I’m Not Strong, I’m Just Human

by Jamilah Lemieux

The title “strong Black woman” is as misappropriated and tossed around as the word “hater.” If you simply continue to exist in the face of some great personal challenge or tragedy, someone will call you a strong Black woman (see: Chris Brown referring to his mother as one on “Larry King Live”). If you don’t have any very obvious inability to support yourself, or some glaring character deficiency, someone will call you a strong Black woman. Joan Morgan runs the voodoo down on the SBW madness quite lovely in When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost. Do yourself a favor if you haven’t already and read that, sis/bro.

I never wanted to be a “strong Black woman”; in fact, I bristle when people call me one. I’m Black and I’m a woman and I happen to have a number of things about me that are strong: my mind, my personality, my resolve, etc. But putting them all together under that title reduces us to some sort of monolithical fembot who’s able to shoulder all burdens because she’s unable to feel. I don’t know about all of you, but my shoulders aren’t always broad enough for all your stuff and mine, and feeling? I like to feel. I need to feel.

Those three words form an umbrella that isn’t big enough to cover all that I am and all that I do. I decided this long ago. I allow myself the space to mourn, to ache, to emote. I’m sensitive when it comes to my own feelings as well as to those of others. I don’t do emotional auto-pilot. When my stuff is out of sorts, you gotta let me cope with that and be all in. While I’m no fragile flower, I have found that when “I need a space to fall apart” (c) Cree Summer, it’s best for all parties involved to let me have that.

Yet I am constantly expected to be unbroken and hard. And I see so many other women who are willing to do it all and hold everyone down no matter what is going on with them. So many of our people have sipped the strong Black woman Kool-Aid and we don’t seem to realize that it’s all sugar, no supplement. It goes hand in hand with the dehumanized caricature of Black womanhood that was used to justify our enslavement, and it continues to make it too hard to breathe.

I have back-slid into strong Black woman territory a few times. Worst example: I was sexually assaulted a couple days prior to moving to New York back in 2007. Instead of sitting my ass down and taking a little time to process and heal, I was at a new job and in the midst of an apartment hunt four days later. No one around me seemed bothered by this. In fact, I even got props for being a strong . . . you know. I can’t help but wonder: if I were a White woman, would this have been the case?

By making “strong Black woman” so much a part of our identity, by having that “I got this” (“this”=everything) attitude, we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves. We deny ourselves the ability to be human. How many of our matriarchs have wreaked havoc on their physical, spiritual, and emotional health by trying to be “strong” enough to manage everyone’s burdens? Soul food isn’t the only thing making Big Mama’s pressure sky rocket.

Call the NAACP and tell them we need another word funeral. I never want to hear the words “strong Black woman” again. I want my sisters to feel as free to be publicly and privately strong or weak or both as they please without feeling that they are somehow required to put on a front of infallibility.

“…finally being real/ No longer colored and impervious to pain…” Ntozake Shange- For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf

  • L

    “By making “strong Black woman” so much a part of our identity, by having that “I got this” (“this”=everything) attitude, we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves. We deny ourselves the ability to be human. How many of our matriarchs have wreaked havoc on their physical, spiritual, and emotional health by trying to be “strong” enough to manage everyone’s burdens? Soul food isn’t the only thing making Big Mama’s pressure sky rocket.”

    Well said. Totally agree!

  • ETC

    This is a very wonderful piece. I agree with all of it. We have to learn to set ourselves free from this SBW standard before others can see all facets of our womanhood. It will do a world of good for our health, wealth and happiness.

  • Kacey

    I think people don’t understand just how damaging the SBW meme is. A lot of black women take it as a compliment – a title of honor and a shield of armor- but what it does is dehumanize us. We are seen as impervious to hurt so that gives the rest of the world free reign to hurt us in many different ways (because, you know, you’re a strong black woman – you’ll get over it).

