Bree Newsome and the Myth of the Strong Black Woman -The Toast

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Previously by Morgan Jerkins: Writing, Trans Identity, Race, and All the Poetry: An Interview with Meredith Talusan

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On June 27th, I saw the image of activist and filmmaker Bree Newsome clinging to a pole with the Confederate Flag held out triumphantly in her right hand. The South Carolina State Capitol building was behind her, adding a powerful element to her legendary act of civil disobedience. As Newsome was escorted away from the State Capitol grounds in handcuffs, she smiled at a camera, almost basking in her act of resistance.

Time and time again, from the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter, black women have been on the front lines risking their lives, comfort, and sanity for black people even as our own men fail to rally and protest with the same intensity we do for them. What Newsome accomplished on that quaint Saturday morning was not only a form of a protest, but also a continuity of power subversion. A part of me wanted to call Newsome “a strong black woman.” But I know that the stereotype of the “strong black woman” has compromised our ability to be seen as tired or weak or anything but patient in the face of injustice – to be seen as human.

Is there a possibility of reconciling this narrative of the “strong black woman” with the reality that often coincides with it? Growing up, I thought that being called a “strong black woman” was a compliment. Strength is a virtue, after all. Who doesn’t want to be strong? Strong means that no one messes with you. Strong means that you can do the extra work when others cannot due to inability or lack of will. Yet as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned that the notion of the “strong black woman” often feels like little more than another box in which society tries to hold black women captive. We aren’t allowed to be vulnerable, to ask for help. Our strength is seen as a mask that hides our suffering, the full range of our emotions.

Until late last year, I agreed that this kind of unwavering strength is impossible to maintain for an extended period of time. However, in the face of police brutality and white supremacist attacks, I’ve noticed that this “impossible” strength is being shown every day through the work of black female activists across the country. As a result, I’ve become more lax in criticizing the label of “strong black woman,” sometimes experiencing a kind of cognitive dissonance as I reconsider the term.

timeOn the cover of Time’s September 2014 issue, “The Tragedy of Ferguson,” we see a black woman kneeling in the middle of the street, a cloud of tear gas surrounding her. She’s dressed in all black and her hands are raised. We never see her face, and we don’t have to. The image of her back turned toward us is symbolic of the dual position that black women hold when we discuss our strength: we will risk our lives for recognition and simultaneously submit, because deep down we want mercy – not only from the dominant culture, but also from our community.

It was three women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who co-founded the Black Lives Matter Movement. Yet this movement is almost entirely male-centered. Case in point: Most Black Women’s Lives Matter demonstrations and protests are attended by crowds of black women and a few black men. Compared to Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Freddie Gray, names like Rekia Boyd, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Natasha McKenna, and Tanesha Anderson get lost in our conversations.

Not long after Newsome scaled the pole to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol grounds, there were wisecracks from men, both white and black, about how her demonstration was reminiscent of pole dancing. The tension was so high that Bree Newsome responded by saying: “I’ve seen rumors that I learned to scale a flagpole via a past life as a stripper. Sorry, I’m not quite that interesting.” This blatant disrespect is just one example of what black women activists have to face – from black men as well as from those outside of our community.

At times it’s extremely difficult not to view these women as “strong black women” – because the amount of strength, restraint, and grace they exhibit in the face of much condemnation is both amazing and formidable. Images of Bree Newsome as a superhero are empowering, even as they contribute to the notion of the strong black woman. Arguably, black female activists have created their own myths, defying the odds and going the extra ten miles, even when there might be no one in their corner. As Newsome mentioned, she faces three years in jail, and the McKinney, Texas officer who assaulted Dajeeria has yet to be arrested. The life of a black woman can in fact be stranger and more fantastic than fiction.

This interaction between reality and fantasy is what confounds me the most when we talk about stereotypes, for stereotypes usually do not arise from complete and utter lies. Stereotypes can also be half-truths, distorted and used to paint others with large strokes or create division. But in a time like this, when it often seems as though we are regressing rather than progressing in race relations, how can we separate the stereotype from the reality and rewrite this idea of what it means to be a strong black woman?

Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 9.33.25 AMI don’t believe it’s enough for us to eschew the “strong black woman” stereotype altogether. Instead, we should attempt to understand and rewrite it as black female activists are already doing. Being viewed as strong does not have to be a limit or a dehumanizing marker for them; instead it is a real and revolutionary tool. What might have been used as a stereotype in earlier times can now perhaps be seen as a form of empowerment. The truth is, in every sense, black women are pioneers, reclaiming the sanctity of their lives without asking for permission. What is more heroic than that?

If you spend any time on social media, you know that black women are in fact strong. We educate and prepare for more action in spite of harassment. Who else can we ask for help when our community is in danger? Perhaps the “strong black woman” idea is not our problem, then, but rather a sign of society’s lack of understanding and imagination, and its failure to provide a safe space for us. We’ve had to channel that lack of safety and recognition and resources into even more audacity, and it has forced us to be strong.

Being called “strong” as a black woman is not necessarily an insult or a misunderstanding of who we are. It can be, instead, a realization that we’ve had to be mavericks, we’ve had to be strong, because there were no other choices. We’ve never had the privilege of being coddled, respected, or even understood. The most iconic people fighting for freedom are those who’ve been nurtured in adversity. Black women are constantly faced with a struggle, but we aren’t bound to it – instead we wrestle with it. The battle is ongoing, ever-changing, as oppression mutates, presenting itself in new ways. This invigorates my own spirit and propels me to join the fight, because I have power, too.

So I cannot say whether I resent or dislike the concept of the “strong black woman,” especially when it’s employed as praise. Because I know that there are far too many examples of black women who have been strong when they literally had nothing and no other choice. We’ve had to fight when our own needs were cast away. We’ve always fought with less recognition than our black male counterparts. I’m not interested in whether the label of “strong black woman” is “right” or “wrong,” because to try and make that clear-cut argument is to construct yet another strict dichotomy for black womanhood.

Nevertheless, when we see women like Bree Newsome and the unknown woman on the Time Ferguson cover immortalized through images, it’s hard to ignore how much larger than life — almost mythical — they seem, how their stories will be the stuff of legends in black households for years to come. If I ever have a daughter, I want to tell her about these women. I want her eyes to have stars in them as I tell her these stories, in the hope that she’ll do the same for her own children someday. These women, who seem so grandiose and powerful, are fighting evil for all of us. The best part is that they aren’t stereotypes at all. They are real. These are our modern-day strong black women. These are our heroes, and they should be seen and honored as such.

Morgan Jerkins graduated from Princeton with an AB in Comparative Literature. When she's not learning how to ballroom dance, she's working on an MFA in Fiction at the Bennington Writing Seminars.

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