Mules of the World

Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture

By Sheri Parks

New York: Random House, 2010, 256 pp., $25.00, hardcover

 

Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance

By Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant

Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2009, 183 pp., $23.95, paperback

 

Reviewed by Stacey Patton

 

“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”  Nobody has described the plight and stereotype of the “strong black woman” better than the estimable Zora Neale Hurston.  Speaking through Janie Crawford, the heroine of her epic 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston was not denigrating the black woman but instead praising her strength.  But while strength is a defining feature in representations of black womanhood, it is only a partial truth.

Two recent books, Sheri Parks’s Fierce Angels and Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant’s Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman, draw on Hurston’s observation and sharpen the discussion of troublesome notions of racialized gender in American life.  Parks, a media personality and American Studies professor, and Beauboeuf-Lafontant, a sociology and education professor, add a much-needed complexity to our understanding of common stereotypes about black women and racial interactions by exploring US cultural history, imagination, and memory.  At the same time, however, the authors come dangerously close to naturalizing the very myth they set out to challenge.

Published at the tail-end of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston’s famously unpretentious novel is a story of a young black woman’s search for love, spiritual liberation, physical satisfaction, and a way to defy the seemingly immutable laws of gender and race.  As her protagonist resists others’ attempts to script her life on their own selfish terms, Hurston invokes the symbol of the mule to characterize black women’s precarious condition in the United States: she is “worked tuh death,” “ruint wid mistreatment,” yet strong enough to carry impossible “loads” nobody else wants to “tote.” Though Hurston was loudly criticized, especially by her black male contemporaries, for reinforcing white stereotypes of African Americans, there’s no denying that her romantic tale was the first to allow a black woman a fuller and more complex existence than that traditionally afforded her in either literature or life.

In 1979, almost two decades after Hurston’s death, the black feminist thinker Michele Wallace created a firestorm of controversy when her Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman caustically exposed the dynamics of misogyny in the black power movement and deconstructed the mythology of the strong black woman image.  By examining its historical origins, its functions over time, and its harmful psychic and physical impact on black women, Wallace brazenly asserted that “strength” was a pernicious stereotype that had resulted in a conspiracy of silence about black women’s disenfranchisement and exploitation, within both black communities and the larger white-supremacist society.  Like Hurston, Wallace became a victim of vitriolic backlash from black men and women who accused her of disloyalty to the black community.  

But over the past thirty years, the key tenets of Hurston’s and Wallace’s analyses have been embraced by black women scholars exploring the interior lives of black women.  A respectable body of work by black feminists such as Beverly Guy-Sheftall, bell hooks, Patricia Hill-Collins, Darlene Clark-Hine, and Trudier Harris has repeatedly employed Hurston’s “mule” and Wallace’s “superwoman” frameworks to examine the intersections among race, gender, and power. At the same time, an outpouring of works by progressive male scholars such as Nathan Huggins, Kevin Gaines, Pierre Orelus, and Riché Richardson has explored the construction of black masculinity and black-male privilege under white supremacy.

Thus, the books under review here are the inheritors of a long discourse. They continue the conversation by drawing on previous feminist scholarship, cultural and media analysis, interviews, and personal experience.  Both have similar messages and share a similar agenda as they take a comprehensive look behind illusions that are created about and by black women.  In doing so, both offer an important opportunity to understand the connections between old tropes and modern-day expectations of black women.

Given the amount of writing on this topic, I was curious to see what Parks and Beauboeuf-Lafontant had to contribute to the conversation in a new millennium that has witnessed the rise of women in general and the historic ascension of a black first lady to political power and global influence.  Would these capable scholars successfully take their discussions beyond the usual consideration of stereotypical images of black women?  Or would two more theoretical contributions on the topic keep us wedged into the politics of grievance and leave us entrenched in positions of victimization with little hope of moving forward to cooperation, and broader activist and revolutionary changes?

