They See Ugly Women But Fail to See Our Ugly Truth: On Being Mary Jane, Black Women and Invisible Pain
“When you make pain look this good it never wears out.”
Mara Brock Akil has long been known for her beautifully and brutally honest depictions of Black female life. Her hit show Girlfriends gave us a glimpse of what it is like to live life as Black women from multiple points of view. While we found much to laugh about as we shared the experiences of Maya, Joan, Lynn and Toni—we were often forced to examine those areas of living Black and woman that are not so funny. The pieces of our existence that bring about no laughter save for the kind that accompanies unrecognized hysteria and tears.
The most recent episode of Being Mary Jane pulled no punches in its examination of Black women and the all too often invisibility of our pain. The episode titled, “Sparrow,” challenged Black women to do something that many of us find to be quite daunting—to tell our truths, no matter how ugly. In doing so, we help shed the Superwoman identity, we bond through shared experiences, we cease to internalize the notion that suffering is our birthright, and we heal.
Trust, Black women make pain look good. You’re talking about women who participated in all of the great historical marches wearing high heels and our Sunday best. Women who walked to work during the bus boycotts in pristine clothing. Women who show up to teach in racist/sexist academic departments dressed to the nines. Women who deal with depression, intersectional oppression, interpersonal violence and the everyday toll of living life as double othered in the United States and somehow manage to look so good doing it. We’ve learned to take pride in our ability to hide our pain at all costs. And it’s killing us.
Since the first season, Being Mary Jane has explored what it means to exists in a society that literally and figuratively views Black women as ugly. That is, if we are even seen at all. This week, the show’s title character challenged Black women to stop hiding our pain. To start speaking our truths. Even the ugly parts. Especially the ugly parts. Before it kills us. Before we die literal, mental, spiritual, economic, political and social deaths.
In the spirit of making Black women more visible, bonding through shared experiences and healing, I want to expand on some of the ugly truth brought to light by this episode. In the spirit of transparency, bonding through shared experiences and healing, I’ve decided to share my own ugly truth.
The ugly truth is that Black women do commit suicide. Depression is very real in our communities and often goes undiagnosed or dismissed on account of us “not praying hard enough.” Isolation, disinterest in things that we used to enjoy, even an unkempt household are all signs that a Black woman you love might be experiencing depression. Of course the symptoms manifest differently in every person so it is important to really pay attention to her. Stop accepting “I’m okay” because it’s less awkward than the alternative which is pushing through to find out how she’s really doing. Mental illness is real. Therapy can be helpful for many women and your faith isn’t any less authentic because you turn to therapy and/or medication. Quite frankly, God made those options available.
My ugly truth is that I suffered from chronic depression for years before I recognized that it wasn’t “normal” to live that way. After the death of my twin (exacerbated by other unresolved issues), I experienced a paralyzing episode that lasted for more than a year. I now understand that while masked depression was quite normal in my community, it wasn’t healthy. I have utilized therapy in the past and have now reached a point where I can recognize triggers and take steps to ward off an episode. For example, I know that I cannot isolate myself if I am feeling down, it helps me to get dressed up, that I must write, take time to process my emotions, get some sun and be around my friends. I implore my sisters to make use of available means of support, including therapy and medicine.
The ugly truth is that too many mothers choose their men over their daughters. Sexual abuse is real and Black girls are experiencing it at an alarming rate. The culture of silence in our community puts victims in an even more vulnerable position for re-victimization and self-blame. All too often, the “fast tail girls” narrative lends to the idea that young Black girls somehow initiate sexual abuse. In far too many cases, Black girls are not believed and perpetrators are allowed to stay within the family, the church and the community. The message we send to Black girls is that they have no value, that no one will protect them and that if they experience sexual abuse, they have themselves to blame.
My ugly truth is that my abuser was allowed to live in a household with me for many years after the abuse came to light. It changed the nature of my relationship with my mother and we are still working to heal. My own work in the field of sexual abuse/assault helped me understand that my mother’s response was a result of her own abuse, the way it was handled (or actually not) by adults around her and an inability to cope with what she considered her failure to protect me from the same. We are still healing.
The ugly truth is that sometimes Black men cause us pain. With the exception of First Nation women and sexual assault, women of all races are disproportionately more likely to experience interpersonal violence (sexual assault and domestic violence) at the hands of men who look like them. That is to say that white women are more likely to be battered or raped by white men, Latina women are more likely to be battered or rapes by Latino men. And as hard as it is to wrap our minds around it—Black women are more likely to be battered or raped by Black men. To say such is not an act of racial treason. To acknowledge this fact does not mean that we are any less “down for the cause.” Until and unless we address the harm of interpersonal violence, Black women will not be liberated which means that Black people will not be liberated. As such, prevention and intervention of interpersonal violence must be key components of the movement to ensure that Black lives do matter.
My ugly truth is that two of the greatest harms committed against me were at the hands of Black men. And that loving Black men who sometimes fail to acknowledge that sometimes Black men hurt Black women can be quite painful. The truth is that I can do both—love them and push them to stop participating in the cycle of harm to Black women.
The ugly truth is that Black women are self-medicating. It’s almost a running joke that sistas always have wine on deck, that many Black women drink daily. We watch Olivia Pope, Mary Jane Paul, and Girl Melanie drink on almost every episode and it normalizes this trend. Sometimes it’s classy (Olivia only drinks the best red wines) and sometimes it’s a bottle of tequila hidden in a desk at work. I imagine the creators/writers of the show have those women drink for the very same reason real Black women do—it masks the pain. What we know is that long after the buzz has worn off, we will still face the ugly truth of living life as Black and woman in the United States.
We cannot keep hiding our pain. We cannot keep masking it. We cannot continue making it look so good that when Black girls are slung across classroom floors people still refuse to believe she is harmed. We cannot continue to stay silent. If we do, to paraphrase Zora Neale Hurston, they will keep killing us and say we enjoyed it.
Tell your ugly truth.