve noticed that I expect more from my daughter than from my son. I don’t know why that is and I am working on changing it because I don’t want to end up with a thirty yr old men who still needs to run to his “mommy” for help.

Bree September 22, 2009, 7:21 AM

I think the SBWS is an all too often perpetuated stereoptype and we are beyond that. I am a black woman and I don’t believe this a race issue. I think it crosses all barriers and what it boils down to is the individual. How you chose to deal with your divorce is how YOU chose to deal with it. And personally don’t see it as creating a stigma within your family, but rather doing exactly what you felt like you were doing- protecting your children who may have been too young to fully understand and may have needed reassurance that everything was going to be okay in a time when their lives were changing drastically. You don’t lose your head in the midst of a disaster, right?
Mind you I also think it’s okay to let the kids know mommy cries too, etc. Let them know it’s okay to be a little scared or sad. It’s really up to you. But letting on how hard it is for you may be a conversation for a later time when your children and grown and can process the whole picture more clearly.
Furthermore, I don’t personally know anyone who has ever said “that we don’t need that so-and-so.” But what a dammaging statement.

Tina September 22, 2009, 8:06 AM

This article was on time and accurate. The unspoken truth. Much of how I”m feeling today and no one seems to notice…

Rachel September 22, 2009, 8:28 AM

Great article!

michelle September 22, 2009, 9:55 AM

This is a really interesting piece. But here is what struck me: this young man you met had a happy childhood. He was shielded from grief/pain/loss. He was raised with love and attention and high expectations. How can this be a bad thing?!? It seemed like this guy was well-adjusted and successful BECAUSE OF HIS WONDERFUL MOTHER. So maybe the solution is not so much to abandon the “strong black woman” image, but to tweak it in a few key ways — even to strengthen it. Maybe kids should be getting the message that abandoning a family has negative consequences FOR THE MAN. Maybe a mother can talk about how many wonderful things her ex is missing out on, and the pride that he is not able to feel or share. My own mother was careful to tell us about the good qualities our father had — she never bad-mouthed him — but she did tell us honestly that he was a guy with issues, so we never had to wonder if his abandonment was somehow our fault. In the community, what if there were more straight up social ostracism for fathers who abandon families? Maybe if the new women he met were turned off by a guy who neglects his own children, even treated him as damaged goods, things would change. And in the long run, maybe there are ways for black women to have more power and options in relationships, so that men are less likely to think of their families as disposable.

mikki September 22, 2009, 12:02 PM

Thank you, I first want to start by saying I have no kids, and I was raised b a single mom. I am the only girl with two brothers. My eldest brother has 6 kids, and most of their lives he has been in and out. My mother raises 2 of them, I raise one. When I asked my brother, why he is not doing all he can do to maintain his own house hold to raise his kids? He told me, “because I know you and mom, can take care of it. Mom did it with us” I first took it as a compliment. But reading tis article, I now understand the damage this has done. We should be strong women, but not so strong that it cripples our men.

Thank you.

Thank you

Renee September 22, 2009, 1:31 PM

Thanks for sharing this as all viewpoints are well worth us pondering esp. when the stats say 70% of all black women are single, whether with children or not. However, when our children are young, we protect them from many things, one being feeling the pressures of the “real” world. I think it is right for us to hide the hurt from when our men leave from them. Otherwise, we make them grow up too fast, thinking - I have to find a way to help mom, or I hate black men for making my mom feel this way or putting us through this. We have to chose the lesser of the two evils.

Deann Dmere September 22, 2009, 1:41 PM

Wow!! This was a very good piece and shed some light on a few things if you looked at them from this angle. I am guilty of the “StrongWoman” term. But to my defense i have felt that i had to be strong…this is not by choice but force. As someone stated above i cant afford to simply fall apart. I have to be strong for my son, but i dont want my strength to emasculate his father in the process. Our men need to step up and get things prioritized. I refuse to stay in a fruitless relationship with a man just for the sake of the child. This only shows the child that it is okay to live with a man and have him not do what he has to do. We are the adults and this is why we have to make the difficult decisons. We decide what we wish to sheild them from, we decide…not them. Most times it feels like a catch 22 though. Like damned if I dont..damned if I do..

-Deann Dmere

Anonymous September 22, 2009, 1:52 PM

Interesting point of view and one definitely worth further discussion.

Mic September 22, 2009, 4:14 PM

I really, really liked this article. It completely makes sense.

