To learn more about Too Heavy A Yoke, please read the introductory post. Be sure to peruse The Nightstand in that post, which has resources for those wanting to learn more about the topic and themes of this month’s selection.
When I found out we were reading Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength by Dr. Chaniqua Walker- Barnes, I was thrilled—I’d heard so many great things about it, especially in an interview by Rachel Held Evans. What really piqued my interest was the book’s exploration of strength, vulnerability, competency, and the social implications for women, especially Black Women.
While reading our Red Couch book, another unarmed teen was shot by a police officer. When I watched the press conference held by the young man’s family, his mother’s response broke my heart. She was last to speak after their lawyer gave his remarks and a family friend painted a picture of the boy’s upstanding character, so when she took the stage something holy happened.
She broke down in tears.
I think this was the first time I saw a Black mother openly share her grief with the world. As I thought back to other press conferences, the reactions of the mothers ranged from anger to silent disappointment. Maybe they’d turn away from the crowd and hide their tears in the embrace of a family member, but rarely did we get to see her express her anguish from the podium.
It made me think of this question from Too Heavy a Yoke:
“Where is the space for lamenting the suffering of African-American women in a theological and societal context that teaches them that their contemporary suffering is divinely ordained and is the salvation of the race?” (p. 144.)
The sad answer is there’s none. Our culture has accepted and promoted a dangerous identity for Black Women, a false identity that we’re tempted to assume: The StrongBlackWoman.
“The StrongBlackWoman is a legendary figure, typified by extraordinary capacities of care-giving and for suffering without complaint. She is a cultural myth that defines—and confines—ways of being in the world for women of African descent.” (p. 3)
Too Heavy a Yoke illuminated why a Black mother’s public grief was so profound for me—I was groomed by my mother, a StrongBlackWoman to become a StrongBlackWoman in order to survive the world. In order to make sense of my fears that my children are not safe and in order to reject daily micro-aggressions, we bow our necks to the terrible yoke of power and strength.
I remember the first time I saw my mother cry. I couldn’t find her and my friends were at the door asking me to come out and play. I searched everywhere: her bedroom, the laundry room, the bathroom. Everywhere, except the garage.
When I opened the door to the darkened room, from one corner of the garage, I heard my mother’s sniffles. When I called out to her, I heard her put on the “ill-fitting suit of amor.” The crying stopped, she cleared her throat, and her wry Southern-tinged voice replied, “What child?!?!”
I never learned why ama cried, but I did learn that for black women, crying is unacceptable, something to be hidden in the darkened obscure places of our lives.
Reading this book spoke to that little girl standing in the garage doorway, it gave permission to feel, seek my own self-care, and reject the bravado of The StrongBlackWoman.
Dr. Walker-Barnes points out this not only destroys our souls, but our bodies, minds, and relationships. This book is so timely for us as women who want to love well. There’s whole communities of SheLovelys breaking under the pressure of being StrongBlackWomen. This book gives us eyes to see them.
This made me think of the work Dr. Brene Brown has done with shame and vulnerability research, specifically how we’ve been trained to reject our weakness in order to preserve a public image, yet we feel empty and unseen in our personal relationships.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” —Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
Doesn’t the description of the StrongBlackWoman sound like a familiar struggle for most women? In a world full of misogyny and patriarchy, to be a woman is to battle with a false sense of strength.
Dr. Walker-Barnes clarifies that “the attributes and sequelae of the StrongBlackWoman could be exhibited by men and women of other races, what is unique for black women is the degree to which these are prescriptive as a function of one’s fixed public identity.” (p. 8)
I’m grateful for the strides we’ve taken towards wholeness in relationships and the ways we can create relationships that cultivate a healthy strength.
The gift of Too Heavy a Yoke is how it empowers readers from all backgrounds to examine their own false strength identities, regardless of race, and then identify how to support the Black Women in their lives to move away from an unhelpful cultural identity that has been developed over years of oppression.
My favorite section of the book after pages of rich historical analysis of the black woman’s experience in America, practical help at the end of each chapter for pastors and lay leaders to help the black women in their communities, and an introduction of womanist theology (a way of reading the Bible through the lens of African-American women and looking for ways God sees and interacts with her freedom) is the end, when Dr. Walker-Barnes equates the compulsion to be a StrongBlackWoman with an addiction and offers a Twelve Step Recovery.
I’ve never thought of this way of being strong and capable as an addiction that’s incredibly hard to move away from without intentionality, but it is. I get too much life and identity from being the woman with the plan and ability to make it happen. I needed the book to end with a call to change.
The goals of her Twelve Steps are hard goals for me, because it’s hard work to lead with vulnerability and let other people. Hard, but not impossible.
Too Heavy A Yoke is a field guide to emotional health which I think so many of us are needing. When we watch another shooting or read another disturbing headline or feel unseen in our church communities, in our own darkened corners we cry and ask, “What now? Where do I go from here?”
Too Heavy a Yoke has the answers to those desperate questions:
Reject false strength
See the God who sees you in a new light
Know that you are not alone
Commit to your recovery.
Questions for Discussion:
1. How do you relate to the description of a StrongBlackWoman?
2:. How have you noticed the Black women in your contexts struggling to be authentic with their vulnerabilities or weaknesses?
3. How can you read through some of your favorite bible passages through the lens of a black woman in light of the history of oppression and the current racial climate?
4. How can your church support Black women to practice better self-care?
5. Which of the Twelve Steps of Recovery resonate with you?
6. What else from the book resonated with or challenged you?
Our November book is Reluctant Pilgrim: A Moody, Somewhat Self-Induglent Introvert’s Search For Spiritual Community by Enuma Okoro. Come back Wednesday, Nov. 2 for the introductory post. The discussion post will be up Wednesday, Nov. 30. In the meantime, be sure to follow along in the Red Couch Facebook group.