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: https://www.memphis.edu/counseling/


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.

Busing Worked For Me

In the Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 the issue of busing, for school integration, was raised. The morning following the debate, Good Morning America reported that during the debate, there was a spike in tweets about busing. There were, likely, tweets both in favor of and against busing. I had a personal reaction to the issue because I, too, was a little girl who was bused to school for the purpose of integration.

As a first grader in September of 1967, I was among the third class of students to participate in the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program in Rochester, New York. In 1963, The New York State Commissioner of Education asked school districts statewide to report on racial imbalance in their schools and to develop a plan to reduce the imbalance. While most districts reported that racial imbalance was not a problem in their schools, the West Irondequoit School District, which had very few minority students, decided it wanted to give its students opportunities for cross-cultural interactions. In February of 1965, the West Irondequoit School District Board unanimously passed a resolution to voluntarily welcome minority students from the Rochester Public School System. The New York State Department of Education provided program funding for the first 24 first grade students to enroll in West Irondequoit schools in September of 1965. My sister was among that first group. Thus, began the first voluntary busing program in the United States.

Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979. Rochester, NY
Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979, Rochester, NY.
Rorie Trammel, second row, third from the right.

The Urban-Suburban program was voluntary on two fronts: school districts voluntarily voted to participate, and Rochester City Schools parents voluntarily chose to participate in the program. All was not perfect when those first students arrived on buses in West Irondequoit. While the school board was committed to the value of intercultural interactions, there were, not surprisingly, some residents who were not as welcoming. The Urban-Suburban parents were prepared, however. Mothers took time off work to ride the buses with their children. Disturbances such as rock throwing at the buses soon disappeared and the educational experiment was underway.

The Urban-Suburban program implemented several special strategies to help make our time as “educational residents” of Irondequoit a positive experience. Mothers of resident students were asked to volunteer to be room mothers for those of us who were bused to the school. I recall that most of my Irondequoit friends’ mothers were stay-at-home mothers, while the mothers of those of us who were bused worked outside of the home. That meant that if something happened to us during the school day, it wasn’t easy for them to come to the school That’s where the room mothers stepped in. From first grade through fourth grade, my room mother was Mrs. Maley, the mother of my new friend, Linda Maley. I loved Mrs. Maley and the Maley family. In fact, after I discovered that if I forgot my lunch, I would get to walk home with Linda to have a freshly prepared lunch made and set out lovingly by Mrs. Maley, I started to “forget” my lunch on purpose! In elementary school, when we wanted to participate in after school activities such as Brownies and Girl Scouts, there were friends who welcomed us into their homes until our parents could pick us up after work. Mary Lynne Barker, to whom I assigned the nickname “Favorite”, in first grade was that friend for me. In high school, the Urban-Suburban program provided an early bus and late bus that enable us to participate in activities such as band and sports teams. We had sleepovers and attended birthday parties at our Irondequoit friends’ homes. Many of my Irondequoit friends ventured “into the city” to attend my 9th birthday party.

In the teen years, however, there were some socialization limitations. White teens and African American teens had different interests, listened to different music, and had different thoughts about social issues of the times. I had my white “school friends” and my African American “neighborhood friends”. In school I felt some isolation when, because of the small number of African American students in each cohort, I was usually the only African American in each of my classes and in activities like band and the National Honor Society. I looked forward to lunch time when I would get to interact with other African American students.

Even as a child, I knew that being in Urban-Suburban was a great opportunity. When I was in middle school, I was asked to participate in a group of African American and white students created by the Urban-Suburban program to speak to school districts who had not yet joined the program. We discussed how our friendships and experiences in Urban-Suburban gave us opportunities for cross-cultural learning and understanding. Irondequoit resident parents and parents of bused students were included in the discussion as the Urban-Suburban program evolved. Today, a parent advisory council still exists.

Participating in the Urban-Suburban program fostered in me a strong willingness and ability to have positive relationships with people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. Having the experience of friendships with children of other races gave me a natural desire to respect and develop an understanding of differences. I recall being very excited when, in high school, we had an exchange program with, predominantly, Hispanic students from a city high school. As a student at the University of Memphis, I naturally, became friends with white students and international students. While I joined organizations that were comprised of, primarily, African American students, once again, I also found myself one of only a few African American students in organizations in which most of students were white. Because of my Urban-Suburban experience, I continue to embrace the value of friendships and experiences with a diverse spectrum of people. I also embrace the opportunity to talk about issues of race, whether it’s with friends, in the workplace, in public forums, etc. As associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, I spend each day fulfilling the Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change.

From my experience, and that of my three sisters, all of whom participated in Urban-Suburban, the busing experiment worked. We received an exceptional education attending West Irondequoit schools from first grade through twelfth grade. We had close friendships with white students who were with us through high school graduation, several of whom I’m still in touch with. The key was the program’s voluntary foundation, the support of the New York State Department of Education and the extra efforts made by the program, the school district and teachers and staff in the schools. They were committed to Urban-Suburban being a positive experience for everyone. The expansion of the program, to include additional suburban districts since 1965, hasn’t been without detractors. Even in the last ten years, some suburban residents have resisted their school districts approving participation in the program. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the Urban-Suburban program is still thriving as a voluntary busing program, committed to educational equity.


