The Strong, Black Woman: Deconstruction of a Stereotype through Violence
What does it mean to be strong, be black and be a woman? When put together as one phrase it becomes a common stereotype: the “strong black woman”. Ngina T. Bagget said it demonstrably in her poem titled “Strong Black Woman.” The final four lines exclaim, “Strong Black Woman/ Affected so many lives/ Being Strong for those who Couldn't/ But in the END Gracefully said Goodbye” (Bagget 2010). In these short line we see the identity of the strong black woman as a self-contained in control matriarch who thrusts through oppression even until death. This idea of black women being resilient and emotion-less is critical in literature especially when the notion of physical, emotional and mental violence is introduced. Though there are many arguments about the myriad of reasons (i.e.: white, capitalistic, patriarchy) for the stereotypical “black man’s violence,” the focus here is of the black woman as a victim of violence in literature and how this speaks to black women as a whole. The question posed is this: In Ntosake Shange’s choreopoem For Colored Girls and Gloria Naylor’s novel The Women of Brewster Place what are the reactions from the black women who are victims of violence? How do black women survive the oppressive violence demonstrated to them by black men? By deconstructing the stereotype of the “strong black woman” and clinging to other black women for support, the black woman is able to regain her voice and dignity.
To understand the strong, black woman, it is crucial to identify the binary by which it was born, that being the tension between black men and black women. There is an underlying strain between black men /women that has been current for centuries and yet theorists do not know how to effectively encompass and comprehend the stereotypical binary of “weak black man verses strong black woman.” The repercussions of these stereotypes are what elicit violence that one sees in For Colored Girls and The Women of Brewster Place. To enhance this argument that there is a distinct binary, Dr. Jean Wyatt in his article titled “Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Sexual Politics and the Genealogy of the Strong Black Woman” states, “When African American women and men internalize the gender ideology of the ‘weak men, strong women,’ there are political effects: The anger that could energize…dividing them from each other and thus preventing the solidarity needed for collective resistance” (Wyatt 55). Similarly to this statement are lines from For Colored girls like “are we ghouls? children of horror? the joke” (Shange 4). Instead of binding together as black men and women the movement is to resist one another and do themselves the disservice of silencing their collective voice. These women are seen simply as “ghouls” without any voice or presence. The silencing has come directly from their stereotype. What then do black women do with this lack of voice? Wyatt explains, “Being a strong, black woman meant that she could not admit vulnerability or imperfection or neediness” (Wyatt 57). Essentially to survive as a black woman in a society where tension between the two sexes is present one must be strong, even if it means she removes herself so far from her emotions.
A black woman must not admit to the imperfections of being human and as Shange puts it in her choreopeom, “we gotta dance to keep from cryin/ we gotta dance to keep from dyin” (Shange 15). Black women must keep dancing to the rhythm of life because black women have succeeded as matriarchs of their family due to many factors. Black women not only work against the violence of black men’s stereotype but also against racism and sexism. The black women constantly remind the readers that ‘We’re still here’ throughout The Women of Brewster Place by Naylor explicating the different character developments.
Unable to establish their her own identity apart from the strong, black woman, Lucielia “Ciel” Louise Turnerstory in The Women of Brewster Place is exposed to severe violence and her identity crisis that comes with the loss of her innocence. It is the coming together of black women that is what ultimately brings healing and rebirth to violence. Ciel is introduced to the readers not through outright descriptive narrative but through her thoughts and internal nature. Her narrative comes from the voice in her head as part of being a strong, black woman is to reject feelings of pain. Her relationship with her husband is detrimental in nature and he can be described as a man who can have a child but not talk care of it (Naylor 91). When Ciel becomes pregnant again with her second child, her husband Eugene asks “How the hell we gonna feed it when it gets here?” (Naylor 95). This tension rises as Eugene takes Ciel to get an abortion and the reaction Ciel gives (internally) is, “It was important that she keep herself completely isolated from these surroundings…Ciel wanted no part of it” (Naylor 95). In this scene Naylor deconstructs Ciel into a dehumanized object and forces the reader to ask: If Ciel is a strong, black woman, why did she just say no?
