Here I go again, taking on something controversial.
Oh, well. As always, I invite your perspectives and opinions on this, as I am sure a great many of you will disagree with me.
Last weekend, my mom, best friend and I went to see The Birth of a Nation.
I felt compelled to support the film, even amidst the negativity surrounding it, simply because of what the movie was about. I can't speak on Nate Parker's rape allegations, or the supposed remorselessness Parker displayed in interviews when asked about the incident that had taken place so many years ago, because I'm just not interested in talking about those things. They've already been discussed more than enough. MORE than enough. I simply wanted to see the movie for myself. Before I went, I heard it was astounding and thought-provoking. I heard it was disappointingly average. I heard it was awful. I didn't really know what to expect from it.
One thing I did hear before I saw the movie, however, was disappointment in the way the female characters- particularly Nat's mother, grandmother, and wife- were portrayed. "The movie made them appear weak," my friend told me. "Those women were not weak. Why would Nate choose to portray them that way?" For this reason, I paid particular attention to the women in this film. And I was kinda blown away by what I saw in them.
My friend and I talked for hours about the film after it ended, especially the comments that the women were weak. We tried to figure out what about their behavior could possibly make anybody look at them as weak. We eventually figured it out.
The stereotypical image of the strong black woman is one who is unafraid to speak her mind and fight for what she believes in, regardless of the consequences. She's bold and brazen, outspoken and unintimidated. One article I found classified the strong black woman as the following: "We are the fighters. We are the women who don’t take shit from no man. We are the women with the sharp tongues and hands firmly on hips. We are the ride-or-die women...We are the sassy chicks. We are the mothers who make a way out of no way." (quoted from this article)
Of course. Since the stereotype of the strong black woman is the one who doesn't back down or take shit, naturally, black women who did not speak out, even if they were slaves, are seen as weak. First of all, they were slaves, and limited in what they could and could not do and say. Even though they were not argumentative, there was tremendous strength in both their silence and their sacrifice. They didn't try to talk Nat out of doing what he felt he needed to do. They never wielded weapons, but they were supportive. They put their own wants and needs aside for the greater cause. They see the bigger picture.
Let's talk about how strong the women in this movie actually were. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I apologize, but for the sake of this article, there are spoilers:
When Nat's father tells his family that he has killed a White man and he must escape, Nat's mother and grandmother don't cry or beg him to reconsider. They understand that he was stealing food so they could eat, and knew that if he didn't leave, he'd be killed. Nat's mother watched her husband walk out the door, knowing that she would probably never see him again, without shedding a single tear. She understood the sacrifice he'd made for his family.
When Nat's grandmother fell at the master's feet in the opening scene, it took strength for such a proud woman to assume such a meek, low posture at her master's feet so that her family would not be punished for having stolen food. Nat's mistress (the master's wife) decides that she wants to teach Nat to read. She very matter-of-factly tells Nat's mother that he will be living in the big house for awhile, so she can give him lessons. Nat's mother is obviously saddened by the fact that her baby will no longer be living with her, but she does not protest. "Yes, missus," she says quietly. When Nat's mother "allowed" (and I say that loosely because slaves didn't get to voice opinions) Nat to live in the master's house, it took strength for her to accept that though her child would be away from her and raised by a white woman, he would be given the gift of education, which was unheard of for most slaves.
When Cherry was on the auction block, despite the fact that she was shackled and for sale, she refused to allow the white auctioneer to remove her clothes. Even as a slave up for sale, she protected her dignity as a woman and would not allow her bare breasts to be exposed to the ravenous White men interested in purchasing her.
While Nat is being beaten, his mother and grandmother stand silent, watching his whipping. They wince and grimace, visibly uncomfortable with what they are witnessing, but they remain quiet. It is clear that, if they could, they would bear every single lash in his place. They were absorbing each blow he took as if they were being beaten, too. All night, they had to leave him chained. They watched his punishment, knowing they could do nothing to stop it. They tend to his wounds, expressing their condolence for his treatment and his strength for enduring it.
As his grandmother is stitching the wounds left by the whip, she talks about the strength of his grandfather, and how much it hurt her to watch the white men attempt to break him in the same way they tried to break Nat. She affirmed that strength was in Nat's DNA, and she perceived Nat's as admirably as she saw the actions of her own husband. She gave Nat her support without ever mentioning anything about his plans or thoughts.