  • MimiLuvs

    “Strong Black Woman”.
    The first time that phrase was tossed my way,I was twenty years old and it was a few days after I had my second ‘emotional collapse’. I was residing in a 72-hour hold, which my mother considered to be a ‘last attempt to help me’, because I kept myself hidden in my bedroom’s closet for two days.
    My great-aunt’s friend (along with a few of my relatives) had visited me one day and she told me that I needed to be a ‘strong black woman’ and then she had gone into a spiel about psychiatrists making me weak and the Civil Rights Movement. In laymen’s terms: my mental break down was an effect of being around ‘head shrinkers’, white people and the lack of religion. Plus, if Black people could survive the brutality that occurred during the Civil Rights Era, I could get over this “little issue”. The impromptu speech (when I think about it now) reminded me of something that you will hear in a pivotal scene from a Tyler Perry movie.
    So, yeah, I hate that term.

  • Rochelle

    I always take from Zora Hurston and say blk women are treated as the “mule of the earth.” It is very true. I consider myself strong seeing as what I went through in the past 10 years of my life. However I feel that I have to put on this façade that nothing bothers me as well. But many times I have cried by myself (never in front of people) just to relieve some tension off my chest. It is hard. Then u don’t ever want to get angry because u are seen as the angry blk woman. It is like blk women are put into a box. It is like we have to be robots. I have been a robot for the pass few years because often times as blk women we are not allowed to be “in our feelings.” That is a white woman’s thing to be protected and coddled. I need that too damn it. This is depressing me……

  • Chelley5483

    Mimi :(
    That is DEFINITELY not what you needed to hear in that moment. Hope things have gotten better dear.

  • Orange Starr Happy Hunting

    It’s like me and my mom say, black women cannot afford to have breakdowns, although we hurt and feel pain deeply, we get aggravated, we get frustrated, tired and frazzled sometimes too, we are human. We feel the racism, sexism, classism, misogyny etc etc etc but we are expected to take be like timex, take a lick and keep on ticking. Strength is measured in and by, what and how much you can take, in my weakness though the LORD is strong, really that is what keeps many of us going. Faith, and hope in the LORD.

  • Orange Starr Happy Hunting

    We have to set limits and boundaries and be free to express our emotions like hurt and anger etc in a healthy fashion. We have to take care of ourselves in a sense first. We have to let others know that sometimes we need help too or we just need to rest a while, unplug and recharge. We have to do these things or else we wlll burn out

  • MimiLuvs

    I don’t know if my frist comment willappear,after I’ve been 504′d by Clutch. But, here it goes…again.
    I hate being declared a ‘strong Black woman’.I hate hearing other Black women being called a ‘strong black woman’. In my opinion, the term (is ‘term’ the appropriate word? Or is it ‘phrase’?) is used as a tool to belittle/ undermine a woman’s level of angst/turmoil. Now, the person who tosses out that term might not be aware of the action, so I can’t say (generalize)that every person is intentionally being mean.
    The first person to throw the “Strong, Black woman” reference at me was a relative’s friend. It was during a dark, mental moment in my life. She told me that I needed to be a strong, black woman and get over the little issue (a mental/emotional break down) that I was going through.

  • Ooh La La

    I can’t stand the term “Strong Black Woman.” It’s used in the same fashion that people tend to greet others with a “How are you today,” knowing full well that they don’t literally expect the person to go on about how good/bad their day has been.It’s just so cliché.

    It’s almost as if black women get labeled this for doing most ordinary things. Or even when a black woman is truly bearing a burden, it’s has a negative effect because its expected of her. Can she not cry, hurt, feel like a human should?

    As a black woman, I have the right to be strong. I also have the right the feel overwhelmed and weak. I should not have to be looked to as the single stitch that holds the fabric together. The real concern is to all the ones quick to call me strong – don’t just commend me for holding the weight of the world, help me shoulder this weight because I can still be vulnerable and need support like everyone else.

  • MimiLuvs

    I am… taking it one day at a time. I am a lot better now.

