Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman

Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance

Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Temple University Press
Pages: 194
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  • Book Info
    Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman
    Book Description:

    The defining quality of Black womanhood is strength, states Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant in Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman. But, she argues, the idea of strength undermines its real function: to defend and maintain a stratified social order by obscuring Black women's experiences of suffering, acts of desperation, and anger. This provocative book lays bare the common perception that strength is an exemplary or defining quality of "authentic" Black womanhood.The author, a noted sociologist, interviews 58 Black women about being strong and proud, to illustrate their "performance" of invulnerability. Beauboeuf-Lafontant explains how such behavior leads to serious symptoms for these women, many of whom suffer from eating disorders and depression.Drawing on Black feminist scholarship, cultural studies, and women's history, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman traces the historical and social influences of normative Black femininity, looking at how notions of self-image and strength create a distraction from broader forces of discrimination and power.

    eISBN: 978-1-59213-669-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Introduction: A Half-Told Tale of Black Womanhood
    (pp. 1-20)

    The defining quality of Black womanhood is strength. As a reference to tireless, deeply caring, and seemingly invulnerable women, the claim of strength forwards a compelling story of perseverance. Critical figures in this narrative include prominent social activists of the last two centuries, such as Sojourner Truth¹ and Harriet Tubman, Fannie Lou Hamer and Rosa Parks. Each is invoked and revered for embodying a courageous, unselfish commitment to the protection and enfranchisement of the dispossessed. As an account, however, the persuasiveness of strength is not limited to such historical exemplars. Also noted are family members and intimates. Although managing lives...

  4. 1 More Than “the Historical, the Monolithic Me”: Deconstructing Strong Black Womanhood
    (pp. 21-44)

    In the United States, differentiations on the basis of perceived race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and gender have had a particularly longstanding influence on the life chances of individuals and groups. Historical patterns of domination privilege whites over people of color, men over women, heterosexuals over persons of other sexualities, and the affluent over those without wealth. These oppositions contribute to an overarching “matrix of domination” (Hill Collins 2000) composed of numerous simultaneous and interlocking distinctions. As a result, a few statuses are considered normative and deserving of first-class citizenship, while most others are deemed constitutive of deviance and requiring subordination....

  5. 2 Living the Lies: Embodying “Good” Womanhood
    (pp. 45-69)

    Women are known by their bodies. Although viewed as metonymies for what is “essentially” female, women’s bodies are in actuality “achieved” through the ongoing development of culturally appropriate physical, behavioral, and attitudinal markers of racialized gender. The concept of embodiment acknowledges that the purposes and meanings of human bodies are subject to social regulation. Because the body is made an important carrier of social meaning, it is simultaneously “socially constructed, subjectively experienced, and physically material” (Schrock, Reid, and Boyd 2005, 320).

    In their varied social and cultural contexts, “good” women are expected to “do” (West and Zimmerman 1987), as opposed...

  6. 3 Keeping Up Appearances: The Performance of Strength
    (pp. 70-106)

    Strength is a prescriptive discourse. As the preceding quotes collectively underscore, a strong Black woman should “muster through” all adversity “without scarring,” should “always [try] to help other people,” and should present herself as a capable “twenty- four- hour woman” regardless of the demands and stresses she faces. Particularly noteworthy is the open-endedness of this mandate for silent, ongoing struggle. There is very little, if any, sense of limits as to what can be expected of a “strong Black woman.”

    Strength introjects unremitting adversity—whether due to financial strains, workplace injustices, or relational abuses—into validating tests of Black women’s...

  7. 4 Lies Make Us Sick: Embodied Distress Among Strong Black Women
    (pp. 107-133)

    To naturalize patterns of social disenfranchisement, strength is deployed to tell lies about Black women. Higher-status race-gender groups utilize it in the hopes that it becomes not simply a performance, but an identity. The use of strength imposes a definition of who Black women are, or at least who they should aspire to be in order to gain acceptance from others and secure a foothold in the social world. Psychologically intrusive, the discourse of strength renders the material and relational aspects of oppression into realities Black women should endure rather than injustices worthy of their outrage and challenge. To the...

  8. 5 Coming to Voice: Transcending Strength
    (pp. 134-150)

    Voice is the expression of the “deep down inside” that Black women learn to create as they “pick up” strength. It reflects those points of view that locate Black women in their actual circumstances rather than in a timeless narration of struggle and caregiving. When Black women actively listen to what Kiki calls “these outlandish thoughts and feelings,” they view these voices as instructive rather than weak or shameful. They also privilege experience over expectations, and refuse to allow strength to displace their humanity. They speak flexibly about what is really happening to them. And instead of fighting the expectation...

  9. Epilogue: Mules No More, Just “Levelly Human”: A Societal Challenge
    (pp. 151-154)

    Oppressed groups have long understood that systems of domination trade not only in material disparities but in lies. Whether named as myths, mystiques, sincere fictions, or controlling images, these falsehoods distort what is known, felt, desired, and accomplished in order to justify in equality. Taken in as truths, such deceptions have the power to profoundly compromise our abilities to achieve justice in our lives.

    The opening epigraphs are salvos to transcend racialized gender. The first by the Combahee River Collective (1982, 16) is a charge to society as a whole. Drafted in the 1970s, the simple assertion that Black women...

  10. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 155-158)
  11. Appendix: Table of Participants
    (pp. 159-160)
  12. Notes
    (pp. 161-168)
  13. References
    (pp. 169-180)
  14. Index
    (pp. 181-183)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 184-184)