Introduction A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood It is not that Black women have not been and are not strong; it is simply that this is only a part of our story, a dimension, just as the suffering is another dimension— one that has been most unnoticed and unattended to. —bell hooks, Talking Back T he defi ning quality of Black womanhood is strength. As a reference to tireless, deeply caring, and seemingly invul- nerable women, the claim of strength forwards a compel- ling story of perseverance. Critical fi gures in this narrative in- clude prominent social activists of the last two centuries, such as Sojourner Truth 1 and Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks. Each is invoked and revered for embodying a coura- geous, unselfi sh commitment to the protection and enfranchise- ment of the dispossessed. As an account, however, the persuasive- ness of strength is not limited to such historical exemplars. Also noted are family members and intimates. Although managing lives of hard, unremunerated, and often low- status work, such mothers and grandmothers have never— as the story goes— attenuated their feminine commitments to the men and children in their lives. Like women in more privileged and protected cir- cumstances, they, too, have been responsible and respectable. This widely accepted tale of who Black women really are also 2 / Introduction draws us to the attitudes of friends, coworkers, and celebrities who carry themselves with determination and a convincing sense of being “phenomenal” (Angelou 2000) women regardless of their portrayal and treatment by others. In short, strength advances a virtuous claim about any Black woman whose efforts and emo- tional responses defy common beliefs about what is humanly possible amidst adversity. And herein lies the problem. Because the idea of strength ap- pears to honestly refl ect Black women’s extensive work and family demands, as well as their accomplishments under far from favor- able social conditions, the concept seems to provide a simple and in fact honorable recognition of their lives. However, appearances are often deceiving, and much of the acclaim that the concept of strength provides for Black women is undermined by what I argue is its real function: to defend and maintain a stratifi ed social order by obscuring Black women’s experiences of suffering, acts of des- peration, and anger. As bell hooks (1989, 153) suggests in the epigraph, strength is a half- told tale. Within this incomplete narrative, “most unnoticed and unattended to” have been Black women’s human vulnerabili- ties. Swept under this cover story are what Black women experi- ence disproportionately— disparagements and violations of their minds and bodies, foreclosed opportunities to experience full citi- zenship, and social responsibilities that fall to them as people of color, who are women, and too often also poor (see, for example, Duffy 2007; Richie 1995; Roberts 1997; Williams 2002). In a soci- ety woven from resilient threads of sexism, racism, and class ex- ploitation, strong Black women occupy a par tic u lar discursive and material space. They are required to be, as Zora Neale Hurston (1937, 14) famously described, “de mule[s] uh de world.” Their spe- cifi c function in the script of American social relations— distinct from the roles of other race– gender groups— has been to take on the burdens and complete the tasks that enable society as we know it to continue. A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 3 Strength is a “mystique” (Friedan 1983). It derives from the American fascination with self- made personalities and a struc- turally transcendent, victorious individualism. Thus, strong Black women are important characters in a redemptive narrative or “sin- cere fi ction” (Vera, Feagin, and Gordon 1995) of race, gender, and class relations. As “invented greats” (Irvin Paint er 1996), strong Black women embody precisely those qualities that inspire a grossly simplifi ed and thereby sentimental statement about Amer- ican social reality. To assert the idea of strong Black women during slavery, segregation, or contemporary institutional racism and intra- racial sexism is to maintain a reassuring conviction: that per- sonal actions and agency trump all manner of social abuses. There- fore, the presence of “strong Black women” soothes many a con- science that could be troubled by the material conditions forced upon such persons and the toll of or ga nized injustice on their hu- manity. In other words, strong Black women do not simply exist, they play critical roles in the societal imagination and in social life. It is therefore questionable whether we can afford to live with- out the reassurance, comfort, and hard work they are invoked to provide. If such persons did not exist, it seems there would be much motivation to create them and maintain their presence among us. Listening Beyond Appearances Moving away from appearances and expectations