It’s the Rosa Parks syndrome. We black women are taught to be martyrs, to lay our bodies on the altar of our community, in the well-worn tradition of our mothers, and their mothers, and so on and so on and so forth, so that our children—preferably, our male children—can go forth.
Before Mother Parks sat down that day on the bus, she had done all sorts of work for the community as a civil rights worker, but she wasn’t given time to speak at the historic March on Washington. Neither were other black women.
But I can bet you all that fried chicken the male speakers invariably ate—after the March—was cooked by black women.
Every woman of every complexion is taught–outright or by observation–to ignore her own needs for the good of others; I think that’s a universal woman thing. But I don’t know any white women who are taught that, white guys just have the right to listen to songs calling them “bitches and hoes” because it’s part of white male rage, the need to for them to blow off historical steam. Unless it’s Rush Limbaugh, nobody tells white women that white guys have had it so hard in this country, so let them play their mean-spirited, woman-hating music.
And though a lot of white people, men and women, don’t believe a white woman’s testimony when she accuses a white man of rape, a white woman doesn’t have the entire white community on her back, telling her to recant.
Even black women’s magazines differ from “mainstream” (i.e. white) women’s magazines. You never get articles in mainstream magazines advising white women to marry men who have less education than they do and/or who make less money than they do or even, to marry men who have been to prison. You don’t have articles chiding white women for being uppity, reminding them that they can’t really be too choosy about their romantic partners.
Tangent: I’ll never forget years ago, in the aftermath of that “other” march—the Million Man March—Essence magazine had this whole spread on the March. But black women weren’t even invited by Minister Louis Farrakhan to attend the March, which was billed as a “Day of Atonement.” I kept asking myself, if this is a March for men, why is it in a women’s magazine? And then there were my other questions: if a brother wanted to “atone” for what he had done to his wife and/or the mother of his kids, how come he spent hundreds dollars to travel hundreds of miles away from her to say so? I mean, he couldn’t get a babysitter and take a sister out to the Red Lobster within a twenty-mile radius or something?
The notion that black women should never occupy an uppity space means that she must feel responsible for saving the community in which she was raised; she must never get above that community, even if she hurts herself in the process. I’m all for doing the essential work to help black folks, but it’s time for us to find a way to keep this community going without destroying black women in the process, and one of the ways I’ve decided is just to tell other sisters, “You matter, to me and to yourself.”
In my own life, I try to give my sister-friends affirmation, what I call the “woo-woo,” a term I stole from Sinclair on “Living Single.” Remember that show? It was the precursor to “Sex in the City,” only instead of living in Manhattan, those four black women lived in Brooklyn before it was all edgy-like.
Sinclair was my favorite character, a quirky, strange-dresser woman who looked at the world the way she saw it: through nice, sweet, loving eyes. She was the quintessential, idealized black woman, only without the crack-addict relatives sleeping on her couch always asking her, “Can I hold five dollars?” And whenever one of her friends was feeling down, she would pat her and say, “Woo-woo. Woo-woo.”
Whenever one of my close friends has been depressed, he or she will call me. Most have to call instead of visit, because all but two live in other states, far away. On the phone, if I hear sadness, I will ask, “Do you need the woo-woo?” And then I’ll begin my litany: “You’re fabulous. You’re so cute. The world doesn’t know your power. You are touched by the hand of God.”
Or if I’m depressed, I’ll call up one of them and say, “I need the woo-woo bad.” In this way, I can cut through the preamble, and get right to what I need, which is reassurance that I am loved and accepted, just as I am. Sort of like an emotional quickie, without the need for condoms and such.
There’s one friend I have, Kim, who doesn’t even wait for me to tell her I need woo-woo. She just knows. Kimberly is the can’t-live-without sister I’ve been friends with for thirty years. She’s the one I’ve shared every cycle of my life with. And I do mean every, if you get my drift.
Kim was the one who insisted that I start this blog. Really, she pushed me to start it because she knows that I needed to say certain things out loud, in public, even if it makes other people uncomfortable to hear them.
She’s not in this crazy, writing world of mine, where the publication of a poem in a journal that only a thousand people read—out of the three hundred million people in the country—can define a person’s self-worth, and can determine whether your peers will speak to you at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference.
And because Kim and I go back so far, have grown up together, we know that when you’re a young girl, you say you are never going to ignore yourself for others; you promise yourself you’ll never be your mother. Kim and I talked about that–laughed about it– just a couple of weeks ago. It has been on my mind ever since.
If you’re a black woman, in your secret heart, you insist you’ll never sing your black mother’s blues song–but then suddenly, you are your mother, for better and worse. Sure, you’ve inherited the good things, like her great skin, her cute and (mostly) firm breasts, her love of God and her recipes for cream biscuits and peach cobbler. But you’re carrying her emotional loads, too.
You’re taking care of others who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. You’re waiting in vain for somebody to say “I appreciate you” for the work you do at home or the office. You have an inability to stand up for yourself because “ladies” just learn to suffer with grace. You’re depending on God to change the hearts of others because Jesus can work miracles on even the worst person. (We ask a lot of Jesus in this community, don’t we?)
Everyday, you’re driving yourself crazy while repeating that same “keeping it together” mantra as your mother did– and you’ve probably also inherited at least one of her health problems, too. The same extra thirty pounds. Her grapefruit-size uterine fibroids. Her high blood pressure. Or her diabetes.
Usually, I blog about something that strikes me that I’ve read about in the news, but this issue with black women and self-love is something I don’t need to read about, because it’s going on with me every day—in my body, in my life, in my family, or on my job. It’s also going on with all my black female friends, whether they are married or single, child-free or mothers, and I see it with sisters I meet when I travel or who email me because they read a poem I wrote somewhere.
As a black woman, I have to give the woo-woo to myself, if I want to do more than just survive–if I want to thrive. And I am determined to do that. No disrespect to the mothers of our past, because they’ve given us some real gifts. But I decided this year that the Black Woman Martyr Look ain’t cute for me. I want my reward now, not in heaven, and I don’t care who thinks I’m selfish or unloving or “un-Christian” or too loud or too pushy.
When I say “reward,” I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about peace of mind. I’m talking about health of spirit and body. I’m talking about self-love.
I understand now that sometimes, you have to fight for self-love. It just doesn’t get handed to you–not when you’re a black woman. I strongly suspect it doesn’t get handed to anybody. And people can stand in the way of your self-love. If you can’t be ladylike and just calmly walk around them, then sometimes, you got to learn judo in order to kick people’s you-know-whats. Then you carefully roll them to the side of the road, so you can walk peacefully on your way.
The lesson about claiming self-love and leaving some people or causes to the side is a difficult one, because we sisters want to help and maintain our community and also, honor our mothers who kept this whole thing going for so long. And also, let’s face it: co-dependence has been going on a long time in the black community under the guise of “No brother or sister left behind.”
The girl-children–even the grandchildren– of those black women from Mother Parks’s self-sacrificing generation are grown now, and some of us are even mothers. For those of us who still need to learn self-love–and that’s a whole bunch of us–we can’t say that we’ll start valuing ourselves only once we’re fully valued by others, love ourselves only when we’re fully loved by others, because that time may never come.
We can’t wait for God to give us our reward in heaven or for someone nice to hand us glory now. Remember what even the most self-sacrificing of black grandmothers used to tell us, back in the day?
“God helps those who help themselves.”