The past year and a half of an ongoing global viral pandemic, and continued uprisings in response to state-sanctioned violence against Black people, has produced serious ongoing discussions about care and the labor of care. In unprecedented times of isolation, we found ourselves thinking deeply about our care networks and how to sustain or expand them safely and across distance. And for a brief moment, national conversations were also focused on the gendered expectations of care that existed long before COVID-19, and the imbalances of care work historically largely falling upon women and femmes. The alleged “racial awakening” from the summer of 2020 liberal media outlets reported on felt to me in conversation with revived care discourse. If we are to take a serious account of the politics of care work, and a sudden widespread “interest” in supporting Black lives, there must be a reorientation of how we engage Black women, and what we instinctively expect of their care labor.
To escape the trappings of performativity that neoliberalism increasingly incentivizes -a gesture towards solidarity that empties political frameworks of meaning, and reduces them down to wearable slogans or embellishments for an Instagram bio or dating profile — we must reconsider how we live care. A first step towards escaping empty care (a care without a political framework) is to seriously account for the conditions of what forms our expectations of Black women and femmes, and how living in a world founded on white supremacy and misogyny has rendered Black women’s existence to a life only of extraction. Neoliberalism has then spun this existence of extraction into a positive one, Through the proliferation of “Strong Black Women” narratives, neoliberalism exacts a positive spin on this existence of extraction, fixing Black women into a position of strength and endurance: the superheroic number one caregivers whom, by virtue, never need such a level of care extended back in their direction.
To reflect on the conditions that granted me, a Black woman, the instinctual and unspoken need to sacrifice regardless of personal traumas and struggles, I recalled my childhood, and how I’ve observed this narrative throughout my life. Memories of my mother, her mother, her sister were bolstered by stories of grandmothers who all did it all. As a young Black girl observing, the clockwork nature of this labor seemed innate: getting ready for work, dropping kids off, going to community college, picking kids up, making dinner, feeding cousins. In my life, nothing of the tiredness worn on Black women’s faces seemed off to me. This network of daily life went so seamlessly that I never thought critically of it as a child, or even into my teenage years.
My mother told me similar stories of her upbringing in northern Alabama. When reflecting on her own childhood, I’ve often heard my mother say, “we never knew we were poor because we were always taken care of.” The communal ways of existing, extending, and reciprocating care creates the inevitability of devotion to others. Thus, the implicit expectation of one’s devotion to care work is derived from our celebration of the strong Black woman narrative. While often celebrated as a feel-good concept in pop culture, or within Black families, the Black woman who does it all to support the lives of her family — and, by extension, her community — is another image which flattens the impact on those doing the labor. Who will care for those who are always expected to extend care? Who cares to ask caregivers — particularly Black women caregivers, matriarchs, and mascots of “strength” — what they need to care for themselves?
It’s important to locate the ways in which we’ve been conditioned to always assume and expect Black women will go above and beyond for anybody, any movement, and any institution. In her book, Scandalize My Name: Black Feminist Surrogacy and Social Life, Dr. Terrion Williamson discovers that the strong Black woman narrative finds its roots within chattel slavery. Slavery laid the groundwork in a white supremacist world of what we expect Black women to endure and silently suffer through. This informs the material impacts on Black women’s physical and mental health from extreme work conditions, sexual trauma and abuse, and the expectation of silently suffering after having your own children sold in front of you — amongst many other known and unknown terrors of these conditions.
Toni Cade Bambara’s first novel, The Salt Eaters, explores the pressures placed upon Black women through multiple characters and narratives. In the novel, Velma Henry, a wife, mother, and civil rights activist, finds herself unable to balance all three roles: she has to keep her marriage alive, raise young Black children, and support community movement work. tries to take her own life. As she recovers in a hospital room, a spiritual healer named Minnie Ransom visits and asks Velma a weighted question: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”
“Wellness, for Velma, masquerades as productivity; as long as Velma actively engages in social justice projects and works toward the uplift of her race, and community, she is well,” writes scholar Belinda Waller-Patterson. “While many members of her community recognize that Velma is unwell, her productivity and willingness to sacrifice herself for the advancement of civil rights allows them to look beyond her declining health.”