about “strong Black women” to what Black women say for and about themselves can bring a markedly different image of strength to the fore. Crys- tal 2 is a thirty- six- year- old, fashionably dressed, attractive mother of two school- age sons. Pursuing her undergraduate degree at an urban university, she in many ways is a strong Black woman— a single parent devoted to her children and working to provide a more secure existence for her family. In my interview with her, I am struck by her forthcoming manner as we talk about her 4 / Introduction experiences of womanhood: She appears certain in her views and comfortable with herself. However, when I ask her directly about the concept of “the strong Black woman,” what it means to her, and how she has en- countered it in her life, I become aware of an underground that is rarely allowed to surface. And a lot of people tell me that [I’m strong]. Like when my mom passed, I didn’t cry [voice quivering]. And, one of my brothers said that, “I’ve never seen her cry.” . . . I lost my husband . . . . Well, it’s been ten years ago. I haven’t been married [since]. And my mom said that she was wor- ried about me at fi rst, but she see I’m doing fi ne. And I noticed my family would, when he fi rst passed, they would be looking at me and . . . I’d turn around and say, “What are you lookin’ at me for?” [said quickly in a high- pitched, exasperated voice]. You know, everybody’s trying to fi gure me out. . . . And maybe they think that I’m keeping every- thing under control, so I’m a strong person, despite what- ever . 3 Even though deep down inside, you don’t be feeling that way. You be feeling like life is just biting you up or something Through infl ections in her voice and the tears she begins to shed, Crystal expresses a range of emotions that she does not character- istically reveal, even to family: deep sadness over the passing of her mother, continued grief over the loss of her husband, and frus- tration over the ongoing diffi culties in her life. Crystal also refers to a “deep down inside.” In this space care- fully guarded from view, Crystal rec ords recurring instances in which she has needed but failed to receive support and encour- agement: “Sometimes, I want to be like, you know, patted on the shoulder or something. . . . Sometimes, I’ll be like, ‘Damn, my life is not so great. I’m having a hard time. . . .” From this hidden van- tage point, she narrates a counter to strength and provides a com- mentary on the costs of adhering to the mandate that as a Black woman, “I can handle anything.” Feeling and needing more than a “strong Black woman” should, Crystal must contain what she is not permitted to reveal. Despite thwarting her desires to be assisted and nurtured, ap- pearing strong is critically important to Crystal. Her self- presentation as a “strong Black woman” is a well- practiced strategy for personal esteem and protection. I hide my emotions a lot. So I think when people see you doing good from outside, they think you’re a strong person. . . . I think I like the idea when people see me as a strong person, and not a weak person. I don’t know why. It just makes me feel good. It’s, it’s crazy. . . . Because it’s like, I want people to look at me as a person that I know I can go to Crystal and get what I want, but at the same time, I re- ally want them to leave me the hell alone. So I don’t know. You know, it’s like, I don’t want them to say, “Well, I know she doesn’t have it.” I want them to know, “Yes, she does .” But at the same time, I don’t want them to ask [chuckle]. Embracing the idea of strength brings Crystal a level of distinc- tion. She becomes a capable person, someone who can reliably provide for others’ emotional and fi nancial needs. However, this virtue also leaves her with a set of irreconcilable oppositions out of which she must live her life: She cannot be both strong and have needs of her own; she cannot share what is going on “deep down inside” and retain the esteem of those around her; and she cannot take care of others and expect reciprocation. Such is the dilemma of strength— to choose appearances and remain unknown to other people, or to choose truth and risk being disregarded by them. Crystal selects what many other Black women see as the lesser peril: She invests in the appearance of her invulnerability, A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 5 6 / Introduction other- directedness, and lack of needs, and hopes that despite being taken in by the per for mance, others will somehow “leave me the hell alone” and not make such demands of her. Crystal’s experiences of being perceived as stronger— that is, more able and less vulnerable— than she is are far from singular. Black women commonly face such expectations and participate in similar mismatches between self- assessments and outward self- presentations. For Crystal, maintaining the illusion of her strength has relational costs, affecting her ability to experience recognition and