B-CU Faculty Take on Myths and Stereotypes About Black Women

Two Bethune-Cookman University faculty members recently presented their research on the impact of myths and stereotypes about Black womanhood at the 82nd Annual College Language Association Convention, which was held April 10-13 in Memphis, Tenn.

Dr. Clarissa West-White, university archivist & assistant professor in the Carl S. Swisher Library, presented on “the Superwoman Schema” — the term coined by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Cheryl L. Woods-Giscombé, Ph.D., RN to describe the connections between stress and health disparities among African-American women. “The sociopolitical context of African American women’s lives, specifically the climate of racism, race- and gender-based oppression, disenfranchisement, and limited resources — during and after legalized slavery in the United States — forced African American women to take on the roles of mother, nurturer, and breadwinner out of economic and social necessity,” wrote Woods-Giscombé in 2010.

Dr. Rondrea Mathis, an assistant professor of English at B-CU, presented on the two-ness that Black women in America feel as they navigate the complexities of race and class in the U.S. Through her presentation, Mathis sought to help recover invisibilized aspects of Black female personhood, drawing attention to the fact that Black women in America find themselves warring against dichotomous interests while seeking to define and redefine their personal and professional truths, identities, and desires.
Together, they tackled the idea of Black women needing to do it all and be everything to everyone, often to their own detriment.

“Growing up, I observed African American women in all phases of life assume ‘the cape,’” said West-White, referring to the idea that Black women take on the role of superheroes in their homes, workplaces, and society at-large. “They say yes to everything and everyone believing that they, and they alone, must do it all, that they can do it all.”

“When African American women believe that they should be able to handle everything that comes their way it becomes a barrier for getting any kind of support,” she continued. “African American women must strike a balance between self care and caring for others and the world.”

Mathis, who is also a licensed Baptist minister, said, “In my life, I enter spaces as a Black woman before I am recognized or acknowledged as a professor, Ph.D., or preacher, which means my public and private selves are often unreconciled. Through languages and literature, I recognized how many other Black women also find themselves at odds with their identities, trying to find authenticity in spaces that seek to define who we are before we are able to even say who we are. To be myself, though, I have to figure out who my "self" is, and Black women will guide me.”

West-White and Mathis served as co-editors of Mamas, Martyrs, and Jezebels: Myths, Legends, and Other Lies You’ve Been Told About Black Women, which was released February 2024 from Black Lawrence Press. B-CU Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Dr. Jan Boulware and Dr. Kideste Yusef, chair of the Justice and Political Science department at B-CU, also served as co-editors on the project.