Mental Health and the Strong Black Woman Archetype

By Rebekkah Yisrael Mulholland
PhD Candidate, History Department. University of Memphis

Recently, while going through some stuff in my closet, I came across a note a friend wrote for me back in 2010 as we wrapped up our study abroad trip in South Africa. She wrote many humbling and beautiful things in this note. One of the things that stood out to me was her referring to me as a strong (black) woman. As I read that line, I wondered what led to her defining me in such a way. I read that note, particularly that line, repeatedly. As I did so, I thought back to where I was mentally. The year 2010 started out on a strong note. I was accepted into graduate school to obtain a Master’s in Humanities with a concentration in African and African American Studies. In February of that year, I decided to study abroad in South Africa. In June, we began preparing for our July departure. One Friday night in June, I almost passed out in the shower, which caused to me freak out. I thought I was dying. My head was spinning, my heart racing, and my body became too heavy to hold up.

Cloud with words such as Inability, Deficiency, Disconnection, Helplessness, Rejection, Weakness, Disorder, Injury Scarcity Abandonment, Instability, Rejection.The following Monday morning, I went to Student Health Services on campus to see what was up. I had very low blood counts. As it turned out, I was severely anemic. This not knowing what was going on with my body, led to the next two and a half years of anxiety and panic attacks. During this time, I had daily anxiety and/or panic attacks. I found myself staying in my apartment out of fear that I would have an attack in public. I limited my outside travels to going to class, work, and occasional outings with friends. If it had not been for school, I may have suffered a lot more than I did. Graduate school was a great experience for me. On the outside, I was cool as a cucumber, on the inside, I was suffering. At home, I was suffering by myself and in silence. I remember telling my mother a little bit of the things I was going through. Late one night, I called her because I was having shooting pains in my right arm. I knew it was not a heart attack, but the pain was enough to scare me. Therefore, she drove from her home in Cincinnati to Dayton where I was living and attending school to take me to the ER. While waiting to be seen, my mother handed me an article and said to me, “Here read this. This sounds like you.” The first line of the article read, “I feel like I am dying.” This did sound like me. At the time, I felt and even said this line at least twice a day. The article was about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I was suffering from GAD. Really, just from almost passing out in my shower late one night about roughly four months before reading this article? This experience goes against the image and definition of the strong black woman or does it?

In a BuzzFeed article, “It’s Time to Say Goodbye to TV’s Strong Black Woman” by Nichole Perkins, this archetype is defined as a woman “who can take on the world with no thought of their own needs, without emotion, and without complaint.” This image of black womanhood puzzles me. While this superhero image of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, why do we have to suppress our emotions, neglect our needs, and suck up how we feel in order to not appear weak? In order to be what we need to be for others, how does neglecting ourselves help? This archetype is supposed to re-imagine and re-define black womanhood in the place of the negative stereotypes that have been the perceptions of black womanhood. While this model of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, it is dangerous as it causes black women to suffer in silence as we are thought to be superwomen.

Chalkboard with words "Stop the Sigma, Mental Health Problems." Mental Health problems has a diagonal strike through it.What I mean by this archetype being dangerous for black women are the psychological affects it has on us. Within the black community, mental health is not a topic that is discussed, and therapy is not an option for many for various reasons. Within the community, mental health tends to be stigmatized and most would say that going to church would solve all problems. Among black women, depression is one of those unspoken dangers. When it comes to the mental health of adolescent girls, no one talks about the black girls who suffer from eating disorders, cutting, and depression. Being a historian, I do trace these behaviors back to slavery when our many great grandmothers were supposed to suppress their feelings. They were physically and mentally brutalized and forced to keep such incidents to themselves and keep moving along. While the times may have changed, people’s attitudes about how we are to handle our mental (in)stabilities are often handled the same way, “keep it to yourself,” “don’t tell nobody,” “just don’t think about it,” and “you’re too strong to let that get you down.” These sayings are dangerous and detrimental to our health. We should not and do not have to suffer in silence.

One of the most important things black women can do for themselves is learn self-care techniques. For me, the most important is therapy. The importance of having someone to talk to without a sermon or judgment cannot be stressed enough. It is my hope that as students make the decision to attend the University of Memphis that they are made aware of the Counseling Center and the Relaxation Zone on campus. Taking on the responsibility of balancing adulthood, coursework, and social lives makes a healthy mental state crucial to overall health and academic success. The center is a place for everyone. It is a safe space.

