Black Women and Pain: Reflections on Vulnerability

by Liz Alexander

I am Black
I am a Woman
And I am in Pain.

And to acknowledge this feels like a farce; especially since I am the daughter of a woman who I’ve never seen cry. Even as she lay dying, she did not cry.

As her daughter, I wonder what took her tears away?  Which tragedy was it? Was it the incest she experienced as a child at the hands of her brother, my uncle? Was it the violence she endured at the hands of the men she was in relationship with, my father included? Was it the poverty she could never overcome, even though she was a professional and worked two jobs?

Bag Lady you gone hurt your back.
Dragging all them bags like that.

I have also experienced the loss of my own tears. It took several years of psychotherapy with my truth telling therapist to reactivate them again. I cannot pin point which traumatic experience took them from me. As I reflect, I wonder if it was the utter devastation and abandonment I felt after my mother’s premature and unexpected death.  Or was it the rejection and betrayal I felt when my aunts and uncles, her siblings, left my brothers and me to fend for ourselves without any assistance, devastated and motherless. All which have resulted in deep wounds around my sense of self worth, wounds that I am constantly re-bandaging, even in my adulthood. Or was it when my father forced me to find a lawyer for my brother because he found himself in a situation that resulted in the death of the other person. At the time, I was 18, a freshman in college and had no in depth knowledge of the criminal justice system.  My brother was eventually sentenced to twenty two years for manslaughter. I continue to battle with feelings of guilt

I write this to name “it,” to name it and to let it go. 

I guess nobody ever told you
All you must hold on to
Is you, is you, is you

Womanist Theologian and Pyschologist Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes provides a brilliant analysis in her work “Too Heavy a Yoke: Black women and The Burden of Strength,” of the Strong Black Woman. Developed as a resistance strategy to combat negative images of Black womanhood, the core components of the Strong Black Woman are emotional strength/regulation, care giving, and independence, all of which according to Walker-Barnes “shield Black women from the threat of devaluation but also keeps them from the type of authentic self-expression and intimacy that are necessary for optimal social and emotional health” 

Per Walker-Barnes, I have been inauthentic with myself and my feelings. And a major outcome of my inauthenticity is my development of Leaky Gut Syndrome, a stress induced gastrointestinal condition.

 I am clear, martyrdom in the name of strength is suicide.

One day all the bags gone get in your way
One day all the bags gone get in your way

When I think about Black women and our relationship to pain, I question, when are we afforded the space to say we are in pain? To name, what has happened to us? And to be affirmed in the naming? To be supported in our healing? However long it may take? Without the threat of being devalued?

As Black women, I ask, how long am I (we) going to hold onto this skewed perception of strength? 

My awakening comes in the form of literal paralysis because the pain I have suppressed has forced its way up to the surface. I am at rock bottom and all of my skeletons are out of my closet. I am exposed, I am raw, I am vulnerable, I am afraid, I am in shock and I am broken. I am up against a brick wall and I am unable to pull myself out of this one. 

My mask no longer fits.

One day all the bags gone get in your way
One day all the bags gone get in your way

 I heed the words of Sharmayne Jenkins, Life coach and Founder of Reinvention Now, “your old habits no longer serve you and your old self has to die in order for your new self to live.” 

So pack light.

I recently admitted to someone, whom I value, that I needed their help. This was major for me, considering that I once associated vulnerability with weakness and that I have major issues around trust. Surprisingly, during this exchange I became acutely aware of the liberating power of saying “I need you.” It literally felt like a breath of fresh air.  It also reinforced the truth that we were created to be in community, to be interconnected. 

This is healthy. This is balance.

If I am choosing to live, I have to let it go, let it go, let it go.

And in letting it go, I have made my decision.

I don’t want to be strong, 

I want to be whole.

Photo: Shutterstock

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