The Strong Black Woman Demystified

            Being both an African-American and a woman is not an easy task.  We are told all of our lives and shown by others that as African-American women we are supposed to be SWBs (Strong Black Women) all of the time.  Our parents are, our grandmothers are and our great grandmothers were all the way back to slavery.  But what does that often mean?  That we bear the burdens alone, do it all and be super women.  We are to raise our children often without fathers.  Be both mother and father to them and then the backbone of our men.  Nurture everyone.  I have visited prisons a lot in the past and there are so many women that visit the incarcerated men because they want to stand by their men and support them.  They bring up the children so that these fathers will be able to be dads in spite of their incarceration.  But in women’s prisons only family members and children are on the visiting roster.  Where are the men to support them?  The older women in my family were always very strong and my younger family members and I were always reminded of them.  Many of my relatives past down the story of my great-grand mother saving many of her nieces and grand children from a house fire.  The story is that she was a very petite and fragile woman, but still carried out over seven children from the fire.  They held on to her legs and arms and she got all of them out of the house before it was consumed.   

            I never saw my mother cry as a child.  Not until my oldest sister died did I ever see her cry.  All those times we went back and forth to the emergency room of Jacoby Hospital in Queens since at that time they were the only hospital that knew how to treat my sister for the Lupus she was diagnosed as having when she was three.  It took us about two hours each way to get to Queens from our Harlem residence.  Back then hardly any doctor knew what Lupus was.  Today they still call it the most misdiagnosed disease because some of its symptoms resemble other diseases.  It is also known as The Wolf because of the way it often devours the internal organs.  Many times I did my homework in the emergency room.  I never saw my mother’s frustration though she would be tired I am sure after working a full eight hours and them spending almost as much time in the hospital with my sister.  I never saw a lot of emotion in my mother.  She handled things and you really couldn’t tell if it bothered her or not.  My home was very matriarchal.  My father paid the bills but he didn’t run the household.  He didn’t want to, instead he ran the streets. 

            As a woman I feel that I must always see the world very different from men.  I have to constantly worry about my safety.  I must teach my daughter tactics that will keep her safe.  I must always worry about being safe.  I am always praying that my daughter is never a victim of things that, for the most part, women are the victims of, such as rape or mental, physical or sexual abuse at the hands of a lover or husband. 

            As a young female growing up in the projects of Harlem the concerns I had to deal with is being harassed by the guys and even older men in my building.  There was a time that young girls were getting raped in my building and I have heard about girls being raped and even thrown off of the roof in other projects close to where I lived.  In my building a few girls had been forced to the roof and raped.  There was a certain fear I had when I had to enter my building that I had all of the twenty years I lived there.  When you entered the building you had to make sure you either knew who got on the elevator with you or that your intuition told you that the person was not harmful.  As a teenager the girls I hung around with were not very feminine because during that time it was not wise to show that part of you since it could be interpreted as a sign of weakness.   Walking the streets at night my friends and I acted very tough - - it was a way to survive.  I had no brothers so that made it even harder.  There were times I got up in guys faces in order to protect my sisters from being disrespected.  One of my friends carried a gun.  Many of my high school friends carried knives.  My demeanor let people know that I took no nonsense and for the most part it helped to protect myself and my siblings.  My sisters were very soft and feminine and I had to be ready to fight for them.

            I grew up with struggling parents.  Both my mother and father worked but neither made a whole lot of money.  We could be considered lower class but we had more than a lot of the people I knew.  During most of my childhood we lived in the projects.  My mom worked at an eye glass factory and my father was a mail room clerk for Merrill Lynch.  My father took to the streets, hustled, played illegal numbers and drank all the time.  He won the numbers often and many of the things we acquired was not due to his job but the money he made in the streets.  Eventually my parents achieved the American dream and bought a home in North Carolina.  It was mostly my mother’s dream.  My father died not long after they moved south.  I strongly feel he died due to extreme boredom from living in the south and that he truly missed his New York life.  Like in many African-American families where the children have to help the parents financially when they get older, that was the case in my family.  Because she is alone now I help my mother when she is having a difficult time.  Sometimes I wish that she could have helped me more instead of the other way around.  I wish she could have given me the kind of start that most white parents give their children.

