Do you think that there is any added pressure on Black women in genre fiction to be “a certain way”? For instance, do you think it’s more difficult/less acceptable for Black women to be portrayed as:
- Add your own adjective
There are some books, specifically those in which the female lead isn’t Black/African American, where I see those types of personalities. These books do extremely well. As a matter of fact, it’s more than “some” books. Whereas, I’ve read critiques or have had feedback shared from other authors/readers that it is a little bit like a field of landmines trying to navigate the intricacies of a non-self-assured Black woman in a way readers will enjoy.
Taraji P. Henson recently released a mental health video where she poses the question of whether the “Strong Black Woman” identity is far more damaging than we realize. Personally, I’m someone who has questioned whether or not I “fit in” in certain circles because of my reticence. It often feels impossible to be strong and shy at the same time; to stand up for myself some days and remain quiet others; to not constantly worry about whether I’m portraying myself in the “right” way. To not hide certain things about myself in order to fit in lest I be exiled to the island of Elba.
As a child, I was a fighter. I used my fists, my feet. I had no concept of “lady.” I had an intense thing about people messing with my friends or anyone shorter than me, and words were not my first choice in the heat of battle. Anyone who had a problem with it could suck lemons.
It was then drilled, hammered, and sewn into me that “ladies are to be seen and never heard.” There was to be no more hanging upside down on monkey bars, no more dirt under my collar, and no more competitiveness with boys because it made no sense to me how “being a boy” somehow meant they were automatically better at anything. If I was sitting and my thighs started to sweat, I dare not part them, even a smidge, unless I wanted to be welcomed immediately into the Kingdom of Whores.
This was what it meant to be a holy girl. A “clean” girl. A good little Black girl.
On the flip side, once I entered my late teens, I was informed shy and insecure isn’t what it’s meant to be a Black girl. This escalated to: never let them see you cry. Never let them know you struggle. Hide your anxiety, your depression. Your eating disorder, your self-harm. Speak up for yourself all the time, every time. Never “need” anyone. Forget what Bill Withers said…lean on no one but Jesus. Maybe your mother if she thinks the reason is valid.
Black girls simply do not…
Which way is the right way? The reformed child pugilist or the child prizefighter?
How can she be strong…if she’s shy? If she’s quiet? If she’s afraid of confrontation? If she cries in the shower? If she wants to feel safe in a man’s arms? If she wants a man to tell her she’s beautiful? If she truly doesn’t want to do all of this, in life, alone? If she has anxiety? If she struggles? If she’s awkward? If she sometimes needs? If she doesn’t like the way she looks? If she hurts herself? If she second-guesses her role as a mother or partner? If she admits she’s wrong? If even one of those resonates with her?
How does she know the version of her that feels truest isn’t an embarrassment among the population of other brown-skinned ladies?
So, are we expecting a certain image when we think of what it means to be a “strong black woman” in our literary choices? Can we accept characters who don’t automatically fall for the hero’s advances, who second guess themselves, who cry, whose character arc may need to start at meek & insecure…etcetera, etcetera?
This is what I was told as an author: Write characters the way they need to be written. No one is going to enjoy everything you’ve written, so it’s impossible to write to please everyone. Write to be authentic to your story, and to reflect the nuances of the human experience.
It sounds lovely in theory, but it gets a little tricky on paper.
Note: At the end of the day, I’ll keep writing my characters as they are, so you guys don’t have to worry about a major shift. I’m proud of every one of them, especially my fighters like Mo & Sam. My nerds like Tia & Kerah. My strugglers like Larke. And my unique ones like Roux.