A myth all that stuff about our strength and strength and then some.”
―Toni Cade Bambara, “Witchbird”
In my grandmother’s basement, in the room that was my granddad’s office and before that my dad’s room, is a framed poster from for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. I used to stare at the poster and try to figure out what it meant; it was one of the most intriguing things I saw as a child. When I think about art I saw when I was young, that poster—and the fact that it was framed (and therefore, important) and at home—jumps out at me. It is part of what comes to mind when I think about art I have made and what makes me feel like I am compelled and allowed to make art.
I hadn’t read the book until recently, but a group of students put on a production of it when I was in high school. I was in an abusive relationship at the time but, with my piss-poor sex ed class in 9th grade and pretty much no resources about sexual violence and consent, I had never before read or watched anything about sexual violence or abuse that spoke to me. I had never seen anything of myself in movie plots or books, had no names to attach to my situation. I thought I was just totally going crazy. But the things girls my age were saying in the play about sexual assault, about men’s attempts to control other people’s bodies and lives, and the bluntness and lack of shame with which they said it was the first time I saw something that resonated with my own experiences of abuse, as they were going on.
Sadly, that never happened again, even with (especially with) the mandatory consent presentation we had when I started college, or the books I read in school with veiled portrayals of relationship violence, but from the perpetrator’s point of view or otherwise muddied and stripped of its connections to real life.
“We deal wit emotion too much
so why don’t we go on ahead & be wite then/
& make everythin dry & abstract wit no rhythm & no
reelin for sheer sensual pleasure/
cuz i dont know anymore /how
to avoid my own face wet wit my tears/
cuz i had convinced
myself colored girls had no right to sorrow/
i cdnt stand bein sorry & colored at the same time
it’s so redundant in the modern world”
— for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange
Like this quote, it was a long time before I could see depression as more than a white women’s problem. There is such strong pressure for women of color, across many different cultures, to be strong all the time, to be their whole family or community’s backbone. For black american women this often comes through as the simultaneous praise of and threat from the black matriarch, the woman that supposedly emasculates black men and is the source of the “downfall” of the black nuclear family (sound dramatic? Check out the Moynihan Report on the dissolving of the black community).
For myself and many women of color around me, it has meant that there is absolutely nowhere to turn when we need to say, “I can’t do this on my own,” “This is too much for me,” etc. For a good pop culture example of how rare it is for black women to have space to admit weakness, look at the constant depiction of black women in movies, eternally playing the maid or Mammy characters. Look at how women of color are either constantly messy and tragic, or cold and emotionless.
We get commended for our strength, as though having any weaknesses is an entirely bad thing. This has never sat well with me, and recently I’ve been able to figure out that it’s because I do have weaknesses, and that’s okay. I cannot be tough all the time. I can be no one’s backbone but my own. There are things I cannot deal with. It’s important for us to admit this, and it’s important for other people to not put so much pressure on us.
Recommended reading on mental health, depression, and trauma
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
So Long a Letter, Mariama Bâ
The Salt Eaters, Toni Cade Bambara
The Sea Birds Are Still Alive, Toni Cade Bambara
Breath, Eyes, Memory, Edwidge Danticat
Killing Rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks
Rock My Soul: Black People & Self-Esteem, bell hooks
Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
Color of Violence, ed. Incite! Women Against Violence
Corregidora, Gayl Jones
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Audre Lorde
Beloved, Toni Morisson
The Bluest Eye, Toni Morisson
for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf, Ntozake Shange
What Lies Beneath: Katrina, race, and the state of the nation, ed. South End Press Collective
In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Alice Walker
Also, much of the work of Gloria Anzaldúa