By Kim McLarin
Sunday, March 21, 2010; B01
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.
Parks's connection of all these dots is thought provoking, if not always persuasive. The book is at its strongest when Parks describes how the Strong Black Woman and her variants (Angry Black Woman, Best Black Girlfriend, Oprah) have appeared in pop culture, often to the detriment of the real-life individuals cast in the roles.
Especially welcome is her focus on the Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel, the quintessential Hollywood mammy in "Gone With the Wind," whose ambitions as an artist have been largely misunderstood. McDaniel, who famously said she would rather play a maid than be one, was a closet subversive, Parks writes, who infused her stereotypical roles with challenge and insolence. If audiences saw subservience in McDaniel and in the mammy figure, it was because subservience was what they wanted to see. That handkerchief on McDaniel's head, for example, was in reality an African vestige, a womanly head covering, Parks writes, a sign not of submissiveness but of status and pride.
Parks tries to explain the psychological and emotional costs of the Strong Black Woman myth for black women. But this section of the book is strangely disappointing. She rightly -- and even righteously -- breaks down how believing the hype can lead black women to shoulder far more than their share of the burdens of family, job and society. She interviews a few women who have taken the stereotype to extremes. But sometimes her arguments are weakened by sweeping generalizations that don't ring true.
Even a reader primed to investigate the very real psychological and societal costs of the myth might balk at Parks's contention that black women have so internalized the stereotype they will not allow themselves to be human. She describes a woman, upset by the loss of her mother, escaping her stoicism-demanding black friends to cry in the arms of a white neighbor. "Can we cry only away from other black women?" Parks asks.
Well, no. Not in my world. The strong black women I know are not afraid to be caught crying, nor reluctant to wipe the tears of their friends. They know that real strength comes not from denying our humanity but from embracing it. They also know there's plenty of strength to go around.
While "Fierce Angels" explores the strength of black women, another new book focuses on a major source of that strength: religion. In "Jesus, Jobs, and Justice," Bettye Collier-Thomas thoughtfully and painstakingly charts the indispensable role religion has played in the lives of black women since slavery and the critical part black women have played in the development of so many churches, denominations and religious institutions in America.
Sweeping in scope and exhaustive in detail, the book gives everyone her due, from Julia Foote, the first black female AME Zion preacher, to Anglican Bishop Barbara Clementine Harris. It celebrates the black women in the religious, social, political and cultural institutions that have shaped American life, from the NAACP and the Women's Political Council (which helped initiate the Montgomery bus boycott) to the National Council of Negro Women and the YWCA. It examines the importance of black women in missionary societies and religious communities, and gives thorough histories of the roles of black women in the Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic churches, to name a few.
Most important, Collier-Thomas documents how black women fought both sexism in black churches and racism and paternalism in white denominations, and she connects those internal battles to the larger African American fight for freedom, justice and equality.
At almost 700 pages, the book is more encyclopedia than compelling narrative. The tone is sometimes dry and academic, and repetition slows the pacing and obstructs fluidity. But those are minor shortcomings.
"Jesus, Jobs, and Justice" is a significant achievement and an important contribution to history of all Americans, strong black women and otherwise.
Kim McLarin is a novelist and writer-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston.