“Don’t let someone piss on your head and call it rain!” These were the words that rose to the surface of my mind during an EMDR therapy exercise. I immediately erupted in laughter.
Though not in her voice, I instantly recognized the personality behind the words. Memories of my grandmother’s sharp wit and no-nonsense attitude streamed through my mind as I considered whether she would say these words to me in real life, and not just in a dream. Another laugh straight from the gut is my answer. Yes, she would… emphatically yes.
This is how she would react to my stunned silence at my supervisor’s behavior. She would want me to call him out on his garbage and get it all off my chest, professionalism and consequences be damned. She would want me to fiercely fight back in any instance where I have been mistreated. So strongly would she have felt this, that I am certain that if she were alive, she’d offer to tell him off herself.
Ma was a smart, funny, kind, and mannerly woman. Through her influence, her children (grandchildren and foster children too) were renowned for our exceptionally polite and respectful ways when in the company of adults. Visitors would say, often in genuine astonishment, that we were “so well-behaved”. When we were guests of someone else, an invitation to return “anytime” was the norm. She expected her family to be respectful and respectable. But she was also a street-smart fighter.
She didn’t take crap from anyone and never hesitated to put someone in check, if need be. For her, it was always better to nip it in the bud. And she didn’t mince words. Ever. Her epic no-nonsense and no B.S. attitude is one of our favorite topics of conversation in my family. And regardless of what the actual scenario is, it’s often hilarious, simply because it’s true. So, those initial words were no surprise to me. But as we resumed the exercise, the next ones were.
Now THAT gave me pause. We were using EMDR to try to break down some of the stress I’ve been having about the situation at my job, along with some particularly difficult past trauma around race and work that continues to come up.
Because I’ve been so concerned about what my grandmother would think of me and how I’ve handled these experiences in my life, my therapist thought it would be a good idea to envision a conversation with her about it. Like the one in my dream, I would meet with her and see what comes of it. I don’t know what I expected, but whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t that. But in an instant, I knew what those words meant.
“Save yourself” was a call to arms. It was a call to come out from under the strong Black woman stereotype, even if I didn’t know that I was hiding within it. It was a call to let go.
The strong Black woman is resilient by reason of necessity. She is familiar with hardship. But is expected to be hardened to all of it, racism included. Stoic. She is expected to stretch herself to superhuman proportions, unemotional about the dizzying shapes in which she contorts herself.
When presented with less than “enough” of whatever, the strong Black woman somehow manages to pull everything together. She juggles multiple plates and takes on more without ever letting one fall. She does not disappoint.
She does this at home. She does this at work. She does this in her relationships. She is the person who endures anything, gives everything, and asks for little to nothing. And that is the curse.
She appears to handle everything so well, even the hard stuff, that no-one thinks to offer her help or protection. No-one expects that she needs it. So, she grins and bears it, while her legs buckle under the weight.
Inherent to the strong Black woman stereotype is self-sacrifice. Her needs, wants, hopes and passions come last in-order to wear the crown that comes with lifting everyone and everything else up above herself.
You can argue that it’s a choice. But it isn’t always a conscious one. Without having the language for it, this kind of fortitude was built into my childhood ideas about Black womanhood through example. As a product of strong Black women, and The Cosby Show and Living Single era, I fully expected to do it all and have it all. I just didn’t know that eternal self-sacrifice was one of the trade-offs. I also didn’t know that in-order to reverse course, I would have to fight against another stereotype… the angry Black woman.