Fierce Angels is an especially captivating and provocative read.  Through her detailed and lucid analysis of movies, television comedies, literature, drama, and advertisements, Parks explains how ancient stories of all-powerful and fiercely protective black deities, what she calls the “sacred dark feminine,” as well as the archetype of the slave Mammy, still inform contemporary expectations of black women.  Parks maintains that since “the beginning of the world as we know it,” depictions of the black woman have remained the same: “loving, fiercely protective, present at the most terrible of times and able to change them.” She also argues that “generations of people—black, white and just about everybody else—have been raised with the underlying assumption that black women will save them.” While it is true that the Mammy figure has had remarkable staying power within US culture, this blanket statement that everyone expects black women to take care of them is almost impossible to substantiate.

When American colonists forcibly brought African women to North America to be slaves, midwives, nurses, cooks, and confidantes, Parks argues, they also “co-opted the archetypal image of the Sacred Dark Feminine and used it to romanticize human slavery.” The image of the loving and caring slave Mammy allowed slaveholders to delude themselves into thinking that slavery was a benign institution, and in its aftermath, they hoped still to be loved by the women who raised and nursed them.  This “propaganda Mammy” served the nation’s collective emotional needs well past slavery into the twentieth century, solving problems, and offering comfort and forgiveness during economic and social upheavals.  Parks argues that today, the larger culture expects black women to “keep showing up just in the nick of time to fix the problems of white folks”—as Aunt Jemima, caring miracle workers, spiritual guides, Oprah, the Pine-Sol or Milk of Magnesia ladies, or in Parks’s own case, university professors.

In her strongest chapter—“You Say ‘Angry Black Woman’ Like It’s A Bad Thing’—Parks examines right-wing attempts to depict now-First Lady Michelle Obama as angry, bitter, and unpatriotic during the 2008 presidential campaign.  Michelle Obama was called rude, anti-American, ghetto, and ungrateful.  The New Yorker magazine ran a cover cartoon that depicted her and Barack Obama as threatening radicals, Michelle in an Angela Davis-style afro, toting an AK-47.  Parks questions white feminists’ conspicuous silence about these attacks.  After the presidential win, the discourse on the first lady changed.  “She became a media darling.  Beauty magazines inspected her hair, her dresses, her body (particularly her muscular arms), and they approved.”

Parks weaves the perspectives of black female political pundits, reporters, and bloggers into the discourse, to show how the democratization of media has allowed black women to grapple openly with stereotypes and voice opposition to racist and sexist attacks.  For example, Parks points to the commentary of Mary Curtis, a columnist for the Charlotte Observer, who wrote that the “campaign against Michelle Obama . . . has not caused a rift between black and white women so much as it has exposed it.”  Curtis challenged the mainstream media’s perception of Michelle Obama as an angry black woman.  “Successful black women don’t have to walk around grinning all the time to assure white people that they are happy they aren’t on food stamps . . . Asking her to skin and grin is too much.”  A blogger called That Black Girl echoed Curtis’s sentiments.  Michelle Obama is not an angry black woman, she wrote.  Instead, she is, like most black women, “confident, strong, and opinionated, and she isn’t about to apologize for who she is.”

The media’s initial characterization of Michelle Obama as angry revealed how the media represents all black women, except Oprah Winfrey, as inherently angry. Anger, Parks says, is used to play white and black women against each other.  “Traditionally, white women were not supposed to show anger, and an important mission of feminism was the right to be angry and to act upon anger,” she writes.  Since black women always had that right, the condemnation of the angry black woman “is meant as a cautionary tale to all women—a way of saying, ‘You don’t want to be like her.’ Because black women’s anger—the real kind—is often depicted as a changemaker.”

Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman makes similar points about the historical antecedents of what Beauboeuf-Lafontant calls present-day “mammification.” “Although no longer limited to domestic service, employed Black women too often are treated as modern-day mammies, prized for their fortitude, caring, selflessness, and seeming acceptance of their subordination.” Assumptions about black womanhood, she argues, began with slavery, as black women were viewed as the antithesis of white women to justify harsh labor, brutal whippings, and rape.  Some of those old assumptions have since been embraced and given redeeming qualities by blacks themselves.  As black women scholars before her have argued, Beauboeuf-Lafontant contends that ideas of strength and invulnerability continue to be used against black women by whites and black men.

