Book review of 'Fierce Angels' by Sheri Parks and 'Jesus, Jobs and Justice' by Bettye Collier-Thomas
The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture
By Sheri Parks
One World. 244 pp. $25
JESUS, JOBS, AND JUSTICE
African American Women and Religion
By Bettye Collier-Thomas
Knopf. 695 pp. $37.50
When I first began to write fiction seriously, I asked a respected colleague for feedback on my work. He agreed, then proceeded to rip into my novel so thoroughly that by the end it was all I could do not to burst into tears. My colleague was astonished at my reaction. He seemed not to believe that he might have hurt my feelings -- or even that I had feelings to hurt. "Come on, you can take it!" he declared. "You're a strong black woman!" After all, taking it is apparently what black women are supposed to do.
In her new book, "Fierce Angels," writer and professor Sheri Parks examines the myth of the Strong Black Woman in an effort to reveal its origins and the damage it has done. Parks's central thesis is that little black girls are drafted into this "army of Fierce Angels" at birth and handed outsize duties of selflessness and nurturing far beyond what any human being should be expected to bear. "Generations of people -- black, white and just about everybody else," she writes, "have been raised with the underlying assumption that black women will save them."
Parks traces the creation of the Strong Black Woman back to ancient cultures that recognized and worshipped what she calls the Sacred Dark Feminine, a mother goddess later symbolized in figures such as the West African Nana Buruku, the Buddhist Tara, the Hindu Kundalini and the Catholic Black Madonna. Parks then skips through space and time to link this dark feminine presence first to the mammy figure of the antebellum American South and later to contemporary representations.
Given that Mo'Nique just took home an Oscar and that the most prominent black woman in America today is the popular first lady, some might argue that contemporary portrayals of black women have been liberated from old molds. But as Parks rightly reminds us, the campaign to depict Michelle Obama as an Angry Black Woman was early, vehement and at least partially successful. Polls during the campaign showed that many white Americans considered Obama "bitter and angry." Some still do.