I have this excerpt of Sonia Sanchez’s poem ‘Present’ pinned up in my room. It sits proudly next to a ‘Respect and Protect the Black Woman’ photograph taken at a rally. Everyday I see these two images and sub consciously make the decision to not only love myself but love myself wholeheartedly; all risks attached.
Too often there is a dangerous narrative attached to black women: being strong, independent, bold, fearless and so on. Although these are some traits many women adopt, the cultural belief especially among Afro-Caribbean communities that a black woman should be these things at all times has a profound effect on the way said communities address mental health. I was brought up to believe that God would never give me more than I could handle, and so whatever came my way was destined. This often meant dealing with my circumstances as though they were blessings as opposed to a situation I had chanced upon. For the longest time, I ignored the prospect that I needed to better myself and instead took on the brunt of what became many years of creative silence: I did not project my voice or my talents onto anything; instead they lay in wait.
Whereas there is some merit in believing in destiny, I now understand my weaknesses as strengths. Although I never wish to be perceived as ‘weak’, my passiveness has allowed me to be more observant of my own company and the things I do create. In that peak time of creative abstinence, I tried effortlessly to mold myself into the image of my grandmother, my mother, my aunts; strong/black/women. To no avail, I succumbed to my sensitivities and often felt like a stranger in my own body.
The ‘problem’ with being a strong/black/woman is that often we have to compromise ourselves in an effort to display strength. It is not uncommon for us to fight alone, nor is it unusual for us to partake in unusual methods to get what we want. A strong/black/woman’s fight is rarely quiet, nor is it considerate. The black woman actively has to carve out her own space – small as it may be – and use that avenue to come out the other side. Motherhood, the workplace and marriages are all liable channels for this aggressive work; often it is completed alone. I have not found this anymore true than in education.
There is no space for a soft/black/woman who studies. Too often I have been let down, disgusted and unrepresented; to the point now where it feels almost normal to be ignored. Like the poem, I can see myself standing so shy, but I also know that my history is so bold and so forthright that I cannot be the weakest link in a chain of ongoing work. I can no longer deny that I am a soft/black/woman. The three words are interchangeable and ultimately replaceable, yet are tangents to each other and are forced to share a space that wasn’t designed for them. When a black woman writes, she is challenged and not heard. When a black woman explains her reality, she is put in the docks and forced to explain the obvious. There are routines at work that are coercing black women to be soft, not because it’s a complete expression of her character, but because it makes them malleable or subjects of manipulation. When a black voice is stifled, it is a commonly shared struggle, but a solo-fought battle.
As I work towards my final academic goal, I have to accept that my softness and my sensitivity is a strength and use my passions and intuition to fight for what I believe in. A seed of doubt cannot grow if you do not water it. Although this is a battle that has to be fought alone, everything I’ve studied for myself and wish to celebrate about soft/black/women will be my guidance. No matter the result; I can say that I tried and did so with the softest of hearts, but strongest of intentions.