  • Simply Millie

    OH I appluad you for writing this article. This is so true!!!!!!!!!! I cant stand it either the strong black woman title. Its like someone cutting you not expecting you to bleed, because you got to be strong. I hid behind the strong black woman armor my whole life. Your right its like kool aid all sugar no supplement. SBW is a tough mask to wear and can be so crippling to the soul and spirit. Again thank you for writing this, its what I needed to hear. I will share with my sisters and mother.

  • Right

    I can’t stand that term. I’m sure there’s some mental illness or deep issues behind women who are forced to be “strong black women” when they really need to cry and be heard or talk to a therapist.

    To me I associate strong black women with black women being treated like crap and people thinking its okay because you will get over it. It’s that mule thing. I don’t know why so many black women take this as a compliment. The black community has praised black women for making the most of suboptimal conditions so much that many of us accept these subpar lives and wear the strong black woman badge with honor and look down our noses at “weak” non-black women who have traditional marriages or strong support systems or therapists to help them.

  • Pat

    I WAS a part of this “strong black woman” structure. However, I didn’t want it, I never asked for it, and I didn’t realize I was a part of it. I was unaware because it was “taught” to me. The majority of black women are raised to be independent, and this “independent spirit” becomes interchangeable with being a “strong black woman”. For sure, it absolutely backfires. It is not a badge of honor to wear.

    While we need some areas of independence and strength, somewhere, the word “to be strong ” for a black woman was misinterpreted. It started meaning “do it yourself”. Also for some BW – THEY ACTUALLY THINK IT IS A TITLE OF ENDEARMENT. WHEN IN FACT (SOMETIMES) IT IS THE OPPOSITE – THE TITLE MAY BE USED AS A COP OUT.



  • P

    *Sorry, I forgot to take off my caps lock. Not intentional..*

  • P

    I also wanted to add this is one of the main reasons why sisterhood is so important. (NOT ALL) but some men just don’t want to hear what women are dealing with. Sometimes they want to help, but just don’t understand.

  • Yas

    Yes, even the “strong” get tired of holding it down. This post was amazing. I’m fighting back tears even as I respond– having been so moved. I feel like the proverbial light came on in here. Finally, someone understands. :) Thank you for writing this.

  • Orange Starr Happy Hunting

    Without a doubt you do have to be strong in this world, as they say only the strong survive but it is about a balance and setting limits and having boundaries, asking for help when needed, having at least one good girl sister friend or close fam member etc that offers emotional support and allows you to vent uninhibitedly etc

  • GlowBelle

    This is a great piece and it tells so much truth.The ‘strong Black woman’ mindset never works over time as I saw it play out and damage my own grandmother. She put everybody, and everything, like her abuse at the hands of my grandpa, under rug swept and on her back, and you know what, It crippled her mental and health wise. I see that now, how it kinda ruined her. That is something I don’t want if I ever reach her age.

    I esp. love the paragraph about how “we deny ourselves to be human”. If we stopped having chips on our shoulders, and allowed ourselves to not seek perfectionism, and begin to open ourselves up to people, things could change for the better. I feel when you admit to your mistakes and still are able wake up in the morning to try to overcome those things, that makes you strong, not this tight-lipped/save face stuff.

  • KTS

    Dehumanizing indeed. I can’t stand the SBW thing either. Especially since I have been expected to be that since I was just a girl. I was diagnosed with a chronic illness at 11 years old. I was treated for it on and off till I was 16 and the whole time the nurses, doctors, family members, people who I barely even knew talked about how strong I was, as if I had a choice not to go through all the harsh treatments and surgeries. Either I lived or died. I wasn’t inherently “strong” per se. I listened to them say these things to just me, not the other kids (most of whom were white) on the unit of the hospital I went to. As if b/c I was a Black girl I’d be ok. I wasn’t ok. I was broken and depressed and I still live with depression today. But part of me still feels ashamed as a Black woman to admit it or show when I’m not happy or at least content. I have definitely been affected by the whole SBW thing.

