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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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