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Violence is a visceral attack. It is one that latches onto our bodies in both physical and emotional ways. My last article mentioned violence towards Black women. Oftentimes, when one hears the word violence one thinks of physical abuse, rather than a spectrum encompassing psychological, emotional, structural and institutional violence. However, it is these invisible violences that most forcefully and ubiquitously keep Black girls from reaching our full potential, all while forcing us to maintain an impossible standard of “strength” that we continue to rise up to and surpass.
What does it mean to bring a child into a world with the understanding that you will not be able to protect them from the racism they will almost inevitably experience? What does it mean to feel uncomfortable in your own skin? What does it mean to feel nervous or scared in situations that everyone around you, who does not look like you, feels comfortable in?
There was a moment in my life when I realized not everyone has to ask these questions. Black femininity forces you to interact with the world in a manner that takes an unremitting physical and mental toll.
When I think of violence, I think of the lack of protection and license to authenticity afflicting Black women’s souls and bodies. But the most violent act is the erasure of these experiences, and being forced to recognize that no one else sees them but you: the infliction and subsequent denial of the social, emotional, and psychological pain that Black women experience every day. My experience of violence has largely been a matter of erasure, one which has been so normalized that, even in writing these words, it feels impossible for me to translate my experiences and feelings to a greater audience.
Sojourner Truth is one prominent example of this erasure and its connection to the “Strong Black Woman” trope.
Prior to reading her narrative in my Black women’s studies class this semester, if you were to ask me if I knew who Sojourner Truth was, I would have given you an automatic “yes.” After reading her narrative, which I cannot even properly say belongs to her, I felt a sense of grief that, before now, my knowledge of her stopped at her name.
Sojourner Truth was molded into an American Symbol, but her symbolism was never grounded in her actual story. She was an enslaved person in the North who spoke Dutch and English, and her original name was Isabella Baumfree. She was a woman who suffered abuse from both her master and her mistress, but would later go on to be the first Black woman to sue a white man and win to free her son.
No one authentically knows Sojourner Truth, and we will never fully know her because every narrative of hers was reinterpreted to appeal to an audience. Her authentic version of the truth has been lost in translation — the “Ain’t I a woman” speech famously associated with Truth, while based on her remarks, isn’t hers. The speech she actually gave has been lost to history. Who knows how much of her story was stolen from her; colonized by someone else.
Strong Black women are born out of experiences and survival. Erasing those experiences and simply portraying someone as “strong” removes the lessons from those narratives that could help other Black women to survive. Sojourner Truth did not escape slavery out of choice, but out of necessity. She freed herself and two of her five children for the sake of survival, and even then still suffered from cycles of abuse, returning to her master who abused her because she saw him as a protector from her abusive mistress.
The Strong Black Woman trope is often used against Black women. The expectation that Black women defy stereotypes and traumas is flawed because, in reality, even the figures that we are told to emulate struggled. Within these struggles is where our paths, the rivers of our everflowing experiences, cross.
These moments of confrontation and reality make Black women strong. Her strength comes not just from “rising above” but being in touch with herself and tending to herself and her psyche even when it may feel “weak.”
For Sojourner Truth, religion and speech allowed her to find her authentic self. For modern Black girls, it is wearing their hair in their desired style and taking pride in it. Coming into your authentic self for Black girls now can mean speaking up in their classrooms and feeling comfortable using the tongue that their mothers have passed down to them when engaging in conversation.
These are just a few modes of resistance that Black women embody and implement in order to navigate their worlds. Our physical presence, embodying of space, and owning the entirety of our identities will continue to challenge the violence that the rest of the world wishes to attach to our beings.
Our strength lies in our continued existence.
Black women continue to create communities of care for themselves. The warmth I receive when seeing the Black women in my life builds my strength. Our rivers cross into each other, exchanging wisdom and love. Those who recognize the paths that Black women have paved to let their river flow more freely may engage in this love that we offer.
Our resistance comes in our authenticity and love for one another as Black women. When I reach back into the past and observe and read all that has been done against Black women throughout history, I sit and tell myself: And yet we are still here.
Although there are layers of our existence that go erased, once we put back these layers — sheath ourselves in the armor of visibility — and feel the entirety of the skin underneath for everything that it is, the power and beauty that radiates is so bright.
Ogechukwu C. Ogbogu ’24 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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