mutuality among those closest to her. For many other women like Sondra, a married mother in her forties, the costs are embod- ied and compromise their physical and emotional wellness. I just think that, we’re always, on the surface saying, “Okay, yup, I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” And then in our rooms by ourselves, we’re like, “How the hell am I going to do it,” you know? But you fi gure out a way, but then, you don’t let those feelings out to anybody, so, eventually, it’s just a time bomb waiting to go off. So, and the heart attack rate’s high in the Black community. Sondra intimately knows what Black women experience and must manage in their lives precisely because they are perceived as strong. From this knowledge, she also contests prevailing medical views of distresses, such as heart disease, as the consequences of ge ne tics or lifestyle. Rather she insists that a largely normalized and highly problematic social backdrop exists to such health conditions: the compromised and exploitative material and relational life circum- stances Black women endure in the name of their strength. Contin- ually agreeing to numerous labor- intensive tasks, having no one in whom to confi de, and suppressing emotions of doubt, anger, and frustration are regular dimensions of Black women’s experience of strength. And, like Crystal, Sondra distinguishes between “surface” behavior to appear strong, and what happens out of sight, “in our rooms by ourselves.” Such a split in consciousness refl ects the exten- sive accommodations utilized by Black women to prevent discrep- ant emotions from becoming evident. However, in the pro cess of keeping up the appearance of strength, Black women’s bodies be- come repositories for the thoughts, feelings, and realities that con- tradict the one- dimensional view of them as unfl aggingly capable and ever resilient. As Crystal and Sondra describe, the word strength is both a social expectation and a personal strategy. As a demand, strength requires that Black women act as if they were invulnerable to abuse; and in adopting strength as a self- protective strategy, Black women present themselves as capable of weathering all manner of adversity. In other words, many Black women fi ght strength with strength: They manage unfair claims as though such were legiti- mate. However, on the other side of such categorical expectations are enforced silences. Invocations and practices of strength over- look the fact that Black women are subordinated within race, class, and gender hierarchies; that abuses both material and rela- tional occur given such entrenched structural imbalances in power; and that many Black women respond to such duress through their bodies. A Voice- Centered Framework Oppression within the United States is not only a material reality, but a psychologically invasive practice. Subordinated groups are encouraged to embrace social lies as their own reality— that is, to “become wedded to what within ourselves we know is a false story” (Gilligan 2006, 59). Such lies or discourses are frameworks of beliefs generated by those with the power to defi ne reality for others. As hegemonic tools, they are used to infuse psyches and social practices with par tic u lar meanings directed toward the le- gitimation of an unjust social order. Such commonsense ideas at- tempt to secure individuals’ active consent by encouraging them to A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 7 8 / Introduction deem noncompliant views— their “deep down inside[s]”— as devi- ant, unreliable, and therefore discreditable. However, as a growing body of research reveals, the psyche— or what post- structuralists refer to as our subjectivity— is capable of being a resistant space. Despite the existence of discourses and social pressure to con- form to the identities and beliefs that inhere in them, we are not fully determined by those expectations. As post- structuralist scholar Chris Weedon (1997, 109) explains, subjectivity is a contested and vital site for both social control and social transformation. Subjectivity works most effi ciently for the established hier- archy of power relations in a society when the subject posi- tion, which the individual assumes within a par tic u lar discourse, is fully identifi ed by the individual with her in- terests. Where there is a space between the position of subject offered by a discourse and individual interest, a re- sis tance to that subject position is produced. . . . The discur- sive constitution of subjects, both compliant and resistant, is part of a wider social play for power. Our subjectivity contains multiple, shifting, and contradictory stances for several reasons. Confl icts between what we should do according to these varied discourses can engage our cognitive abil- ity to wonder about possible options. Furthermore, our lived expe- riences offer us opportunities for building knowledge from the ground up and not only from the imposition of discourse- driven order. Thus, included in our psyches is the presence of widely ac- cepted points of view that places us in good stead with others, as well as our individual attempts at meaning- making that fail to fall neatly within such conventions. Importantly, then, our subjectiv- ity both conforms to as well as challenges the pa ram e ters set by our social settings. Language is a critical venue for the empirical exploration of subjectivity. “Voices” or ways of meaning- making are identifi able by the degree to which they carry forward conventional beliefs or discourses. 4 Voice- centered (rather than discourse- focused) re- search highlights the complexity of subjectivity. Attending to the overlooked and distorted experiences of women, voice- centered inquiry has sought to access and understand a central dynamic: the distinctions between cultural understandings of women or how they are supposed to think, feel, and act, and the perspectives or voices of individual women that are relatively “free from sec- ond thoughts and instant revision” (Gilligan 2003, 25). As Dorothy Smith (1987, 107) argues, to focus on women’s voices rather than prevailing social discourses is a subversive act of “creat[ing] the space for an absent subject.” It is also an intentional attempt to ac- cess the “subjugated knowledge” (Hill Collins 2000, 251) that op- pressed groups and individuals create in order to sustain them- selves in situations of inequity. Drawing on her work with teenage girls, Lyn Mikel Brown (1998, 36) describes how thought and behavior, while strongly pat- terned by discourses, are not fi xed: [The girls] struggle with, critique, and resist what passes as feminine expression and behavior, even as they come to speak through culturally sanctioned, patriarchal voices of femininity, and publicly perform, at times even judge other girls, along the same narrow standards. Listening to such girls over time and carefully examining their talk reveals a general principle. In the face of multiple social dis- courses, we can feel and speak consent. We can also engage in sur- face conformity, consciously “ventriloquating” (Brown 1998) words and performing actions of acceptability. Lastly, we can outwardly resist expectations. In other words, speech and behavior have the potential to refl ect as well as critique and undermine “the hege- mony of various available and ideological points of view, ap- proaches, directions, and values” (Brown 1998, 106). Consequently, A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 9 10 / Introduction attention to both voices and discourses in the speech of intervie- wees places in relief ongoing and disputed pro cesses of social control. Such critical activity, however, can escape scrutiny when the investigative focus is only on behavior or when speech is inter- preted as though it were the carrier of fl at, self- evident utterances. Furthermore, by attending to the meaning- making of individuals, voice- centeredness retains a sensitivity to the diversity of responses evident as people engage with the discourses and material condi- tions of disenfranchisement. The Listening Guide Out of voice- centered concerns regarding how subordination im- pacts the subjectivity of women has emerged a par tic u lar empiri- cal tool, the Listening Guide. 5 Described as a simultaneously femi- nist, literary, and clinical method (Brown and Gilligan 1992), the Listening Guide conceives of the interview situation as an oppor- tunity to elicit multilayered texts of human social experience. As Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan (1992, 23– 24) summarize from their development and use of the Guide to study the adoles- cent experiences of girls: Our Listener’s Guide . . . is responsive to the harmonics of psychic life . . . the polyphonic nature of any utterance, and the symbolic nature not only of what is said but also what is not said. We know that women, in par tic u lar, of- ten speak in indirect discourse, in voices deeply encoded, deliberately or unwittingly opaque. . . . Therefore, our Lis- tener’s Guide— as well as being a relational method, re- sponsive to different voices— is also a feminist method, concerned particularly with the reality of men’s power at this time in history and its effects on girls and women as speakers and listeners, as knowers and actors in the world. The Guide regards speech as a unique portal into an individual’s participation in social pro cesses. As such, it carefully examines the thoughts people convey, the manner through which they ex- press these views, and the often layered and contradictory mean- ings involved in their accounts of social reality. The Guide listens for, but more importantly, past social discourses to access a dis- tinction that people often make to themselves— between what they “think” as opposed to what they “ really think” (Gilligan 1990, 4). Thus, use of the Guide approaches interviewees’ utterances as texts with both manifest and more latent