Please check out the Counseling Center’s website and find the resources offered:

Rebekkah Mulholland is a Doctoral Candidate, currently pursuing a PhD in History at the U of M. Her interests are 19th and 20th century African-American history with an emphasis on black transgender women and gender nonconforming women of color within the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Trans Liberation Movements as well as in the era of mass incarceration. Rebekkah was the president of the Graduate Association for African-American History (GAAAH) at the UofM. She is assisting the Hooks Institute on several projects such as the Benjamin Hooks Papers Digitization Project and the 2019 National Book Award.

The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

Where Has the Racism Gone?

By Elena Delavega, PhD, Hooks Institute Associate Director


Elena Delavega, Ph.D., Associate Director, The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

When I first arrived in Memphis, I was awe-struck by the racism. I everywhere, and it was visible. I could feel it. I could smell it. It was so thick, one could cut it with scissors. At first, I could not put my finger on it, but by paying attention, I was able to observe that people’s position in society seemed to be determined by their race. I also paid attention to how well the city took care of white areas, and how poorly it took care of African American areas. By carefully paying attention, it became clear to me that oppression and exclusion were a feature of the community.

Fast forward seven years, and the racism does not feel so awful in Memphis. This is incredibly dangerous and it is the lull that leads us to accept the racism as a natural part of life. It does not “feel” so awful anymore because I have become used to it and inured to it. It is still there. It is the same racism and the same oppression that existed seven years ago, that has not changed. I have to conclude that what has changed is my perception.

Humans have a great ability to adapt and to accept new environments. It is this ability is not accidental, but necessary for survival. However, that which is adaptive in an environment and would have allowed our ancestors to survive changing conditions can have horrible and maladaptive consequences in other places and times.

That is what has happened here. Our ability to adapt to circumstances has led me to accept racism as a natural part of the community and to not even see it anymore.

I fight against this. I recognize the awfulness of the still existing deep and noxious racism in Memphis and in the State of Tennessee, but I wonder how many people, otherwise good and decent people have become so well adapted to Memphis that they have stopped feeling and seeing the awful racism that pervades everything here?

This is a call to examination and to critical consciousness. We need to become careful observers of our environment and to recognize the need for awareness and for attention. Racism has not gone away. Just our ability to see it has. If you open your eyes with honesty, you will see it. It is there and it must be fought, lest it takes over and destroys our souls.

The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

Making It Across the Bridge: Civil Rights, Social Justice, and the Life of Benjamin L. Hooks in Duty of the Hour

By Daphene R. McFerren

Duty of the Hour, a film on civil rights activist and native Memphian Benjamin L. Hooks, encourages us to ask ourselves, “To what extent are our lives today in the service of advancing a higher good for others?” The documentary chronicles the struggle for civil rights in Memphis and the nation during the 1960s and 1970s through the life of Benjamin Hooks. Hooks’ story demonstrates that civil rights activism is an undertaking not for the weak of heart, but instead a demanding endeavor requiring strong character; an ability to take, and move on from, harsh criticism; strong prayers; and a sense of optimism that universe is on your side.

Benjamin L Hooks and other civil rights activists of the 1960s were under no illusions that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s would fix hundreds of years of discriminatory practices against African Americans. While they were encouraged by gains of the Civil Rights Movement, they nonetheless remained deeply concerned about the impact of entrenched poverty and racism in American society. “The Poor People’s Campaign,” Dr. Martin Luther King’s grand scale initiative to tackle poverty in America, illustrated the pervasiveness of economic disparities even in the 1960s. Today, as well as then, poverty locks a disproportionate number of African Americans and others in a cycle of economic despair, preventing self-determination and full participation in the life of the community and nation.


Benjamin L. Hooks Speaks from a Pulpit.
Benjamin L. Hooks Speaks from a Pulpit.

While clearly not our “mothers’ and fathers’ Civil Rights Movement,” in many respects the #BlackLivesMatter movement picks up where the Civil Rights Movement left off. The issue of policing in minority communities and the shocking deaths of young African American men in the last few years at the hands of the police, or in the case the death of Trayvon Martin, by a self-pointed vigilante, have rocked African American communities to their core. While #BlackLivesMatter’s most prominent issue has been excessive use, or unnecessary use, of deadly force by the police against African Americans, the movement has begun to challenge systemic issues of poverty, unemployment, and discrimination impacting African Americans. Much like the movement’s predecessors, #BlackLivesMatter challenges the strong fibers of racial inequality that run through the fabric of our nation.

