Colina Elizabeth Cole
President, Communication Eliminating Conflicts Global
Suicide rates in the black community have increased by 30% (Fickman, 2022). Although other studies acknowledge an increase in suicide rates among blacks, suicide rates may be underreported due to a lack of prior mental documentation, which is not surprising given the underutilization of counseling services in the black community (Novak, 2022). Considering Stephan DJ “tWitch” Boss, DJ Ian King, actor Mose Mosley from The Walking Dead, comedian Jak Knight, former Miss USA Cheslie Kryst, and too many others who died by suicide in 2022, it is time for a community dialogue to address what it means to be strong, black, including what it means to be a woman. Additionally, what price do black community members pay to be a strong black representative?
While there are many reasons people commit suicide, and individual trauma is nuanced, the black community has collectively experienced ongoing trauma as part of their shared lived experience since their arrival as enslaved people in America. The social and historical background surrounding black strength was used to mask the pain of family separation, whippings, and other forms of dehumanization in the face of trauma and lack of agency over one’s life. Moreover, despite the progress made, the journey is not over. Black people continue to address anti-blackness where social movements like Black Lives Matter (BLM) confront continued unfixed structural inequalities that exist in the present reality.
For example, the archetype of the strong black woman (SBW) has become a self-silencing mechanism by which black women hide their distress, depression, and trauma against intolerance to display resilience in the face of adversity (Abrams et al., 2018; Carter & Rossi, 2019; Green, 2019). Abrams et al. (2018) and Carter and Rossi (2019) found that females who self-identified as SBWs are more likely to experience debilitating depression and increased suicidal ideation. Therefore, the stronger the Black woman becomes, the closer she comes to death. Little by little, like a slow poison permeating her soul, she dies a slow death. Undeniably, there are some benefits to being strong in adversity. However, strength among Black women is treated like Wakanda’s vibranium, but it is more like Superman’s kryptonite.
Some Black women thrive on being identified as ‘strong.’ However, others are dying beneath this label. Slavery which encompassed forced breeding for capital gains, the involuntary removal of our children, lynchings, Jim Crow Laws, and riding in the back of the bus amongst denial of many other needs-based resources, Black women have been perpetually dehumanized. However, let us not degrade ourselves by failing to acknowledge our need to replenish ourselves mentally and spiritually in the face of constant hardships for simply existing.
Phrases such as, you are so strong, you are an inspiration, and you should write a book about your life may seem flattering. However, these words are another slap in the face for some Black women. Another denial of their humanity, their suffering, their pain, their trauma, and their struggle. However, the world cannot hear them. They are too busy projecting their emotions onto them. They are too busy constructing an image of a supernatural being, Superwoman, Wonder Woman, the Bionic Woman, She-RA, Kali, Hel, Anat, or Mami Wata.
Black people are fighters. Despite the pain, trials, and tribulations, we stand. However, unfortunately, too many Black women have learned to suppress their emotions – to say I am good when the opposite is true (Woods-Giscombe, 2010; Hoskin, 2022; Abrams et al., 2018; Carter & Rossi, 2019; Green, 2019). For some, but not all, the Black woman’s strength has been built on a foundation of abuse, emotional neglect, and chronic long-term trauma and isolation, culminating in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Black people are not strong because they have learned to function within an oppressive and dysfunctional system. It is not the responsibility of the Black woman to inspire the world. We are not superheroes. Like every other race on this planet, we are human beings who deserve the right to pursue happiness without barriers to our fundamental human rights and dignity.
Trauma is defined by the impact other’s decisions have on your life. Being black in an anti-black world can be a traumatic experience, especially if one is not equipped with the life skills to navigate social and political systems designed to maintain the black woman’s social status in society. Strength must be chosen, not given. The power given to Black women has become a burden to carry, the albatross around her neck and the ball and chain on her ankle pulling her to the bottom of the ocean. It is time to lay down our burdens, express our vulnerabilities and sadness, acknowledge our trauma, and seek mental health services if needed.
The SBW phenomenon is hurting the Black community. Let us have a community dialogue about how to be both strong and vulnerable for our collective healing. The slogan, “Only the strong survive”, frequently seen in pictures of enslaved people during the middle passage, is invalid. Let us not forget how many enslaved people committed suicide during this journey. The time has come for us to learn how to be un-strong so that we may live and thrive.
Abrams, J. A., Hill, A., & Maxwell, M. (2018). Underneath the mask of the strong black woman schema: Disentangling influences of strength and self-silencing on depressive symptoms among U.S. black women. Sex Roles. 80:517-526. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-018-0956-y.
Carter, L. & Rossi, A. (2019). Embodying strength: The Origin, representations, and socialization of the strong black woman ideal and its effect on black Women’s mental health. Women & Therapy. 42:3-4, 289-300, DOI:10.1080/02703149.2019.1622911
Green, B. N. (2019). Strong Like My Mama: The legacy of “strength,” depression, and suicidality in African American women. Women & Therapy. 42:3-4, pp. 265–288, DOI: 10.1080/02703149.2019.1622909
Fickman, L. (2022). Suicide rates have increased dramatically among African Americans. The University of Houston. https://www.uh.edu/news-events/stories/2022-news-articles/february-2022/02022022-african-american-suicide-trend-rheeda-walker.php
Hoskin, M. N. (2022). Why are more black American committing suicide? Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/maiahoskin/2022/05/27/why-are-more-black-americans-committing-suicide/?sh=6d8ae9db1224
Novak, S. (2022). Suicides among black people may be vastly undercounted. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/suicides-among-black-people-may-be-vastly-undercounted/
Woods-Giscombe, C. L. (2010). Superwoman schema: African American Women’s views on stress, strength, and health. Qualitative Health Research. 20(5): 668–683. doi:10.1177/1049732310361892