by Fannie LeFlore
Black women have long been considered “mules of the world,” as described in a novel by Zora Neale Hurston, in summing up the plight and stereotype of the “strong black woman.” In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s imagery of the mule emerges in different contexts, remaining consistent as a symbol of victimization and bondage for black women, figuratively akin to being considered the lowest creature, to be used by others. No doubt, black women past and present have been put upon to take care of and manage responsibilities for diverse others throughout American history. Being considered not in need of anything just for herself, the black woman made taxing physical, psychological, spiritual and socioeconomic sacrifices in service to those presumed more important due to a racist and sexist status quo. Carrying burdens, pain, fears, insecurities, projections and fantasies of white men and women, black men and entire communities, always took a toll despite the admirable ways black women across generations rose to meet often unreasonable demands.
I am tail-end Baby Boomer who came of age on the heels of the Civil Rights movement and grew up during the era of “Black is Beautiful.” But even the exposure to positive black images in the 1970s during my teen years in Chicago, did not allow me to escape the early programming of unrealistic expectations placed on me and other black women. Somehow we got socialized to strive and take pride in the notion that “black-don’t-crack.” Our individuality was collectively replaced by perceived personas based on stereotypes. They ranged from responsible Sapphire/Aunt Jemima to the sexualized Jezebel, from “Angry Black Woman” to the humble, loving and church-going Matriarch, “Big Mama ” types. My own transition from childhood to adulthood was mired in contradictions, with insecurities below the surface despite my ability to appear confident. I developed legitimate competencies as a result of academic achievements, working for a paycheck since age 11 to assist my impoverished family and gaining support from some teachers and mentors who exposed me to enriching travel and related experiences and devoted time to nurturing my innate potential.
The hard lessons from being forced to take on adult responsibilities at a very young age, resulted in often not experiencing childhood in real time. Taking on a servant-savior role came naturally in the environments I grew up in where my innate empathy made me responsive to the neediness I noticed, and a desire to reduce the pain I witnessed around me. Becoming a helper came with occasional appreciation from others, which served as salve for self-esteem but that was not enough to prevent me from losing touch with my true, multidimensional self. That pattern continued into my mid-30s until bouts with depression or anxiety due to grief from losses past and present, overlapped with a series of confusing conflicts and failed relationships (familial, friendship and romantic). Having few places to turn for consistent relief led me inward, in recognizing a need to slow down from doing too much, and genuinely take stock of whether I was living or simply existing.
One cannot truly live if her life revolves around pleasing others while seeming to have it all together. The tensions and breakdown forced me to ask what other options beyond serving and sacrifice existed for being in the world as a black woman. This led to becoming immersed in an intensive path of therapeutic and personal growth. These processes resulted in coaxing out that neglected, inner child within me, who had been abused and abandoned, in order to re-parent myself. The journey required paving a new path to overcome painful habits related to co-dependency. Blame and shame that had been imposed on me along the way in dealings with diverse others, demanded I figure out what truly is and is not my responsibility, based on what is and is not within my control. Agency, autonomy and authenticity were nebulously calling my name, but I had few role models in most areas for human reference points to observe what these looked and felt like in combination.
Learning to trust myself allowed movement toward healthier co-existence with others. Through this interdependence, I am able to give and receive. I insist or reciprocal relationships or walk away. I value life-affirming human connections after having been previously drained by people too dependent on me. My full-time professional life — first as a journalist and later a psychotherapist (each officially spanning ten years) — forced me to learn how other people navigated the world. Paying attention helped me understand I was far from being the craziest person around. Ongoing personal growth through reading a range of subjects on philosophy, history, mental health, spirituality and participating in programs facilitated by diverse teachers, helped me ease many burdens I once found too great to bear. Developing boundaries led to not taking many things personally. Detaching from the “mule of the world” archetype, removed a weight long carried on tired shoulders.
As a sense of freedom emerged (learning I would not die from disapproval and that I have legitimate needs, without apology), ongoing events allowed me to apply much of what I learned. Accumulated personal and professional experiences helped me appreciate and hone gifts I had not previously and fully noticed in myself. As external refining and internal redefining took shape — first tentatively and slowly, then with focused intensity over time — I retired that “Strong Black Woman” cape imposed on me. My primary skills from prior careers shape my contributions in roles as an activist leader and social entrepreneur. My commitment to ongoing learning continues to bring clarity about the change I want to see in the world by taking responsibility for my part. I am called to support the same kind of empowerment for others. I consciously seek ways to keep ego in check by emphasizing the importance of co-ownership and co-liberation in promoting social justice. Collaborations with shared leadership and mutual responsibility are my preferred approaches. I shun “power over” and prefer “power with” in dealings with others, and take pride in my ability to model what that feels and looks like.
In the article, The Age of the Guru is Over, Steve Nobel writes: “There was a time when having a teacher play such a role (as guru) was useful. There have certainly been many enlightened beings who teach, guide and inspire humanity to greater heights…(but) the old ways of doing things do not work so well…We no longer need to give our power away to external teachers. We can be inspired, encouraged and even directed for a time but this is not about devotion, which was the way things were (previously) done. We come together for empowerment. In groups, in webinars and summits. We gather knowledge and wisdom from many places and try them out in our life. If they work great, if not they are filed away in the ‘may be useful one day file’.
We can embrace spiritual teachers and mentors. And we can have many in a lifetime. Each teacher may offer a different aspect of awakening. We do not bow down to a mentor or coach, we do not kiss their feet…A spiritual teacher or mentor can assist us for a while in gaining clarity over our thinking or feelings around certain issues…around ego. A TRUE teacher or mentor does not seek to stand between our connection to our own power and sense of direction. A true teacher or mentor seeks to encourage connection to your own inner guidance. A true teacher empowers others to find their true path and direction in life. A true teacher never imposes anything. Not a belief system or practice. A true teacher or mentor seeks to encourage your sense of mastery.”
This aptly describes how to facilitate “power with.”