In the new book Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture (Ballantine Books/One World), Dr. Sheri Parks, an American studies professor at the University of Maryland, takes a look at one of the nation’s most pervasive archetypes and stereotypes: that black women are collectively steely and steadfast, put on the planet to work hard and be self-sacrificing for all.
Parks was inspired to write the book after experiencing the “strong black woman” expectation firsthand. “People of all races were coming already assuming that I would take up their battles for them, as if some conversation had already occurred,” Parks says. “There were some particularly poignant events at the university where I teach—learning that a group of mothers in another state had my name and were telling people to send their college-aged children to me, and a white father telling me that he told his daughter ‘to go find a black woman’ to help her.”
As one can imagine, the stereotype comes with a high cost. Women who Parks interviewed for the book often put the welfare of others ahead of taking care of themselves. The damage to black women has been high.
“Many give until it hurts. Even then, they keep on giving,” Parks says. “It is exhausting and very stressful, which leads black women to contract and die from stress-related illnesses in numbers greater than other groups.”
“For some of the women to whom I spoke, the role meant that they avoided treatment for depression because they thought that strong black women did not get depressed,” she adds. “The larger mental and spiritual lesson of over-giving is that we do not matter as much as the people we give to.”
The author details examples of black women being expected to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the collective, citing people like Coretta Scott King, whose own courage and convictions as an activist and skilled musician have been overlooked for her role as domestic partner and grieving Civil Rights widow. Parks details her own experiences with demanding sexist expectations: during her high school years, she was expected to sacrifice her own safety and well-being for the sake of an emotionally unbalanced and abusive ex-boyfriend who was seen as a young leader.
Yet, according to Parks, the strong black woman has its beginnings in the divine sacred dark feminine, an overarching spiritual belief held by ancient cultures where the universe’s original primordial darkness is feminine or androgynous. Having a dark female-based force seen as the origin of all life has created a variety of mythological and religious figures who represent this idea, ranging from the Black Madonna (worshiped by Catholic Whites in various communities and featured prominently in the novel and film The Secret Life of Bees) to Nana Buruku, mother of the West African deities, to the Greek and Roman goddess Night. Due to skin color, Black women are often seen as walking manifestations of the sacred dark feminine, and hence have had large expectations placed upon them without their permission.
Linking a costly stereotype to a divine archetype is where Fierce Angels treads fresh ground for general readers, and Parks thoughtfully shows how what once belonged to the spiritual domain has been twisted by media into caricatures like the Mammy and the angry black woman—figures meant to alienate or subvert truer forms of black womanhood.
Fierce Angels focuses unflinchingly on the theme of strong black female communities and alternates between deconstructing the archetypes/stereotypes and celebrating them. Zeroing in on one form of behavior indirectly elicits curiosity about the complex modes of being embraced by black women and women of other backgrounds that don’t fit into the category of “strong.”
Still, Parks believes that true power can be found for those black women who choose to define themselves as resilient. “The women whom I profile who successfully live in the role give themselves time to rest and play and surround themselves with people who take care of them,” she says.