“A Strong Black Woman” — Reflections on Feminism and Womanhood

“What do you want to do…be like Jasmine? She’s just a teacher; she makes hardly anything. She’ll get married and stay home and disappear.”

Words like these, said by one of my relatives to her daughter post-graduation last year, would have crushed me ten years ago.

Now, for me, ten years ago is just barely creeping into teen status, entering the tenuous high school years and daydreaming about the future. To me, ten years ago was not a power-suit and an upward rise to fame, or an advanced degree and command of a university classroom.

But I knew one thing at that time: I was going to be the strong black woman who proved to them (the ubiquitous and mysterious them) that such a thing could exist. And my extended family was pumped: “She’ll be a strong black woman. We need more of those in the world.”

The Smart One

Growing up, my extended family would look at my grades and beam with pride. As the young women in our family began to set themselves apart by their various gifts, talents, and abilities, the label I coveted more than any other was the smart one; The door-opener with the brain; The double minority who laughed in the face of opposition.

Intelligence, in black culture, is never just intelligent for intelligence’s sake. It’s marked either by a string of degrees that put more letters behind your name than are contained in the alphabet, or a fat paycheck attached to an enterprise of your own invention. So it isn’t enough for women to be smart. They have to prove it. Out there. Or it’s not real.

“She’ll be a strong black woman. We need more of those in the world.”

The Troubled One

Something interesting began to happen during those teen years, though.

Incredible insecurities began to pop up. Worries about my salvation riddled me to the point of sleepless nights. My dad diagnosed the problem one evening while I sat sobbing on the arm of his chair, wailing, “I just try to do so much for the Lord, but I keep on failing!”

His chuckle unnerved me. “Baby, you are a legalist.”

In my mind, favor was gained by performance. It was not the way I had been raised, it was not a message that had ever been directly put before me, but it was something that had seeped into my subconscious, no doubt through the conduit of a natural bent for pride. Be, do, and become were my mantras.

That night, my father offered me a new command, a command any militant needs to hear: rest.

The Hidden One 

Rest — because I am hidden in the finished work of Christ Jesus (Colossians 3:1-4).

My shortcomings, my insecurities, my wretched sins had been dealt with in the marvelous act of sacrificial love and obedience that took place on the Cross. In my words to my students every day after we read the Bible: “What does this have to do with your day?”

For me, it slowly peeled back the over-achieving attitude that had been eating me alive from the cradle. And it began to supplant my goals for personal advancement with new priorities. No longer was I to be defined by what I could do and be and become… my be, do, and become was newly-enlivened with what he already is, does, and became for me (Ephesians 2:10).

And this is its power for every woman who calls on the name of the Lord. She is given the freedom to prioritize his beautiful pattern above a power struggle.

The Crazy One

We hear a lot of different perspectives on feminism. And it’s true, the militant eradication of gender roles comes from a lot of different motives, some noble — justice and equality — and some not so much —rampant disobedience to God’s created order.

Success and education do not necessarily bespeak feministic attitudes.  Those generalizations are an unhealthy and unfocused overreaction to the real problem of haziness surrounding gender roles in our society. As we look at young women grappling with gender roles and expectations for the future, if we bash them over the head with a Suzie Homemaker stereotype, instead of nurturing them with the Gospel, we’ll have a whole other mess on our hands.

What if we started to see some forms of feminism in a slightly different light. Sometimes, it’s rooted in insecurity.

We grapple for safety, not in the identity God has given us as women in Christ, but in the intelligence, success, or {fill in the blank} of our own making.

The answer for a young black woman trying to be what the world needed more of isn’t to shove her gifts in a hole. I tried that, in a drastic pendulum swing from my “something to prove” mindset. Blessedly, my parents weren’t buying it, and encouraged me to cultivate those gifts, not in the context of the world’s definition of success, but in the context of who I am in Christ.

I know you can hear them now: “Hopefully she doesn’t let all that go to waste. She could’ve been a strong black woman. We need more of those in the world.”

The Joyful One

I remember the deep-seated desire to prove them wrong. And how, as it began to melt away, I felt the freedom to pursue the Lord’s callings on my life whether they led to strong black woman status or not.

Fast-forward ten years.

And now, she’s just a teacher, and she makes hardly anything. Her heart softened towards the making of a home and the nurturing of children. She learned (and is still learning) the beauty of serving in the background, instead of fighting her way to the front of a crowd.

She’ll get married and stay home and disappear.

By disappear, I don’t mean in the shadow of my future husband or pursuits, but in the shadow of an identity firmly rooted in Christ and who he says I am. Because I want to be a faithful Christian woman. The world needs more of those.

This article originally appeared at RAANetwork.

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