The deconstruction of the strong, black woman has begun at this point in the narrative and it only spirals with the loss of her daughter through electrocution. The violent death of her fetus to the hands of weak husband and the loss of a child due to a moment of negligence brings Ciel to the brink of sanity, “She was simply tired of hurting” (Naylor 101). Mary O’Connor in her article titled “Subject, Voice, and Women in Some Contemporary Black American Women’s Writing” describes this moment of severe loss more in depth when she states, “Ciel goes dead, she cannot mourn and is killing herself by not eating” (O’Connor 44). At this point there is not a strong, black woman in Ciel. She has given up the will until matriarch Mattie comes to be her savior. Ciel has been silenced by the violence done to her and Mattie has come to bring voice where it had only been internalized before. In a moment of deep desperation Mattie rocks Ciel like a mother would a child, rocking “back into the womb” (Naylor 103). Ciel finally releases the brokenness and allows herself to feel pain which complicates the stereotype. This rocking is done to exorcize the “evilness of pain” and Mattie gives Ciel a bath to “baptize” her back into existence. It took one black woman to bring another black woman to life (Naylor 104). O’Connor said it succinctly by expressing that, “This story calls for a period of mourning, a process of soothing and healing” and the most imperative aspect to the deconstruction of the strong, black woman is the process of healing (O’Connor 47). By allowing Mattie to enter into her vulnerability and figuratively baptize her back into existence, Ciel is able to regain a sense of consciousness. This is shown at the end of the story as Naylor writes that “…she (Ciel) would sleep. And morning would come” (Naylor 105).
As a contrast to Ciel’s expose that Naylor gives is the story of Lorraine that is found in the “Two” section of the novel. Lorraine’s story is the deconstruction of the strong, black woman but in the case of Lorraine she does not have the comfort and rocking of another black woman like Mattie. Lorraine’s rape is an instance of violence with no hope attached. No one saves Lorraine from her pain and even the reader feels trapped in her agony. Not only a strong, black woman, Lorraine is also a lesbian. If being a black woman was not difficult for its societal and social constraints the complexity of sexuality is now added to her individuality. Lorraine is a good woman but she “threated their (neighborhood) children” with her identity as a homosexual (Naylor 142). One could argue that she must now be a stronger, black woman in light of her sexuality. Her identity is a sort of hyper-strong black woman who can cling to her lover Theresa but no one else. Understanding the tension between black individuals, Lorraine states, “Black people were all in the same boat---she’d come to realize this even more since they had moved to Brewster---and if they didn’t row together, they would sink together” (Naylor 142). This foreshadows the horrific rape that Lorraine is forced to be the victim of and her prophetic words of “sinking together” become prevalent. In the moments before the physical rape occurs, Lorraine realizes why the boys are going to violate her and contemplates, “So Lorraine found herself, on her knees, surrounded by the most dangerous species in existence---human males with an erection to validate in a world that was only six feet wide” (Naylor 170). Laura E. Tanner in her article titled “Reading Rape: Sanctuary and The Women of Brewster Place” describes these males as “imposing them on the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning, not maker of meaning” (Tanner 576). The breaking down of the strong, black woman merely into a bearer of meaning forces the reader to see Lorraine as an object and not as a human. Lorraine is sinking to the hands of another stereotype. Pain becomes a character introduced in this moment and lingers as the men “pin her arms, wrench open her legs and tear her pantyhose” (Naylor 170). Violence has deconstructed the strong, black woman into nothing but a tall yellow woman in a bloody green and black dress whose only way of speaking, like Ciel’s moaning, is to say “please” (Naylor 173). Lorraine is reduced to nothingness and does not have a Mattie to bring her to life and ultimately she cannot be rebirthed into a new identity without the help or ‘rocking’ of other black women. Brokenness is all that is left of Lorraine without any hope of reconstructing her identity.
