Recent Articles on the StrongBlackWoman

Breakdown: The StrongBlackWoman in Crisis
This week, I guest-authored an article, “Breakdown: The StrongBlackWoman in Crisis,” for ForHarriet.com. In the article, I narrate the true-life story of a StrongBlackWoman who arrived at the point of physical breakdown after failing to care for herself in the midst of crisis. Here’s an excerpt:

Without realizing it, Veronica had been caught in the vicious stress-health cycle of the StrongBlackWoman. Rather than giving herself the space to feel and express her emotional distress, she repressed it. She distracted herself by directing her energies to taking care of the needs of other people and institutions. She crammed even more activity into an already hectic schedule. And she devoted even less time to engaging in self-care behaviors. She had already had difficulty getting an exercise routine going. When cries set in, she began skipping meals and when she did eat, she relied on fast food and sweets. She sacrificed her sleep and leisure time to keep up with all that she had going on. Together, it was a perfect recipe for breakdown. With no outlet, her emotional distress became embodied in physical form. Her existing health problems were exacerbated and she developed new ones: headaches, dizzy spells, fatigue, fainting. 

In Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, I devote a chapter to describing the link between embodying the myth of the StrongBlackWoman and health problems among African American women.

Farewell, StrongBlackWoman
 
Be sure to check out Christena Cleveland’s excellent article, “Farewell, StrongBlackWoman.”  Cleveland is a social psychologist and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces That Keep Us Apart. In her article, Cleveland reflects upon her own embodiment of the StrongBlackWoman and her commitment to healing.  She writes:

My name is Christena and I am a StrongBlackWoman. I am beatable and human, and I am okay with that.  I give myself permission to scream when I am angry, cry when I am hurting, ask for help when I need it, and remove myself from communities that can’t or won’t care for and nurture me as a black woman. Every day is a struggle to put down the StrongBlackWoman façade and take up authenticity, true strength rooted in God and community, self-love, and mutual love. But today I choose to face that struggle and receive the help I need to overcome it.

What’s your commitment to healing as a StrongBlackWoman? Or to supporting the recovery of a StrongBlackWoman? Join the movement and claim your right to a life of authenticity, love of self, and relationships based upon reciprocity. We can do more than survive. We can thrive!

Paint the Town Purple (and Pink)!

For as long as I can remember, pink has been my favorite color. Nearly everyday, you can find me sportin’ some shade, even if it’s just my carnation pink leather briefcase. Every once in a while, though, I get so inundated with pink that I need a break. In the year or two after I pledged Alpha Kappa Alpha, almost every gift from my relatives was pink or green – fuchsia suede shorts, emerald leather coat, rose-colored shirts, mauve sweaters, pink…pink…pink. For about 10 years after, I essentially purged my closet of all pink. It was still my favorite color; I was just sick of it.

This year, with Breast Cancer Awareness Month underway, I am starting to feel the same way. The entire city seems adorned with pink, from shopping centers to funeral homes. There was a time that I loved purchasing merchandise with that pink loop. My mother is a breast cancer survivor. She was only 41 when she was diagnosed with stage 4B breast cancer. When I tell that to doctors, they look at me like I’ve got an expiration date stamped on my forehead. That, together with my first lump scare at age 28, has had me going in for a breast smash annually for ten years now. And still, I’m getting tired of seeing the town painted pink.

Maybe it has to do with the commercialization of breast cancer. A few days ago, I passed a Rue 21 store with the display window full of ribbon-adorned shirts that had more to do with breasts than cancer. What percentage of this junk actually goes toward finding a cure? Or perhaps providing aid to the victims of this disease who are poor and lack health insurance? Saving ta-tas is nice, but saving lives is much, much better.

I think, though, that my frustration has more to do with the invisibility of the other symbol for this month. October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The month is almost over, and I’ve yet to see a single purple ribbon (much less a 10-foot-high one mounted in front of a shopping mall). I’ve seen no races, no marches, and no men, women, or children cheerfully declaring their status as survivors. The only acknowledgement that I’ve seen was a spoken word performance at the church my family attends in Birmingham (and I’m deeply grateful for the prophetic ministry of East Lake UMC).

Long before my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was involved in a physically abusive relationship. I saw and heard the abuse on more than one occasion. I have a distinct memory of being about 5-years-old and throwing myself between my mother and her abuser, yelling at him, “Don’t you hit my mommy!” But I was well into my 30s before I thought of it as domestic violence. My mother was not a passive victim. She fought back. She called the police. And when she was overpowered, she grabbed whatever she could to defend herself. She was nothing like those women on Lifetime movies, who cowered and hid behind sunglasses. So for years, I simply did not recognize her victimhood, even as I was a passionate advocate on behalf of women’s issues.

