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Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman

By Eva McKend

In Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant’s emotionally stirring new book, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance (Temple University Press), she unpacks the superwoman persona that so many Black women are expected to assume. In an interview with Ms., she explains that as we live the world that slavery and patriarchy continues to create, the idea of “strength” maintains race-based differences and creates a social distance between women. And that distance becomes part of the oppression. Beauboeuf-Lafontant, a sociology professor at DePauw University, does not leave us in despair, though, but celebrates the power of transcending strength and acknowledging vulnerability.

Ms.: Why is the message of this book so important to you?

Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafantant: When I was in graduate school, many of my black female friends would use this term SBW—strong black woman. They reasoned that if black women could make it through slavery, they could make it through anything. I began to wonder how strength misrepresents not just what black women are capable of but what people assume they can sustain. Too often we use the term “strong black woman” to dismiss legitimate claims and needs. I don’t think that black women are cut from a different cloth, but I think they have been expected, given historical circumstances, to operate as something other than human.

Ms.: Why has appearing strong become so critically important to black women?

TB-L: I believe this idea of the strong black woman is tied to the understanding of black women as mammies and mules of the world. It starts with slavery and the assumptions of black womanhood as this thing completely opposite to white womanhood. As a black community we’ve taken in a lot of those assumptions and have tried to find a redeeming aspect to them. A strong black woman is a woman who expresses a lot of fortitude, a deep wealth of caring and a lot of persistence—those can be seen as noble qualities. [But] they were used against us during slavery and I think they continued to be used against us by the white community and by black patriarchy. You can extort a lot of work from people who subscribe to the notion that they are strong and invulnerable.

Ms.: What are the dangers of this seeming invulnerability?

TB-L: The biggest vulnerabilities are those that you probably wouldn’t connect with black women: eating disorders and depression. The idea of the strong black woman is a very convincing tale, but only a half-told tale. What we don’t hear and don’t acknowledge is any sense of suffering and harm that may have happened to these women. In talking to the women that I interviewed, I realized that there is a psychological backstage. This is what one woman referred to as her deep-down inside, an internal repository for all the emotions that she isn’t allowed to express. It comes out through their bodies.

Ms.: You describe the role of strength in black women as both a social expectation and a personal strategy.

TB-L: It is one of the only options we have for being good women, both outside of our communities and within them. The idea of a strong black woman is a woman that you can count on, a woman who is going to be selfless and reliable. The fact that so many women in my study talked about how they were actresses and that this wasn’t who they were but who they had to be suggests that on some level they know that this is not an accurate representation of their totality.

Black women are more than just strong. I would want black women to have a sense of self that allows them the whole gamut of human emotions.

Ms.: What do you think will be the most effective way to dispel the myth of the strong black woman?

TB-L: I know that within my own raising of my 12-year-old daughter, I’ve been very careful to not present myself as being without the complexity that we all have as human beings. I was really blessed that my mother did not subscribe to this notion of [strong] black womanhood. My mother was one person who always said, “I love you all, but I love me more,” and she would tell me stories of when she was growing up of how she refused to settle for less than she thought she deserved.

Eva McKend is a student at Swarthmore College, where she founded A Campaign for Me to address black female representation in the media. She is a former Ms. intern.

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