One of the most recognizable stereotypes of African American women is that of the Angry Black Woman. I believe that this image of Africanist women has grown out of the Collective’s need to have a Feminine upon which to project strength.
Following the decades after slavery and the plantation system where black women worked in the fields, birthed and lost their children, took care of the children of others and suffered being a mothering slave, it seems that the American psyche would find these women to be strong of character. This is oftentimes applied to black women—that they are strong. But sometimes this strength is mistaken for anger—thus the angry black woman stereotype. Stereotypes exist because there was once an image, language, a story that created in our consciousness a tangible remembrance. The recollection becomes solidified as a stereotype.
When I think about the stereotype of the angry black woman I begin to search deeper, looking for something else that resonates with what has risen to the surface. But before going there it might be important to see why an African American woman might be angry. The emotion of anger within ourselves can sometimes make us afraid. We cannot tolerate the uncontrolled welling up and intense heat of the energy of rage or anger. We can be equally afraid of the release of this anger. I’m thinking of a situation that might cause one to be angry and yet be out of touch with how to express this anger—to have it suppressed for the sake of one’s survival. Just for a moment imagine that you are a female child born into slavery in the early 1800’s. Your mother has birthed you and returned to the cotton fields within a month of your birth.
She sometimes comes home to breastfeed you when given permission but otherwise, your early infancy is spent in the care of an elder in the shack where you may have been born. You might easily be cared for by a young boy if there is no elder woman available. As an infant, you continue to live with others in the shack who may or may not be biological family. As you begin to get older you are given chores to perform in the white family’s house or in the fields. These are minor chores and do not take up much of your time as you can still find time to play with the other small white children of the plantation owner. The day eventually comes when you are no longer allowed to play with these children. At the age of 8 or ten you must take on more serious jobs—you become a night-pillow for the mistress or worse yet for the master. Your body, that never really belonged to you, now becomes recognized by you as being the possession of another. Suspicion of the ownership of your mother’s body is now finalized in your mind as you understand that she too belongs to a white master. You find that your skin color makes you a slave. You are told that this is how it is and how it will be for the rest of your life. Imagine that this is your life—for the rest of your life. Imagine your anger.
The idea that slavery happened so long ago and has no place in our cultural thinking today is a part of America’s Shadow. It is difficult to bear the thoughts of what life must have been like back then but this is a necessary part of the healing of our American collective. We wish to forget and we cannot forget.
When we remember and attempt to make some changes good can happen—a civil rights movement emerges which does not end in another civil war; voting rights are guaranteed by law; segregation ends.
But we cannot shine enough light onto the shadow for too long and so once more we sit at the edge of shadow awaiting the next racial storm to begin. We have had our Ferguson and all the deaths of Black men and women by policemen within the last five years. I believe that our cultural complexes are so activated by fear and anger that we have a great difficulty staying with patience for understanding what might help us heal our American racial Shadow.
We can understand our anger, our guilt. What of the grief that lives under the anger? What happens to the emotion of generations of former slaves? Jung says that our history is in our blood. The DNA that we live with identifies us as historical and archetypal human beings. If I feel into how my ancestors before me lived, whether through mirror neurons or the spirit of ancestors, how do I carry the traumatic emotions such as anger and the underlying grief of centuries-old slavery? I think that we could be angry but we must also hold a deep place for grief. So when I hear about the angry black woman, I am also trying to hold psychic space for the grief-filled woman. Where does this grief emerge from and where does it go? I think that at this point it could be just enough to consider that such a thing exist—an underlying grief that rests within the bosom of generations of African Diaspora women. This grief can appear as anger. Why not? Within the clinical setting oftentimes the emotion of anger covers sadness and sorrow. What would make this unlikely in a cultural group that has survived 400 years of slavery? What is the archetypal grief of a mothering slave? These are questions that I ask myself because of the American life that I lead—both personally and professionally.
Fanny Brewster, Ph.D., M.F.A. is a Jungian analyst, PAJA member and Core Faculty with Pacifica Graduate Institute.