Brain Mill Press is honored to present a new monthly column for Voices: I Am Not Exotic, I Am Exhausted by Vanessa Willoughby. The column will focus on the depiction of black women in popular culture, including but not limited to film, television, literature, art, and music. Vanessa Willoughby will unpack stereotypes ascribed to black women, how art reinforces or strengthens colonialist ideologies, and how art can serve as resistance.
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on, but are not limited to: Vice, Hazlitt, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, The Billfold, Bookslut and Book Riot. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine and Promotions Manager for Apogee Journal. Tweet her @book_nerd212.
We’re excited to add Vanessa’s perspective to the growing monthly lineup at Voices. We hope you’ll join the conversation.
–Mary Ann Rivers & Ruthie Knox, Publishers
It’s always been assumed that I’m a “strong” person. The seductive dream of the Strong, Independent, Self-Sufficient Woman envelops unsuspecting black girls like veils of opium smoke.
You keep killing yourself so that others will live, as if you are a brown-skinned Joan of Arc, riding high on a chorus of persuasive voices, fooled into believing that you are learning the rites of warriors and not spells of decay and self-immolation. You keep thinking that to burn is to display a force beyond resolve, a dedication to stoic holiness. You are by no means a god but a sacrifice named “martyr.”
Black girls are rarely, if ever, held in the same regard as other minorities. Between respectability politics and misogynoir, the space to exist is limited, constricted enough to turn a diamond-bright mind rabid. We are not the model minority, which is another form of racism and friend of white supremacy. We are not regarded as superhuman, but inhuman, impervious to the violence of unpredictable emotions because we were not born with sensitivity.
How long before I’m no longer asked to carry all this weight?
In a revealing interview with Pitchfork, recording artist Janelle Monáe mistakenly confesses to the interviewer that she’s sought therapy for emotional issues, which were possibly exacerbated by a breakup while attempting to work on a new album. “I really wanted to grow into this person who could handle everything,” she says, “and I didn’t know that that’s just kind of impossible.”
The Kansas City native, who grew up and still is a devout Christian, adds that therapy was taboo in such a religious and cultural environment. She notes, “I didn’t like the idea of therapy at first. In the black community, nobody goes to therapy. You go to your pastor or you go to the Bible.” Mainstream American culture and black culture have little patience or empathy for mental illness. Mental illness is viewed as a weakness, a lack of self-control, as serious as a child’s temper tantrum dotted with forced tears.
To say that I grew up in a household that understood religion to be the shepherd to my immortal soul would be an exaggeration. On the other hand, my parents may not have shared religious practices, but the sincerity of their beliefs were equally fierce. My mother, who is Filipino, was born and raised in a country where the vast majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. She desperately tried to get me to mimic her unquestioning loyalty. In a way, my mother was just passing along what she already knew. Despite years of CCD classes, I didn’t pick up my mother’s enthusiasm.
In contrast, my father hadn’t been pushed into religion by familial pressure to preserve traditions. My father’s mother did make him tag along to Sunday services. Yet no matter the consistency of her efforts, my father rejected the Episcopal Church. When he reached his midtwenties, he ignited his interest in religion and spirituality. He considered himself a Born Again Christian. The specifics of my parents’ beliefs may have greatly differed, but they practiced them with similar fortitude and humility. Neither liked the idea of playing around with a Ouija board; both cringed when someone admitted they didn’t believe in God.
My parents never could fully grasp the realities of living with a mental illness. I internalized a lot of things, bottled up darkness to feast on later, a form of self-sabotage. They couldn’t understand how I could be so depressed. I had grown up in the suburbs with a dog and an impressive Barbie collection. There was a roof over my head, I had my own bedroom, there was always food on the table. What was the problem? I knew my enemy, but I couldn’t flesh him out for my confused and frustrated parents. He was a lonely figure who could slip out of descriptions. He was a language I couldn’t articulate.
How do we escape this weight that seems destined to break our backs? It’s enough to make you wish for a fatal dose of oleander to drink.
Due to various barriers and the stubborn bigotry of gatekeepers, pop culture has yet to fully move away from harmful, emotionally compromised, stereotypical depictions of black girls and women. This is not to say that nuanced protagonists don’t exist. They’re just rare and under the radar.
In the case of Janelle Monáe, resistance meant moving away from the super-fly cyborg persona of her debut and embracing a much more vulnerable perspective. The aloof, technological sensation hailing from another galaxy traded in visuals reminiscent of George Lucas and Octavia Butler for multilayered R&B grounded in emotional fluidity. For example, in the track “Electric Lady,” Monáe mentions spaceships and outer space, but the core of the song is about women’s empowerment. She sings,
She’ll walk in any room have you raising up your antennas /
She can fly you straight to the moon or to the ghettos /
Wearing tennis shoes or in flats or in stilettos /
Illuminating all that she touches /
Eye on the sparrow.
If anything, the conflict between persona-heavy mythology and lyrical openness seems a bit more balanced.
I can’t help but think that Monáe’s decision to reformulate the sci-fi-heavy aesthetic is the result of a shift in her thinking. Now that she no longer feels the “impossible” urge to be her own savior or no longer feels that she has to do everything, it has opened new possibilities in her art. She is no longer using the cyborg persona (as much) to filter the emotions and ideas that shape and inform her music. The world looks different when you feel as though you don’t have to constantly be on guard, vigilant against cracks in your appearance.
I grew up believing that seeking help was the coward’s impulse. But the Strong Black Woman and her sermons never brought me back to life. The Strong Black Woman consciously and unconsciously contributed to my shame. The preachings of the Strong Black Woman did not help my art or my will to live. The Strong Black Woman wants me to be Superwoman, but I would rather be a woman, receptive to the contradictions of being human.
About Vanessa Willoughby
Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and freelance writer. Her bylines have appeared on, but are not limited to: Vice, Hazlitt, The Toast, The Hairpin, Bitch, The Billfold, Bookslut, and Book Riot. She is Creative Director for Winter Tangerine and Promotions Manager for Apogee Journal.