Velma is healed when her community members extend care to her, finally seeing her as a full person and not the labor she performs. When Minnie holds a healing ceremony with members of Velma’s community, Velma has a breakthrough. In a quiet, sunlit room, Velma’s community watches her perform spiritual rituals and witness her commitment to healing. They show up for this Black woman in the way she has shown up for them, opening up a space for reciprocal care instead of labor.
Similar to Velma’s story, the intersections of race and class and the history of servitude for marginalized women are what often fixate Black motherhood in the position of lacking resources for additional assistance. On Girlfriends, Mara Brock Akil’s series about four Black women navigating their 30s in Los Angeles, you had Joan the relationship-obsessed auntie, Toni the bougie self absorbed best friend, Lynn the sexually liberated couchsurfer, and Maya. Originally Joan’s assistant at the law firm where she works, she is the only wife and mother of the group. In the show’s eighth season, she and her mechanic husband Darnell, who had their son when they were both 16, are going for their second child. After she self-published a self-help book, Oh, Hell Yes!, Maya now has a book deal with a publishing house working on her next book.
Maya conceives, but her doctor explains early on that her uterine fibroids, a condition more prevalent in Black women, makes her pregnancy high-risk. And though Darnell constantly reminds Maya that she needs to take it easy and stay off her feet, her positionality as a Black mother leads the incessant yearning to defeat her writer’s block while maintaining her career, caring for her family, and supporting her close friendships — it’s evident Maya feels she can’t slow down. Amid the stress of trying to complete a new book, she miscarries.
Immediately afterwards, she takes no time to truly express her pain, even though everyone knows what happened to her. When she sneaks over to Joan’s for a late-night catchup over wine, she says she’s more upset about losing her book deal. When the women comfort Joan after her breakdown in a dressing room over missing her Iraq-deployed fiancé, Lynn asks Maya if there have been any stresses she’s holding in and Maya hurriedly responds “I’m fine about the baby!” She and Darnell struggle to communicate to each other the pain of losing their child; he’s eager to process with her, but Maya remains avoidant. Her therapist prescribes antidepressants, Maya begins abusing them, and the pain comes out: When Girlfriends gal pal William and his beau Monica announce their own pregnancy, Maya keeps joking, in an increasingly uncomfortable manner, that Monica “took her baby.”
When Darnell confronts Maya about her addiction, the couple finally has the emotional release that he’s been longing for. As Maya comes home from shopping to ready dinner, Darnell is waiting for her in the living room with her nearly empty pill bottle in hand. When Maya sees Darnell, she runs back to the kitchen. He follows her and asks why her two week-long prescription is nearly gone after three days. As the tension builds, he finally exclaims to Maya, “We lost a baby, it’s okay to cry!” Maya response that she’s mourning not just her miscarriage, but the vulnerability she displaced to hold onto a perception of strength: “The minute you let your guard down, Darnell, you lose.” Fighting back tears, she concludes: “Guess what? I’m not prepared to lose.”
Setting up this association of vulnerability as a loss is directly founded within a white supremacist, patriarchal world that has normalized and benefited from the purpose of existence as only to be understood through labor. Even within our own suffering, the strong Black woman narrative treats disregardance of self in devotion to others as an accomplishment. It’s a long game of suffering with the reward being how much one can silently endure and still provide.
The intersecting systems of oppression faced by Black women, and even more so by queer and trans Black women, can help guide us into seeing how we’ve so naturally perpetuated a culture of uncare, and how this extends to all interpersonal relations and communal ways of being. The histories of slavery embedded this desensitized view of Black women in a very particular way that, while neoliberalism still celebrates and poses Black women as mascots of strength, isn’t removed from harm. White liberals noted profusely that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were carried to victory on the backs of Black women. When Democrats won the two Georgia runoff elections that solidified their control of the Senate, Stacey Abrams’s efforts were lauded as superheroic.
Within politics, workplaces, social movements, and families: anywhere Black women are, there’s an expectation of rescue and relief. The herorizing of endurance expected of Black women and femmes contributes to a dehumanization of Black women and femmes. We should be working towards a world where no one has to be able “to do it all”; as the past year-and-a-half has proven, we all need more assistance than we’re fully aware of, especially in times of crisis. To deeply understand that no one should be fixed in the position of caregiver, or only be seen as a representation of strength, can offer new terms of engagement and ways of extending care for all relationships in our lives.
By Amber Delgado