            I think that if we are to talk about who we are, we need to acknowledge how important our place is in our families.  I am the middle child of two sisters, one was sickly and the other not very mature most of her life.  Often I was the one that held the family together and created balance.  I was my mother’s support and there were many times that I kept my own issues to myself because I saw that she didn’t have the time for me.  There were times that I felt overshadowed by my two sisters and their issues.  I think that sibling order is as much the glue that defines us as does race, gender and other things.  I have read many articles that agree.  Middle children often feel like they don’t matter.  I was extremely close to my oldest sister who died many years ago and when she did a part of me died, too.  I think that had it not been for my child, who was only a few months old when she died, I would have killed myself or had to be institutionalized.  But I was a mother and I knew that my daughter needed me.  She saved me.  By putting all of the focus and my emotions on her I was able to go on.  The person that I was had everything to do with my sister.  I knew that regardless of how bad things got we would be ok because we had each other.  I was never that close with my younger sister.  But anytime my oldest sister got real sick I was right there with her.  It is still hard to talk about her.  I am surprised at how hard this is to write because she died over fourteen years ago but she was my life and I always say I was a much better person with her than without her.  When her hair came out due to the steroids she was taking for Lupus we bought wigs together, took them home and restyled them.  My mom was a good mom because she made the hand she was dealt work as best she could.  But the order I was placed in my family unit kept me quiet and feeling invisible, just waiting on the sidelines until someone needed me.  And I was that way most of my life.  When my husband needed me I was there, even after he went to prison.  When my youngest sister needed me, my niece and nephew, no matter who you were, I was there because I learned early on that I had to be there for those that needed me.  I try hard to not be consumed by others, sometimes I win but sometimes I let myself be consumed by other people’s problems because I am so used to that.

            My father wanted boys.  I always knew this.  When he died my knowledge of this was confirmed when at his funeral several young boys came up to my mom and told how my father was like a father to them.  How he took them to football games and was always giving advice.  He was a father to sons he didn’t have but not much of a dad to the girls he did.  My sisters and I were shy around him because we really didn’t know him.  And he never taught us what to look for in a man.  He never gave us any fatherly advice. 

            Like family emblems passed down from generation to generation my father passed to me the Diabetes that devastated his family for generations.  I grew up seeing insulin in the refrigerator and seeing my aunts and uncles with many health issues as a result of Diabetes.  I saw how they suffered, though I also took into account how they lived and ate.  But I was afraid of Diabetes.   I often obsessed over the fear, hoping that I never had to deal with it.  But like Paul said in the bible, “What I feared most has come upon me.”  And because I knew so much about it due to my fear and obsession, I was the first to diagnose myself based on the symptoms I was having and I told my doctor what to look for.  Chronic illness, any illness defines the person with it in so many ways.  You are two different people; you are the person you were before the illness and the person you are now, after the illness.  You wear the disease like a t-shirt you can never take off.  But I have finally learned that I am more than Diabetes. 

            Now I try to live my life by my own terms and get rid of toxic people.  I have learned through the years that disease is often the result of “dis-ease.”  I carried the burdens of others and that eventually made me sick.  I have a strong faith in God.  I read motivational books and books that teach me to be strong no matter what.  And as a writer I have learned to use it to deal with the hard things in my life.  When my husband went to prison and made me a statistic I didn’t want any part of, I began to visit the prisons and write about my experiences.  From that situation I wrote, “Secrets of an Inmate’s Wife,” which I sell mostly on Amazon and at other forums.  Women write me from all over the world and tell me how much they liked the book and how It got them through a tough time.  I have articles still circulating inside most prisons in upstate New York that have been for over twenty years and people still contact me about them which truly amazes me.  I spoke to the head of a department in a prison once who was impressed with me, she had read my articles.  I will never forget that.  My husband is home now, we have a new baby, he has a good job where he is the supervisor and now, my friends are envious of me and not the other way around.  I have been through many things in my life but I feel that I am finally doing what I really want to do.  I am going back to school and finally finishing that degree I started on many years ago.  When I look at my son who is only six months I know I can do anything, after all, God gave me a child, in spite of my age or health problems.  Because of him I feel I can fly.  There was a time I didn’t feel beautiful because of my dark skin.  Then I wrote, a piece for Chicken Soup of the African-American soul called, “Lovin’ the Shade God Made,” and was actually picked but when it was time to sign the contract they sent me, they decided to cut several pieces due to space and mine was one of them.  The author apologized and told me I should be very proud that my piece made it out of the three thousand that they received.  Yes, I was proud but I was also very disappointed and I wondered if they cut it because nobody really wanted to touch the issues that dark African-American people sometimes have to deal with, maybe not on the vast level that this book would expose.  Eventually when I have the time I will try to sell it again.  I have been through too much to let that bother me.  I will keep going.  My sister’s death made me weak in some ways and strong in others.  Disease taught me to fight hard for what I want because with all I go through to remain healthy I truly deserve to be happy.  And I have learned more than anything that nobody gets to choose the hand. 

J. M.

Fall 2011