The Tears, Struggles, and Hopes of Black Women

Coretta Scott King at the Democratic National Convention, New York City. Photo: Library of Congress.
Coretta Scott King at the Democratic National Convention, New York City. (Photo: Library of Congress)

A video of Angela Davis’s reception in Bahia, Brazil this summer captures a moment of unbridled joy. She walks into the grand hall of the Federal University of Bahia and is greeted by an audience of overwhelming Black Brazilian women with song, dance and a chorus of appreciation. The clip conveys the celebration of Black women’s struggles and what Davis, an international icon of Black women’s politics and vision, means to Black women across the diaspora. Her presence inspired jubilation and glee mirrored in Davis’s smile. Such heartfelt emotions uplift in present times when sadness, if not despair, grow. Yet, watching Davis, stirred in me a somber question, or one I want to reframe as intensely human: What makes Angela Davis cry? More generally, what makes Black women cry? What breaks Black women’s hearts and what do we do with our despair?

This inquiry bears witness to the moment, and looks to Black women’s tears as sacred and unexplored terrain. Images of long faces and the damp cheeks of Black women at funerals of Black boys and men are most familiar. The tears of Coretta Scott King, Mamie Elizabeth Till Mobley, and Myrlie Evers-Williams carried the grief of Civil Rights Movement. More recently, the tears along with the steady gaze and voices of Sybrina Fulton and Lesley McSpadden, the mothers of the unarmed shooting-victims Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, shoulder the heartbreak and determination of the current fight for racial justice. Photographs of Black women in tears form part of the visual archive of Black loss and sorrow in the US. Black women crying have performed the emotional labor and facilitated the collective mourning for the human tolls of anti-Black racism. I do not set out to disentangle Black women’s tears from the lives of others, but to draw attention to my concern for Black women’s internal lives and what tears they might shed for themselves.

In addition to bearing the emotional weights of violence and early death, black women also carry the material needs of their families. A 2017 research brief by the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and The Insight Center for Community Economic Development lay out how 66.9 % of Black mothers in 2013 were their household’s breadwinners; and the median wealth of single Black women with children was $0, and for those who were married, $16,000, compared with $3000 and $65,529 for single and married white women, respectively. These disparities act as a staggering reminder of the severity of economic injustice where race and gender calculate poverty. And what of the feelings of hunger, anxiety, and piercing worry that physically register these material realities?

In the current moment, feelings of outrage and hurt in the US flow freely and are well practiced. Less desired, accommodated or expressed are the uneasy feelings of sorrow, powerlessness, and despair, especially from people of color in general and Black women in particular. Such emotions that might result in tears remain complicated. Stereotypes of Black women’s strength compound the tenderness of these emotions as they allow little room for displays of individual hurt or heartbreak. Being tearless faces risk reinforcing such stereotypes of inhuman durability; tears of need and sadness conjure stereotypes of subservience.

Family members comfort Diamond Reynolds at Philando Castile’s funeral (Source: Eric Miller/Reuters)

Yet, bell hooks speaks about need to attend to the emotions that have yet to gain space or breath. She writes, “Many of the issues that we continue to confront as Black people —low self-esteem, intensified nihilism and despair, repressed rage and violence that destroys our physical and psychological well-being—cannot be addressed by survival strategies that have worked in the past.” To take seriously the full range of Black women’s emotions, which means including their grief and anguish, would ask us to create the conditions, metaphorically and literally, for Black women to cry.

To heed a collective call and landscape asks that Black women become as intimate with their feelings and those of others, as with understandings of the systems that perpetuate injustice. And as writer Junot Diaz elaborates about intimacy for people of color: “For many of us, intimacy has been a profoundly difficult challenge when you live in a world that tells you to think of yourself as somehow out of order, already, always.” In a world where race and gender carry so much social meaning, Black and brown people, but especially Black women, require spaces to be known, to know themselves, and how they feel.

Cultivating intimacy therefore is a call to the interior, not a share all. It’s a summons to become familiar with the internal realm where Black women’s tears originate. Kevin Quashie calls this Black interiority or quiet—the internal world unconstrained by the external one. There, Black women’s sorrow can take up space. The death of sons can be felt with the distress of a low income, the despondency of a broken heart, the pain of social invisibility and despair over how anti-Blackness gendered racism can feel as unshakeable to your daughters as it does to you. Quashie calls it, “The right to be nothing to anyone but self – this is the right that Black people, and Black women specifically, don’t get to inhabit.”

Following in the Black feminist tradition of recognizing Black women as an experiential entry point to our social aches and dilemmas, we can look on Black women’s heartbreak as the puzzle of Black collective trials. Pain, as it has in the past, signs what is in need of acute redress. Despair might be a touchstone for exhaustion, a call to rest and dream anew. Quashie’s notion of quiet is helpful here as it evokes the stillness and exploration necessary for such vulnerability. Quiet acts as both refuge and laboratory for understanding the range of emotions that can make Black women cry and smile. When engaged with care and attunement, they possess a sturdy vulnerability that Audre Lorde reminds us holds the strength and blueprint for creative action.

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Celeste Henery

Celeste Henery is a cultural anthropologist working at the intersections of race, gender, and health. Her work explores what it means to feel well in a world crosscut by inequality. She is a Research Associate in the Department of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.