Myth of the Black Woman Superhero

Popular culture would like us to believe that Black women are invincible. We don’t need help. We don’t need to be handled with tender love and care. Despite whatever trauma or abuse comes our way, we are indestructible. This is why the Welfare Queen stereotype is still so pervasive. Black women should bear the full responsibility of taking care of children, making a home while working full time for The Man. If a Black woman is on welfare, she’s lazy — stealing from the government and gaming the system.

Although most Black women I know (myself included) and those I’ve seen in the media seem to fulfill the Black Woman Superhero archetype, this is merely an illusion — a myth. This revelation hit me like a ton of bricks after a Black woman gave me an energetic reading during a shiatsu message. During the aftermath of the trauma that ensued this summer she told me, “Right now you are so weak, your body is feigning strength.” Suddenly I understood the inner workings of my Cancer Moon — like a crab I project my hard exterior because on the inside I am nothing but fragile, tender mush.

Although we use this strong exoskeleton to navigate a harsh and unforgiving world, as Black women we have been trying to shed light on our true nature as early as during the times of slavery. Sojourner Truth, an African-American abolitionist and civil rights activist who escaped slavery, asked, “Ain’t I a woman?” a provocation which became the anthem of Black women’s experiences:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have plowed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

“Ain’t I A Woman?”, Delivered 1851 at a Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio

As Black women, not only have we been stripped of our humanity, but of our femininity — anything that would have us be perceived as soft, delicate, fragile, and in need of support and care. Emblematic of how Black women through the world, Black feminist anthropologist Leith Mullings (2000) coined the term “Sojourner Syndrome” to represent a survival strategy that has dire health consequences. During her battle with cancer, self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde articulated an illuminating interpretation of the Sojourner Syndrome:

“Growing up Fat Black Female and almost blind in america requires so much surviving that you have to learn from it or die.”

Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals (1980)

Some of us survive, but many of us die. Needlessly. In Black Macho and the Myth of Superwoman (1979), Michele Wallace exposes fabricated racially biased information of Black women’s superhuman abilities to tolerate pain. Consequently, medical professionals often discredit Black women’s grievances resulting in denying us pain medication and medical diagnoses which would facilitate early intervention and prevent premature death. The consequences of believing Black women are support humans is medical racism and largely responsible for Black women’s “31% breast cancer mortality rate – the highest of any U.S. racial or ethnic group” as well as the Black maternal mortality crisis in the U.S. in which we are “three times more likely than white women to die from childbirth related causes.”

I have come up against the harms of this false perception of Black women in my own life which is why it’s been a while since my last post. I am only starting to realize how much of this messaging has been internalized. I hate feeling fragile. I love being in control, on top of things, independent, excelling. I felt like a Super Woman navigating single motherhood with the full responsibility of taking care of a small child while in a PhD program. I was cooking, cleaning, paying the bills, taking care of a toddler, studying, going to the gym, taking my meds, making it to all my and my daughter’s medical appointments. I was handling things so well (which is also what my mental health care team was telling me) I felt like the bipolar diagnosis did not resonate anymore. I was taking life’s challenges in stride, one day at a time, like any other neurotypical person (and perhaps even better!).

But the illusion of my superhuman abilities quickly crumbled when both me and my child got sick and the sleep deprivation started to compound. My exoskeleton finally started to crack and the mush was slowly oozing out. I realized I had to ask for help. I could not afford to collapse. I needed to allow people to catch me before I fell. I had to admit to myself that I am fragile and I deserved to be handled as such.

Image Description: A glass shattered to pieces reflected on a white surface against white background.

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