Rich or poor, educated or not, black women sometimes feel as though myths are stalking them like shadows, their lives reduced to a string of labels.

The angry black woman. The strong black woman. The unfeeling black woman. The manless black woman.

“Black women haven’t really defined themselves,” says author Sophia Nelson, who urges her fellow sisters to take control of their image. “We were always defined as workhorses, strong. We carry the burdens, we carry the family. We don’t need. We don’t want.”

In a new nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, a complex portrait emerges of black women who feel confident but vulnerable, who have high self-esteem and see physical beauty as important, who find career success more vital to them than marriage. The survey, which includes interviews with more than 800 black women, represents the most extensive exploration of the lives and views of African American women in decades.

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Religion is essential to most black women’s lives; being in a romantic relationship is not, the poll shows. Nearly three-quarters of African American women say now is a good time to be a black woman in America, and yet a similar proportion worry about having enough money to pay their bills. Half of black women surveyed call racism a “big problem” in the country; nearly half worry about being discriminated against. Eighty-five percent say they are satisfied with their own lives, but one-fifth say they are often treated with less respect than other people.

The poll’s findings and dozens of follow-up discussions reflect the conversations black women are having among themselves at church halls after Bible study, at happy hours after work, in college lounges after listening to lectures by the likes of Nelson, 45, who five years ago quit her job at a big D.C. law firm to write a book, “Black Woman Redefined.”

She often tells young black women to forget what the outside world projects for them and be bold: “You can play this however you want to. You’re living in the age of Michelle Obama.”

It is a time in which one-third of employed black women work in management or professional jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and a record number are attending college. Black women with college degrees earn nearly as much as similarly educated white women. The number of businesses owned by black women has nearly doubled in the past decade to more than 900,000, according to census figures. Just Friday, Wal-Mart named Rosalind Brewer chief executive of Sam’s Club, making her the first African American to be chief executive for a business unit of the world’s largest retailer.

It is an age in which young black women see more options for themselves than ever. They can run a cable network (like Oprah Winfrey), lead a Fortune 500 company (like Xerox’s Ursula Burns), become an international pop icon (like Beyonce). Secretary of State? Condi Rice has been there, done that.

But even in this “age of Michelle Obama,” black women are rethinking the meaning of success and fulfillment. Many are concluding that self-empowerment is the road to happiness, and happiness does not require a mate.

“I can go to school. I can be successful. I can make money. I can have a career. That is in my power to control,” says Towan Isom, 39, who owns a public relations firm in the District. “Finding a husband — that would be great, but that’s not in my power to control.”

Forty percent of black women say getting married is very important, compared with 55 percent of white women. This finding is among a number of significant differences in the outlooks and experiences of black and white women, according to the poll. Here are others: More than a fifth of black women say being wealthy is very important, compared with one in 20 white women. Sixty-seven percent of black women describe themselves as having high self-esteem, compared with 43 percent of white women. Forty percent of black women say they experience frequent stress, compared with 51 percent of white women. Nearly half of black women fear being a victim of violent crime, compared with about a third of white women.

“We have depth. We have pain. We have bad. We have good. We have complexity,” says Beverly Bond, a disc jockey based in New York and founder of the philanthropic effort Black Girls Rock! “We need to see the well-roundedness of who we are. We need to see everyone.”

Asha Jennings Palmer says black women are too often viewed as flashy, provocative, eye-catching — imagery that makes her cringe.

“According to the stereotype, African American women — educated women — are b------, and they run men out of their lives because they are so mean and they don’t want a man and blah, blah,” says Palmer, an Atlanta lawyer who helped lead protests of rapper Nelly’s controversial “Tip Drill” video when she was a student at Spelman College. “My law firm has no African American female partners. It has to do with how we are seen. And our value is based on what the media shows the world we are.”

History of exclusion

Black women were once described as the “mules of the world” by Zora Neale Hurston, whose biting literature made her one of the most influential black writers of the early 20th century. Her reference to mules — the workhorses of the American South — pointed to the backbreaking manual labor that black women were expected to perform and the limits placed on their vocations.

Throughout history, black women have been overrepresented in the workforce compared with other women and have come to embrace work as an enduring part of their sense of self, says Constance C.R. White.

“Career for black women has always been about economic necessity and also a sense of economic destiny,” says White, editor of the nation’s oldest black women’s magazine, Essence.

Following the civil rights movement, black women moved from manual labor and domestic work, where they had been concentrated, into a wider range of professions. In 1977, Patricia Roberts Harris became the first black woman to lead a department of the federal government, entering the line of succession for the U.S. presidency. When Harris was appointed to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development, she said her gender and race made her a “two for one” and called the hoopla around her nomination the result of “tragic exclusion.”