content, the latter often existing beyond the sanction of cultural prescription (Anderson and Crowley Jack 1991). And it is the interviewer’s responsibility to listen for such undertones in speech. The Listening Guide focuses on the less evident and often more socially disapproved aspects of speech, “the coded or indi- rect language of girls and women, especially regarding topics . . . that [they] are not supposed to speak of” (Tolman 1994, 326). Dur- ing the interview sessions, it directs researchers to adopt a stance of nonjudgmental responsiveness toward the words of the other person. Throughout analysis, it insists on multiple readings of in- terview text focused on different aspects of the psyche— social discourses, references to self, and distinct forms of meaning- making in the face of such discourses. Because it draws explicit attention to the psyche’s layered constitution through discourses and voices, the Guide makes evident the assemblage of conforming and trans- gressive thoughts and behaviors that constitute a person’s subjec- tivity (Gilligan et al. 2003). A Voice- Centered Project: Rationale and Methods At its core, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Per for mance is the product of listening. Because of the utility of strength claims to a range of race- gender A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 11 12 / Introduction groups seeking to avoid a confrontation with oppressive realities, assertions and images about Black women need not be truthful ones. In order to move beyond such myth- making to an examina- tion of lived realities, Behind the Mask focuses on the voices of fi fty- eight Black women, and their discussions of what strength means to them. It traces how a discourse of strength has been con- structed in society, and how as a strategy of womanhood it is in- troduced to Black girls through their mothers and women kin. Be- hind the Mask investigates how both the expectations and the strategy of strength envelope Black women in silence, stoicism, and ongoing struggle, and how maintaining these pro cesses im- pacts them body and mind. In the fi ve- year period of 2001– 2006, I engaged in an explor- atory study of Black womanhood. 6 I recruited participants through fl yers, social and professional networks, and word- of- mouth. The women who spoke with me included nontraditional college stu- dents enrolled in an open- admissions university and an urban women’s college, members of a loose friendship circle in a govern- ment agency, and individuals I encountered in my life as a Black woman and an academic. Whether introduced to the project by posters, key in for mants, or personal invitation, most of the women predicated their agreement to participate on having knowledge of me. That is, their willingness to reveal aspects of their lives hinged on knowing who I was— that I was an acquaintance of someone they trusted, a professor they had heard about, someone they had met personally, or that I, too, was a Black woman. Within the interviews, many women stated that the opportu- nity to focus on their womanhood was generally a novel and fruit- ful experience, one which they described as cathartic. Given the documented unease of Black women with questioning their strength or having challenged this seemingly unassailable aspect of their personhood (Boyd 1998; Dorsey 2002; hooks 1993; Shorter- Gooden and Washington 1996), I sought to create a responsive in- terview space in which they could speak about aspects of what they knew and experienced without feeling judged as less than strong or other than authentically Black. This approach refl ected my desire to have conversations about strength— not as an identity or essential core that defi ned Black women, but as a framework they encountered, accommodated to, and sometimes resisted. My interviews with these women were largely individual, but on occasion were undertaken in pairs or small groups. Lasting from thirty minutes to three hours, they varied in terms of length as well as intensity and detail. Adopting the voice- centered femi- nist practice of seeing the women as my teachers, as those who held the keys to understanding strength, I sought to be a sympa- thetic witness to their accounts and to listen for multiple stand- points in their narratives of self and society. I opened interviews with a general statement of my concerns about the paucity of re- search detailing womanhood from the perspectives of Black women. I also acknowledged that I was seeking the women’s assistance in gaining insight into their lived experiences. Working from quali- ties and statements about womanhood that the women had re- corded on a short demographic form, I asked them to discuss the salience of these ideas to their lives. The majority of interview time was spent asking follow- up questions to acquire a more nu- anced sense of how and why they saw womanhood in par tic u lar ways. I also sought their viewpoints on two specifi c areas of concern— the concept of the “strong Black woman” and the pres- ence of overeating and depression among Black women. In both instances, I was frank about my position as a Black woman and researcher who was trying to determine the relevance of these ex- periences given the absence of substantive attention to them in the social science literature. The women interviewed ranged in age from 19 to 67, with a mean of 35.6 years. Included in the sample are fi ve women born and raised in the Ca rib be an, as well as three who had lived on the African continent. 