Identity is a tricky pursuit. For black women in America, the pursuit is complicated by the stereotypes and image distortions put upon them by dominant culture—both male and white—and the ones into which they are socialized by their mothers, aunts, pastors, husbands, and friends. Every woman wants to be her own person; she wants to know and understand who she is for herself. But black women are shaped, pressed, and squeezed into a universal, truncated identity of superhuman “strength” that superimposes predetermined responses, beliefs, and roles onto an already complex existence. It used to be a source of pride and distinction to be called a ‘strong black woman’ but now women are awakening to the dangers of that double-edged sword. An identity that was thought to be protective and life-giving because it prevented hurt, pain, and damage is now being unmasked as a disguised death because it has brought illness, loneliness, and dysfunction. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes confronts head-on the ubiquitous identity of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) in her new book, Too Heavy A Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
Dr. Walker-Barnes’ work is a welcome addition to a growing group of contemporary books that tackle identity issues of black women, for example: “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America“, by Charisse Jones and Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ntozake Shange’s “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf“, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America“, by Melissa Harris-Perry, and Sophia Nelson’s “Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.” “Too Heavy a Yoke” is more in the tradition of Harris-Perry’s treatment of the subject: academic in tone and heavily intellectualized. It is not targeted to the mass market women’s audience, but rather is intended “primarily for pastoral theologians, pastoral caregivers (including pastors, pastoral counselors, and women’s ministry leaders), and Christian mental health professionals whose ministry and services encompass Black women.”[i] Readers outside those categories should be prepared to push through the didactic approach but will be aided in their understanding by the author’s personal transparency and patient delivery.
The book’s readability is also helped along by a logical structure and flow that makes it easy to follow the author’s discourse and to connect the dots from one thesis to the next. Her topical subjects go from a detailed and illuminating profile of the Strong Black Woman (Chapter 1), to naming and critiquing the historical and contemporary cultural forces that shaped and necessitated the identity (Chapter 3), to honing in on the unique role the black church has played in reinforcing the Strong Black Woman identity (Chapter 5), and finally to laying out her model of healing and recovery. Also, the “Purpose and Organization of this Book” section in the Introduction is particularly helpful because she gives insight into why she chose womanist ideology as her framework. Explaining her approach is smart because many black readers in her intended audience, particularly black pastors, are not necessarily well-versed in womanism, and if they are familiar with it, are likely to disagree with its tenets and philosophical slant, particularly those not of the Millennial age group. Case in point: her quotation of Alice Walker’s definition of a womanist: “A woman who loves other women, sexually and/or nonsexually. Appreciates and prefers women’s culture, women’s emotional flexibility…and women’s strength…”[ii]
The author’s profile of the Strong Black Woman is clear and compelling. She draws upon the already-established Jezebel and Mammy stereotypes parsed by Melissa Harris-Perry in Sister Citizen, and the Sisterella personality crafted by Jones and Shorter-Gooden in Shifting, as well as other scholars’ descriptors, for her three-part characterization of the Strong Black Woman identity: 1) excessive caregiving; 2)independence; and 3) emotional strength/regulation.[iii] Using examples of women she’s worked with in her professional practice, she highlights the common behaviors and attitudes that accompany each aspect of the SBW identity. In caregiving roles, these Strong Black Woman:
…took care of ailing family members and…generally were the first called whenever someone had a problem. At work and at church, they could be counted upon to take up the slack when someone else failed to live up to their responsibilities. Often, in fact, they foresaw the probability that the other person would fall short and they stepped up to the plate long before they were asked. …They rarely said no to anyone. …Whenever they felt the weight of responsibility bearing upon them, they ignored it, believing sincerely that God would continue to empower them to serve.[iv]
Walker-Barnes uses analysis of three hip-hop and R&B songs as the backdrop for her discussion of independence, which, she asserts, is basically about self-reliance. Looking to herself for financial provision, the SBW doesn’t need—in fact often eschews—the help of anyone, particularly men. Her comportment labels her as someone with an “internal sense of power and authority.” with a ‘boss’ mindset and who apparently carries this off with mystique-like ease.[v] The author perhaps sees the emotional strength aspect of the identity most destructive. Strong Black Women reflexively repress emotions, sometimes even the ‘positive’ ones. Fear of affirming others’ perceptions of angry black women, she strives for emotional equilibrium, or more precisely, the appearance of it. The author convincingly demonstrates the links of this false emotional strength to ongoing declines in the physical and mental health of today’s black women, urging attention from both the social science and ecclesiastical community and black women themselves.
A hallmark of the true value of “Too Heavy a Yoke” is the final chapter in which the author lays out her model of recovery and healing for the Strong Black Woman. She utilizes a twelve-step framework similar to addiction recovery programs, which makes sense given that she views adherence to the SBW personality as an addiction, a “force of habit ingrained in many African-American women from childhood.”[vi] Any woman who reads this book and can see herself in the attributes of the Strong Black Woman will not be untouched by reading the twelve steps for recovery. A woman who sees herself in the pages of this book will be forced to confront her profound need for Jesus’ intervention in her life, and her utter dependence on that intervention to abandon the strictures of this artificial identity. We all need to lay this burden down, and “Too Heavy a Yoke” can be a powerful catalyst to move us in that direction.
Writer’s note: The themes and ideas put forth in this book will be explored in more detail in subsequent articles in this series
[i] Chanequa Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, (Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 8
[ii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 9 (quoting Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens)
[iii] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 10
[iv] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, pp. 16-17
[v] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, pp. 29-31
[vi] Walker-Barnes, Too Heavy a Yoke, p. 186