I worked in television news in the early part of my professional career. I interned for a television station while an undergraduate, and ended up getting hired full-time out of that internship. A newsroom is a loud, hectic, high stress environment with everything happening at once: photographers are sent out on stories, anchors are recording promos, editors are screaming for tape and producers are perpetually writing and editing news stories for air. The closer it gets to the hour of a newscast, the crazier it gets. I was the only Black producer, and was working on a rewrite of a news story that got chopped from a minute and a half to thirty seconds when one of the other producers let out a wail that make me think she had been shot. Everybody looked up and in her direction, and she had gotten a nasty paper cut from the script paper. It was not an unusual occurrence…what was unusual was the response it provoked. Not only did she cry real tears, more than a few men in the newsroom ran to her aid. One got her a wet paper towel, and one got her a bandage, and they all comforted her during all hands on deck deadline crunch time. I remember thinking to myself that she needed to suck it up, and do her crying on her own time. My reputation in the newsroom was that of “she can handle it.” This is not an uncommon mindset about Black women; in fact, many of us revel in this notion that we are strong. The strong Black woman does no harm and takes no crap. She is self-sufficient.
However, in times of grief and suffering, the strong Black women trope can work against our best interests. As my former colleague experienced a plethora of support when she cut her finger, Black women don’t always have the luxury of support systems that provide comfort when we need it. The social script often imposed on Black women is to be strong and be quiet. We receive cues early on that if you cannot manage to juggle—and juggle well—all of the things life throws at you, you risk being seen as a failure because asking for help is a sign of weakness.
This pressure to be strong discourages us from addressing and engaging our grief seasons; rather, it encourages us to bury them, to swallow our suffering down like castor oil. In her wonderful book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes talks about the myth of the strong black woman, a figure “typified by extraordinary capacities for caregiving and for suffering without complaint.” Walker-Barnes provides an illuminating overview of the ramifications of stress and strain on the body, the guilt we can feel for doing even a tiny bit of something for ourselves, and how the strong black woman “is as incapable of saying “help” as she is of saying “no.” She also breaks down how this crisis has deep roots in the church: by being dependent upon the labor of Black women but falling silent to their pain, Walker-Barnes makes a poignant case for the potential for the church to be a type of prison fortified by “an unholy trinity of self-denial, suffering, and silence.” (Walker-Barnes, pp. 2-10.)
The expectation of the churched woman is to be never wavering in faith; we only want to hear about her problems in testimony service followed up with “but God.” More than once I have heard women testify in church about what they are going through. I have sat in pulpits and heard church leaders comment on that sister’s strength, but seldom did I hear “how can I/we help her?” Whether churches are conservative or liberal, traditional or progressive, the expectation for women in the church, whether layperson or clergy, is to project strength. Not only is she supposed to be strong, but so should her Christianity. Strong Christian women don’t question anything, they don’t struggle with oppressive theological choices, and if they have a bad day you likely won’t hear about it. That is an awful lot of pressure.
If you think you may have picked up on these cues that encourage us to suffer in silence, please remember that it is not an unholy act to say “no,” and that your no requires no explanation. Remember that loving God does not require taking on every task your church may request of you. Yes, God is able but even Jesus got some help carrying his cross. A wonderful gift you can give someone who is hurting is providing a space to lay their grief down awhile. Even a simple reminder to treat her/himself with care can be a real blessing to someone walking through a grief season. Black women are both expected and conditioned to be strong because they have had to be; we didn’t always have a choice. Black women survive and persevere like no one else on the planet, but every once in awhile we ought to take the “S” off our chests and tend to ourselves…and be okay with being a resilient Black woman.