Unbreakable or The Problem with Praising Blackgirl Strength


It has been almost three years since we learned the name Amber Cole, a fourteen year old blackgirl who was secretly recorded while performing fellatio on a former boyfriend.  Images and taunts spread quickly as the video went viral and commentary about Amber’s agency, privacy and sexuality sparked controversy across the interwebs.  There was slut-shaming, blaming, and judgment of Amber and her family (especially her mother) with little mention of the three boys involved (the boy receiving oral sex, the boy recording it on his phone, and a third who watched in the background).  In my gender class we discussed Amber with empathy and understanding, attempting through our closed door discussion to make sense of the thoughtless and cowardly ways people were vilifying her, defending the boys involved, and seeking a scapegoat.  There were several claims in online discussions that Amber should have “known better,” that she was just “being grown,” and “where was her mama at?”  It seemed inconceivable to consider Amber’s vulnerability, not only as an impressionable young woman, but seemingly because she was a young black woman.  My class discussed the racial implications of Amber’s situation and how her race (alongside her sex and age) colored her as anything but a victim, regardless of the laws of consent (for sexual engagement and being filmed).  We opined that perhaps if Amber were a white girl there would have been more sympathy, less visibility.  Stereotypes of blackgirl hypersexuality made Amber fair game, it seemed, and despite possible hurt feelings and embarrassment, she would “get over it.”  She was black so she was strong, right?  The pseudo-remedy for being bullied, shamed, and mocked in real time and online (to the extent of being included in the Urban Dictionary) was changing schools and a short lived twitter campaign.  Not so much.  The scars left from the trauma she experienced by being betrayed and parodied had to leave her broken and emotionally distressed, strength be damned.

It has been about three weeks since we learned the name of another blackgirl whose image and identity has been hypersexualized and ridiculed online.  Jada is a 16 year old rape victim who was drugged and sexually assaulted at a party.  Within days graphic images of her before and after her assault went viral on social media with memes and videos being made mocking her unconscious body.  In a brave and admirable response to being bullied Jada, with the support and encouragement of her mother, has used social media and television interviews to speak out against her attack, her alleged rapist (who continues to mock her online), and the countless cowards participating in attempts to demean her and her character.  Jada has said, “There’s no point in hiding. Everybody has already seen my face and my body, but that’s not what I am and who I am.”  Jada is amazingly resilient and initially I was impressed with how seemingly effortlessly she could recount her rape without emotion during interviews.  But then I thought about myself at sixteen.

While I join others in supporting and celebrating Jada’s bravery I worry that being proud of her stoicism is an improper response to the trauma she has experienced.  Jada is 16 years old and not only has she been raped, but publicly exposed, outed, mocked, teased and threatened.  Rape victims are usually afforded privacy and time in which to process the trauma.  Jada, however, has been put in a public spotlight and interrogated about an event with consequences that far exceed the immediate backlash and immaturity of peers. Perhaps instead of being proud of her for being strong we should let her be visibly devastated, distraught, shocked, and inconsolable.  Maybe instead of being impressed that blackgirls can withstand so much suffering and become role models for strength, we should be concerned about their emotional wellness, their vulnerability, their humanity.

I am not always strong.  When I hurt, I cry.  I sob deeply and from my belly releasing heartbreaking wails and screams until I feel more empty than sad.  There is nothing wrong with feeling pain and expressing it but society doesn’t let black victims mourn, society doesn’t want black people to feel.  We are made to believe that our feelings are dangerous so we suppress them.  We are told, repeatedly, even amongst ourselves that we are nonfragile so we think we must live up to those expectations.

Truth is, black folk feel implicated by other black folk and strength is something we feel we can be proud of.  A lot of the backlash against Amber Cole by the black community was shrouded in respectability politics and fear that her sexuality and participation in a public sex act might blemish an already sullied and stereotypic image of blackgirlness.  With Jada (and her mother), her strength and refusal to be shamed and silenced as a rape victim is seen as heroic and commendable (and don’t get me wrong, it is, but I believe that part of the reason we “need” her to be strong is because it reflects the overall strength of black women).

