Black women are proving their strength by giving themselves permission to say no
In Marita Golden’s latest book, she reflects on herself at age 21 — a “raise-the-Black-Power fist, Afro-wearing militant activist” college student. This was in the late 1960s, and she was feeling invincible — willing to help everybody but seldom willing to seek help herself.
In “The Strong Black Woman: How a Myth Endangers the Physical and Mental Health of Black Women,” Golden describes how throughout her life she sought to project an image of “control and strength” in the battle against racism and sexism. But the disguise never allowed for a healthy expression of pain and vulnerability.
Hence, a myth created to empower Black women has become, for far too many, a deadly burden “built on a foundation of tears we don’t shed, pain we deny,” Golden writes. Too busy helping others and with no time for self-care, the Black woman is undergoing a public health emergency, with the cumulative stress of life turning her body into an incubator for all sorts of ailments.
Golden takes note of the devastating health outcomes:
Four out of 5 Black women are overweight or obese.
One in 4 middle-aged Black women has diabetes.
The fastest-growing segment of the population developing Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias is Black women.
Black women die of obesity-related illnesses — stroke and heart attack — more than anyone else in the nation. “Illnesses that could be prevented or managed with changes in diet and levels of activity,” Golden notes.
Her book — her 19th — is a powerful collection of poetic musings and healing meditations that takes readers on a myth-shattering journey toward genuine strength and real peace of mind. It could not be more timely.
Black women are speaking up and speaking out. After being called on to save democracy, repeatedly, serve as symbols of corporate commitment to diversity, and work for safer communities — all while supporting their families — many Black women are saying enough.
As Golden writes, wearing the Strong Black Woman mask has been an “emotional neuroplasticity that allows us to absorb higher and higher levels of pain.” But that absorption comes at a cost.
Golden attended American University before going to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She worked in high-stress newsrooms and taught at cutthroat universities. She co-founded the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, providing a creative space for Black writers in D.C. and wrote 18 books. And she often made success seem effortless.
Then two years ago, just before turning 70, a visit to her doctor revealed that she had sustained two symptomless “silent” strokes. But the MRI could not indicate when either had occurred.
“While I was unaware of it, my brain had been under attack,” she writes. “The image of myself that I had crafted over the years as in charge of my body, as nearly invincible, as the poster child for Black female health, vanished.”
The strokes, a subsequent bout with cancer and a dizzying rise in blood pressure caused her to take a closer look at the sources of anxiety and stress in her life. In discussions with other Black women, Golden began to understand the cumulative impact of racism and sexism in twisting the psyche and sabotaging the lives of Black women.
“There are competing images we possess of large Black bodies despised by the dominant society, yet accepted and even praised within our community,” she writes. “This is the muddled backdrop against which many of us are chiseling away at the hardened core of the legacy of annihilation of Black women’s confidence in and love of their bodies.”
That annihilation begins early. Golden recalled being age 12 in a foot race with boys along the 1400 block of Harvard Street NW and passing a group of men who would “strip-search the passing girls and women with a gaze.” That few people saw their actions as wrong shows how even little Black girls are believed to be nothing more than “miniature Strong Black Women” who can just dust off the hurt and abuse thrown their way.
As an adult, Golden believed that she must excel, even overachieve — in all situations — to prove her value to herself and others. And she met so many other Black women who believed the same. It didn’t matter if they were “white collar” sisters or “blue collar” sisters, all were overworked and stressed out.
That left them little time for self-care. Who has time to prepare a healthy meal, even knowing it’s good for you, exercise, or just stop?
So they don’t. And they seldom have talked about it either. No showing emotions, no speaking up. Just a nonexpressive go-along-to-get-along personae.
Seanna Leath, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, shared with Golden the results of a study that showed how some Black female students were wearing the stoic mask in preparation for working “in the White world.”
“Fearful of being labeled Angry Black Women, the young women often chose not to respond to racist comments or what they felt were misinterpretations of Black culture and life in their classes,” Golden writes. She quotes one student as saying, “I’d be dismissed if I got angry.”
But stuffing feelings is arguably more harmful to health than speaking out.
Golden’s journey led her to create a new kind of strong woman — one who eats healthier, maintains good friends, shares honestly about her feelings and makes time for meditation. She writes that this new strong woman fuses “qualities of resilience and confidence with love of ourselves, listening to our bodies and minds and spirits. She gives herself permission to say no and make it a one-word sentence, and makes self-care a regular part of her life.”
She’s not alone. More Black women are saying no. No to bottling their emotions. No to overworking. No to overachieving. No to neglecting themselves. And in the process they’re redefining what it means to be strong.
In Marita Golden’s latest book, she reflects on herself at age 21 — a “raise-the-Black-Power fist, Afro-wearing militant activist” college student. This was in the late 1960s, and she was feeling invincible — willing to help everybody but seldom willing to seek help herself. In “The Strong Black Woman: How a Myth Endangers the Physical…