The word “strong” is never too far away from the identity of black women. And we are strong, I guess. If the consequences of group identities mean anything at all, the strength that is learned as a black woman is the result of survival, not necessarily individual convictions.
But what if I told you I, a black woman, have cried in the last two to three weeks about some things that are not necessarily cry-worthy (whatever that means)? Would it mean that I’m no longer deserving of the “strength” label that is attached to my identity? I hope not because I do think of myself as strong – physically, emotionally, and mentally. Whether or not strength is represented by crying or not crying ought to be of little, if any, significance. But despite this strength, as a black woman, I think it is important for you to know that I am more than strong.
Last week, I got really choked up one day while waiting for the J train. I moved to New York City from Chicago recently, and although I was all things considered, mentally, socially, and financially prepared for the move, the hell that is finding an apartment in New York City, left me in a state of mental exhaustion on that particular day. But I didn’t want to be the (black) girl crying on a subway so I waited till I got “home” – my temporary apartment in the city – and cried.
On another day, I was walking with a co-worker, who is also a good friend, to her subway stop. (There’s a pattern here. Maybe the MTA induces tears?) We talked about my move and how I’m taking it all in. I told her I was prepared – I have been to the city a lot, already have friends here, and I want my life to be here for now. But adjustment is always hard, even when you’re used to adjusting to new places. Do you know those people who always seem to say the best thing when you need it the most, and without even trying? She’s one of them. She said in the most simple, unintentional way, “You’re doing well.” I went home and cried because apparently I didn’t think I was, and I needed to hear that.
I cried most recently (other than the fact that I’m getting choked up as I write this) while finally getting around to watching Being Mary Jane. I know, I know, I’m a late adopter in some of these things but in my defense, television is not something I consider relaxing after a day spent looking at another screen – a computer, usually. So I only watch TV shows I really like. Anyway, I “powered through” Being Mary Jane in the last few weeks, and a few days ago, I watched an especially powerful episode.
Spoiler alert – Mary Jane (played by Gabrielle Union), has a best friend Lisa, (played by Latarsha Rose) who kills herself. Why? A combination of dealing with the consequences of being molested as a child, unrequited love, and loneliness. The first reason is a specific kind of pain only some can understand, but the second and third reasons are relatable, maybe even universal. Maybe despite having social ties where I am now, I just missed what was so recently my old life with all my old loves. Besides that, it’s easy to feel lonely when you also feel new. And so I cried.
I’m telling you my sob stories to make a point: I am a black woman and I’m strong, but I’m also more than strong. At times, I am weak and lonely and afraid and anxious and angry and silly and happy and defiant and bored. Sometimes, I don’t even know what I am, and sometimes I don’t know what I am in English – I can only explain it in a different language.
Indeed having been a black woman in many places and spaces, I can tell you that being a black woman always seems to come with its special set of concerns, regardless of place and space. Life is not easy for any of us and all of us. But if woman is the nigger of the world, as John Lennon sang, tell me please, what is a black woman?
The myth of the strong black woman is old, dating back to colonization and slavery and conquest. Black women’s bodies, minds, spirits, and souls have faced a certain kind of disrespect and dehumanization in history, and then the present, of which strength of body, mind, spirit, and soul became the weapon of survival.
We have endured. We have overcome. We have transcended.
But we have not escaped this myth that we are neither less than or superhuman. We start off as ordinary girls who want to dream of the things that ordinary girls dream. We want to be seen, without being hypervisible. We want to be beautiful without only being beautiful, and only in specific contexts. We want to be intelligent. We want to make a difference. We want love.
We also want strength but we want to be more than strong. We want to be complex or rather be seen as complex because we already are. We don’t want permission.
These days, I find myself less and less asking for the world’s permission to be – to be black and a woman especially. There’s a certain kind of strength in this, but there’s also a certain kind of vulnerability – a vulnerability I enjoy.
My vulnerabilities are now also an act of resistance: being a black woman who contains the capacity to present herself as more than just strong; being more than just strong. Because I am, because we are, and because we always were. The world has a right to know, but more than the world, we have a right and a need to be reminded.
Black women, you are more than your strength.