Remember Sybrina Fulton's "strength?"  Even on the stand it was her stoicism, not her tears, that seemed to demonstrate her strength.
Remember Sybrina Fulton’s “strength?” Even on the stand it was her stoicism, not her tears, that seemed to demonstrate her strength.

The problem with blackgirl strength is that it never lets up.  Blackgirls don’t have the luxury of a time out or a break to breathe.  The problem with blackgirl strength is that our very lives are at stake and if we don’t learn to mask our pain we won’t know how to survive.  The problem with blackgirl strength is that practice makes perfect and after while we have that strength, no pain, never let ’em see you sweat ish down pat.  The problem with blackgirl strength is that it doesn’t offer protection.  The problem with blackgirl strength is that nobody ever tells us we don’t have to be strong and we don’t know how not to be. That is a problem.

Blackgirls become strongblackwomen, whether they want to or not.  That is a problem.

Anger is permissible as long as it is tempered with strength, but black women cannot afford to be blue. That is a problem.

No matter what happens to them, blackgirls are taught they can “take it.”

That is a problem.

Mistreatment, abuse and misogyny are so commonplace it is common place.

That is a problem.

There has to be a way to protect our Jadas, our Ambers and ourselves without shaming and silencing our visceral responses to trauma.   There has to be a way to be okay without having to be so damn strong.  We have to make room for blackgirl emotional fluidity.  We can raise a fist in the air with tears in our eyes and still be powerful.

11 thoughts on “Unbreakable or The Problem with Praising Blackgirl Strength

  1. A young friend who attended a fraternity party a few years ago reported that in a long hallway about a dozen sorority girls were orally servicing the boys of the fraternity. As each boy finished, he was replaced. No one saw this as abnormal. Both the males and females were white.

    When she asked later why they did it, the females said that if they refused they would never again be invited to any frat parties.

    I am an old man but if this happened when I was young, I never heard about it. I heard about rapes and some beatings but not about production line fellatio.

    1. How are you so much more shocked and appalled by voluntary production line fellatio than rapes and beatings!? I feel you should be more worried by issues of consent and abuse over what is ‘normal’.

  2. Melissa Harris Perry breaks down the (strong black woman ) and how it’s problematic in “Sister Citizen” very well. I understand that the strength cannot protect us and it dates back to slavery. The “cape” as super women is draining emotionally and spiritually. We need to learn to seek therapy and let go and be in the present as ourselves not super woman. With feeling the pain comes healing and without feeling there’s no healing. But, then, I understand we lack access to spaces for this needed healing and or support to trust these spaces because often our strength comforts others we protect while it kills us inside.

  3. Black women, are in tremendous amount of denial and pain, we serve up and collude with a culture that is eating us alive[we live like we are black anglo-saxons/white], but we are deaf,dumb and blind about it, the so-called black culture within elements are self negating and self destructive, because it doesn’t support an AFRICAN IDENTITY/HISTORY, blackness as a Genesis/location-agency or black people greatness, because we have a lot of self loathing of our AFRICAN selves,[pick the pretty doll] the over-weight,sexual addiction,colorism,misogyny[kill that n***er,,anti-african feelings,the violence- death toll, says we are doing all we can to consume each other, because we hate our black selves [internalized slave mentality]..we let our children watch white is right images and send them to schools,that damage their self esteem-themselves, because, we are in denial[about this white racist society] and we reject our Africaness.even if it kills us.and its killing us daily.we are a people already under[social] seige.RECLAIM YOUR AFRICAN MIND AND LIVE..

