COVID19 & THE “STRONG BLACK WOMAN” STEREOTYPE
It is 2021 and the world has been thrust into a global health pandemic. COVID19 dominates every airway, daily news outlet and google ad these days, disseminating disproportionate numbers of Black and Brown communities suffering, dying and losing loved ones to this vicious virus. In December of 2020, the CDC published studies of specific U.S. cities showing a 34% death rate of Hispanics and African-Americans despite comprising just 12% of the country’s population. A number of intersecting issues have undoubtedly contributed to this statistic, including healthcare disparities, lack of access to healthcare, high unemployment rates, residential redlining and gentrification, racism, sexism, and economic disenfranchisement, to name a few. But what about the people? How are these communities, families, individuals coping with so much loss?
It is an understatement that right now, Black communities are suffering. With a majority of black families being headed by single mothers, it warrants our attention to assess how black women are coping with this pandemic. Dr.Joy Degruy, author of Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome (PTSS), asserts that due to multigenerational and ongoing trauma, black communities have adapted their ways of coping with loss. Pre-slavery, a number of traditional dances, rituals, medicines and spiritual processes were involved in the grieving process. As descendents of both Indigenous and African groups, US-settled or born blacks often continue to rely on rituals to grieve and bemoan the deceased. Pouring out liquor (libations), or eating soul food, specifically with a hot pot of fresh greens for example, are ways that those of the diaspora remain linked to their rich ancestry and culture. Of course it is no coincidence that the person who is often initiating these rituals is a Black mother, grandmother or elder. As so much of the responsibility of family relies on the anchor of the Black woman in black communities, it is no wonder a stereotype originally denoting the strength, agility and adaptability of Black women, would be heralded throughout Black communities.
However, the Strong Black Woman stereotype, over time, has stood as a symbol of both dehumanization and humanization. Most notably identified in Jesse Williams’ iconic 2016 BET Humanitarian Award’s speech, “Now this is in particular for the Black women who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone but themselves… just because we are magic, doesn’t mean we’re not real.” The Strong Black Woman stereotype has demonstrated the adaptability of the Black woman and her community to unimaginable trauma as often as it holds her responsible for her own pain. Eventually, black women began to question what “strength” looks like to her and her community.
The American Psychological Association (APA) detailed in a study conducted by Lindsey West and Roxanne Donovan (APA, 2015), that this strength exemplified the ability to suppress and surpass emotions, accept trauma (“ it is what it is”), act as if nothing is wrong, or even allow herself to be sacrificed so that her family may continue. All of these behaviors Dr. Joy Degruy identifies as symptoms of multigenerational trauma and post traumatic slave syndrome. A slave, deemed subhuman by our American Constitution was neither granted the ability or the humanity to grieve loss, but instead expected to “act like nothing is wrong” and accept the daily onslaught of trauma produced by a lifetime of bondage.
Again, I ask you, how is the Black woman coping with COVID19 then? Does she realize that in her effort to cope with so much loss, she could be re-enacting the same traumatic survival techniques taught to her by her mother and those who came before her? Does she know that she is worthy of grieving? That her humanity is not threatened by her need to grieve? Does she know that her strength is in fact reinforced by her willingness to heal herself?
Afrocentric Psychology examines the instinctive indigenous ways of the African soul, and all her descendents. It provides a framework with which to conceptualize the US settled or born African-American with their Pan-African heritage while living in an oppressive American society. Grief, loss, from an afrocentric perspective is loss of the illusion of life, but never the presence of the soul. In other words, the feeling of grief could be seen as that of a long-distance lover, yearning to touch the human form of their beloved. However, Afrocentric Psychology informs us that Loss is considered to be the transcendence of the soul to the Ancestral Realm, where the person is celebrated and appreciated for all they gave during their lifetime. If needed they can be called upon for wisdom, guidance, and strength. Ancestrally, this knowledge was often accompanied by traditional dance, music, wailing, or some other form of bodily expression, to continue relationship with the person, and also to detox the body from pain.
In many ways, Black women can use the wisdom of their ancestry to transform traumatic or toxic definitions of strength, to more effectively cope with the loss, trauma and grief of COVID19. We suggest the following rituals to help Black women address their emotions, accept them, and process them in healthier ways.
1. Choose a song that resonates with you and dance it out!
Music is a great way to access unprocessed emotions, giving them a space to live while simultaneously releasing them through your body by dance. Dance has long been a healing method for breaking up negative energy stored by unprocessed emotions in the body. Combining these two strong rituals will help you to feel less attached to uncomfortable emotions and obsessive thoughts.
2. Attend a virtual Drum Circle
The effects of this ritual are much like the ritual we described above. However, drum beats for those of African or Indigenous descent can provide a certain meditative experience. It is through this meditative state that one can release difficult emotions from the mind body soul while simultaneously reconnecting with those lost.
3. Find an article of clothing that connects you with the deceased
A plethora of African spiritualities use a liaison of artifacts (i.e. clothing, photos, necklaces, etc.) to reconnect a person with their Ancestors, or the Creator. Often, these artifacts can facilitate a “Wailing Ritual” where a person sets aside ten or fifteen minutes to cry, scream, or otherwise pour their emotions into the artifact. After every session, this artifact is hand washed (or you can use sage) and re-energized by speaking positive affirmations over it.
4. Attend a virtual Healing Circle
As a result of the global trauma occurring due to the COVID pandemic, a number of cultural institutions are holding indigenous healing circles. These circles reinforce the ancestral ways of healing the mind, body and soul from trauma, loss and grief in a manner that feels natural and accessible.Further, many healing circles utilize the benefits of community and relationship to promote healing. I encourage you to google a virtual healing circle or find an institution in your area providing this service.
5. Attend a Racial Trauma seminar by culturally educated and affirming clinicians
Here at Clarity Counseling, we are providing racial trauma groups! Feel free to contact us for more information on how to join and gain access to the healing you deserve.
COVID 19 has vastly impacted our lives bringing experiences of hardship, loss, grief and dehumanization to the forefront of our society. If there were ever a time to examine the ways we cope with pain, and assess if they are re-traumatizing, that time is now. Healing must be a priority, not only for Black and brown communities, but for our world.
So, start with you, reach for help, and together we can heal.