7 With regard to socioeconomic status, most of the women could be usefully classifi ed as “newly middle class” A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 13 14 / Introduction (Hill 2005). That is, their social mobility was recent and often lim- ited to their current house holds. Like many other middle- class Blacks, they typically worked in majority- white settings while main- taining deep interpersonal and material ties to working- class fam- ily and friends (Cole and Omari 2003). Straddling two cultural and social classes provided them with a par tic u lar “outsider- within” (Hill Collins 2000) standpoint that promoted their concep- tualization of womanhood in relational rather than absolute terms. As a result, the women’s talk of their race, gender, and strength often incorporated their awareness of other constructions of wom- anhood and were rarely narrow or exclusive discussions of per- sonal experiences. Rather, the women regularly articulated points of convergence and difference between their lives and those of the women with whom they interacted at home, in communities, and at work, and brought to the project a wider context of femininities than might be suggested by their age, race, or class status. That two- thirds of the women spoke about, through, and most often in confl ict with a strength discourse suggests its prominence in, as well as its impact on, their lives. And in the fi rst half of this book, it is their voices that carry the arguments I make about strength. That for the remaining one- third of the women the idea of strength seemed to be an echo of a past or distant expectation, relevant to other women but not applicable to themselves in their current positions and contexts, points to the wrongfulness of us- ing strength as a master template for perceiving and mea sur ing all Black women. It is these women’s experiences, as well as the cri- tiques that the others make about the accuracy of strength as an account of their womanhood, that motivate my efforts not only to document strength, but to identify some other formulations of Black womanhood. Taken together, the accounts of both groups reveal Black womanhood to be an experience more varied than common repre sen ta tions of “strength” allow. Using the Listening Guide to focus attention on the contours of the discourse of strength and women’s reactions to its imperatives, I encountered the existence of three voices: accommodation, muted critique, and recognized vulnerability. Associated with their at- tempts to be regarded as dutiful mothers, partners, and employees, as well as faithful bearers of family traditions, the voice of accom- modation refl ects Black women’s mindfulness of the “shoulds” and “have– tos” in their social worlds. Behavior and thinking are con- sciously and even willingly altered to conform to the par tic u lar expectations impressed upon strong Black women, and to avoid vilifi cation and cultural ostracism as “selfi sh,” “weak,” or “white.” Evident in Crystal’s earlier discussion of strong Black woman- hood, her voice of accommodation follows the dictates of strength and draws on the discourse as a reference point for her self- understanding, esteem, and actions. Although not affecting outward behavior, a second voice of muted critique refl ects an unraveling between the discourse of strength and Black women’s consciousness. Revealed in talk of spaces akin to Crystal’s “deep down inside,” this voice privately questions and stands apart from the prescriptions of strength. Women’s commitments to the discourse, however, override their growing awareness of the enormous energy involved and costs incurred in appearing strong. As a result, the presence of this voice in their talk rarely interrupts Black women’s outward adherence to strength. Nevertheless, by registering the struggles of Black women to keep up the appearance of their strength, the voice of muted critique importantly conveys the existence of often profound, but largely masked, physical and mental distress, including compul- sive overeating and depressive episodes. In contrast to the voices of accommodation and muted critique is the last stance of recognized vulnerability. Through this voice, Black women see and express themselves as multidimensional and developing persons with a variety of human needs and interests. For women speaking in this voice, strength does not exert moral sway over them as a policing