Rorie Trammel is the associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Trammel plays an integral role in the activities of the Hooks Institute including administrative and operations duties, fundraising and donor relations, and coordination of the Institute’s National Book Award. Trammel, also, oversees strategic planning and implementation of the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI). She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Memphis (UofM). She is also a former UofM employee, having worked in the Office of Development for fourteen years. Rorie worked for the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South for fourteen and a half years, first as executive director of urban programming and later as vice president for advancement. For many years, Rorie could be heard as a volunteer radio reader for WYPL, the radio station at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. She is a member of the New Memphis Institute and, previously, served on the boards of directors for Partners in Public Education (PIPE), the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents, and the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

For This Reason, I Vote

By Kevyanna L. Rawls
President, University fo Memphis Student Government Association

From 2011 to 2015, I spent approximately 7.5 hours of my day of every weekday at Little Rock Central High School. Known for its’ role in the Civil Rights Movement, Little Rock Central High School was the first high school to be integrated in Arkansas and captured national attention as local government officials tried to keep the nine Black teenagers, who would be referred to as the Little Rock Nine, out of the all-white high school. As the Black teenagers attempted to integrate the high school, they were met by protestors who spit on them, threw miscellaneous items at them, and were not allowed to enter the school causing the National Guard to step in. Our professors and administrators made it their duty to ensure that all students were knowledgeable on the situation that occurred at our school, the processes and steps that had to occur for integration to happen, and the barriers that stood between the nine Black students and the then all-White Central High School.

Kevyanna L. Rawls President, University of Memphis Student Government Association.

Although, I assume, this information was taught to us to remind students of how embarrassing of a time this was for the entire city and state, professors also used this as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of civic engagement in the democratic process. We would be naïve to believe that all individuals, despite race, in the south wanted integration to occur; however we can see the ways in which the anger and frustration citizens endured at the time was in part because of the power of the government at a state and national level. One could also argue that the individuals at the time did not hold the same values as they did, and is primarily responsible for the events that occurred in Little Rock, Arkansas during the 1960s.

For this reason, I vote.

As a Black woman, I believe that it is especially important for me to vote because of the intersectionality of my identities. In America we have seen the various waves of feminism that included gaining the right to vote for White women and the Civil Rights Movement that in part advocated for the right of Black men to vote, but of those two movements I fail to completely identify with either. As white women and Black men gained access to the ballot, women like Fannie Lou Hamer still needed to advocate for the Black woman’s vote at the cost of her own physical well-being and sanity. It is with this in mind that I am reminded of why it is important for me to be registered to vote and exercise my rights to do so. If voting was not important, why would individuals spend hundreds of years denying minority groups the right to do so? Why would barriers be set in place to disenfranchise minority populations, if voting had no impact on the society we live in? Although the issues are different, the necessity to vote and the consequences of not voting have remained the same.

By actively deciding not to register to vote,  one makes the decision to allow the rest of society to tell them what is best for them and decide what issues to focus on for the allotted time period. The decision to not participate in democracy is a decision to silence your own voice when everyone else is speaking for what they believe in. As I entered my first year of college, I vividly recall being excited to register to vote. With my birthday being in early September, I did not have the opportunity to participate in the elections the year before, but knew that voting was one of the most exciting things about turning 18. Registering to vote was something you could do when getting a new license after you turned 18, so I did it on the spot. I felt so empowered and remember the excitement that I felt when I was officially considered a registered voter.

#GoVoteGoTigers Pin

The first time I was able to vote was in the 2016 election and I was extremely nervous. At the time I had no car and knew that my parents would not be able to drive to Memphis to take me to vote, so I took a chance and requested an absentee ballot. The joy I had when I received the absentee ballot is indescribable. I simply recall going to my room and googling every candidate, searching for information about every bill on the ballot, and being able to genuinely take my time to learn more about the values of the individuals seeking to gain my vote. I assume this feeling is incomparable to going to an actual polling station to vote, but it reminded me of how I could make a contribution to my community in a positive way.

As the president of the University of Memphis Student Government Association, I believe that my position on campus is evidence of the significance of voting. As an elected representative of the student body, I was elected because I was entrusted with being able to represent students the way they would like to be represented and this is the hope we all have for our local, state, and national representatives. We expect them to have our best interest in mind when making decision. We expect them to be honest and transparent with us. We expect that they honor their commitment to their position and seek to enhance the quality of life for us through their decision. For this reason, I encourage YOU to vote. It is not about whose side you are on or who you have heard the most conversation about, it is about who can represent you and make the impact in your community that you would like to see despite their personal opinions. Allow them to be your voice by showing up at the polls on November 6th.


About the Author

Kevyanna Rawls is a senior English and African American Studies double major with double minors in Spanish and Sociology. Currently, Kevyanna serves the SGA President for the 69th general assembly. As an advocate for equity and justice, Kevyanna uses her platform to advocate for underrepresented populations and address student concerns on the campus of the University of Memphis. Kevyanna’s involvement with advocacy and social justice have motivated her to pursue an education in law and the ways in which laws may enhance the experience of individuals in America while negatively impacting the lives of others. Kevyanna intends to attend law school in Fall 2020 and later become a civil rights’ attorney.