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Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman: Voice and the Embodiment of a Costly Performance

Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant

Publication Year: 2009

The defining quality of Black womanhood is strength, states Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant in Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman. But, she argues, the idea of strength undermines its real function: to defend and maintain a stratified social order by obscuring Black women’s experiences of suffering, acts of desperation, and anger. This provocative book lays bare the common perception that strength is an exemplary or defining quality of “authentic” Black womanhood.

The author, a noted sociologist, interviews 58 Black women about being strong and proud, to illustrate their “performance” of invulnerability. Beauboeuf-Lafontant explains how such behavior leads to serious symptoms for these women, many of whom suffer from eating disorders and depression.

Drawing on Black feminist scholarship, cultural studies, and women’s history, Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman traces the historical and social influences of normative Black femininity, looking at how notions of self-image and strength create a distraction from broader forces of discrimination and power.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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Introduction: A Half-Told Tale of Black Womanhood

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pp. 1-20

The defining quality of Black womanhood is strength. As a reference to tireless, deeply caring, and seemingly invulnerable women, the claim of strength forwards a compelling story of perseverance. Critical figures in this narrative include prominent social activists of the last two centuries, such as ...

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1. More Than “the Historical, the Monolithic Me”:Deconstructing Strong Black Womanhood

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pp. 21-44

In the United States, differentiations on the basis of perceived race, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and gender have had a particularly longstanding influence on the life chances of individuals and groups. Historical patterns of domination privilege whites over people of color, men over women, heterosexuals over persons ...

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2. Living the Lies: Embodying “Good” Womanhood

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pp. 45-69

Women are known by their bodies. Although viewed as metonymies for what is “essentially” female, women’s bodies are in actuality “achieved” through the ongoing development of culturally appropriate physical, behavioral, and attitudinal markers of racialized gender. The concept of embodiment ...

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3. Keeping up Appearances: The Performance of Strength

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pp. 70-106

Strength is a prescriptive discourse. As the preceding quotes collectively underscore, a strong Black woman should “muster through” all adversity “without scarring,” should “>em>always [try] to help other people,” and should present herself as a capable “twenty- four- hour woman” regardless of the demands and stresses ...

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4. Lies Make Us Sick: Embodied Distress Among Strong Black Women

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pp. 107-133

To naturalize patterns of social disenfranchisement, strength is deployed to tell lies about Black women. Higher-status race–gender groups utilize it in the hopes that it becomes not simply a performance, but an identity. The use of strength imposes a definition of who Black women are, or at least who they ...

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5. Coming to Voice: Transcending Strength

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pp. 134-150

Voice is the expression of the “deep down inside” that Black women learn to create as they “pick up” strength. It reflects those points of view that locate Black women in their actual circumstances rather than in a timeless narration of struggle and caregiving. When Black women actively listen to ...

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Epilogue: Mules No More, Just “Levelly Human”: A Societal Challenge

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pp. 151-154

Oppressed groups have long understood that systems of domination trade not only in material disparities but in lies. Whether named as myths, mystiques, sincere fictions, or controlling images, these falsehoods distort what is known, felt, desired, and accomplished in order to justify inequality. Taken ...

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pp. 155-158

It takes a village to raise a child, and a community to nurture an idea into maturity. While the thoughts and arguments of this book are my own, they developed over many years within several networks of intellectual and moral support. I wish to express a debt of gratitude to the following: ...

Appendix: Table of Participants

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pp. 159-160


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pp. 161-168


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pp. 169-180


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pp. 181-183

E-ISBN-13: 9781592136698

Publication Year: 2009