As Duty of the Hour unfolds, it’s clear that Hooks, Democrats, and Republicans, worked to build bridges to ensure more inclusive and just communities. Here too is a lesson’s for today’s leaders.  While Duty of the Hour is a historical account of past events, it is also a mirror for self-examination by each of us about our “duty” to create fair and just communities for African Americans, the poor, and others in today’s world. Like the 1960s, the struggles of our time require thoughtful examination, reflection, and action within the spheres of our influence.

Benjamin L. Hooks. Photo, copyright DeSciose.
Benjamin L. Hooks. Photo, copyright DeSciose.

While much work remains to be done, Hooks and civil rights activist of his time made it across the bridge to create a more just, but still imperfect, nation. We too have a bridge to cross. Our nation faces a crisis with respect to disproportionate incarceration rates for African Americans, entrenched poverty of both black and whites, and severe class and wealth differences that negatively impact us all.  These pressing issues clearly show that we have a rough, unsteady, and difficult bridge to cross. Some, including #BlackLivesMatter, activists, and concerned others have begun the walk over the bridge. Making it across this bridge will not be easy. But again, as history makes clear, it never has been.


Hooks Family, ca. 1930. Benjamin Hooks, bottom row, center.
Hooks Family, ca. 1930. Benjamin Hooks, bottom row, center.

The trajectory of Benjamin L. Hooks’ life, and his impact on Memphis and the nation, could not have been fathomed at the time of his birth. Hooks was born in Memphis in 1925, a time when Jim Crow laws openly condoned segregationist and racist practices. Hooks attended LeMoyne College, now LeMoyne-Owen, and completed law school, aided in large part by the benefits he received from GI bill while serving in World War II. During the war, Hooks realized that the Italian prisoners of war whom he guarded enjoyed greater privileges as white prisoners than Hooks held as a soldier serving his country. Like other African American veterans of World War II, Hooks returned to America a changed man with a resolve to fight racial inequality.

In 1965, former Tennessee Governor Frank G. Clement appointed Hooks to serve as a criminal court judge in Memphis, making Hooks the first African American judge in a court of record in Tennessee’s history. While this appointment was life changing for Hooks, it proved to be a brave and courageous move for a white governor who, by the very act of appointing Hooks, unleashed a fury of hate upon himself from whites and members of the voluntary bar association of Memphis.

Benjamin Hooks on the FCC.
Benjamin Hooks on the FCC.

Hooks was appointed by to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by President Richard Nixon in 1972. There Hooks fought to protect First Amendment rights even in cases such speech was racially offensive. While at the FCC Hooks worked to increase minority ownership of broadcast media to ensure a diversity of voices in broadcast media.

In 1977, when Hooks became the director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Hooks held a national stage where he could advance a civil rights agenda that included combatting poverty, creating jobs and business opportunities for African Americans, and ending apartheid in South Africa.  Even after retiring from the NAACP in 1992, Hooks remained a lifetime advocate for racial equality and emphasized the urgent need for African Americans to play a pivotal role in economic life of this country.

Duty of the Hour premieres on WKNO Monday, September 12, 2016 at 7 PM; and again on WKNO-2 Tuesday, September 12, 2016 at 7 PM. To learn more about the film and the Hooks Institute, please visit or


About the Author

Daphene McFerrenDaphene R. McFerren is the executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. McFerren manages the Hooks Institute’s strategic planning; program creation and implementation; local and national fundraising efforts; and work on behalf of the Hooks Institute staff, faculty, and contractors. McFerren is responsible for creating budgets for Hooks Institute programs and monitoring program expenses to ensure that financial targets are met. She is the primary media contact for the Hooks Institute and has made numerous television and radio appearances to promote its work. McFerren was the executive producer of the film Duty of the Hour, a film about the life of Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks.

The Benjamin Lawson Hooks Papers: An Introduction

By: Will Love

Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, calls for blacks to ban together in their efforts to overcome racial injustices during a speech to the 69th annual convention. July 4, 1978
Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, calls for blacks to ban together in their efforts to overcome racial injustices during a speech to the 69th annual convention. July 4, 1978

Housed in the Preservation and Special Collections Department of the University of Memphis Libraries are the Benjamin Lawson Hooks Papers (MSS 445).  By far one of the most expansive holdings of Special Collections, the Hooks papers span close to 400 boxes, containing correspondence, speeches, printed materials, administrative files, photographs, and audio and video recordings that pertain to the life of Benjamin Hooks, long time lawyer/civil rights activist and executive director of the NAACP from 1977-1992.

