"Too Heavy a Yoke": An interview with Chanequa Walker-Barnes about the StrongBlackWoman


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Today I am thrilled to introduce you to Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a theologian and psychologist whose mission is to serve as a catalyst for healing, justice, and reconciliation in the Christian church and beyond. 

I first learned about Dr. Walker-Barnes when Christena Cleveland wrote a stirring response to her first book, Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, which examines the impact that the icon of the StrongBlackWoman has upon the health and well-being of African American women. I was so intrigued I read the book myself and was challenged, encouraged, and moved by it. The chapter on the Trinity profoundly changed the way I think about self-sacrifice and interdependence, particularly as a woman, so I knew the moment I finished the book I had to have the author on the blog. 

Dr. Walker-Barnes has earned degrees from Emory University, the University of Miami, and Duke University.  A candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church, she is licensed to practice psychology in Georgia and North Carolina. She is currently Assistant Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling in the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.  Born and raised in Atlanta, Dr. Walker-Barnes is married to Delwin Barnes, a mechanical engineer. They are the proud and very happy parents of one son, Micah. Check out her Web site here. 

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RHE: I recently finished Chimamanda Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, and one sentence in particular jumped out at me. In the wry voice of the story’s protagonist, Ifemelu, Adichie writes:  “In describing black women you admire, always use the word ‘STRONG’ because that is what black women are supposed to be in America.” That sentence took my breath away because it held so much truth, and yet it was a truth I’d never identified before. In Too Heavy a Yoke, you unpack this idea, identifying the StrongBlackWoman as “a legendary figure, typified by extraordinary capacities for caregiving and for suffering without complaint. She is a cultural myth that defines—and confines—ways of being in the world for women of African descent.” Where do we see this archetype/ideology in popular culture and in day-to-day life? Where might we recognize her?

CWB: It actually might be more appropriate to ask, Where don't we recognize her? Lifetime just premiered a new reality series called Girlfriend Intervention. The show's premise is that "trapped inside every White girl is a strong Black woman ready to bust out." It features four Black women who are "taught to always have it together and tell you like it is." They give makeovers and life advice to White women. The show seems to do a pretty accurate job of capturing the caricature of the StrongBlackWoman. Unfortunately, like most people, it fails to interrogate what that stereotype really entails. Instead, it celebrates it.

But that's not the only example. The StrongBlackWoman is ubiquitous in popular culture and in day-to-day life. It's hard to find a film or television character portrayed by a Black actress that does not personify the StrongBlackWoman in some way. You see her as Miranda Bailey in Grey's Anatomy, as Olivia Pope in Scandal, and as a key figure in every Tyler Perry film. Madea is the StrongBlackWoman on steroids! 

Unfortunately, examples of the StrongBlackWoman are not limited to film. You also see her in the African American women whom you encounter on a daily basis. One of the most striking experiences that I've had in writing this book is the fact that when I describe what a StrongBlackWoman is, nearly everyone I talk to, regardless of their own race and gender, can identify some woman in their life who lives into the role – a family member, friend, co-worker, or congregation member who constantly sacrifices herself on behalf of others, who carries an inordinately heavy load of responsibility, and who rarely asks for help. 

You write about how the pressure to live up to the StrongBlackWoman ideal affected your own health, self-esteem, and emotional and relational well-being. How does the pressure to be perpetually strong hurt Black women?  How is it "an ill-fitting suit of armor"? 

About ten years ago, I found myself in the midst of a stress-induced health crisis. I realized that my personal and emotional suffering came from trying to be all things to all people and taking care of everyone except myself—in other words, trying to be a StrongBlackWoman.

Over time, I began to realize just how widespread a problem this is among Black women and how it's impacting our health. First I noticed it among my therapy clients, many of whom were professional Black women on the verge of physical and emotional breakdown from trying to be strong. Then I noticed it in the church. And when I started looking into health statistics, I realized that there is a major health epidemic among Black women in this country that is hidden under the veneer of strength. For many indicators of physical and emotional health, Black women do more poorly than Black men and women of other races. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension, HIV/AIDS—all these occur at higher rates among Black women. And Black women often have the highest mortality rates from many major causes of death.

On the outside, it may look like we have it all together. But inside, we're suffering, even to the point of death.

You say that often “the church reinforces the mythology of the StrongBlackWoman by silencing, ignoring, and even romanticizing the suffering of Black women.” Can you give us some common examples of how that happens?

I see this happen a lot in the church when Black women suffer tragedies such as financial struggle, a terminal or fatal illness, and the death of a child or spouse. Those women are encouraged to be strong, that is, to hide any signs of distress and to pretend as if everything is okay. Recently, an ordained African American woman posted on Facebook, "Pretending to be happy when you are going through a difficult time in life is just an example of how strong a person you really are." I decided not to respond, but it was really frustrating to observe as several other Black women co-signed that message. In the church broadly, there remains this view that suffering is women's lot in life. Of course, that comes from a distortion of Genesis 3. That view becomes even further complicated when it's layered with race. In the church, it seems to me that Black women - more than any other racial/gender group - are taught that strain and suffering are indicative of holiness. We are taught to put on a good face in the midst of our struggle, rather than to ask for help. That's pretty convenient for the church, because as long as they praise us for being strong in the midst of suffering, they're excused from having to do anything about our suffering.

I think a lot of Christian women, myself included, tend to internalize Christian teachings about self-sacrifice in ways that are unhealthy. You argue that a better understanding of the Trinity can help women see mutual self-giving, rather than self-denial and self-sacrifice, as the paradigm for Christian love. How is that?

Christian tradition has long held that humanity's primary sin is pride. So we are constantly being admonished to relinquish our pride and to empty ourselves on behalf of others. "No cross, no crown" is the way we often hear it. But for many—perhaps most—women, our fundamental problem is not that we have too high a view of ourselves; it's that we have too low a view. We do not view and love ourselves as fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of the Divine. Our issue is not that we need to empty ourselves of pride and learn to deny ourselves. Most women – regardless of race – master that pretty early in life. Our problem tends to be giving of ourselves to the point where there is no self left, to the point that we don't even realize who we are and who we are called to be. 

The beauty of the Trinity, though, is that it gives us a different model of relating to one another. In the Trinity, we have three beings who fully contain and are fully contained by each other without being diminished by one another. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one and yet they are also unique. It's a mystery that we may never fully understand, but it points us to the idea that being in relationship with one another is not about sacrificing ourselves to the point of losing our identities. It's about being interdependent in a way that our identities are supported and reinforced by our relationships.

It’s rare to find a book that so seamlessly combines the academic and the pastoral, but Too Heavy a Yoke does this beautifully. Who do you especially hope will read it and why? 

I am continually struck by the fact that there is little public discourse – in the church or anywhere – about the health epidemic facing Black women and it's connection to the myth of the StrongBlackWoman. I wanted to write a book that would raise the awareness of spiritual care professionals, to help them to see the realities of Black women's lives so that they could better minister to them. I want this book to be read by pastors, pastoral counselors, chaplains, and leaders of lay ministries. I hope, too, that it will extend beyond the church to health care professionals. And I even hope that it will find its way into the hands of Black women who are weighed down by the burden of strength.

At the same time, I didn't want this to be pop psychology. I am a professor, after all, so I wanted the book to be academically rigorous. My aim was to write the main body of the text so that it could be read by a wide array of people, sort of in the manner of bell hooks. I tried to keep the professional jargon to the footnotes. 

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Be sure to check out Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.

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