regime or ga niz ing their perceptions and actions. What the women defi ne as good, important, and A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 15 16 / Introduction valuable are qualities that incorporate varied aspects of their sub- jectivity and the actual conditions of their lived experiences. Of- ten generated in response to problems of the mind and body that have debilitated a woman, this voice seeks a way of being that does not lead to the erasure and disintegration of self that many come to associate with strength. In the place of being strong, such women commit to the fl exibility and vulnerability of being hu- man. Taken together, the presence of these voices refl ects the var- ied and ongoing infl uences on Black women’s thought and behav- ior, and the challenges they experience to secure self- respect, health, and social ac cep tance within a stratifi ed society. A Personal Note on Strength Although a woman of African descent, I was not raised with the term “strong Black woman.” I fi rst encountered the concept in graduate school, when interacting with a fellow Haitian American classmate who was attempting to raise my spirits after a particu- larly frustrating day of coursework. Her comfort came in the form of reminding me that I was an “SBW,” a strong Black woman, and that I could tap into this virtue and reframe my experience. Rather than focus on my hurt, I could envision myself as the descendant of freedom fi ghters who had made social progress under much more dire circumstances. I could also dismiss the stinging behav- iors of some of the white women by characterizing these class- mates as whiny, weak, and having been spoiled by their privilege. In doing so, I could trade in “racialized gender” (Nakano Glenn 1992), following strength’s commitment to the opposition of race– gender groups to justify a social order riddled with inequities. 8 Using the term to refer to myself and reinterpret my world did boost my esteem, for a time. But I found placing myself and others in a narrative whose lines were drawn years before in slavery trou- bling. Outrage over the lack of progress made in social relations seemed muted under an ac cep tance that racial tensions and cul- turally specifi c and mutually exclusive feminine traits still carried the day. And even if this narrative were an accurate one, what was I to do with lingering senses of hurt and vulnerability? What if I didn’t always feel strong? Over time, I found that many of my “strong” Black women friends also struggled to name what pained them— rejection from faculty advisors, the insensitivity of class- mates to their par tic u lar perspectives on course material, deep wounding by intimate partners, and a general inability of others to see and treat them as human beings. Yet these injuries were routinely concealed by the claim and the expectation that they were “strong enough” to deal with any situation. And I witnessed a disproportionate number of such women stall during parts of the graduate program and in many cases not fi nish courses of study that they were intellectually very capable of completing. As one told me, unseen by the claim of her strength was that the in- stitution and mistreatment by others had “brought me to my knees.” Since those years, I have come to see strength as a construc- tion of virtuous exceptionality and have puzzled over its origins and effects on Black women. My questioning of strength ties into the indignation I have felt toward the requirement made of people of color and women generally to always rise above the socially orchestrated unfairness placed upon us. As Frank Wu (2003) dis- cusses in his critique of the model minority myth, tales of excep- tionality are duplicitous. Widely disseminated accounts of Asian American success are not a tribute to the abilities and achieve- ments of this culturally and eco nom ical ly diverse group, as much as they are a defense of a racialized and class- stratifi ed social or- der. To the extent that Asian Americans can be touted as able to rise above poverty, language barriers, and exclusion, their “suc- cess” can be used to affi rm the justness of American society. In the pro cess, the failures of other “unruly” minorities, namely Na- tive Americans and American- born Blacks and Hispanics, can be expeditiously and seemingly fairly attributed to their own internal A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 17 18 / Introduction or cultural limitations. Because of their ability to defl ect attention from a problematic social order, myths about exceptions bolster rather than question entrenched inequitable social relations. These carefully drawn and strategically retold stories of triumph pacify a social conscience that on another level knows that expecting a par tic u lar group to always demonstrate its value in terms of super- lative achievements is a standard both unnecessary and patently unfair in a democracy. It is at the convergence of expectations of