As a recently hired staff member of the University of Memphis Libraries, I have begun the process of digitizing major components of the Ben Hooks papers, a project sponsored by the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change.  So far, I have focused on the scanning and recording of the photograph and audio-cassette portions of the collection.  With roughly 1200 photographs and several dozen hours of audio files, the Hooks Institute, the University of Memphis Library, and I aim to make a significant sample of images and audio recordings available online for public access.  As we continue to build the Hooks digitization project website, we will also include a representative sample of scanned manuscripts to supplement the photographs and audio series.  Our aim is to demonstrate the richness of the Hooks collection so that scholars and engaged members of the public visit the Preservation and Special Collections Department to research the Hooks papers more fully.

President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Francis Hooks, and Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks in 1981.
Ben Hooks and Ronald Reagan shaking hands at the White House in 1981. This picture most likely took place weeks before Reagan gave a speech to the NAACP in Denver, CO.

The majority of the collection pertains to Hooks’ time as executive director of the NAACP from 1977-1992, as these years comprise over 90 percent of the collection.  As director, Ben Hooks gave many public speeches both to and on behalf of the NAACP, where he outlined his disagreements with the policies of President Ronald Reagan and Hooks’ concerns with the general socio-economic direction of the country.

In conjunction, Hooks also served as pastor-on-leave of Mt. Moriah Baptist church in Detroit, Michigan where he on occasion preached both to Mt. Moriah and other churches and assemblies around the country.  Hooks felt the call to ministry in his youth and was ordained as a Baptist minister in the 1950s, preaching regularly for the Greater Middle Baptist Church in Memphis before becoming a pastor in Detroit in the 1970s.

Having read through many of Hooks’ speeches and listened to many recorded sermons, one immediate observation stands out: Hooks gives an interesting look into a life of racial equality advocacy before the age of social media but after many initiatives of the 1960s civil rights era had been achieved.

A close up of Ben Hooks at a podium in 1980.
A close up of Ben Hooks at a podium in 1980.

In his sermons, Hooks was fond of quoting Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” as Hooks believed that this quotation described the life of African Americans in the 1980s.  On the one hand, Hooks was clear that African Americans had made substantial progress in the last two decades, thanks to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.  African Americans had cumulatively earned enough wealth that if they consolidated and implemented it in a focused direction, they would carry enough influence to bring even the biggest corporation to its knees.  African Americans were now mayors, police officers, judges, and business owners in numbers unprecedented in American History.

On the other hand, Hooks believed that the African American community was in a greater crisis now than any other time in history.  He often made pointed jokes of African Americans “tithing to the local liquor store” and stark remarks about the level of violence prevalent in many African American neighborhoods, noting that the number of African American men murdered by other other African American men was far greater than the number of African American men lynched in the early twentieth-century South.   The remedy for this problem was not government intervention (though Hooks as NAACP director tirelessly advocated for the prolonging of targeted programs) but rather a revival within the African American community, centered on the church and the family.

Ben Hooks and Senator Edward Kennedy, 1972.
Ben Hooks and Senator Edward Kennedy at the 23rd NAACP membership luncheon.

Hooks, thus, demonstrates the changing nature of rhetoric throughout the history of civil rights.  Hooks, at times, sounds like an affirmative action minded civil rights activist, calling Reagan and other conservatives to task over slashing publicly funded programs designed to create opportunities for the poor.  In Hooks’ view, Reagan’s policies would not engender equal prosperity for all Americans but in fact, stimulate wealth redistribution from the poor to the rich, destroying the progress achieved over the last two decades.  At other times, Hooks sounds like a modern social conservative, noting the central role of the church, the family, and the responsibility of the individual to correct his or her own problems, regardless of prevailing societal ills.

Ben Hooks 1978
Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, tells a Portland news conference Friday that his organization had a very successful convention. He added that the NAACP will continue to fight for racial equality on all fronts. July 7, 1978

Much of Hooks’ mixed messaging can be attributed to varying audiences.  When preaching to a predominantly African American congregation, he sounds quite differently than when speaking to a national audience on behalf of the NAACP.  But, I suspect, much of it also stems from a time period when an individual as prominent as Hooks could easily find a media platform for his initiatives without worrying over the “viral” tendencies of today’s hyper charged social media exchanges.  Hooks could craft political messages and rhetorical strategies designed to make the nightly news and morning newspapers without worry that a misinterpreted statement would spread around the internet in moments.  In this regard, Hooks’ tenure with the NAACP represents a transitional moment in the history of the civil rights movement, and while it shares many differences with our current struggles, it perhaps has more in common with our own struggles than did the marches and protests of the 1960s.


All photographs pictured are the property of Special Collections, 
the University of Memphis Libraries.