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‘The Double Lives of Black Women in America’

New book by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden attempts to shed light on the roles of Black women in our society. Read an excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY

Over the past few years, USA Today reporter Charisse Jones and clinical psychologist Kumea Shorter-Gooden have conducted a comprehensive study involving 400 black women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds to learn what it’s really like to be African American and female. Their research is revealed in a new book titled, “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America.” The authors discuss the book on “Today.” Here's an  an excerpt:


Black women are seen as “hot in the pants,” tough and strong, able to withstand a lot of physical and emotional abuse, unfeeling... I find this to be demeaning, degrading, and unproven. Yet I find myself constantly trying to disprove them.

Cecilia, 52, Hartford, Connecticut

The Gifts of Black Women in America

Black women in America have learned to find humor in heartache, to see beauty in the midst of desperation and horror. They have been both caregivers and breadwinners, showing incredible strength and resilience, unflinching loyalty, boundless love and affection. They have risen above centuries of oppression so that, today, after years of dealing with society’s racist and sexist misconceptions, with its brutal hostilities and unthinkable mistreatment, not only are they supporting families, they’re leading corporations, major media organizations, the military, our state and federal governments. Black women have often been the champions on our nation’s sports teams, breaking Olympic records, guiding the nation to victory. They have assumed a prominent place in the culture of our times both in the United States and abroad, contributing great literature, journalism, music, dance, theater, science. They have etched anew the cultural landscape with their courage and vision. Maya Angelou. Oprah Winfrey. Mae Jemison. Venus Williams. Alfre Woodard. Judith Jamison. Faith Ringgold. Lauryn Hill. Ruby Dee. Bell Hooks. Carol Moseley-Braun. Anna Deavere Smith. Faye Wattleton. Toni Morrison. Johnnetta Cole. There are so many brilliantly talented, beautiful, deeply thoughtful and intelligent African American women who are shaping our world today and doing everything possible to make it a richer and better place.

Black women have so much to offer our country, so many gifts to share with all of us. And yet, as a society and as a nation, we have never quite stopped to appreciate the truth of their experience, the verity of what it feels like to be Black and female, the reality that no matter how intelligent, competent, and dazzling she may be, a Black woman in our country today still cannot count on being understood and embraced by mainstream White America.

As a society, we know very little about the psychology of Black women, a group of 19 million people — seven percent of the U.S. population. The way they experience the workplace, the complexities of their romantic lives, the challenges they face as mothers and grandmothers, their spiritual and religious practices, these and so many other aspects of their lives are largely unknown to the wider community. Being ignored and poorly understood likely explains why so many Black women today still feel profoundly unhappy about their place in society. In a June 2002 Gallup poll, 61 percent of Black women said they were dissatisfied with “how Blacks are treated in society.” For Black men, the rate of dissatisfaction was lower — 47 percent. In the same poll, 48 percent of Black women, in contrast to 26 percent of White women, said they were dissatisfied with “how women are treated in society.”

Black women in America have many reasons to feel this deep sense of dissatisfaction. As painful as it may be to acknowledge, their lives are still widely governed by a set of old oppressive myths circulating in the White-dominated world. Based upon those fictions, if a Black woman is strong, she cannot be beautiful and she cannot be feminine. If she takes a menial job to put food on the table and send her children to school, she must not be intelligent. If she is able to keep her family together and see her children to success, she must be tough and unafraid. If she is able to hold her head high in spite of being sexually harassed or accosted, she must be oversexed or promiscuous. If she travels the globe, she must be ferrying drugs rather than simply trying to see the world. Fifty-year-old Melissa from Los Angeles articulates what she finds most challenging about being a Black woman in America today: “Believing what I know and not what I’m told, and beginning to understand the divide. I am a Black woman. I am moral. I am intelligent. I am lovable. I am valuable. But the majority of the messages I get all say that I’m not.... I don’t know how I do it.”

While most people of color, and African Americans in particular, are perceived through a distorted lens, Black women are routinely defined by a specific set of grotesque caricatures that are reductive, inaccurate, and unfair. Bell Hooks of the City College of New York enumerates these “gendered racist stereotypes” that include the emasculating Sapphire, the desexualized Mammy, and the scheming temptress Jezebel. Today, in the twenty-first century, these and other stereotypes, so prevalent in old Hollywood movies and black-and-white television reruns, have mutated into contemporary versions of their old selves. Sapphire, for instance, can inevitably be found with just a few clicks of the remote control in an old episode of NYPD Blue or Law and Order when police make their way into a poor Black neighborhood. Sapphire is harsh, loud, uncouth, usually making the other characters seem more professional, more charming, more polished by contrast. She is a twisted take on the myth that Black women are invulnerable and indefatigable, that they always persevere and endure against great odds without being negatively affected. This is one myth that many Black women themselves embrace, and so they take on multiple roles and myriad tasks, ignoring the physical and emotional strain, fulfilling the stereotype. There is peer pressure among Black women to keep the myth alive, to keep juggling, to keep accommodating. Some women who desperately need balance in their lives, who greatly need assistance, never seek or receive it. Instead, their blood pressure soars. They overeat. They sink into depression. Some kill themselves or try. Others simply fantasize about making an escape.

Indeed, society’s stubborn myths continue to do tremendous damage to Black women. They often seep into their inner psyches and become permanently internalized, battering them from within even if they’re able, for a time, to wriggle free and live the truth. Stereotypes based on race, gender, and social class make it hard to trust oneself and to trust others who look or behave like you do. They set confusing parameters on who you think you are, and what you believe you should or can become. They often dictate what you expect, what seems real, and what seems possible.

Excerpted from “Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America.” Copyright © 2003 by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden. All rights reserved. Harpercollins Publishers. Used by permission.