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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
Danell September 23, 2009, 12:47 PM

I am so sick of hearing that we Black women must make ourselves look weak in order to make our Black men feel better about themselves, which will encourage them to finally do right by us. How about they step up to the plate because to be a real man requires them to do so. How about they strengthen themselves so that they can stand strong with us and their children? How about men finally have our back whether we need them to or not because that’s what we do for them?

Pandora September 23, 2009, 2:17 PM

Isn’t it our jobs to make our children feel safe and secure emotionally? Or is it our jobs to make them understand the ending of a grown up relationship, and the emotional damage of Divorce?
Children mimick what they see and the world will already make them believe they are weak, should the mother contribute to the child’s inferiority by appearing weak minded or of a weak disposition, or should she leave her relationship with a man out of the Teaching/upbringing of her children? That’s why we appear Strong, it’s called Dignity, Integrity and Grace in the face of betrayal and despair!
Should we let them see the brutal murder of their Mother’s heart? Or should they see their Teacher in high regards?

Anonymous September 23, 2009, 7:12 PM

this concept is not new - the emasculating black female- refer to moynihan report. what about the idea of the masculinized black female? sojourners whole point was that demonstrating her strength, which she as a black woman growing up in a slave society was forced to do, as opposed to acting or playing the part of a demure and dependent female did not make her less womanly or less feminine or less deserving of being protected and cherished. the answer is not to cultivate weakness bc we don’t live in a world where black women are rewarded for looking or being weak as our non-black counterparts may be. just as black men don’t have the luxury of not standing up for themselves-we live in the same oppressive world. also being strong after your mate has left is not simply an “ill” of black women. all colored women and even white, from backgrounds or cultures where they are not privileged ‘gather’ themselves and keep going. the answer is not to weaken ourselves but to start marrying/having children with men (inter ethnic relationships seem to be working well) who value our humor strength ambition, their children,legacy, and community more than money, impressing their boys, chasing the latest fad, image, or just plain ego. jeez this obsession with self critique is just ridiculous. some of us have relationship self image issues like other women have body image issues. do not be lured down this road ladies. you’re a single mom raising well adjusted kids and managing to keep yourself sane?! I don’t care what color you are - you go! you’re okay I’m okay

Anonymous September 23, 2009, 7:24 PM

What happens when fathers don’t want to go but are forced to? What about the men who pay their support and waant to be in theor childrens lives but mom doesn’t want him to? Must it always be about what women and what we want? Why is it always this competition between man and women and she has to prove she just as strong as or stronger?

wanda September 24, 2009, 3:31 PM

I see your point of view. But still this is no excuse for the men not stepping up to the plate to excute their responsibilities as a loving and responsible father. Women have no choice but to step up, but we are not men and therefore cannot fulfill the manly dities that is needed in raising a completed individual.

Geneva September 24, 2009, 4:45 PM

Thank you, thank you for finally saying what should have been said a long time ago. How can we heal if we don’t acknowledge our feelings, fears and concerns in an appropriate manner, of course. I don’t want to be some super human woman able to leap catastrophic issues in a single bound, and nor do I want to crumble at every demanding situations or stereotype. GB

dawn September 27, 2009, 9:43 AM

Wow, I am sooooooo glad I’m not a single parent.

dawn September 27, 2009, 10:53 PM

Thank God I am single with no children.

dawn September 27, 2009, 10:55 PM

black women are stupid for having children out of wedlock.

mlb September 28, 2009, 7:41 AM

This article was posted on a message board that I frequent and the only part of the article I agreed with was letting your child(ren) know that it is not okay for a father (or anyone for that matters) to neglect his responsibilities, but that the family would “be okay.”

I have a very hard time subscribing, as other posters eluded to, this theory that black women must appear weak to (or show how much she needs) her man in order for him to feel strong or that his “manhood” is not being threatened.

And blaming the women for keeping things moving — out of necessity, no less — as a factor in breaking down our family units is absolutely absurd!

To me, a truly strong man will NOT be intimidated by the strengths of his woman, but rather be appreciative of the fact that he has a partner in which he can rely to help run their ship.

On another note, for some reason or another, on the message board, the article didn’t generate these types of responses. Instead, it started a dialogue on how women need to understand their roles in the relationship and stop trying to “run things” because there can only be one “head of the house,” which is the man. *SIGH*

Damien September 28, 2009, 2:58 PM

I agree with this article and have been researching this very subject for the last seven years. Think of it this way, young man grows up thinking families will be okay with or without him, but he wants to be there. Then, he meets the young lady that wants a family, but grew up the same as him. What do you think usually happens when life gets tough? Who’s impulse is stronger? I don’t need him or she’ll be alright?

lilikindsli September 30, 2009, 10:18 AM

rqc03b I want to say - thank you for this!

Globals October 2, 2009, 6:37 PM

all good things

Kelly Richardson October 9, 2009, 1:28 PM

This is not a strong black woman’s issue. There are many strong white women that do the same thing. I enjoyed the article, but would have enjoyed it more not being so bias and racially focused.

Monica October 13, 2009, 6:30 PM

This reminds me of the song by Jill Scott ‘The Fact Is (I Need You)’. She mentions in the song that although she is a strong black woman and she can do so many things for her self that she still needs her man. She says that she can teach her son to walk, stand and talk but, only his father can teach him to be a man. This is for any woman. Letting a man know that you need help takes more strength than pretending that you don’t. And men need to step up and do it.

Mic October 15, 2009, 1:03 PM

I also think that may be a reason (subconsciously probably) that these girls are having babies so young, b/c they see their moms can do it without the man…

Anna October 18, 2009, 3:50 PM

Dawn what an ignorant thing to say especially when you don’t know if a single mom is divorced or widowed. Just because you have a husband does not mean he won’t wake up one morning and leave. Also, maybe you should say that welfare mothers who live off the system are stupid. Whatever the case, thank God you don’t have children.

Anonymous October 22, 2009, 11:02 AM

This is a very good article and it was interesting reading the various comments. As a single black woman who had to be the strong black woman even when the man was in the house has truly taken it’s toll. Having read this article has given me another perspective to consider in making sure there’s some balance in how I handle myself and in teaching my son and daughter in the future. Thanks much.


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