The Washington Post

Powerful yet vulnerable black women: A contradiction rooted in history

A recent study on black women in America delivered a mixed, even contradictory message. The report from the Black Women’s Roundtable found that while black women in the United States are making strides in education and business and affecting political trends with stellar voter turnout numbers, they remain more vulnerable to health problems and violence than any other group. Their strength at the polls is not reflected in elected positions. So, the situation is — at the same time — hopeful and frustrating, many steps forward with persistent, historical hurdles still blocking the way.

What is at first glance confusing makes perfect sense, though. Despite the reality show image of sassy, in control and intimidating black women taking charge and needing no help from anyone, the American story is consistent with the study. It is a tale of black women as invisible, misjudged and resilient through it all –integral and nurturing, yet set apart. They have survived, thrived and led, in spite of obstacles that have often kept them vulnerable, a term seldom used to describe black women.

Black women have paid a price for that image of strength, often balancing feats of achievement without a personal or institutional safety net. According to the report, delays in follow-up care result in higher mortality rates after a breast cancer diagnosis. It also states that “a woman in Lebanon has a much greater likelihood of surviving childbirth than does a Black woman in America.”

Black women, according to the report, lead all women in labor force participation rates – far from the indolent “welfare queen” stereotype. However because of pay disadvantages that started long ago, black women over the age of 65 have the lowest household income of any group. Fledgling labor legislation that brought a measure of economic justice to other groups did not cover domestic service and other limited job opportunities African American women often had.

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Black women with young children have worked, eschewing the idealized vision of stay-at-home mom for necessity as well as fulfillment. Yet just last year, Michelle Obama was labeled a “feminist nightmare,” in part for emphasizing her parental role – a choice, her choice, that was judged incorrect by some. This first African American first lady has been stereotyped for her opinions, motives and appearance in ways in line with America’s history of judging black women and finding them wanting.

The report also found that “black women are especially likely to be a victim of violence in America. In fact, no woman is more likely to be murdered in America today than a Black woman. No woman is more likely to be raped than a Black woman.”

In a reminder of that history of violence, Lupita Nyong’o, when she accepted her Academy Award in March for playing “Patsey,” the real-life enslaved woman, in the movie adaptation of Solomon Northup’s narrative “12 Years a Slave,” brought some reality to the glitzy evening. “It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s,” she said. The brutality visited on the character, who stole moments of lightness to craft delicate dolls made of corn silk, was just one story of many. Even after the institution of slavery was ended by law, this disregard for the right of black women to own their own bodies continued.

In the 1940s, NAACP activist Rosa Parks traveled throughout the South, investigating unreported and unpunished rapes of black women – wives, mothers and children. In Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1965, it was news when Norman Cannon was found guilty of raping 15-year-old Rosa Lee Coates, because despite evidence, all-white juries routinely refused to accept that black women – slandered as immoral — could be raped.

Parks demurely downplayed her record of activism during her own pioneering role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, recognizing the strict line black women had to walk to ever be considered “ladies” in the court of public opinion.

It is different in 2014, of course. Progress, as the study reports, has been remarkable. Black women are outpacing their male counterparts in earning college degrees, starting businesses and providing crucial voting margins, most recently in the Virginia gubernatorial race, where they exceeded all other groups in turning out on Election Day. But here’s another challenge, as the report also points out: “2014 makes the 15th consecutive year that no Black woman has held a seat in the United States Senate.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to untangle the mixed messages.

When popular books advise women to “Lean In,” black women can ask themselves if being more assertive will help or hurt their cause.

When the White House “My Brother’s Keeper” public-private initiative shines a needed light on at-risk boys and young men of color, it is to be applauded. It also must be noted that a recent study by the civil rights division of the Department of Education found black girls are suspended at higher rates (12 percent) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys.

When stories in magazines do talk about black women as part of society, they still too often rehash the same tired themes. Really, is it that they can’t get a man or don’t want or need one?

An actress with the talent of Nyong’o makes a splash, and barely a month after her Oscar win her future career success is the subject of doubtful speculation in a story in The Hollywood Reporter, because of “the fact that her dark skin challenges an industry prejudice”

But perhaps the positive messages in the roundtable report do outweigh its more troubling findings because of the very human qualities woven throughout and made clear in the results of black women steadily moving forward: powerful, vulnerable and, most of all, resilient.

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.



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