Laying Burdens Down: A Review of "Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength"

During National Women’s History Month, OURSELVESBLACK.COM examines the state of black women’s mental health and the role their history has played in shaping the current realities. Our exploration starts with a review of Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, by Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes.

Identity is a tricky pursuit. For black women in America, the pursuit is complicated by the stereotypes and image distortions put upon them by dominant culture—both male and white—and the ones into which they are socialized by their mothers, aunts, pastors, husbands, and friends. Every woman wants to be her own person; she wants to know and understand who she is for herself. But black women are shaped, pressed, and squeezed into a universal, truncated identity of superhuman “strength” that superimposes predetermined responses, beliefs, and roles onto an already complex existence. It used to be a source of pride and distinction to be called a ‘strong black woman’ but now women are awakening to the dangers of that double-edged sword. An identity that was once thought to be protective and life-giving because it prevented hurt, pain, and damage is now being unmasked as a disguised death because it has brought illness, loneliness, and serious consequences to mental and emotional health. Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes confronts head-on the complex identity of the Strong Black Woman (SBW) in her book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.

Dr. Walker-Barnes paints a compelling profile of the Strong Black Woman by simplifying it into three major personality and character elements: 1) excessive caregiving; 2) staunch independence; and 3) emotional strength and regulation. One of the main points she makes is that none of these character traits, by themselves and in proper proportion to the situation, is harmful. But combined together and taken to the extreme, the damage is significant. Here are a few ways the author identifies in which this identity effects the mental health of black women:

  • Black women “experience greater [incidence of illness and impairment] from stress and stress-related illnesses than do White women.”[1]
  • A study showed Black women experiencing five times the rate of depression within a year than was experienced by Black men.[2]
  • When Black women were asked to say how often in the past month they had experienced different depressive symptoms, in each case the frequency was greater than for black men, Hispanic, or White women: almost 20% said “everything had been an effort during all, most, or some of the time”; 17.7% said they had experienced significant sadness; and 8% named hopelessness.[3]
  • “Studies often find that African-American women have higher rates of anxiety disorders than Black men and Whites.”[4]

Black women see evidence everyday of what these statistics point out. But they might not know or understand why these conditions seem so prevalent among their sisters, aunts, and cousins. Generations of degrading slavery and ongoing, persistent racial discrimination are common scapegoats. But Dr. Walker-Barnes adds depth to the dialogue by giving historical roots of this distorted strength syndrome. The information might surprise you.

In Chapter 3, “To Carry Your Burden in the Heat of the Day”, the author convincingly traces the roots of the Strong Black Woman identity to two separate but interrelated sources: entrenched and fear-driven racism during the Reconstruction period of the Deep South; and the uplift movement—blacks’ defensive response to whites’ inescapable racial oppression and stereotypes. Walker-Barnes describes the almost pathological determination of middle-class blacks to disprove the mass-marketed and humiliating images being pushed to the public by whites equally determined to keep blacks in their place. Rather than accept the image portraying black women as lazy, proponents of the uplift movement created a narrative that showed black women to be the direct opposite of lazy: domestic and labor workhorses who never grew tired and could shoulder the heaviest burdens all while suffering in silence and stoicism. While it began as an honest effort to rebut hate-fueled portrayals, over time the identity morphed into an over-done cultural expectation that black women now find hard to break free from.

Too Heavy a Yoke, while written primarily for pastors, women’s ministry leaders, and social sciences practitioners, still offers a detailed and much-needed look into a cultural mainstay that needs to be reevaluated to honestly assess its impact on black women, their families, churches, and communities.

[1] Townsend, Hawkins, and Batts, “Stress and Stress Reduction”, 570. Quoted in Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, 54

[2] National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. Quoted inToo Heavy a Yoke, 55

[3] Pleis and Lethbridge-Cejku, National Health Interview Survey, 43. Quoted in Too Heavy a Yoke, 56

[4] Too Heavy a Yoke, 58

Love's All That Makes Sense: A Mother Daughter Memoir

“No one in my family ever talked about the time when she was first diagnosed. It was not a happy time for anyone. When my mom was in crisis, it affected everyone close to her, especially me." 
 - Anika Francis

Well, Anika and her mother Sakeenah are not only talking now, they’ve shared their stories in the recently published book, Love’s All That Makes Sense: A Mother Daughter Memoir. It is an extraordinary work by mother and daughter Sakeenah and Anika Francis. In it, their individual and intertwined stories unfold through a series of letters written to each other.