Domestic violence is one of those things we don’t like to talk about. Few people are eager to claim their status as victims or perpetrators. And even though 1 in every 4 women in the United States experiences domestic violence during her lifetime, those experiences often go unnamed as such. This is especially the case in the African American community. Growing up, I often heard African Americans dismiss domestic violence as a white issue: “No sistah is gonna let a man beat her. Black women are too STRONG to be victims. They fight back!” Collectively, we liked to pretend that a woman’s attempt to defend herself against violence actually nullified the existence of that violence, even though the perpetrator was usually larger and stronger. We allowed ourselves to believe the lie that Black women are less likely to be victims of abuse than women of other races, when in fact, approximately 29 percent of Black women have suffered violence at the hands of a romantic partner. We hid our heads in the sand while Black women, who comprise only 8 percent of the U.S. population, accounted for 22 percent of all intimate partner homicide victims.

If those of us who are survivors remain silent, how can we ever expect those who are still victims to find their voices? It’s time to end our silence. Let’s paint the town purple!

Resolutions for Revolution (or, What Black Folks Need to Do in 2010)

Another New Year has arrived. If you haven’t done it already, it’s time to make those New Year’s resolutions. Never mind the fact that you may not keep them past March. Making them – and even breaking them – is an important exercise. It encourages us to spend some time reflecting on the lives that we would like to live, the persons whom we would like to be, and the values and practices that we hold most dear. It helps us to embody, in word and deed, God’s ongoing creative activity in our lives. Even our failures are important. They remind us that our transformation is not entirely under our control; we must lean into God’s grace and strength for real change to take place.

This year, the celebration of the New Year and the impending observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday are inextricably intertwined in my mind. Perhaps it is because I am still haunted by my last visit to my hometown of Atlanta. It’s been 15 years since I left Hotlanta and each time I return, I am reminded why the city has become one of America’s black cultural capitals. There is so much to do, see, and experience of the Black diaspora in the city – galleries and museums, cultural centers, civic groups and organizations, historical sites, and soul food and Caribbean restaurants. Even the walk through the airport was enjoyable; the walkway to baggage claim in Hartsfield International currently has an installation of sculptures by Zimbabwean artists. A trip home is always a striking reminder of just how far African Americans have come in the 45 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

But during my ride through the city, I noticed something else, a reminder that the struggle is far from over, even for those who have ostensibly “arrived.” While traveling down a major thoroughfare on the south (code word for “black”) side of town, I realized that I was in the largest collection of beauty supply stores, car accessory shops, and chicken wing shacks that I had ever seen. I had no idea that it was possible for one street to sustain that many beauty supply stores, a large one on every block. And there were rims galore. For rent, no less! And the chicken – the air was permeated with the smells of grease and sauce (okay, I’m exaggerating, but there really were a lot of them).

While Atlanta’s chicken wings have a special place in my heart and I have many memories of scouring beauty supply shops for the perfect product, the whole scene was mildly depressing. I could almost hear a voice emanating from the shops: “Come to us. There is a hole inside of you that we can fix. You are not enough. Come to us, my daughters, and we will give you hair to cover your insecurities. Come to us, my sons, and we will cover your alienation with rims that you cannot afford. And if that doesn’t fill the emptiness, come to us, my children, and we will fill your stomachs. Come to us and we will make you enough.”

I have often heard African Americans say that integration destroyed the fabric of the black community in America. But what has been known as “integration” – the end of legalized segregation and the granting of access to education, housing, and employment – was never meant to be the final destination of the Civil Rights Movement. It was simply a road marker, and an important one, on the journey to beloved community, a society where reconciliation, redemption, love, and justice would be realized. Dr. King envisioned the beloved community as an America where we would adhere to the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, our mind, our soul, and our strength; and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (cf. Matthew 22:34-40).

But as we enter the second decade of the 21st century, many African Americans still have a lot of difficulty loving ourselves. Centuries of racism has inculcated within us a sense of self-loathing. Most often it’s an unconscious impulse. That is, most of us don’t go around thinking, “I don’t like being black.” Rather, we have a deep, abiding sense that “I am not enough.” We try to make up for not being enough by doing more, getting more, and consuming more. We take on superhuman personas, trying to live into the ideologies of the StrongBlackMan or StrongBlackWoman. Or we spend a disproportionate amount of our income on visible signs of “enoughness” – hair, nails, clothes, purses, shoes, rims, cars, TVs, bluetooth headsets, cell phones, etc. Or we eat…and we eat…and we eat. Sometimes we do all of the above. And the struggle continues.

So as you make your resolutions for 2010, consider the inner revolution that still needs to take place for the liberation of the African American mind. Make resolutions that will help to free you and your family from the vestiges of internalized racism. Sometimes societal change demands marches and legislation. But oftentimes, it needs the decision and determination of individuals to be differently.

And just in case you need help, here are a few ideas:

First, take charge of your health. In 2007, 35.6% of African Americans were obese, according to CDC data. For too long, our knee-jerk reaction to such statistics has been to say that the weight charts do not take into account African American “bone structure.” That’s all well and good, but somebody needs to send that memo to our cardiovascular and endocrine systems, because they seem to think that our bodies can’t handle that weight. We have the highest rates of hypertension and Type II diabetes of all ethnic groups, with some rates rivaling those of people in the poorest countries in the world. Who needs Jim Crow and lynch mobs when we are committing slow suicide with overeating and underactivity? Not to mention epidemic rates of HIV/AIDS and homicide. Let this be the year that you develop and sustain healthy diet, exercise, and sexual habits.

