The Black Column: Confessions of a Strong Black Woman
I cry a lot. And I mean… a lot. I have a hair trigger on my emotions and it takes very little to set me off. A raised voice, a misfortune, even just the feeling that I have disappointed someone… all of it can trigger the water works. This has been true for my entire life. It’s definitely not something I’m proud of, but it’s just a fact. If I were a character in a script or a video-game, it would be apart of my bio. Taylor Lamb is a crier.
A few years ago, I was at rehearsal for a musical in which I was the lead, and I was really struggling with something. Hitting a note? Executing a particular dance move? I don’t remember, but it doesn’t matter; the point is I was frustrated and exhausted, and as always… I started crying. I cried in front of everyone. As all of my cast members came to comfort me, my best friend said, “This is my first time I’ve ever seen you cry.” I was shocked. I think my jaw literally dropped. The two of us had been best friends for almost five years at that point! I was pretty damn sad in high school, filled with teen angst and crying nearly every day. How was it possible she hadn’t seen? But then I thought about it. Every single time I cried, I tried to do it silently. If I was in a class or at a sleepover, it didn’t matter. I’d hold it in. I would try to be strong. In fact, even more than strong. I think a lot of people would argue that the way I presented myself, at least when it came to my own personal feelings, was heartless– emotionless, as if nothing affected me. I was there for everyone else to lean on, my shoulders would get wet with everyone else’s tears, but I made sure to never let anyone else think I needed that in return. I would lean on myself, I would be my own shoulder. Okay, the image is a little awkward but you get the point. I was a “strong black woman.”
Most everyone has heard the phrase that’s become a meme, “I’m a strong black woman who don’t need no man.” It’s said as a joke, often by people who aren’t even black. I’d like to point out that no woman needs a man. But everybody needs somebody. Even black women. Yet, the stereotype is that we don’t. We’re strong enough to take care of ourselves and don’t need anyone else. No one notices us taking on more work than we should and struggling under the burden. People think to check on us last when something traumatic happens. We struggle with everything alone. This is, of course, perpetuated by the media. Black women in film/TV are the often portrayed as the mother figure/mammy tending after everyone. Then of course there’s the Sassy Black Friend who can offer a witty one liner when the white friend is suffering from her issues. The sexual deviant Jezebel, who experiences the lust but never the love. All of these stereotypes where black women don’t get to feel or to cry or to hurt. And when a black woman on TV does get to express emotion… is it sadness? Is it vulnerability? No, of course not. It’s anger. They yell or scream, frequently about something unimportant, and they intimidate the other characters because of their “strength.”
Don’t get me wrong, as far as media representation, progress has definitely been made. Shoutout to Shonda Rhimes. Lowkey, I even feel like we’re in the middle of a Black Art Renaissance, at least in regards to TV and film. But when black women do get a chance to be vulnerable on screen, audiences still have a major problem with it. I mean, I hated Olivia & Fitz’s relationship as much as the next person (except I actually still cry over a lot of their scenes but that’s neither here nor there), but people did not want her to feel! I once saw a tweet that said “Olivia is only interesting when she’s handling her shit, I don’t want to see her cry over white men.” First of all, the audacity to claim there is ever a time when Olivia Carolyn Pope is not interesting! Secondly, granted, women crying over men can be played out, but considering black women are so often portrayed as not needing a man at all, it’s different for us and that needs to be acknowledged. Besides, people thought the same thing when she cried about her father. About her mother. About losing a friend. People cannot stand the lip quiver! They don’t like to see a black woman feeling pain because it challenges the idea they have in their head. “Black women don’t cry…” They’re thinking, “Black women don’t feel pain. Does this mean I need to start asking my black best friend how she’s doing, rather than just unloading all my problems on her?”
No one likes to cry in front of people, that’s a given. But I shouldn’t have felt like I couldn’t cry in front of my best friend for five years. I shouldn’t have felt like I had to keep up this image that I didn’t need anyone else. And maybe even more importantly, if I felt that way, someone should have realized that’s how I was feeling. Someone should have known that it was impossible for me to really be so cold, that everyone needs somebody. And they should have told me that being vulnerable was okay.
So now I’m saying it. For past Taylor. And for you. Black women, it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be defenseless. It’s okay to express how you’re feeling. You don’t have to be the shoulder all the time. You don’t have to provide emotional labor for anyone else. Rest. You are human. You have the right to let someone, finally, be there for you.
I’m not saying black women aren’t strong. Unfortunately, society has made it to a point that it’s difficult for us to be anything else. I’m saying that you are so much more.