In March 2020, just as the U.S. entered lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Marita Golden had a health scare.
Golden, 71, learned that despite her almost religious regimen of diet, exercise and meditation, she had suffered two silent strokes. Like many African American women, she had inherited a genetic predisposition for stroke and heart attack.
«I had done a lot of things to protect my health, but you can’t outrun your genealogy,» she said.
Physically separated from her support networks, Golden went online in search of a community and found a «vibrant» discussion about Black women’s physical and mental health.
From that exploration came her 19th book, «The Strong Black Woman: How a Myth Endangers the Physical and Mental Health of Black Women.»
Golden looks at how disparities in health outcomes for Black women are connected to the cultural pressure – which stretches back to slavery – to perpetually wear a mask of strength. Golden documents the journey she and other Black women have undertaken to redefine the myth of the «strong Black woman» through journalism, literary criticism and fictional musings in what she calls a «communal memoir.»
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After receiving what she called an «overwhelming» positive response to the book from readers, she’s working on a companion workbook to help readers fashion tools to engage in better mental and physical health practices. Golden also recommended researching online communities of Black women as a first step for those trying to prioritize self-care and their own well-being.
Golden spoke with USA TODAY about her book, the myth of the strong Black woman and how to prioritize self-care:
Question: What is the myth of the strong Black woman?
Marita Golden: Over generations, the idea that we not only were strong physically and mentally but that we have to be strong in all situations has become a belief system that’s deeply embedded in Black culture. African American women now are basically in a health emergency where we have skyrocketing rates of obesity, stroke, heart attack, and real issues around not getting the kind of mental health treatment we need. And while there are a lot of external reasons for that – a long history of segregation and inequality – also contributing to that is the strong Black woman complex which says that Black women really don’t need to put self-care as a priority because we have to take care of everybody else first.
Q: What surprised you most while you were writing this book?
Golden: What surprised me most was to learn from many of the therapists that I talked to that for many Black women, prioritizing celebration of themselves, time for themselves, feeling that they have a right to be at peace and happy is not something that many Black women embrace. Many Black women feel that because of racism, they really don’t have time to relax.
Q: What was your favorite part of the writing process?
Golden: When I was asking Black women to tell me stories of how they had come through trauma and learned to heal, talk about their experiences in therapy, I found that very, very satisfying because I knew the stories were very important. Readers have said they found them profoundly helpful. And I thought it was really important to have women detoxifying going into therapy and being models for how you can do it and how it can help.
Q: What does it mean to be a «new age strong Black woman?»
Golden: A new age strong Black woman on the one hand, calls on the legacy of resilience, confidence, care for community and love of community that has been a big part of the strong Black woman complex, but she now combines it with a profound sense of self-care, self-love, and knowing that she has the right to set boundaries in order to protect herself mentally and physically.
Q: Do you feel you came away from writing optimistic about the future of Black women’s health?
Golden: Yes, I do. Because I think that we have a very strong tradition of leadership, Black women. I’ve been very heartened that there’s a whole small army of doctors and researchers and scientists who are all aware of this. And then you combine that with the gradual shift in consciousness that’s taking place in the larger environment. I think I’m optimistic.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.