Like The Women of Brewster Place, For Colored Girls is a choreopoem intended to be acted out by each of the characters i.e.: lady in red, blue, brown and etc. Each one of these ladies has a story to tell about loss of innocence, children, lives and ultimately what it means to be a strong, black woman. Shange begins her choreopoem with each of the women coming onto the stage through different exits. This signifying the different stages of life and different experiences each woman has encountered on her individual journey. Each woman dances separately and like O’Connor states, “This separateness continues as some women reject others parodying one dancing, or refusing to dance, but gradually as the stories unfold, as difference and similarity are established, they begin to dance together” (O’Connor 46). The women realize there is power in their language and telling of stories. Their differences define them just as much as their similarities as is described in the dark phases of womanhood by the lady in brown. The lady in brown describes the disheartening view of being a black woman, she describes:
dark phrases of womanhood
of never havin been a girl
without rhythm/ no tune
distraught laughter fallin
over a black girl’s shoulder
it’s funny/it’s hysterical
the melody-less-ness of her dance
don’t tell nobody don’t tell a soul
she’s dancing on beer cans & shingles
This portion of the text complicates the idea that black women have never been girls. They were born into a world with no rhythm and no tune therefore they cannot dance to the events of life. The dancing comes only to mask the pain that has overtaken each black woman. Their laughter is distraught due to the realization that black woman are subhuman in this context. That their voices have been silenced by their stereotype and Shange’s entire choreopoem is to give each lady a turn to “dance” or to “speak” if you will. This is reinforced when the lady in brown goes on to say “she’s been dead so long/ closed in silence so long/ she doesn’t know the sound/ of her own voice/ her infinite beauty” (Shange 4). Each of these stories gives an opportunity for each lady to speak and perform of the travails and the violence that has been done against her. By giving a strong, black woman a voice the deconstruction has begun.
The lady in blue describes the violence of having an abortion, like Ciel’s experience of wanting to escape the reality, and ultimately she exclaims that there was “dyin dangling tween my legs” (Shange 22). The lady in the blue has a breakdown in identity as a strong, black woman because she recognizes that people “lookin at me/ pregnant” because that would minimize her power as a strong, black woman (Shange 22). Ultimately, she has the abortion and states that “this hurts/ thus hurts me/ & nobody came” which mirrors the experience Lorraine endured. When there is no one there to uplift the broken, silenced black woman she hurts. Sharing this experienced now draws the lady in purple, yellow and etc. to share their experience with violence and/or broken dreams. Shange is drawing these women together thru narrative. The lady in orange says it precisely when she states, “ever since I realized there was someone callt/ a colored girl an evil woman a bitch of a nag/ I been tryin not to be that” (Shange 42). The women in this text recognize that to be a black woman is to be a strong, black woman. The stereotype cannot be broken down until the black woman is heard. Shange closes the book with the story of Crystal and Beau as the ultimate breakdown in a woman’s psyche, like that of Ciel’s in The Women of Brewster’s Place.
The lady in red (Crystal) tells her story of her longtime lover Beau who comes home from the war disturbed and wanting to marry crystal and take care of their two children. Crystal describes Beau as “crazy as hell” and also as a violent man who “beat her to death when she tol him” that she was pregnant (Shange 55, 56). Crystal being the strong, black woman that she is removed her children from the oppressiveness that Beau brought to the family. This strong, black woman is played out when Beau tries to coax the children to come to him and she states “don’t you touch my children/muthafucker/or i’ll kill you,” her words piercing the weak, negligent Beau (Shange 58). When Beau finally coaxes the children into his arms he berates Crystal for not marrying him and continuing to be a “whore” who will not let him see his kids (Shange 59). When the children are in the hands of Beau, Crystal loses her fire as the strong, black woman and Beau shatters her identity as he drops the two children to their death. Crystal “cd only whisper” and ultimately she loses her children just as Ciel lost hers to violence (Shange 60). The ladies in the choreopoem now gather around one another and chant “i found god in myself/ & i loved her/ i loved her fiercely” (Shange 63). Just like Mattie give birth to Ciel’s new identity, the ladies in For Colored Girls gather around one another and find strength in one another. This chant is a song of joy that unites the women as they each recognize the deconstruction of their own stereotype and there is a unity and voice that comes with it.
To survive is to be strong and strong, black women are just that. This mythic strength comes from the idea that black women need to hold it together for themselves and the black community. The strong, black woman like Wyatt explains is used “as a weapon in the power relations between Black men and Black women” (Wyatt 60). This weapon that is held by black women is often turned on themselves bringing their own demise and own sabotage. Embracing this social construct has been the source of great violence between black men and women and ultimately leaves women to rely on other black women for their rebirth of identity. To shut down every emotion has been to survive and letting out in pain like Ciel, Lorraine or Crystal did is to embrace a new identity apart from the mythological construct of the strong, black woman. The reactions of women subjugated to violence are silence. When the silence is recognized by other women, the ability to call the woman out of herself and her stereotype becomes the ultimate healer. The deconstruction of the strong, black woman leads all individuals reading The Women of Brewster Place or For Colored Girls to ask themselves: What social constructs am I as a reader succumb to and how is my voice heard?
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