'A Strong Black Woman': A Good Or Bad Thing?

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There are plenty of images of strong black women in popular culture, including Hattie McDaniel and Oprah to name a couple. But what does it mean to be a strong black woman, and who decides whether that is a good or bad thing to be? Host Allison Keyes gets some answers from the author Sheri Parks who has just written the book "Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture."

ALLISON KEYES, host:

You're a strong, black woman, is that statement a compliment, a burden, a truth or a myth? There's a new book out there that explores the origins of the idea and its psychological and emotional cost. The book is "Fierce Angels: A Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture." It was written by Professor Sheri Parks. She joins us from WYPR in Baltimore. Welcome to the show.

Professor SHERI PARKS (Author, "Fierce Angels: A Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture"): Hi.

KEYES: So, former Essence editor Susan Taylor said your book opens a window onto female black power, both the reverence for it and what it's wrought. Is that what you were setting out to do?

Prof. PARKS: Well, yes, I was trying to explain something that was going on in my own life and something that I saw in other women's lives that we were living, but not understanding. So, yes, that's exactly what I was trying to do.

KEYES: Talk to me about who you see as strong, black women today. Our first lady Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, who else?

Prof. PARKS: Well, there are certainly those, but there are lots of women in everyday life. And, actually, I'm even more concerned about them, those women who grow up with the expectation that they will take care of everybody, and people who expect them to take care of everybody. I'm suggesting that black women already have an organically grown, traditional model of female power that they use to move through the world, but that the expectations that are put on them because of that are often exhausting.

KEYES: Let's listen to a clip of Oprah from the movie "The Color Purple," where she's playing the wonderfully strong character Sofia.

(Soundbite of film, "The Color Purple")

Ms. OPRAH WINFREY (Host, Actor): (As Sofia) All my life I had to fight. I had to fight my daddy. I had to fight my uncles. I had to fight my brothers. Girl, child ain't safe in a family of men, but I ain't never thought I had to fight in my own house. I loves Harpo. God knows I do. But I'll kill him dead before I let him beat me.

KEYES: I wonder, Sheri, is it that Oprah or the eternally empathic talk host Oprah that embodies the strong, black woman or is it both?

Prof. PARKS: Well, both. Certainly in "The Color Purple," Alice Walker is trying to say something about black women being created by the circumstances of their lives. And there's a quote in the book from Coretta Scott King who says that black woman are strong because they've had to be strong. And certainly that's there.

But, also, I don't think that you can explain the sheer power that Oprah has in American life without referring back to this image. But she's also, I think, learned to look after herself, which is something that many black women are not giving themselves permission to do.

KEYES: I'm interested that you said that, because I remember Octavia Butler's sci-fi novel "Kindred," where she travels back in time and ends up having to help her white slave-owning ancestor and injures herself really badly in the process. How much is this friendly savior idea affecting women?

Prof. PARKS: Well, one of the things that - I'm never saying that black women are the only strong women, I am saying that black women are the women in this culture who are regularly celebrated for being strong. And so, historically there are situations where the two images are played against each other, certainly during slavery, the weak, fragile, white Victorian ideal of a white woman was only made possible because there were black women around to do the dirty work. And I mean dirty in all of the ways that we can think of that.

I also say that that image is something that has maybe been preserved the strong woman has been preserved by black women, when all women at some point in their lives have to be strong. Maybe black women have many more circumstances in which they have to be strong. And it's something that we train in our girls and something that we grow up expecting to have to do and that other people expect it of us.

KEYES: But hasn't that image almost been co-opted by the people that paint black women as angry? They're, like, there's that African-American woman strolling down the street, or more correctly, strutting down the street carrying her sword and shield. Is that who we are?

Prof. PARKS: No, that is not who we are. But, I mean, you used the word co-opted, and I think what is important to understand is that this role is almost always co-opted in some way. Certainly in slavery that strong, black woman was literally co-opted for the use of the slave master. And if you think of the images, we often see that strong, black woman in the role of the lieutenant, where she's working for the benefit of someone else.

