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Strength in “Weakness”: Dispelling the Black Woman Superhero Complex

By: Gabrielle Perry

Do you know what I remember most about being in prison? How incredibly nice everyone was. Twenty years old and handcuffed in the backseat of a police cruiser taking the long ride across town to the parish prison and my arresting officer asks me if my handcuffs were too tight, if I had eaten already, and if I would like her to stop so that she could buy me food because as she put it, “You might be here awhile, baby.”

When I arrived, the booking officer told me how beautiful I was as he took my mugshot. After being escorted to the pink holding cell used for women, I assume the fellow inmates sensed my brewing panic attack, as I stood there with sorority girl naïveté, and joked with me for hours about “Orange is the New Black,” boyfriends, girlfriends, misbehaving children, and sex toys.

When I  left my holding cell and finally  reached my bed in Unit B of this surprisingly friendly place, I was prayed for, fed the finest of snacks kept safely stored in various hiding places, and given extra pillows and blankets by women, young and old, whose names I did not catch but whose faces I will never forget.

I was in jail for all of ten hours. It was light compared to the offense: I was charged with 27 felony counts of theft for taking money from my job so my mother and I wouldn’t starve to death while I haphazardly made a way to pay her medical bills and household expenses all from 3 hours away, while in school.

Nevertheless, ten hours in prison with women society had thrown away was the most genuine kindness anyone had shown me in years. I made a phone call to my best friend who alerted me that social media was aware of my arrest and that various memes were circulating with my mugshot.

My “boyfriend” practically disappeared since a good Christian man couldn’t be associated with the likes of me and at that moment my real friends were few and far between. And yet, when I was released from custody in the middle of that cold January night, I was also freed in another more important way. I had spent all of my adult life wearing a mask to protect the illusion of my perfect life. But here I was with all of my failings laid out for the world to see. And instead of feeling shame, I was finally freed from my need to be anyone’s definition of perfection and freed from the superwoman moniker many Black women needlessly suffer under the weight of.

In 1978 Michele Wallace published  Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman,  a Black womanist manifesto dispelling the notion we as Black women could and should withstand all the obstacles hurled at us. It was one of the first books of that era chronicling the Black movement while simultaneously challenging and critiquing the belief that the “S” on our chests would be ripped off should we even take a moment to emotionally process the sexism, stigma, racism, misogyny, and everyday tribulations we encounter.

Before that sweet release I was holding in the grief of my mother’s failing health, the burden of financial ruin resulting from my father’s death, the anxiety of being a double STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) major maintaining a full scholarship, the unrequited love of a man I would soon learn was unworthy of my affection, and the continuous need to keep up my facade of perfection.

There were days I felt breathing were akin to walking through fire; my suicide attempt during my sophomore year of college was met with vicious and cruel rumors spread by my sorority sisters that I was “weak,” “playing the victim,” and “crazy.”

The whispers, rumors, and outright cruelty threatened to tear down the illusion of perfection I had worked so hard to build and rip my cape off. I had to be strong, focused, disciplined, never showing any weakness, never letting anyone know what I felt or how strongly I felt it. This led me, like many other Black women then and now, to believe that the key to survival was to be an island and to shield ourselves from our God-given right to compassion, understanding, and love in order to uphold our reputation as the heroines of our culture’s narrative. It is that very ideology, the notion that we have to be everything for everybody while simultaneously nourishing and sustaining ourselves by ourselves, that chokes the life out of us.

So how do we loosen the grip of our capes and rewrite our own stories? A few suggestions come to mind:

Seek Counseling: Recently I have gotten to the root of my former mental anguish and worked through the internal issues that have caused me so much pain in my early adulthood. For me, unloading all of my anxiety on my friends felt selfish, and, honestly, pointless. Often times we are told we just need more “faith.” But that same God wants you well and happy, not burdened beyond repair. The best decision I ever made was seeking the unbiased, honest opinion of a qualified professional.

Practice Self-care: I spent the last two years of my life losing roughly 80 pounds. As of late I am focused on losing 20 more. However, it is not merely about the pounds, but the sense of satisfaction in looking my best and feeling even better. From a scientific standpoint, the endorphins released after good workout sessions counteract depression and increase melatonin levels, helping you sleep as well. Whether your self-care is artistic, athletic, sensual, sexual, or any other method of pleasure, you are entitled to putting yourself first.

LIVE: Make a commitment to yourself to live every single day. Not just exist or roam about aimlessly, but live. I am 22 years old and am now financially independent. Putting the pieces of my life into a beautiful new picture has afforded me the opportunity to start a new chapter of my life. For me, it will include travel, an Ivy League opportunity, vacations with new friends, and maybe even a love life. But I will live because I deserve to live. You deserve to live.

Even now, at 22 years old with one year left of college, a graduate school fellowship being offered to me by my dream school, financial prosperity, the dismissing of my criminal case, and the entire world at my feet, the “S” on my chest still threatens to weigh me down sometimes. However, I never let it consume me anymore. As Dr. Nsenga K. Burton, editor-at-large of The Root, states, “The popular notion that Black women are superwomen has real consequences on our lives. This myth needs to be put to rest before more Black women are laid to rest.”

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Written By: Gabrielle Perry

Gabrielle Perry is a devout Christian, senior college student, fitness fanatic, and every other characteristic of an ABC Family after school special. She plans to cure diseases one day but publishes her innermost thoughts as a different kind of medicine for people. Follow her on Twitter @GeauxGabby

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6 Comments on "Strength in “Weakness”: Dispelling the Black Woman Superhero Complex"

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Guest

This is so beautiful… As a young black woman who is a STEM major as well, I can relate to this so easily. Thank you so much for sharing!

Guest

As they say, sometimes the most generous people are the ones who have nothing but love to give. I’m inspired to read about the number of people who extended kindness to you during a difficult situation. Gives me hope – particularly on the day of yet another mass shooting.

When I think of how many people are out there, driven to the point of desperation under the weight of outrageous medical bills…ugh!! It should not be this way.

Thanks for sharing your story and being so honest.

Guest
1 year 4 months ago

This is an amazing story and a reminder to never judge a book by its cover. Congrats on your growth and the awesome road ahead.

Guest

[…] and even others. Practicing self-love and self-care is an achievement, and for that I salute Gabrielle Perry for the words of wisdom she has shared with all of us. Let’s all get to that place of healing, […]

Guest

[…] and even others. Practicing self-love and self-care is an achievement, and for that I salute Gabrielle Perry for the words of wisdom she has shared with all of us. Let’s all get to that place of healing, […]

Guest
1 year 1 month ago

What a powerful narrative, pushing past the illusions of perfection speaks volumes about your character, I applaud you!

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