Second, regain (and retrain) your righteous mind. A 2004 Nielsen study shows that, on average, African Americans watch 40% more television than all other ethnic groups, a whopping 11 hours per day! It’s bad enough that we spend that much time being physically and mentally inactive. It’s even worse when you consider the values and images that are being transmitted by television shows, videos, and commercials. No wonder we continue to believe that we are not enough! In contrast, only 37% of Arican Americans read literature. A few years ago, I read a study that showed that by the age of 5, children in white, middle-class homes have an average of 100 books; their black counterparts had only 60, even though the parents had similar levels of income and education. I don’t want to underplay the impact of racism and poverty on racial differences in academic and occupational achievement. But let’s be honest – we aren’t helping the cause by willfully neglecting our intellectual development. Make this the year to increase your reading and decrease your television consumption.

Third, get active for justice. Commit, in at least one tangible way, to striving for justice and equal opportunity for all of God’s children. You might volunteer at a food bank or homeless shelter, mentor a child, organize a clothing or book drive in your community, attend vigils against the death penalthy, clean up a neighborhood park, or raise funds for a local nonprofit. Just do something.

Maybe if we make a collective attempt to fill the emptiness with health, knowledge, and service, we won’t be so inclined to fill it with weaves, wheels, and wings. And then we will know what the Great Spirit has been trying to tell us – we are enough.

The Strong Black Woman Goes to the Doctor

“So you see, there’s a pattern here,” I said. “The women in my family wait until we’re at the point of disability or death before we bring a problem to the doctor.” My doctor buried his face in his hands as he laughed – at me and with me. We were finishing up a 45-minute diagnostic interview, which was laced with plenty of humor as we talked about parenthood, marriage, and my chronic failure to pay attention to health issues.

This visit should have happened a year earlier. But after a few rounds of calling the clinic to reschedule my follow-up visit last spring, I finally told the receptionist, “I’ll just have to call you later.” I was glad to have finally found a primary care physician who practiced holistic medicine (and accepted health insurance!). But the clinic hadn’t seemed to catch on to that fact; they kept scheduling his patients for 15-minute slots. There was an inevitable backlog in his daily schedule. I’d wait an hour in the waiting room and then spend another hour with him.

Now add the commute, which was 30 minutes in one direction and 45 minutes in the other. In total, a visit to the doctor took over three hours of my day. And I just didn’t have the time. It was the end of the spring semester, crunch time for students and faculty alike. I had too much to do. So I just kept putting off the visit. Before I knew it, it’d been a year and my doctor had left the group practice to start a new clinic, still pretty far away. Plus, I was now a mother and I didn’t want to spend my precious baby-free moments at the doctor’s office. I had too much to do.

In retrospect, this seems really obvious – I had fallen off the wagon in a major way. I was back in the throes of Strong Black Woman syndrome – taking care of everyone and everything but me. But until that doctor’s visit, as I realized the similarity between myself and the other women in my family, I hadn’t known that I’d relapsed.

To be honest, I’d probably only made – and kept – this doctor’s appointment because of my mother’s urging. My mother and her sisters were worried. In the past year, two more family members in their generation have been diagnosed with degenerative and debilitating neuromuscular or neurological conditions. This brings the grand total to five – out of fifteen. It’s more than scary.

As my mother told me about the latest diagnoses, she also told me of the worries that she and my aunts had for my generation. She urged me to get back to my doctor soon and let him know that we needed to be on the lookout, especially because the most recent relatives were not diagnosed until they reached the point of disability. Most likely, they’ve had symptoms for years but didn’t notice them, didn’t take them seriously when they did notice them, and decided to worry anyone about it once they suspected it was serious. Now, I haven’t asked whether this is the case; I’m simply speculating as to what might have happened. But I feel pretty secure in my speculation. After all, I am the women in my family. I am my mother’s daughter and my aunts’ niece.

That point became all too obvious just minutes after ending the telephone conversation with my mother. When I related the information to my husband, he immediately asked whether it might have anything to do with the muscular problems that I’ve had, and largely ignored, for at least six years now. Quite frankly, the thought that there might be a connection had never occurred to me.

So yesterday, I – a Strong Black Woman in recovery – went to the doctor. After that lengthy diagnostic interview, I thought I had given an exhaustive list of my ailments. But the physical revealed my tendency for minimizing my problems: “Your allergies are nowhere near ‘under control.’ You’ve got all kind of swelling up there.” I guess that would explain the pressure that I’d been feeling in my head and face all morning. “Wait, do you have back pain? I feel tenderness here, and here, and here.” Had I failed to mention that? Oops, my bad.