Black women often feel that because of that, that this is a role that we should run away from. And I'm saying, if you have a role in a culture that has such a strong and historical presence in a culture, maybe we should turn around and look at it, which is what I'm trying to do in "Fierce Angels," is to have women look at this image and see for themselves what they want to do with it.

KEYES: I want to talk a little bit about Hattie McDaniel, the mammy from the movie "Gone with the Wind." You're saying that the perception of her is because people don't understand who she is. She's been misunderstood. And instead of being this subservient person, she was actually infusing her roles, and that role in particular with some challenge and pushback.

(Soundbite of "Gone with the Wind")

Ms. HATTIE MCDANIEL (Actor): (As Mammy) I have told you and told you that you can always tell a lady by the way that she eat in front of folks like a bird. And I ain't aiming for you to go to Mr. John Wilkes's and eat like a field hand and gobble like a hog.

Ms. VIVIEN LEIGH: (As Scarlett) Fiddle-dee-dee. Ashley Wilkes told me he likes to see a girl with a healthy appetite.

Ms. MCDANIEL: What gentlemen says and what they thinks is two different things. And I ain't noticed Mr. Ashley asking for to marry you.

Prof. PARKS: If you actually go and watch the film, she does an enormous amount of fussing in the film. She's a bad maid. What Hattie was doing at that moment was being subversive. She had a racially uplifting theater career before she went to Hollywood. And one of the things she did was to mock the image of the mammy. She would say, aren't white people silly to think that these women who work for them love them that much?

And she thought she could carry that image into Hollywood and of course found that Hollywood wasn't so much interested in that. But she continued to try to infuse subversiveness into her roles. And so we really do misread and I say that often African-Americans have given away their foremothers to this image of the mammy. And if you go back and look at what women who are playing those mammies, women who were actually living the role as mammies, they were often working very hard to use what power they had for the benefit of their families and their communities.

KEYES: You're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We are talking about the image of the strong, black woman with Professor Sheri Parks. She's author of "Fierce Angels: A Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture."

Sheri, I wanted to talk to you about the sacred, dark feminine this ancient archetype that you were talking about. Really, this image has been along all the way back to how many hundreds of years?

Prof. PARKS: It's back to the first recorded creation stories where and I'm very interested in the fact that particle physics says essentially the same thing, that before there was anything else, there was darkness. But of course the ancient mythology said, and then she gave birth and the world begins. I found instances of the sacred, dark feminine on every continent. And so this is very...

KEYES: Really? Because I've seen mother-driven cultures, but I think I've seen that mostly, like, among the Vikings and that kind of thing. Was it actually it's Africa, it's everywhere?

Prof. PARKS: It's everywhere. What you saw is that the Celts actually held onto it overtly longer than any European people. But there are black Madonnas all over Europe. There are dark Madonnas all over South and Central America. There are the Native American corn goddesses. I mean, they are everywhere if you start looking for them.

KEYES: It's interesting again that you say that. We were talking earlier about the image of the strong, black woman being hijacked. And between the campaign to paint the first lady, Michelle Obama, as an angry, black woman, there's a movie called "Diary of a Tired Black Man," I mean, if you read some of the media out there, it seems like no one values an African-American woman's strength or her heart. If there's all this reverence for this person, how can that be?

Prof. PARKS: Well, the flipside of reverence can be fear. Certainly Michelle Obama was painted as an angry, black woman and notice, with very little evidence. But the label alone had so much currency and fear attached to it. All people had to do was attach the label to some fairly non-angry behavior. That idea that this strong, black woman is going to be out of control is important to understand. And that's why so many of the most popular images are with her under control.

And that idea that the strong, black woman out of control becomes this out of control, angry image is a very dangerous one for black women because when people fear someone, they will try to hurt them. And I think many black women have found that often they have been hurt by people who, one, assume that she cannot be hurt. That she's too strong to be hurt. And, two, that if they're not in control of her, she will get out of control.

KEYES: Sheri Parks, author of "Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture," joined us from our member station WYPR in Baltimore. Thank you much for an interesting conversation.

Prof. PARKS: Thank you.

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