    People treat you as if you can handle anything. They are less sympathetic. And I’m talking about all races, even other Blacks. “What’s wrong with you?” “We are a strong people, we don’t let things get to us like that.” “That depression stuff is not for us, we’re stronger than that.” All stuff I’ve heard my family say to me, or around me….so, I’m sorry for ranting but this article really hit home for me. Kill Strong Black Woman please. She doesn’t exist. Just a bunch of hurt and broken Black women trying to “make it” and cover up thier real feelings

  • P

    Exactly! That is all I’m saying. We need both! But both wasn’t or isn’t being taught.

  • http://gravatar.com/ebony82 ebony82

    I agree with everything written in the post. People tend to think that when they label a black woman as a “SBW” that they are paying a compliment. Also, many black women accept it as a compliment. However, there is another side to such a phrase. As many of the responders noted, it creates this belief that SBW are capable of carrying all of the weight on their shoulders and then some. They don’t realize that such a term causes many black women to hold up a fascade about having to shoulder everything. I mean, did they ever consider that black women have to shoulder everything because we HAVE to as no one cares/volunteers to help us? Have they ever considered that labeling a black woman and SBW creates the notion that we don’t have hearts, are incapable of being weak and experiencing emotions. I love the poem by Sojourner Truth called “Ain’t I A Woman” because she speaks the truth. Calling us SBW creates the notion that we don’t need protection. That we could never be damsels in distress needing to be rescued by a prince because, with being SBW, we are stronger than the prince. Calling us SBW creates the notion that we don’t need to be coddled, soothed or told that everything will be alright because we have people to back us up. Why do you think that with all these negative stereotypes presented about us on tv and in the world that no one comes to our rescue? Because we have been labeled SBW. We can defend ourselves. I saym bury the term. We are women. We are black. We are humans capable of experiencing every single emotion there is. That’s it.

  • Apple

    It carries over into another way in that if you were to be assaulted ,harrassed or attacked in the street people won’t help you. They will just ignore you , watch or worst film it

  • NOitAll

    “Strong Black Woman” = “Yeah, I beat the crap out of her, and she took it like she’s supposed to.”

  • SayWhat

    This is by far one of the best articles on Clutch. Finally, something that caters to its base.
    I think black women are strong because we have always had to defend ourselves….by ourselves…..this is a remnant of slavery because up to the civil rights era (which wasn’t that long ago) white men could rape a black woman (even pregnant women weren’t excluded) and we had no recourse. I feel that because our men could never defend us, they stop trying, and to compound matters, the black community decided that the black man, and only the black man mattered, so again we learned to shoulder everything and not be a ‘burden’. In addition to that we have never been seen as ‘women’ in this country.

    Ironically, I think that the ‘strong black woman’ expectation is the root cause of the ‘angry black woman’. I feel like we’re asked to shoulder everything from abuse to exploitation and never complain, and as a result it causes us to be angry and resentful that we never get to be just ‘women’. That is the reason why I could never relate to white feminist.

    Whether at work or in school, I’ve seen grown white women get help by talking in a little girl voice, twirl their hair and go ‘I don’t know what to do’. To make it worse, after they get help, these same women (feminist) will tell anyone who will listen how they did it by themselves, and have the people who helped them (usually men) look proudly on and co-sign. I want to be put on a pedestal!! I want to be able to say ‘I can’t’ and not have someone say ‘you better’ or I don’t know how and not have someone say ‘figure it out’….whew, I feel better.

  • Anthony

    Twenty or do years ago an Ex schooled me on how the strong black woman trope normalized suffering for black women. As a man, although I have read feminist literature, my best lessons have come from regular who just made observations of everyday life.

  • Treece

    Yes! This is most definitely a remnant of slavery. And a cousin to the Angry BW meme. We carry a lot of the burden and stand by while other women get lifted up.

  • Anthony

    The strong black woman and angry black woman connection is profound.