Like Parks, Beauboeuf-Lafontant expands the cultural discourse in multiple ways, but she is more sociologically informed.  She listened to the voices of 58 black women, ages 19 to 67, who discuss what strength means to them.  Her evidence demonstrates her point that black women’s strength is a paradox—a friend and an enemy, an asset and a liability.  

The use of everyday women’s voices makes this study come alive and reduces the strain of consuming sometimes dense theoretical analysis that might not hold the attention of nonacademic readers.  Beauboeuf-Lafontant demonstrates how generations of black women have participated in creating an image of strength to build self-esteem, characterize themselves as exceptional beings, especially in comparison to white women, and protect themselves against threats to their existence.  Black women teach their daughters that strength is “a badge they must earn through extremes of suffering and reservoirs of silence.”

For both writers, black women are culpable, as they invest in the appearance of invulnerability.  They wear masks, live lies, keep up appearances, perform superhuman tasks, and take care of everybody else, while sacrificing their own feelings and needs, to the detriment of their health.  While women of other groups are also caretakers, for black women, strength too often has meant taking care of other families in addition to, or instead of, their own.  Beauboeuf-Lafontant maintains that “strength advances a virtuous claim about any Black woman whose efforts and emotional responses defy common beliefs about what is humanly possible amidst adversity.” Strength springs from the social imagination, and its real function is “to defend and maintain a stratified social order by obscuring Black women’s experiences or suffering, acts of desperation, and anger.” But strength is also a personal strategy, as black women “act as if they were invulnerable to abuse…. Black women present themselves as capable of weathering all manner of adversity,” even as they unconsciously collude in their own oppression.

Especially eye-opening are both writers’ explorations of the psychological, emotional, and physical impact that the “strong black woman” myth has on the lives of real women.  Both scholars argue that because black women feel themselves silenced and submerged by “prescriptions of strength,” their bodies protest through eating disorders and depression.  “Such problems of the mind and body,” Beauboeuf-Lafontant asserts, “can also be read as acts of self-protection.”  Eating disorders, she contends, allow women to creatively and intentionally self-protect in the face of childhood traumas, “subvert the feminine constraints imposed on them,” and in the process “make room for women to exist outside the narrow confines of femininity.” While neither writer suggests that depression or overeating is specific to black women, their assertions raise questions about to what degree these problems are driven by race and to what by the dynamics of a capitalist society that induces people to consume more and more.

Both books, although interesting, are limited by lack of empirical data and cross-cultural and cross-racial comparisons that could strengthen their arguments.  They are missing an honest discussion of how black women’s superhuman strength can sometimes harm and stifle not just black women themselves but also black men, children, and others.  For too long this idea has been written off as a vicious stereotype circulated by whites and black men, who’ve also been victimized by racialized notions of strength and weakness.  While these and other scholarly works on the subject admit that black women invest in strength to their own detriment, there is little recognition of how they sometimes lose connection to the female power of their sensual selves, out of fear of vulnerability, betrayal, or early messages that they must be strong and independent because black men are “weak” or “no good.”  

I would like to see this discussion of strength enlarged to include considerations such as regional differences, black immigrant and biracial women, and same-gender relationships, to bring vital this topic to an even wider and more diverse audience.  It is true that strength is a stereotypical and sometimes denigrating term.  It restricts, confines, lines up, narrows—like a corset.  Historically, the words “strong black woman” have been a prison sentence for many women.  But their staying power is undeniable.  Both these books ask black women to define strength on their own terms instead of embracing others’ definitions, which in no way advance black women’s individual emotional journeys.

The messages of Beauboeuf-Lafontant and Parks’s books should be embraced widely and applied practically so that legions of women and girls can summon the courage to finally give up the restraints of the image of the mule-like black woman.  Only then can women free themselves from the ruses of race and gender, and evolve into the more complex, fully realized humans symbolized by Hurston’s Janie Crawford more than seven decades ago.


Stacey Patton is a writer for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at Rutgers University.  She is the author of That Mean Old Yesterday – A Memoir (2007), which explores the historical roots of corporal punishment in African-American families.