At the same time, poor black women were disparaged as “welfare queens,” a depiction that took root during Ronald Reagan’s unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign. Reagan, without specifically citing race, repeatedly told the story of a “welfare queen” from Chicago’s South Side who drove a Cadillac, had 80 aliases and brazenly ripped off the government for benefits. Journalists tried to track down the cheat, but the truth was less salacious. One South Side woman was convicted of stealing less than $10,000.

Some black women say they still feel the weight of this history of exclusion and the lingering doubts about their abilities and worth.

Jennifer Smith, a senior at the University of Maryland, has been accepted into six prestigious medical schools. She is an honors student, a sorority president, an ambassador for the university. Yet she sometimes feels unwitting pressure to prove she belongs.

“You still have to make sure you lay all of your credentials out there — your transcript, your portfolio, your résumé. They show why I am here,” says Smith, who entered Maryland on a full academic scholarship dedicated to minority students. “I always want it to be clear that I got here because of what I did.”

As Smith looks to become a doctor, she says, her mind sometimes turns to the insidiousness of racism. “These days, it’s so infiltrated into the system,” she says. “It’s hidden now.”

Black women who don’t have a long list of credentials behind their names, those who aren’t regarded as “superstars,” sometimes feel their climb is too steep. In fact, a quarter of black women surveyed in the Post-Kaiser poll said they often perceive that others think they are not smart. This perception is shared by both educated and less-educated black women.

“Despite miraculous income and educational gains for generations, the social and economic advancement of  black women has always been precarious,” says Paula J. Giddings, who teaches at Smith College and has written about the political and social history of black women. “All of our wealth and all of the generational aspiration can disappear — just evaporate — if you lose your house, your health, if you have to take care of a needy family member or if you can’t get that loan to continue college.”

Staring down obstacles has become routine — what some black women described as a “make-it-happen” attitude.

Comedian and actress Loni Love grew up in Detroit’s red-brick Brewster housing projects with a single mother who had that disposition. She worried about everything from the threat of violence to whether there would be enough food on the table.

“Mom was a nurse’s aide,” says Love, who headlines comedy shows around the country. “She worked in various hospitals. She took care of us that way, and we ate government cheese. I survived. Black women know that we’ve got to take care of it — so we take care of it. It’s just embedded in us.”

Nearly six in 10 black women say they worry about providing a good education for their kids. Part of that worry stems from the legacy of segregation and discrimination in the country that prevented many black families from accumulating wealth to pass down to succeeding generations. But there is also this, according to interviews with black women: Many were not raised to expect that they could marry a fairy-tale Prince Charming who would take care of them, provide for the family, leave them with no worries.

“In our upbringing, we’re not raised to be princesses,” says Virginia Boateng, a budget analyst who works for the Education Department. “We’re told, ‘Yes, you are pretty, but you better have something for yourself.’ ”

The marriage discussion

Introduce marriage, and you enter one of the most tender discussions black women are having among themselves. Are African American women choosing career over romance? Are single black women lonely? Is there a shortage of eligible, desirable black men? Can black women have it all?

“This idea that there are no successful single black men — we’ve been hearing that since Terry McMillan’s ‘Waiting to Exhale,’ ” says Janell Hobson, an associate professor of women’s studies at Albany State University. “It’s almost as if to say Michelle Obama may have Barack Obama, but you black women can’t have the same thing.”

Hobson, who is 38 years old and single, has no plans to settle. But she has to contend with her worried aunties asking at every family gathering, “Still no one, huh?” She answers politely and says she is not stressed.

Love, the comedian, who also is single, says there is no point focusing on what she doesn’t have. “A lot of people say you’re going to be lonely. No, you will adjust,” Love says, adding that she enjoys her life, which includes partying and going on cruises, without anyone accompanying her.

Nika Beamon, a television news producer in New York who turned 40 last year, likes to say, “I didn’t work this hard to get married.” She imagined that she would have a husband and children by now but is satisfied with how things have turned out. She owns her home, has had long monogamous relationships and loves her gig. She has looked into adoption and plans to start a family. In the Post-Kaiser poll, 63 percent of black women said it is acceptable to have a child without being married, roughly the same percentage as white women.

“I’m not afraid to make the choices that will make my life happy,” Beamon says. “I may have to do it differently, but so what? I’m still going to get it. I’m not going to settle for a life that is less simply because it doesn’t happen exactly the way I want.”

Black women are increasingly open to looking beyond the pool of black men for mates. Sixty-seven percent of unmarried black women in the Post-Kaiser poll say they would be willing to marry someone of another race. But thus far, that willingness is not matched by experience.

According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center that looked at the rates of interracial marriage among newlyweds in 2008, just 9 percent of black women married a spouse of a different race — a rate that was less than half that of black men.

