In this thorough study of popular icons and real women, an update of the 2010 edition, Parks (American Studies/Univ. of Maryland) finds the myth of the strong black woman—variously known as the Sacred Dark Feminine, Black Madonna, Mammy, Angry Black Woman—both slippery and resonant.
On the one hand, black women lived their struggle of keeping the family together, protecting the fragile ego of their man and caring for the elders while striving to achieve in their own right. On the other hand, they have had imposed on them the constricting and frankly insulting stereotypes forged by society’s fascination with blackness since ancient times and by perversions of slavery and racism. Sometimes, as Parks shows through myriad examples, the two camps of myth and reality dovetail, such as in the ancient notion of the cosmic Dark Mother sounded by (blind) poet Milton in Paradise Lost and later in the depiction of the Black Mother so beloved in America and which evolved from the real, painful emotional survival of the black woman through slavery. From these evocations, Parks separates the fantasies and caricatures, like the wise, ample, omnipotent Mammy of stage and screen, “created as a piece of nostalgic propaganda to reconstruct the slaveholding South into a peaceful, loving place with contented slaves,” and various pop goddesses and Angry Black Women—e.g., the exquisite Oprah, the fist-bumping Michelle Obama. Resilience in riding out difficult situations, being a strategist and activist—all are rich, deep components of the black woman’s survival.
New, urgent awareness of seeing black women as, in the words of BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, “fully human and fully powerful.”