Moving Beyond The Strong Black Woman

April 23, 2021

When my estranged husband and father of my four young children passed away suddenly almost 9 years ago the one thing I heard over and over again was how strong I was. This despite the fact that I stopped eating for the most part, I couldn’t care for my children adequately, and I would spend most days staring out the window of our home. It was the love and care of my mother and a very close group of friends that carried me through. When I returned back to work a couple of months later people assumed that I was okay. I was put together. I was never seen breaking down at work and my children seemed well taken care of. Everyone commented on how strong I was. The Strong Black Woman archetype followed me from the hospital room where I watched my husband take his last breath to the staff room where I returned 2 months later.

Even though the Strong Black Woman archetype never sat well with me completely I moved forward. Not only wanting to be a provider for my children, but also working tirelessly to be seen as competent, capable, and most importantly – worthy. Something I soon realized was aligned with what some call “high effort coping”. I continued to work on committees, I took on positions of responsibility for the team I worked with and shuffled my children back and forth to one event after another. I worked out beyond what should be allowed and cooked “clean” meals for my family daily. I kept a house and home running. I topped it off with a 4 hour plus commute everyday. I’m tired just from writing that.

So what’s the harm of high effort coping? For one it negates care from society and your community. More importantly it is a strong contributor to cardiac diseases. We all heard it from our parents, “work twice as hard”. Despite labels of being lazy we have always been the ones in society to bear the load that is twice as heavy – all the while bearings smiles at the corner of our mouths. We have great historical examples of high effort coping too – John Henry and Sojourner Truth. John Henry was a man who tried to outwork a steam powered drill with his own bear hands and a hammer. He was victorious but died soon after with the hammer in his hands. Sojourner Truth is no mystery to many of us. She is usually defined as being resilient, strong, determined, and selfless. The syndrome in her name seeks to illustrate the ways Black women often work under oppressive and at times abusive social conditions in the service and care of others while neglecting their own. Gail Parker’s book, Restorative Yoga for Ethnic and Race-Based Stress and Trauma has been so instrumental in helping me understand the impact of high effort coping on our communities.

What I found is that strength at times is misnamed as survival. It wasn’t strength that carried me through the past 10 plus years – it was survival. I had four very young children that needed to be fed, clothed, loved, and parented. They were constant reminders of what was at stake if I did not put one foot in front of the other. Much of what Black women have had to endure over the last 500 years has little to do with our “super human” strengths, but more to do with our need to survive the oppressive systems that threatened our daily survival. Claiming that our strength is any more extraordinary than other women makes way for ill formed beliefs. Some doctors still believe that Black people have a higher tolerance for pain. The badge of strength that is often handed to us is the worst kind of back handed compliment one can receive.

I remember as a young immigrant child riding the TTC buses in the 80’s with my mother or caregiver. I often noted seeing Black women with multiple bags looking worn, overburdened and exhausted. These women often had more than one job. At some point during that time I remember making a promise to myself that I would never live that life. What I soon realized is that those bags were already anchored within my body. I was bearing down whenever something too great came down on me and my family. Holding it down when it seemed like our world would fall apart became my second nature. Time and time again. I won’t even get into the racism that I encountered at work and elsewhere that felt like an iron chain around my neck.

One thing that never occurred to me was I could lighten the load. I could ask for help – and not just from my small support system – but from society. However, it took an event 7 years after my husband past that helped me realized that I did not have the physical strength to keep up the exercise regime, the long work hours that kept me up and woke me early, – all the things that created an image of a strong, capable, worthy Black woman. One day I stood in front of the kitchen sink washing dishes and realized that I had extreme pain in my chest. I decided to just breath my way through it and relax. This had been coming and going for a few months now. Eventually the pain would subside and I would return to what I was doing. Four hours later I found I could no longer stand because the pain was so intense. My mother came home to find me sitting in silence at the kitchen table. She quickly told me to go to the emergency which I refused saying I had work the next day and I needed to be there to continue the work I was doing with the students. She said if I didn’t go willingly she would call an ambulance. That is what it took to seek care.

Eventually, I started working with a naturopath who asked me to detail my life in the last 10 years. I went through the major events, the situations with my children, my work and all the other “normal” things that made up my life. He asked if I had received any care for the situations that have saturated the last few years. I tired to recall any supports beyond a couple of visits to my doctor – I came up with nothing. He explained that my body was exhausted and could not bear any more stress, and I needed to rest. And by rest he meant lie down. Alone. Often.

Rest. It’s simple right? But so frustrating. I was what you would describe as goal oriented. Whether it was running a marathon, changing our diets to become a “clean” eating family, to excelling at my job – I knew how to get stuff done. Rest was a whole other thing I didn’t know much about. My naturopath explained that aside from caring for my children I was not to take on any other forms of work or stress. Instead I had to rest and find out what brought me joy. He encouraged me to look for activities that did not require labour from my body. So though I enjoyed running – that was not an eligible activity. I was told to place care, joy, and rest as a priority every day for a long time. There were many days I felt like returning to work, going for a run, or responding to calls. Every week when I met with my naturopath I was remind that if I didn’t take rest and joy seriously I would not be able to build a life that I truly wanted. I simply would not have the strength for it. This was the first time someone had actually told me to place rest and joy as a priority. The first time. Ever.

It was then that I started to analyze my relationship to work, to pleasure, to wellbeing, to the Strong Black Woman and to worth. I realized that much of what we do is an effort to prove that we are worthy of our jobs, our promotions, and our place in society. If I placed my care, joy, and rest as a top priority I would have to drop my attachments to how I was regarded at work. I would have to accept that I would not garner the approval of society at large. The Strong Black Woman archetype has its strengths. People see you as competent, capable, courageous and admirable. The difficulty with this archetype is that people forget that your ability to be strong does not negate your need for care and rest. In time I started to examine how I could create a broader identity by embracing vulnerability, self-compassion, and care.

Black History month is not only a time to honour our past and look to building a bright future. It is also a time to cultivate care and compassion for ourselves and our communities. We can celebrate our heritage and honour our ancestors by embodying care. Every morning while I smooth baobab oil on my face I call to mind all my female ancestors who may not have received care and I invite them to join me in this daily practice. It serves as both a reminder and an offering. Our strength does not make us worthy – it ensures our survival. Our care is what makes us move beyond survival into thriving.

What developed as a result of my call to rest from my naturopath was the ability to move beyond the Strong Black Woman archetype. I have also been inspired to examine the places care for Black women is neglected in society and investigate care practices by our community for our community. Being strong still has a place in my life – especially when it comes to my family, my community, and now myself. I haven’t abandoned strength – I’ve just made room for more of what ensures my thriving. I invite you to find ways to also make more room for care.