  4. Every time I have been sucker punched lately because I am strong and they think I can take it, I think of this quote …
    “I have been told that crying makes me seem soft and therefore of little consequence. As if our softness has to be the price we pay out for power rather than simply the the one that’s paid most easily and most often.” – Audre Lorde

    And I had forgotten that the line that comes before it is:
    “Most of the Black women I know think I cry too much, or that I am too public about it.”
    Sister Outsider (p. 165)

    I don’t have any answers, just that hole in my heart

    1. Yes I have been told many time myself, that my emotions (which I proudly display on my sleeves-heart)…make me “too sensitive”. I believe my sensitivity and/or empathy allows me to be very aware of who I am and the things/ppl around me. My strength comes from being “weak” if you will. Or being able to express my everything.

      If I need to cry – I cry. I was taught at a young age “never let them see you cry”. My mother told this to me often if I was picked on, and/or if a white person ever pissed me off in a way that was beyond being respectful. I dont blame my mother, she was teaching me the way in which her world had to function. I grew to learn that I love my need to cry, my need to express, my need to be me. Even if its lonely. Its a release my soul needs. It is part, again, to which makes me stronger. I feel if I leave it all bottled up I am a whole other emotion that serves me no positive purpose.

      I believe me and my sistahs need a circle/large community to cry, to laugh, to drink, to dance and yes be merry. I said it before, A Trillion Woman March? Seriously, sistahs – women, need to embrace together so that we can heal together – much like saving this world together. My African ancestors, women, would sit around and talk (right?), and laugh and sing and breastfeed and cry together. Some of us aren’t what we ‘ought to be because we’re too busy not being who they make us out to be. We are often too busy trying to knock another one of us down that we fail to realize we’d do so much damn better if we just did it side by side. If this is the healing these girls need, either way, we must be there to provide positive outlet. Being a kind of strong one moment and another kind of strong another moment.

      Strength, as well as weakness, comes in many forms.

  5. My soon to be ten year old niece a couple of years ago heard me say, “I do not want to be a strong Black Woman.” She asked, “Why not?” I broke it down for her and my sister, her mother, cosigned. She smiled with relief following our explanation. Let the cycle be unbroken.
    I touch and agree with you. I hope Jada has someone to speak this message to her. I hope she has places to be all the way weak, effed up, pained and angry. I hope she has space to heal on her time.

    peace and truth,

  6. I am not disagreeing with your delicate prose here, which makes points both subtle and elegant. I will say, however, that trauma is singular and individual; private and public. To stand with Jada means to allow her to do things on her terms, in the moments and in the ways she sees fit. To think of yourself at 16 or to think of myself at 16 is to crowd Jada out of her own 16-year-old story and to tacitly reprimand her for “improper response.” Were another outsider (a white man, for instance) to say that Jada is not acting the proper rape victim, we’d go all in. I am not attempting to do that here, please understand. I am aware since before the days of Michelle Wallace’s Myth of the Black Superwoman that there is an unbearable emotional weight for black girls and women in this country. I cannot, however, harness that history to imply that Jada, a girl who is trying to re-write her current traumatic story, is becoming susceptible to a larger strong black woman mythos. She is trying to be beyond the blue dot that most rape victims are shackled with, for their own protection, it is said. When I see this girl, I see her vulnerability, yet I think “tell the truth and shame the Devil.” Not many 16 year old girls are equipped to do this (actually many adults aren’t either), but she is trying to. I can respect that.

    1. I don’t think the piece contradicts any of what you said. I think it’s addressing the mentality that looks at Jada as if she’s just in “strongblackwoman” mode and standing up for herself, nevermind the fact that her identity was outed by force. Since her perpetrators released her naked photos on social media, she may have felt she had no choice but to say something rather than let rape enablers determine her response. I think the piece just meant to reiterate the fact that Jada does not have to be strong all the time. That there is healing in being vulnerable, and that her supporters should be ever mindful of that.

      What’s also the underline theme here is shame. Jada was shamed for being forced sexually, while Amber was shamed for what was presumably voluntary sexual activity. We’re so used to being abused by society that it’s almost second nature to just buck up and take it. And seeing us persevere under that hatred often makes society more hateful and damaging. I believe it’s just a reminder that these young women are not the problem, the problem is in the atmosphere.

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