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  • This Disease Called Strength: Some Observations on the Compensating Construction of Black Female Character *
  • Trudier Harris (bio)

The close ties between African American history and literature are undeniable, and that is no less the case for portraits of black women. Historically, African American women have been viewed as balm bearers, the ones who held a people together against assaults from outside as well as from within the community. They were towers of strength against the degradation of slavery. They were towers of strength against the abuse of husbands and the demands of children. They were towers of strength in taking care of their families—usually through domestic work. And they formed the pillars that supported the black churches that in turn demanded a tremendous strength from them. Indeed, historical African American communities could be viewed as having been in various states of ill health, having numerous diseases inflicted upon them by the ugly manifestations of racism. Black women were the spiritual as well as the physical healers, putting hearth, home, and family back together after the tragedy of lynching, nursing daughters brutalized by rape, soothing children who were attacked when they tried to integrate Southern schools. Black women provided the bandages for the wounds, the solace for the stricken. We have applauded this strength—and certainly not without justication. [End Page 109]

Seldom have we stopped to think, however, that this thing called strength, this thing we applaud so much in black women, could also be a disease. Yet the very virtue so praised historically has, in African American literature, become its own form of ill health. Strength frequently perpetuates dysfunction in literary families, where the strong characters and actions of black women become malignant growths upon the lives of their relatives. Unaltered and uncontained, the virus of strength becomes its own reason for being for these women, and no matter how compelling the reason, the illness still dominates their lives.

Unfortunately, this development has been an almost innocent consequence of the convergence of historical and literary forces. It has manifested itself in a variety of incarnations. There is certainly an admirable quality about the black woman who kills her child rather than allow that child to be remanded to slavery. It is equally admirable when a woman takes the brunt of abuse that might be directed at her children and refocuses it upon herself. Or when she believes fervently in a supreme being who will one day right all the wrongs of the world. For the literary representation of women who have never had the luxury of being put on a pedestal, of being incorporated into anyone’s concept of what true womanhood meant, black writers presented these characters as perhaps freer to redefine themselves, or to “invent” themselves, as Toni Morrison asserts of Pilate Dead. 1 Their re-creation, however, has bumped its head against the low ceiling of the possible virtues inherent in strength. Conceptualization of black female character, therefore, has fallen into the creative trap or paradox of finding a way out of traditional stereotypes by reinvigorating an old one whose myriad shades do not ultimately overcome the basic problem of limitation. The superficial attractions of strength have dominated portraits of black women to the detriment of other possibilities and potentially stymied future directions for the representation of black women. This tradition of portrayal, therefore, has created as well as become its own form of illness.

The landscape of African American literature is peopled with black women who are almost too strong for their own good, whether that strength is moral or physical, or both. Historically, black writers have assumed that strength was the one unassailable characteristic they could apply to black women. If black women could be attacked for being promiscuous, they certainly could not be attacked for being strong. If they could be criticized for acquiescing in their own debasement during slavery, they could certainly not be criticized for taking their burdens to the Lord and leaving them there. Unquestionably, [End Page 110] strength was frequently the only virtue available to black women. Without extensive financial resources, or militia, or public opinion, or even mobs to protect them when threatened, they had only their...

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pp. 109-126
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