immigrant and Black women’s exceptionality that I have come to question under what kinds of social conditions and to what ends exceptionality emerges as a virtue. And as is the focus of this book, I am drawn to explore the real yet often hidden costs these expectations of exceptionality have on those required to be other than human, intrepid and inviolable, and prone to look inward rather than to society to manage social inequity. It is my belief that such exceptions are used to prove rules not of such persons’ making and to defend circumstances of dubious benefi t to them. A Road Map Behind the Mask opens with Chapter 1,“More Than ‘the Historical, the Monolithic Me’: 9 Deconstructing Strong Black Womanhood.” Drawing together Black feminist scholarship in intersectional the- ory, cultural studies, and women’s history, this chapter introduces strength as a strategic discourse that rearticulates long- standing sexist and racist attempts to subordinate Black women. Beginning with Michele Wallace’s seminal text, Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman (1990), the chapter examines critiques of strength generated by Black feminists over the last thirty years. As discussed in the chapter, Wallace’s argument that Black women’s actual subjectivity exceeded their characterization as strong opened the doors to an interrogation of strength as a controlling image (Hill Collins 2000) rather than a natural identity. In the pro cess, it allowed important questions to be raised about how expectations of Black women’s invulnerability become normalized into strate- gies of womanhood adopted by individual women, in ways that lend their unwitting support to an oppressive and multiply strati- fi ed social order. Chapter 2,“Living the Lies: Embodying ‘Good’ Womanhood,” draws on an emerging feminist approach to women’s distress. Puz- zling over the gendering of eating disorders and depressive epi- sodes, this framework suggests that such are physical and emo- tional expressions of the self- silencing many women undertake to achieve standards of feminine goodness. Drawing connections be- tween this framework and strength, I review a growing autobio- graphical and clinical literature by Black women experiencing compulsive overeating and depression. I demonstrate how these two distresses refl ect an underlying dynamic of denial and the ac- tive suppression of strength- discrepant thoughts and realities in the ser vice of maintaining the image of good, that is, “strong” Black womanhood. Following the theoretical investigations into strength as a dis- course of racialized gender and its silencing effects on women’s bodies and minds, the next three chapters turn to the interview data. These empirical chapters elaborate a trajectory from norma- tive Black femininity to distress, and from distress toward a well- ness grounded in the women’s experiential needs. Chapter 3, “Keep- ing up Appearances: The Per for mance of Strength,” examines the socialization and interactional dynamics that render strength into a centerpiece of Black women’s “doing” (West and Zimmer- man 1987) of gender. Highlighted are the standards of stoicism, care, and selfl essness that Black women encounter from girlhood through adulthood, at home and at work, among intimates and strangers. This chapter also scrutinizes how Black women learn to create and also discredit an internal repository for their vulnera- bilities, fears, wants, and angers. Chapter 4, “Lies Make Us Sick: Embodied Distress Among Strong Black Women,” discusses how Black women call upon their A Half- Told Tale of Black Womanhood / 19 20 / Introduction minds and bodies to manage prohibited experiences of “weak- ness” and “inauthenticity.” This chapter demonstrates how forms of physical and mental distress— particularly overeating and de- pressive symptoms and episodes— derive from the proscriptions against “strong” Black women revealing their complexity as hu- man beings. Chapter 5, “Coming to Voice: Transcending Strength,” analyzes the social awareness and personal changes that become available to Black women, often in the wake of life- threatening disease or deep emotional harm. When they foreground their ac- tual experiences rather than sociocultural lore about their lives, Black women adopt a strength- critical view of social reality and readily admit their humanity. As a result, they question and resist their characterization as exceptions to the suffering others experi- ence in contexts of oppression. This chapter also explores how such individuals seek alternatives to the examples set by women kin and friends. Behind the Mask closes with an epilogue. Entitled “Mules No More, Just ‘Levelly Human’: A Societal Challenge,” this conclusion emphasizes the everyday ways in which people invoke strength and thereby entrench an overarching system of racialized gender. Highlighted is the importance of replacing the lies of strength with an appreciation of Black women as fully human so- cial beings.