For as long as I can remember, I have been groomed to be the strong black woman I was intended to be. After all, my parents had survived poverty as children in Arkansas and started a family of six kids together as teens; all while raising my mother’s six siblings. They were the epitome of strength and endurance.
I was eleven years old the first time I remember being fully aware that the expectations of me were completely different from those of my five brothers. I was in the middle with two older siblings and three younger ones. My maternal grandmother has passed away and my parents were driving two hours away for the funeral. None of us kids had ever witnessed death, so they decided to just take me since I was the one that “could handle this kind of situation.” I did.
After that day, I began to notice that I was treated as a responsible adult while my siblings were allowed to make mistakes, have failures and be irresponsible at times. I was proud, though; I relished the idea that my parents believed that I could handle anything that life threw my way because I was smart, mature and strong. I was trusted to be where I was supposed to be and do exactly what I was supposed to do. When my brothers left the house, my mom was concerned over all of the possibilities of what could happen to them. When I departed our home, everyone assumed I would make the right choices and avoid any real trouble. They were wrong.
At fifteen years old, I lived out my parent’s worst nightmare and became a teen parent. To make matters worse, due to several health issues, no one was aware that I was pregnant until I gave birth, sending my entire family into a tailspin. My baby was perfectly healthy and went home with my parents two days later, while I remained in the hospital for several weeks. Concern overcame my parents’ initial disappointment in me. They knew that black women were two to six times more likely to die from pregnancy complications than their white counterparts. Although worried, they knew I would be okay because I was “strong”. Even when everyone began to suspect I was going through postpartum depression, they told me to shake it off and keep moving. I did. I worked, finished school avoided any extracurricular activities and became a full-fledged single parent at fifteen. When I decided to press my son’s father for help, my mother told me not to beg (he had been undependable) and to buckle down and figure things out on my own. I did.
The biggest display of my ability to stay strong, even in the worst of situations came at seventeen. My brother who was just eleven months older than me was shot and killed at my high school. My entire family was devastated and fell apart. Empathetic to my parents’ loss of a child, I did what I had become know for doing best; I met with funeral directors and insurance agents and planned my closest sibling’s funeral. There was no time for me to fall apart because I had to be the person that made sure everything went as planned. That had long been accepted as my job. After my brother was laid to rest, I took a moment and allowed myself to collapse in a heap of tears and screams on our kitchen floor. Confused by my sudden display of weakness, everyone assured me that I would be okay and I pulled myself together.
Since then, my life has been a constant exhibit of strength and resilience. I have taken pride in exceeding expectations, having the answers and keeping it together any time my world came tumbling down. I have always felt a responsibility to stand up when I feel someone is being mistreated. I have been called “brave” and “courageous”. This image is something I have cultivated and taken on as my identity. It has been good to me; helping me to make it through the best and worst of times and to bounce back from rock bottom. But being a “strong black woman” has been a double-edged sword.
People calling to check on me is a rarity. Most of the calls I receive are based in a need; money, advice, resources. Everyone assumes that my life is going well and never asks me how I am doing. When I am mistreated, empathy is hard to come by. The belief that I can get past anything has created a scenario where my pain is not taken seriously or even acknowledged. I observe as the most toxic and dysfunctional people in my orbit are handled gently and given multiple chances to make mistakes without repercussions. I don’t get that luxury. I am expected to be empathetic, forgiving, loving, concerned, engaged and responsible in every aspect of life while avoiding making anyone feel uncomfortable by sharing my emotions. I am expected to be strong without being intimidating or perceived as “angry”. I am not alone in this. Black women all around me have the same experience and we are tired.
There have been multiple studies on the societal treatment of black women; disproportionate treatment by the school system (especially dark-skinned black girls), a misconception and we require less protection and nurturing and are insensitive to pain and a disregard of us when we are victimized, murdered or missing. We are sexualized and perceived as adults early on, robbing us of the innocence of childhood. Even when we ask for help our pleas fall on deaf ears. Over the past several years, hashtags like #protectblackwomen #believeblackwomen and #sayhername have cropped up to highlight the indifference to the plight of women that look like me. The added stress of the pandemic, the economy and the impact on families has created a need for black women in particular to be cognizant of our mental health, practice self-care and set healthy boundaries.
Over the past couple of years, I have often analyzed how I am treated in both professional and personal settings. I have taken note of the dismissal of my concerns and feelings. In addition, I have taken care to understand the intent behind all communications I receive. Nowadays, I express my disappointment when friends, family and coworkers only reach out to me only when it benefits them. I am cutting people that have a negative impact out of my life and setting rules of engagement with those that will remain. All of us should do these things religiously. Black women are strong, but we are also vulnerable, scared at times and most importantly, human. We don’t have to be the backbone in every situation. We, too, should be given the benefit of the doubt. We need a break.
I was recently on a flight and during the pre-takeoff instructions, the flight attendant advised that parents should put their oxygen masks on before attempting to assist their children. That has become a metaphor for my life. Without first taking care of ourselves we cannot take care of others. Because black women were forced to care for others during and after slavery, the expectation has never died and has worked to our detriment. But, gone are the days where black women place the needs of any and everybody above our own. We are putting our oxygen masks on first, then looking around and deciding who actually deserves our love, strength and protection. We embrace situations and people that make us feel loved, respected and protected and say no unapologetically to circumstances that no longer serve us.