Sakeenah, a woman with Schizophrenia, is now a National Alliance on Mental Illness multicultural board member and speaker who has been in recovery for over fifteen years. She is the mother of Anika, a woman who graduated magna cum laude from an Ivy League university and is now a successful entrepreneur.  The path that took them to their current stations in life, however, wound through custody hearings, homelessness, group homes, and poverty.  In Love’s All That Makes Sense, the reader learns of this mother and daughter’s at times converging and at others diverging recollections of the setbacks, losses, custody changes and psychiatric hospitalizations.

Throughout the recounting of those painful experiences, the affection, care, and devotion between them is evident in their letters as well.  The story unfolds of how these two women have been able to maintain a relationship despite the instability, havoc, and confusion that Schizophrenia had caused in their lives, starting when Anika was just three years old.  Through their artful narrative, Sakeenah and Anika illuminate experiences too few are willing to divulge in a public arena: the experience of motherhood for a woman with a severe mental illness and the experience of her child. This book will provide validation and inspiration for families who face similar struggles, as well as provide mental health care providers with perspectives that can inform care.

Love's All That Makes Sense is Distributed by Ingram and available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Kindle, Kobo, Google Play and other retailers.

Sakeenah Francispreviously shared her story with in her article Cinderella in Reverse: From Riches to Rags.

Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We're Not Hurting by Terrie M. Williams

Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting, begins with a 6 word statement that commands the reader’s attention. “I am a woman on fire.”  Read a bit further and the fuel for the book’s author, Terrie M. Williams, is revealed: her personal struggle with major depression that went untreated for decades.

Her skill sets honed as a highly successful public relations advisor and clinical social worker synergize with the perspective afforded by her own path to create a truly exceptional, enlightening and inspiring book about depression in the black community. She skillfully examines the issues with a 360 degree view. There are chapters devoted to black women, black men, black youth, the roles that can be played by friends and the black church, and the processes of healing, help seeking and treatment. A great deal of information is covered, but the read is not dry at all because of the warmth of Williams’ voice and the use of personal stories of others who have been depressed. These stories are told in such a way that readers can easily see loved ones, or even themselves, in these narratives.  

This book is highly recommended for people who are depressed or think they may be, loved ones, people in leadership, clergy, and mental health clinicians who want to understand the cultural nuances of depression and treatment seeking in the black community.  It has received rave reviews from a wide array of public figures ranging from religious leaders like Bishop T.D. Jakes and the Rev. Al Sharpton to columnists like Roland S. Martin, from entertainers like Mary J. Blige and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges to top black psychiatrists like Dr. Annelle Primm and Dr. Carl Bell.

Believe the hype, and pick up a copy of Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting today. (It’s even available on kindle.)

Bebe Moore Campbell’s 72 Hour Hold

Bebe Moore Campbell’s 72 Hour Hold is a fictional book about a mother grappling with her daughter’s severe mental illness (bipolar disorder) and her trials of obtaining treatment through a woefully inadequate mental health care system. It is written with such compassion, force and insight, the reader cannot help but wonder if some parts of this fictional novel are inspired by the author’s personal experience, and, in fact, they are. The author was one of the founding members of the National Alliance for Mental Illness branch in Inglewood CA (which later expanded to Urban LA NAMI), and, in the past, has publicly stated that the book was inspired by her experience of having a close family member with bipolar disorder.

The story is told in the voice of its heroine Keri Whitmore, a loving mother desperate to help her daughter, Trina. Keri is grieving the loss of her relationship with Trina as she knew it and Trina’s future as she had hoped it to be. The author’s gripping, frank language takes the reader through the waves of fear, guilt and hopelessness so often experienced by family members of those with severe mental illness in a manner that elicits respect, understanding and admiration.

Through Keri’s story, the reader learns of the need for the caregiver to be supported, and the added barriers those in the black community may face because of stigma surrounding mental illness, mistrust in medical institutions and cultural mores that place a premium on keeping family problems at home. Her daughter, Trina, is either manic or high on drugs the majority of the book, and it is only through the mother’s recollections that the reader learns of the promising future that Trina’s mental illness wrested from her as she was on the brink of adulthood. The loss is profound and illustrates the power of mental illness to utterly derail a young person’s plans for the future. Despite Keri and Trina’s many challenges, Bebe Moore Campbell’s characters find a way of working toward recovery in spite of them.

The perspective lent by this work will prove helpful to people who have family members with mental illness and healthcare providers who often are not only entrusted with the care of their patients, but that of patients’ families also.