You know the old joke: I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right. That’s how I feel when I read a series headlined “Survey paints picture of black women in America.” I’m pretty thrilled that black women are getting attention, even though I know the under-the-microscope examination will unleash old stereotypes. What I hope for is some understanding, as well.
Krissah Thompson acknowledged as much in her Washington Post story that launched this latest look. “The angry black woman. The strong black woman. The unfeeling black woman. The manless black woman.” She quickly gets the old tropes out of the way before she breaks down a survey that paints a more complicated and contradictory picture.
Black women are strong and vulnerable, satisfied and yearning, confident yet worried about making it in a world that still discriminates. None of the above and all of the above. Black women carry the burden of everywoman, with the added weight of the judgment and expectations of others. No wonder we’re stressed out.
In the series’ portraits of individual women, you see that desire to be taken as individuals without the worry of a worrisome history. But, being practical, many black women know how difficult that can be. How can one person be hard-working and tough — maybe too tough — yet looking for a lazy way out, sexy and undesirable, in your face and invisible?
How can you be the star of your own show when you’re not allowed to write the script? It’s refreshing, in the stories, to hear the voices of black women who are doing just that.
The contradictions can be seen in the most visible woman in the country, first lady Michelle Obama, a wife, mother and daughter, an accomplished career woman and helpmate, someone who rose from a modest Chicago upbringing, following the quintessentially American path to education and success. Yet her detractors revert to the same old stereotypes in efforts to degrade and demean her.
Black women recognize the treatment — we shake our heads, though not with hands on hips and finger wagging — and admire the first lady and her class, cool and resilience.
Michelle Obama herself knew what she was in for. I remember being one of a handful of women columnists who interviewed her the day after her speech at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008. In the speech, she defined herself before others could at a time when the only successful black family many in America knew was the fictional Huxtables of “The Cosby Show,” via reruns.
“Sometimes I do believe that people don’t believe I exist,” she said in the interview. “When was the last time you’ve seen someone like me speak at the Democratic National Convention?” She told me she was not surprised, but “impatient” at having been pegged angry and unpatriotic even then.
She said it’s a part of the process, “to put people in boxes.” We do it in our communities and in our families, she said then, not letting anyone off the hook.
Ah yes, the complicated, unique black woman – not Oprah or Michelle or a real housewife of Atlanta, but herself. A part of me wishes that no article explaining that we exist is needed. But then I read the comments and hear a few first-hand and realize we probably need one every day. What will come out of it? Truth, understanding and, perhaps, a chance to finally do what’s tough for many black women I know: Relax.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at the New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as a national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter at @mcurtisnc3 .