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.”
- A study showed Black women experiencing five times the rate of depression within a year than was experienced by Black men.
- 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.
- “Studies often find that African-American women have higher rates of anxiety disorders than Black men and Whites.”
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.
 Townsend, Hawkins, and Batts, “Stress and Stress Reduction”, 570. Quoted in Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, 54
 National Institute of Mental Health Epidemiologic Catchment Area Study. Quoted inToo Heavy a Yoke, 55
 Pleis and Lethbridge-Cejku, National Health Interview Survey, 43. Quoted in Too Heavy a Yoke, 56
 Too Heavy a Yoke, 58