The Young and Disenchanted

“Woman, woman, woman, strong woman…” – African Womanhood

Posted on: 3 November, 2009

A few weeks ago I was sitting smoking hookah in my room with a male acquaintance. Above my desk, I have photographs of my family, including a solo picture of my mother which, as the topic of family came up in conversation, I showed to him. He took a look and commented, “Wow, she looks like a strong African woman – I see where you get it from.”

Now, any other African woman would probably either not have given this a second thought, or would have taken it as a compliment. I, however, was steaming. Not because I have a problem with being told I resemble my mother – she’s absolutely beautiful – but because I thought I detected beneath the seemingly kind remark the lurking, negative undertone of “scary black girl” which the former term often seems to be a euphemism for.

I realise now that I reacted like a crazy person. But let me explain myself: first of all, in that photograph my mother looks, to quote another friend, like an O.G – but the kind that would have Frank Lucas running scared. In other words, like an intimidating figure – aka, the “scary black girl,” or woman. The moniker “scary black girl” has followed me around since I was nine years old, since when my family moved to England. Being tall, loud-voiced and opinionated hasn’t done much to make me come across as the sensitive, sweet and warm-hearted person that I am deep deep deep down (no, really, I am). But in a world where being an African woman doesn’t exactly endow you with all of the best opportunities the world has to offer, I don’t feel like I have a choice but to be tough. When I moved to England, my younger sister, another Nigerian and I were the only people of colour at my school. Hearing a white girl ask why our skin was the colour of poop, I felt like I had two options: cry, or punch her in the face (metaphorically speaking, of course). I chose the (metaphoric) latter option, and it became my way of dealing with all the adverse situations and general bullshit life has thrown my way. Fuck lemonade, I make kamikazes with my lemons.

So I fully understand why certain people, when they see me making my unsmiling, keffiyeh-ed up way across campus, may want to run in the opposite direction, or peg me as unfriendly or find me unapproachable. Shoot, I probably wouldn’t want to talk to me either sometimes, especially if I haven’t slept. But there’s more to this one image than meets the eye.

I told a male friend of mine about the comment that got me thinking about the phrase “strong African woman” to begin with. As I ranted on in self-righteous fury, he looked at me sideways and asked, “What is it about being called strong that you don’t like?” I paused. “Well,” I responded, “I think it comes with a particular stereotypical connotation when followed by “African woman.” It isn’t a bad thing on its own, but I don’t like people assuming I’m an emasculating, bossy person when they don’t know me.  I feel like that’s what people think of when they say that phrase.” He replied with something that made me stop and think: “I don’t think so. When I hear the words “strong African woman” I think of a person who is strong despite the limitations that come with being a woman and being an African.”

I’d never thought of myself that way. For me, my strong African womanhood was armour, something I used to protect myself from the world. It didn’t occur to me that it could also be a source of vulnerability. In many ways, I was buying into the very “stereotype” that I was offended by – because I believed that being vulnerable was a weakness I couldn’t afford, and one that my African mother hadn’t worked so hard for me to indulge in. My boy was suggesting something totally radical to me: that by letting your guard down, by not always being the tough one or the caretaker, you could still show strength.

Thinking back to my reaction that evening, and about the strong African women I know, his point totally makes sense. My very gangster mother, despite her fierceness, can also be very vulnerable. I’ve watched her sob, totally despondent over the loss of a relative with the kind of helplessness I associate with a small child. I’ve also watched her get herself up, wash her face and go on to make dinner for my father, putting her personal sadness aside for the wellbeing of those she loves. And that right there is the key – it’s the ability to be both “weak” and “strong,” to comfort and to be comforted in turn, that defines this strong African womanhood.

I asked Rational Chaos, and he too associates the phrase “strong African woman” with sacrifice as well as with taking no nonsense. It was interesting, though, because he also suggested that there was an antithesis to this woman, the “submissive African woman” for lack of a better term – one he imagined carrying a water bucket on her head, bowed by the weight of poverty and lack of opportunity. Interesting, because I’d never put the word submissive next to my idea of an African woman. Tradition and condition may require some of us to be poor dutiful wives, but even this requires a great deal of strength – to put aside your personal desires for someone else or for your culture. This is something I admire – and something I probably need to work on as I grow older.

As I type this I’m looking at the photograph of my mother that started this whole discourse. She’s wearing her Gucci shades, a red and silver gele (headtie) with matching wrapper, and striding purposefully forward, her eye catching something to her left. She’s powerful, she’s stunning – yet something about that sideways glance reminds me of the times I’ve seen her otherwise – mocking my niece’s dancing in her nightgown, tired from surgery, stressed out from work. But this image – the strong, beautiful African woman image – is what stays with me. I know I have her smile and her height… only time will tell if I have her strength too.

Thoughts in the comments section please.

P.S. The title is from Raheem DeVaughn’s “Woman” – love this track.

P.P.S. This piece is for two African men: the one who gently reminded me about writing on this blog, and the one who made me see how wonderful it is to be an African woman. I love you guys 🙂


4 Responses to "“Woman, woman, woman, strong woman…” – African Womanhood"

interesting post…

My fave quotes?

“Fuck lemonade, I make KAMIKAZES with my lemons.”

Best. Quote. Ever.

“My boy was suggesting something totally radical to me: that by letting your guard down, by not always being the tough one or the caretaker, you could still show strength.”

Definitely need to take this one to heart.

Glad you’re writing again.

Authentic words, some unadulterated words man. Thanks for makin my day!

I appreciate that no-one likes to be typecast or caricatured as a stereotype, but why does strong womanhood have to be emasculating? Truly strong men are comfortable around strong women, and some (like me) prefer or are even attracted to strong women. I came to this site because I googled ‘strong African women’ because I like strong African women. And hey, for all of the readers, there is no need to stereotype me either, as somebody weird or insecure.

In my experience, all strong women have a soft centre …. and by soft I mean compassionate and empathetic. To me that is often the difference between ‘strong man’ and ‘strong woman’. Strongly opinionated, strong in adversity, strong caretaker, physically strong ….it’s all good.

And although I recognise that being African in a white land has its challenges, would you ever want to change your height, strength and cultural heritage for anything else? Thank God you are an African! ‘Scary black girl’ obviously exists only in the mind of shallow or stubbornly ignorant people who have not seen beyond the superficial.

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