This Cape is Heavy
By Shereá Denise
Angry. Loud. Intimidating. Strong.
There are so many stereotypes about Black women. All it takes is a simple Google search or about fifteen minutes watching any reality television show to see exactly how Americans view Black women. We are typically characterized as angry and loud or – in limited situations – as the comedian. The few times that another word is used, it is often “strong,” which is intended to be a compliment, but is often to our detriment. The obligatory cape of strength that Black women are forced to wear is what keeps many of us from going to the doctor and what leads many to believe that we cannot or should not be vulnerable. Too often Black women are not afforded the space to be emotional, to be hurt, or to be sick. To be those things would be contrary to who society has decided that we are and to whom we so frequently – perhaps unintentionally – encourage one another to be.
Recently, Taraji P. Henson has been speaking out about her own mental health and how the “strong Black woman” myth is negatively impacting Black women. Taraji has received attention for her work with Black students who are dealing with mental health issues in the classroom, but the interview that she did with Self magazine is probably what really helped me recognize just how familiar Taraji was with the cape as well. In this interview, Taraji spoke of her decision to move to Los Angeles with $700.00 and her two-year-old son. She said, “I know people see that as strength… [b]ut understand it wasn't easy, and I didn't walk through it with this cape on my back. It looked like some superhero shit, but baby, it was a lot of days where I was screaming into my pillow, crying, second-guessing myself, calling my father… There were [times] where I didn't know how the story was going to end.” I believe that this level of honesty is what Black people, specifically Black women, need. We need those people who we believe to have it all together to tell us that what we thought was their strength was something much different.
I am confident that many Black women can relate to the feelings of Taraji P. Henson. It seems like, just because we are Black women, we are often obligated to the idea of a strength that proves detrimental in so many ways. Not only is this concept of strength harmful in how we view one another, but it becomes even more problematic when we consider how it alters how we view and what we expect of ourselves. Taraji’s discussion of her own mental health makes it clear that we all know that the weight of this cape is harmful, but too many of us have yet to take it off and are openly critical of those who do.
Take, for example, the words of so many Black women who spoke out against Senator Kamala Harris during her candidacy to be the Democratic Nominee for President of the United States. While I was not an avid Harris supporter, I do recognize how overly critical Black women were of her and how the media used these criticisms to justify their mistreatment of Senator Harris. At some point we forgot that – even Kamala Harris – was being forced to wear the cape.
It was concerning and beyond obvious that Senator Harris’ advisors were cautioning her against being the stereotypical Black woman. It was noticeable that Kamala Harris had to fight a battle that no other candidates on the debate stage even had to consider. I highly doubt that the other candidates had to focus on their tone as much as it seemed that Kamala Harris had to. The quick comebacks and extreme statements made by Beto O’Rourke and even the most recent tearful apologies made by Elizabeth Warren were not even an option for Senator Harris. It was quite obvious that her job was to wear the cape, but not to acknowledge that it was there.
Note: I am not saying that Kamala Harris should not be held accountable for the things she has done in the past. I am saying that we should not expect perfection from the candidate that looks the most like us as if we do not know – at least at some basic level – their struggle.
To be honest, I began to feel sorry for Kamala Harris as it became apparent that her candidacy was coming to an end. I still remember some of her last public appearances where she clearly went above and beyond to not appear too strong or too passionate (because that could be considered intimidating or loud or angry). The truth of the matter is, I began to sympathize with her and to reconsider my own criticisms of her. Society’s descriptions and the media’s analysis of Senator Harris caused many Black women to do to Kamala Harris exactly what has been done to all of us. We were quite judgmental and not nearly as compassionate as we could have been, as we should have been. After all, each of us is familiar with the weight of the cape.
While I hate that Kamala Harris withdrew from the race because of the now obvious lack of diversity in the crew of candidates, I also recognize that – too often – it proves to be easier for Black women to bow out than to sacrifice themselves in an effort to show the world that Black women are more than just angry, loud, intimidating, and strong.
It is not lost on me that, in the months following Kamala Harris’ withdrawal, we began hearing more about Attorney Kimberly Gardner, who is yet another Black woman that has been working to persevere in a world that does not welcome her. Ms. Gardner is St. Louis' first Black
female prosecutor and she recently made headlines for filing a lawsuit against her city’s leadership. In a bit of an unexpected turn of events, many other Black women Prosecutors have showed their support for Ms. Gardner by making various statements about the mistreatment that they have also endured. This lawsuit has shed light on the fact that “[m]any other recently elected, increasingly progressive district attorneys around the country have run into entrenched resistance from conservative, often white police officers and their unions, judges, governors and even the attorney general of the United States. And black women prosecutors in particular have experienced a targeted, vehement form of defiance and intimidation.” It appears that what makes Kimberly Gardner’s situation different from that of Kamala Harris is the willingness of other people to acknowledge the cape and to share the weight of it.
While I am happy to see Black women supporting Kimberly Gardner, I also worry about the weight of the cape(s) that they are wearing. I wonder how such actions will weigh on those choosing to fight back, those choosing to demonstrate their strength in a world that will condemn them for it. We should not have to sacrifice ourselves nor our mental health to be seen as people. Yes, we are capable of being strong and – historically – have had no choice but to be, but that strength should not negate the fact that we are still individuals who suffer hurt, loss, and pain. The cape does not make us impenetrable. We are human before we are anything and the constant fight to prove our humanness while defending ourselves against stereotypes – whether they are intended to be good or bad – is a burden that no one should have to bear. Too often the microaggressions that we face and the capes that we are forced to wear only diminish our ability to show up as our full selves. Too often we turn to the next Black woman and expect her to put on the same cape as if we are completely unaware of how heavy that cape has become.
I think Taraji P. Henson may have said it best:
“There are some times where I feel absolutely helpless… That’s human. Everybody feels like that. Just because I’m a black woman, don’t put that strong-superhero thing on me.”