Anonymous September 22, 2009, 6:21 PM

I can associate and agree with what you are saying and expressing. i can even feel your pain, I am a black woman whose wasband left after 20 years of marriage with not logical explanation. You cannot make someone stay with you if they don’t want to. If you revert to emotions coming out and overflowing your thoughts the logic will not be there and more damage can be done. Sometimes women use children to get back at the man by not letting them see him or child support or anything ekse we can think of to hurt him. Now the damage is also done to the children by both parents. We can also cause more harm to ourselves. To me when we go into the momlogic and press forward that is the GOD in us. We should talk to our children, especially the male child and tell him this is wrong. What the father did by leaving hurt and maybe still does but this is not what he should do in the future when he marry. Let the girls know that they should not expect their husband to leave and then go from man to man without thought. Both of these instances is not the GOD way of living.

Str8truth September 22, 2009, 9:04 PM

A godsend! Women, regardless of race, cannot do it alone…it’s time to stop fronting!

Str8truth September 22, 2009, 9:06 PM

A godsend! Women, regardless of race, cannot do it alone…it’s time to stop fronting!

victoria September 23, 2009, 4:05 AM

its like everything in life. if you go to the extream on anything than the results might not be what you want.but it seems we need to back up as men and women and look at ourselves now.we do not know how to communicate to each other in order to understand one another most women try to understand a man thought pattern by our own way of thinking and vice versa. we CANNOT think like that it doesnt work.were building super women and non caring men now everone sad and lonely and we have confused kids but no one has a handbook we only have our parents as a example wrong or right

Loneice September 23, 2009, 6:07 AM

I do think Black women are super strong and sometimes the strength pants a picture to our men that it doesn’t matter if they are there or not b/c we know how to where the pants and the apron. I am from a 2 parent household. My mom and dad have been married for 40 years. Its the only marriage for both and my siblings and I are all from the same mother and father. In a lot of black circles we get treated as if we’re aliens. It saddens me that a Black family with both a strong mother and a strong father are no longer the norm.

Kee September 23, 2009, 9:04 AM

This is a two-fold circumstance. A single parent, regardless ethnicity, has to balance the cycle for the family with two hands, one mind, and one heart. It’s virtually impossible to take on this responsibility without understanding the full scope of raising children, their needs, their wants and their “right” to be loved unconditionally. The young man was able to share what he loved, appreciated, adored and respected for his mother because that’s what she displayed and gave to him. I beleive you can’t “damage” a child by being a “strong black woman” but you can surely damage a child by being a “weak” one.

D Simpson September 23, 2009, 11:09 AM

I can totally understand the damages that a single parent family can have on a child as I have seen too many people who have come from single parent families who have issues; but in most of these cases, I believe that the damage was done not so much due to the fact that a man chose to leave, but due to the attitudes that women have towards men in general as a result: in some cases, there is such a bitterness that a child may begin to believe that it is true that men and women can not have productive, supportive, symbiotic relationships; in other cases a woman may out on the “prowl” just to prove that she can still get a man and bring home persons who are not suitable to raise plants, let alone children. This can be more damaging to a child, particularly girls, as they may believe that it is better to have a man than to be alone. Whatever happens, I think that the most important thing that a person needs to do is to let the child know that things will be okay if someone leaves. I think it is okay to be honest with the child and let them know that yes, this is a scary situation for everyone who has been affected, however, I am not sure that I agree with letting the child see you cry as that may shift the parental-child dynamic and make the child feel that they need to adjust their role to become the caregiver, confidant and comforter of the parent, which may cause resentment especially as the child grows to be an adult. We must not allow ourselves to fall into the woe is me trap, which is something that I feel the blogger is advocating. As far as breaking down our black families, this may sound harsh, but we do need to stop wallowing in our misery that a lot of us don’t have a two-parent legal husband and wife support system to rely on. Instead, we need to focus on instilling the values of national and global citizenship, compassion, and appreciation for the opportunities that we have in our children. So many of us are focused on re-creating the Americancentric belief that one can only be happy if they follow a certain path that we have lost sight of the fact that the best thing that we can do is teach our children that the only two things they can rely on are God and themselves; and that each painful experience in life is an experience which we can use to grow.

Dsimpson September 23, 2009, 11:12 AM

best thing that we can do is teach our children that the only two things they can rely on are God and themselves; and that each painful experience in life is an experience which we can use to grow.

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