The reasons for the gap between black women’s interest in interracial marriage and their rates of interracial marriage are complex, according to experts who have researched the subject. Studies of online dating, for instance, have shown that black women are less likely than other women to receive messages of interest from men of other races. Researchers attribute that to a social hierarchy that still undervalues them and unflattering stereotypes of black women — loud, aggressive — that remain in the popular culture.

Other single black women have real concerns about the dating scene. A promising black female undergraduate student whom Hobson counseled about her prospects for doctoral studies last year said she was not pursuing graduate school because she feared spending time on an advanced degree might mean she would end up unmarried. It may sound nonsensical, but it has been a long time since black women have thought of college campuses as the place to find a soul mate. Black women have outpaced black men at universities for more than three decades, a development that is now universal: Women of all races and ethnicities outnumber men on college campuses.

Smith, the 21-year-old University of Maryland senior, says many of her female friends are reluctant to express the truth about their love lives. “You have these driven black women here,” Smith says, “and sometimes . . . you really don’t want to talk about, ‘Oh, I haven’t had a boyfriend since high school.’ It makes you seem weak.”

Breaking down stereotypes

In a small townhouse in an Upper Marlboro cul-de-sac live five single black women — three generations of one family.

The eldest is 69-year-old Ruth Lawrence Driver, whom her granddaughters call “Gammy.” In the summer of 1993, Driver and her only child, Tracie Gaines Nelson, moved in when they were divorcing their husbands at the same time. It’s where Nelson’s two teenage daughters, Alani and Niya, have grown up. The fifth woman is Driver’s 63-year-old cousin, who moved in last year to save enough money to return to college and finally get the degree that had eluded her for nearly three decades.

The house in Prince George’s County also is a place where its occupants wrestle, sometimes uncomfortably, with the stereotypes of black women.

Among the favorite television shows of Alani, 17, and Niya, 16, is “Bad Girls Club,” which is about a group of young women who move into a house in a new city for a few months. On the show, the black girls are often the most dramatic — yelling, screaming, cursing.

“They try to make us seem so mean,” Alani says.

She and her sister also watch hip-hop music videos where black women’s primary role is as gyrating backdrops to male rappers. And then there are “Basketball Wives,” “Real Housewives of Atlanta” and “Love and Hip Hop,” all reality-TV programs in which the stars are back-stabbing, conniving, bickering figures you’d hope your grandchildren would never want to be.

“I hope it’s just a passing fad, that they won’t internalize all of these images,” Driver says. “On one of the shows, there were two grown women ready to jump up and fight.”

Nelson talks to her daughters about the differences between reality and fantasy and looks for positive images of black women to put before them. She enrolled Alani in debutante classes organized by her sorority last year and sent Niya to a leadership workshop at which she met black lawyers and businesswomen.

And the teenagers have models of ambition and assertiveness right at home. Their Gammy attended segregated primary schools in North Carolina, where teachers used old textbooks handed down from white schools. She attended a historically black university in 1960 and flourished in spite of the racism and sexism that was present all around her. Now, she is a retired teacher who takes water aerobics classes, goes hand dancing at a nearby senior center and attends church every Sunday.

And the girls’ mom? She also went to a black college, and she studied for her master’s degree in social work while raising two daughters alone. Now, she is a social worker with a tightknit group of black sister-friends. But even with an advanced degree and a respectable job, she could not comfortably support her daughters as a single mother without the help of her mother. Like nearly three-quarters of the black women in the Post-Kaiser survey, Nelson sometimes worries about having enough money to pay her bills. She is constantly telling her daughters to search for careers that will pay them six figures, hoping they will have more financial comfort than she does.

“If a paycheck is missing, they are going to feel it,” Nelson says.

In this townhouse of women, what they feel most is love. There’s always been more laughing than yelling.

“Living in a household of women is portrayed to be this horrible place, but it’s not,” Alani says. “It’s hard sometimes.”

Her sister interrupts. “There are a lot of lessons that come out of this house.”

Alani, a high school senior with average grades and a natural talent for art, received one of those lessons last year when she told her mom that she was not interested in enrolling in a four-year university.

That prompted her mother to shout, “You will go to college!” And that was followed by more yelling that no daughter of hers was going to ruin generations of progress. Tears were shed. Alani relented. And she has begun applying to colleges.

“I didn’t know it was such a big thing,” she says.

Her younger sister has also promised to go to college.

“It’s important to me that they see that they are building upon a foundation,” Nelson says. “We have to continue to build each generation. It’s important for our uplift as a people and our uplift as women.”

Polling director Jon Cohen and polling manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.

Coming Tuesday: Black women’s reflections on Michelle Obama.