The Deification of Black Women
On November 7, 2020, liberal Americans would see a hopeful day on the horizon with the election of President Joe Biden. People gathered on the streets to celebrate their win of the executive branch and what would be the “end of fascism and rise of democracy”. This win would give hope to the next pivotal election of the year that dominated news feeds on every social platform.
Screens yelled at users to make sure their vote was secured in the Georgia run-off elections with Democratic candidates Raphael Warnock against Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Jon Osseff against David Perdue competing for the tie-breaker seats in the Senate. Two months later, the Democrats asserted their dominance in the House of the senate. Celebratory tweets filled Twitter ranging between talks about the restoration of democracy, love for Georgia, and celebrating the work of politician and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams who helped combat voter suppression in the state of Georgia
However, those tweets were filled with subliminal messages of how Georgia, a majority of the Democratic vote being Black voters, and Stacey Abrams have saved America. It’s redolent of the way Michelle Obama was constantly told that she should run for president despite expressing numerous times that she has no wishes to serve as president. Such tweets might put a smile on one’s face as it seems that Black women are finally being recognized for the labor they put into fighting for what they believe is right. After all, we have constantly been the target throughout history and have to do 10x the work of others to get what we need to succeed and progress in society as a result of systemic racism. Many Black women have expressed that remaining strong and resilient has been a coping mechanism for them. But what lies beneath these tweets is deification.
The moment is reminiscent of the ways Black women, especially dark-skin, fat Black women, were portrayed by the mass media. In 1940, Hattie McDaniel became the first Black woman to win an Oscar for her role in the Civil war drama Gone with the Wind. The moment was historic and she received much praise for her role as the nurturing and caring housemaid under the authority of Scarlett O’Hara. Although historic, Hattie’s character, Mammy, stays strictly in the background, serving as an emotional support system for Scarlett and her daughter and doing the usual chores of a housewife.
This depiction seemed revelational to white people at the time, however, the film showed a glimpse into the life of Black women post and pre-civil war America. Black women during the times of slavery, especially those who were house slaves, took care of white children. The white liberal was exposed to these stereotypical depictions of Black women in the mass media with people like Mammy and Aunt Jemima (it wasn’t until February 2021 that the caricature was removed from the syrup bottle and replaced with the name Pearl Milling Company). The characters, exclusively dark-skinned and fat, were desexualized and their entire humanity revolved around the nurture and care they provide for the white people around them.
But the trope doesn’t stop there. We see characters today that are somewhat modified. Rather than explicitly serving up to the needs of white people, Black teens are portrayed as counselors opposite white teenagers, like Fareeda in Tall Girl and Dionne in Clueless. The idea of the SBW (Strong Black Women) trope manifests itself in the depictions of people like Annalise Keating in How to Get Away with Murder and Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures. Hardly ever does a movie with “weak” Black women make blockbuster acclaim which only furthers the trope. To watch one would require that you humanize them and realize that at times we fail just like any other human.
Such characters spotlight the false notion that Black women must be resilient and have the room, emotionally, to juggle a role in society that was always supporting the needs of others — you needed to be strong like those of a deity, a God-like figure, a savior. Black women would have to be selfless and ignore their own needs at all costs so that society could perpetuate the normality of misogynoir.
With deification comes dehumanization. Black women are expected to be the saviors of the same country that oppresses them. It seems that as soon as Kamala Harris became vice-president and Stacey Abrams fought for voting rights white liberals decided that it was now their time to step back from doing the communal work to dismantle the systems that make voter suppression so rampant. Later, they expressed their hope that Abrams handles vaccination distribution. What about the emotional labor and baggage those roles carry? Did anyone ask Abrams about her mental health afterward (not to mention, what about the people behind the scenes working to Abrams’s demands)?
Medical racism has existed far before the SBW tropes became mainstream and the trope has only enhanced it. The pseudoscience of colonial and pre-Civil War America marked Black women as being strong like animals to establish black inferiority and justify the heinous conditions they were subjugated to. To this day, notes of symptoms are downplayed or dismissed with the idea that “Black women are strong, they can handle this”! It is because of this that Black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die of pregnancy-related issues than white women and the research for urinary fibroids, which disproportionately affects Black women, is underfunded by the government. Black women are misdiagnosed and the general mental health of Black women is disregarded.
To ever truly give Black women what they are deserving of— that is, treatment like the humans they are — would require a total destruction of the systemic issues of racism and patriarchy in this country that torment our lives every day with the narratives spread in the media and thus perpetuated in the medical world.
Although seemingly motivating on its surface, hearing the phrase “you’re so strong” and throwing the word “goddess” at every Black woman from society leaves the feelings and humanity of Black women in the trash, leaving no to little room to be authentic to ourselves and the multifaceted beings that we are. These internalized phrases harm us, abandoning our mental health and needs and are exploited by the masses to further their self-interest while silencing the voices of Black women.