Esther, a slave woman, is raped by her master's white guest. Though the rape isn't shown, Esther is seen leaving the house after the incident in tears, collapsing only when she is safely in the arms of her husband, who waits outside for her. No woman, slave or not, wants to bear the indignity of being raped. Esther walks out of that house with her head held high, despite the actions just taken against her that she had no choice but to endure.
When Cherry is viciously beaten and gang-raped, she relies on her faith in God and tells Nat that vengeance belongs to the lord. Even as she lay broken and unrecognizable, she begs her husband not to seek revenge on the men who brutally attacked her. Before Nat began his rebellion, he sought permission from the two women who meant the most to him (by then, his grandmother had passed away). Their support and consent meant something to him. The strength and fortitude with which Nat Turner led that rebellion came in part, no doubt, from the support and strength of his mother, his grandmother, and his wife. His rebellion eded up being one of the most prominent and respected acts of bravery and courage in Black history.
There is more to strength than putting your hands on your hips and rolling your neck. Strength is sometimes quiet acquiescence. It's understanding that everything doesn't need a response. It's the knowledge that winning a small battle isn't worth sacrificing the entire war. Having a sharp tongue doesn't classify a woman as strong. Neither does her ability to win an argument with her hands on her hips. Black women should understand that their mere presence is strength. They are regal, especially considering all they have endured and sacrificed historically to get to where they are.
I was so disappointed that naysayers categorized these women as weak. When I looked at them, I saw a strength that I can only hope I have one day when I'm mature and stop arguing with people. I, personally, don't know that I would be strong enough to hug my son and tell him I'm proud of him when I know in my heart that he is leaving me to fight a battle he will probably not win. Let me rephrase that-- I know that I will NEVER be strong enough to do that, no matter how mature I become. Strength is simply being strong. It's not being loud. It's not arguing. It's not fighting, or cussing people out. It's simply being strong, which can take on so many forms depending on the circumstance.
Sometimes, it is appropriate to fight, to rage, to go to war. I'm not suggesting that fighting shows weakness. Sometimes, fighting is absolutely appropriate and completely necessary. But the idea that silence is somehow synonymous with weakness is crazy to me. There have been tremendously strong Black women throughout the course of history. Harriet Tubman was strong. Sojourner Truth was strong. Shirley Chisholm. Maya Angelou. Angela Davis. Assata Shakur. All vocal, intelligent, incredibly strong Black women.
My nana, Mary Barnwell, was quiet. She didn't talk much, and preferred to be a silent spectator of most discussions, laughing quietly and enjoying being in the company of others. But Nana was a loan shark in order to put my mother through college. She left her only child with her parents and moved to New York City to provide for her daughter the best way she possibly could. She sacrificed so that my mother could get the college education she wasn't able to get herself. Nana never once raised her voice, as long as I knew her. She was quiet, and small in stature, but she was one of the strongest women I have ever known. I never saw her hands on her hips or her neck roll, but after she died, I found a pearl-handled pistol and bullets for it in the small table next her bed.
According to the New York Times, The Birth of a Nation silences women. I couldn't disagree more. I think the movie gives us another perspective of what strength looks like, not just for black women, but in general. Silence, believe it or not, is loud. It's louder than 10,000 speakers, especially when it serves a powerful purpose. Why do you think most people hate the silent treatment so much? It can be torturous, to want someone to say something, anything, and instead, they opt to be silent. Being ignored gets under my skin unlike anything else in the history of annoying things. Silence screams. It speaks volumes. It makes statements that words are insufficient to make.
The Black woman, from the time she arrived here on American soil, has been the very embodiment of strength. We've watched our husbands and sons beaten time and time again, first by slave masters, then by fighting in wars that weren't theirs, then by bogus laws and government programs meant only to further incapacitate them, then by falling prey to mass incarceration, and even now, by being killed at the hands of the police. It astounds me that Black women are at the bottom of society's totem pole, when we are the very source of life on this planet. A black woman, whether silent or loud, whether fighting or not, is the definition of strength. It's the magic in our melanin.
I did not see the women in The Birth of a Nation as weak. I saw them as survivors. And surviving, regardless of the era in which you live, requires strength. Period.
Thank you so much, Mel, for allowing me to share your thoughts in this article. I wouldn't have been able to write this without your help and input. Your brilliance continues to render me speechless.
I write because a lot of what I have to say is too crass and inappropriate for me to say out loud.