  • http://gravatar.com/nolakiss16 binks

    I use to think the strong black woman mantra was a good thing until it slowly materialize into people thinking you are their dumping ground, you have no feelings (or your feelings doesn’t matter), or you should be able to shoulder any and everything and honestly it wears you down and starts to hollow you out because slowly you find yourself smiling and keep going when all you do is want to cry and just be sometimes. The strong black woman mantra brought a lot of good black women to their early graves or made them settle for less than the best. Though there is nothing wrong with being strong and holding your own in this world it is also good to be vulnerable, emotional and well balance to often people negate to think that black women are multi-layered and have other facets of our personality. Gasp…we get scared, we hurt, we feel things deeply,we cry,etc. Sadly there are people who think that we as black women can’t have the luxury if being human.

  • GeekMommaRants

    This is an excellent post! Thank you Clutch and thank you to all the Commenters!

  • http://www.facebook.com/stacey.joshua.1 Stacey Joshua

    And don’t be curvy or have any common sense, because then you’re everyone’s “Mama” – invisible until someone else needs a shoulder to cry on, like a backup singer who can only harmonize what someone else is singing but never have a voice of her own.

  • justanotheropinion

    Kacey – you hit my soul with your comment….

  • Eri

    I was just ranting about how having to be the “strong Black woman” is why so many of us are angry. Great article. Already shared it on FB along with my rant.

  • Lola

    As a black European I find reading the comments on Clutch quite fascinating. I realise that I have no clue about what it is like to be a black woman in America. I didn’t know about stereotypes such as angry black woman or strong black woman.

  • http://gravatar.com/greendoondoon greendoondoon

    This articles, the comment… absolutely sublime and so true. I’ve always felt a bit lesser because I’ve never seen myself as a SBW, though others have pinned that title on me. I sometimes have to ask for help. I don’t always have all the answers. I feel weak at times. I feel that life gets to be a bit too much and I need space to just exhale. However, I have to wear this cloak of strength because that’s what is expected of me.

    At times I’ve been angry with my own mother because I’ve thought of her as weak for crying (I’ve just started letting myself cry. I never used to do it.). I used to think that l she should just sort herself out.

    I’m going to try not to pass this damaging mentality to my own daughter. It may be too late for me, but I can do something to save another generation.

  • Kisha

    This article resonates so much with me. Watching my mother be a “SBW” has left it very hard for me to figure out how to let myself fall apart. I recently lost my first child, and it scared me to lose it the way I did. But I noticed I got back to work and not a person has asked “how ya doing” and my work load is just as heavy if not more. Recently my white collegue began to experience serious migraines. Very painful, I’m sure but people reacted as if she was dying, taking on all her work and making accommodations. It pissed me off and I could hear Sojourner in my head “Ain’t I a woman?”

  • Q

    That’s beautiful. Good for you embracing/acknowledging this.

  • Q

    I’m very sorry for your loss, Godbless. I will personally accommodate you with prayer.

  • aziza123

    I live in Europe as well (not black european though, there’s no such thing as that, honey) and I heard of those stereotypes. Don’t know where you live, but the stereotypes made by Hollywood, usually fly over to europe.

  • SayWhat

    I am very sorry to hear about your loss. I hope that in time you will heal.

  • Lola

    I am black and I live and was born in Belgium – if I want to identify as a black european that’s my right. Anyway I am not here to debate about semantics.

    Maybe those stereotypes about African American women are more prevalent in the UK or Ireland because they share the same language. But I’ve never met a Belgian person who cares about African American women. Belgium is a country devided in three communities speaking French, Dutch or German. With also have large Moroccon, Italian and Congolese communities and a growing Eastern european community. And there are also the neighbouring countries like France or Germany. So it might surprise you but stereotypes about African American women are not on the top of the list here.

    As far as the media are concerned African American women are not very much represented beyond the usual suspects Halle, Beyonce, Alicia .. IMO African American men are much more victim of stereotypes due to the rappers and RnB video clips showing them as tattooed sexist gangstas surrounded by women shaking their ass in bikinis.

