Depression? Defeat? Anxiety? Sadness? In the words of Sweet Brown “ain’t nobody got time for that!” As a black woman (see what I did there, speak in the singular because I am speaking only for myself) I have been told time and time again to be strong… to be resilient. And, generally, I am. But when I am not, I am not. And the most amazing thing about my having a bad day, or week, or longer spell is how OTHER PEOPLE can’t deal with it.
The black superwoman trope finds its roots in Michele Wallace’s classic yet still relevant (1978) book Black Macho and the Myth of the Black Superwoman. Within this trope, black women are characterized as having uncanny emotional strength, exquisite poise, and can practically turn water into wine. The black superwoman is strong and triumphant through the most adverse and impossible of circumstances.
See, the curse of my embodying the black superwoman is that I end up taking on everything. At any given moment in time I am everything to everybody, yet nothing to myself. This is often praised and lauded, the more I do, the more I am expected to be able to do…the more I am expected to do. I am in a constant state of doing, but yet still feel inadequate because I should be able to do more. No excuses for anything; I am not entitled to those. And most importantly, no bad days.
When it comes to dealing with other black women, I embrace those who are like myself. I struggle with how to deal with those black women that are not the black superwoman incarnate. I am surrounded by other black superwomen with a similar mentality. And when it comes to dealing with other black women I see these superwomen also shun away those that are a perpetual “mess” and “can’t get it together.” This dismissal is often summed up as, “there’s something wrong with her” or “she’s going through some things.” Generic advice is to “suck it up,” to “get over it,” or most commonly to “go pray.”
So what happens when the black superwoman has a bad day? Week? Months? The personal consequences of superwoman having a bad day are hard enough to bear, but the consequences faced when dealing with others magnifies to unbearable levels. I immediately feel shame, and embarrassment that I am bothered by whatever is ailing me. I try to smile through it. Amazingly, in character with my superwoman mentality/persona, my go-to solution to get through it is often to do more things–different things, but more nonetheless. This just creates a greater pressure and feeling of inadequacy, especially if I succeed in said new endeavors, as I feel like even more of a failure for not being able to deal with what I actually need to be doing. I also rarely talk about it. And when I do talk about it, it is only to select people, often not my family. Letting the world know that I am a phony is an equally unbearable fear. Not to let my “true colors” show is just another burden than I alone must bear.
Especially in the wake of the death of Karyn Washington, founder of For Brown Girls, I know I am not alone in my plight as superwoman incarnate. But a part of the curse is that–no matter what–I feel alone. So I know that my feelings of personal failure and weakness are trained, conditional responses. Karyn’s death struck a chord within me, not because I was super inspired by her work (although it is extremely necessary and inspiring), but because I identify with the personal struggle behind the front. It is sad that this tragic loss is what it took to spark a true conversation about mental health in the black community, but I hope the conversation continues because the burden of the black superwoman can be deadly.