    I was only talking on my behalf. I never claimed that no one knows about the angry black woman in Europe, just that I had never heard about it before reading clutch.

  • London

    @aziza123 Give me a break! If Black Americans are Americans, how are Black Europeans not European? Do you not understand the difference between nationality and ethnicity? Get a grip, honey…

  • London

    Thank you for this post! I rejected the SBW label a long time ago now, but it wasn’t easy as it is so ingrained. It is one of the most damaging ideologies for Black women across the world. We are not mules. Our greatest challenge is to allow ourselves space to be soft and tender, with ourselves and with others..

    This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be brilliant and dynamic, only that we must allow ourselves our full humanity. It is essential for our healing and development individually and collectively. Letting go of the SBW is key to our future happiness.

  • Wanda

    I blame those of us who came of age in the 1970s with promoting the notion of the SBW.

    Our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, etc., did not proclaim that they were “strong.” They went about their everyday lives with a sense of dignity and humility that screamed strength on its very own.

    I think we grabbed onto the SBW position out of a lot of insecurity about where we were going in society.

    So much had changed in between the 1950s until now that I don’t think anyone knew how to really process the social changes. I’d much rather be appreciated for my spirit and humanity than any so-called “strength” (whatever that is…).

  • http://lovetrenia.com Trenia

    Wow! I’m not sure how many people caught your comment, but you are so right on target! Thank you for sharing.

  • http://gabandgraffiti.wordpress.com MarloweOverShakespeare

    “in my weakness though the LORD is strong, really that is what keeps many of us going. Faith, and hope in the LORD.”

    Totally appreciate this.This is my answer to this whole post. Nehemiah 8:10 and Psalm 28:7. I could’ve absolutely gone OFF on many folks in the past two weeks (not that I’ve never gone off on any in my life). But there’s a power, a strength that I do not have that sustains me when I want to lose my marbles, and that’s His strength. I am not strong on my own. That being said I can’t speak for anyone else here, but I’m definitely weaker without Him.

  • False Consciousness

    Ahh shaddup.

    The only people who believed the strong black meme are the people who invented it . . . black women.

    All the rest of the world ever saw the whining black woman.

  • Smith

    Wow! This is (and has been) my feelings on the term “Strong Black Woman”. The author nails it right on its head! Kudos!

  • Karen B

    I’ve always bristled at this title. I agree totally with this piece. Kudos

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  • cheeky


    We didn’t invent it, it was thrust onto us, because of how we had to survive. Just another stereotype shoved onto us to make us seems less than human. So you need to STFU because you don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.

  • Roger

    Fcuk all of you on this post.

  • http://twitter.com/DeanFilmmaker Dean (@DeanFilmmaker)

    I can’t help but think of Sojourner Truth poem, aint I a woman reading this. In the poem a white woman dropped something and ppl knocked over themselves to pick it up and hand it to her. When a black woman dropped something ppl just walked by her, she can get it, she strong, she survived slavery you would have thought passer byes were thinking. Then the woman in the poem said aloud, aint I a woman. All this having to be strong is contributing to mental illness if you ask me.

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  • Misty-Mac

    Ain’t I a woman, too?

  • Be On It

    Love this!

  • Beth Clark

    Slow clap on all of this. ALL OF THIS. The article was pitch perfect, but your comment just really sent me over the edge. You took it back to the historic worth of black women, how the black man was declared the one that “matters”, black women not wanting to be a burden… I seriously am just catching my breath.

    The desire to not be a burden might also manifest in our modern vice-like grip on independence; I think there could be an interlink between decades of “having to make a way out of no way” socio-economically and the desire to not be a burden, that is manifesting itself in our modern obsession with independence… which some people think is having a negative effect on black relationships and thereby family structures, which are a stabilizing feature of communities. Lord. I can’t even go down that rabbit hole. It’s just all so connected.

    And then when you said “I want to be able to say ‘I don’t know how’ and not have someone say ‘figure it out’…” sheee-it girl! #Preach.

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