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Fierce Angels: The Strong Black Woman in American Life and Cultureby Sheri Parks
Parks traces the development of the “strong black woman,” from the oldest ongoing archetype, the Dark Feminine, in ancient
Piercing and provocative, Sheri Parks’s authoritative yet deeply personal study exposes the overwhelming emotional costs—as well as the benefits—of the black female’s roles as communal savior and martyr.
Parks traces the development of the “strong black woman,” from the oldest ongoing archetype, the Dark Feminine, in ancient Greek and West African cultures to the Black Madonna celebrated by Italian Americans, from the nurturing and selfless “Mammy” to such modern-day inheritors of this legacy as Coretta Scott King, who relinquished her dreams for those of her husband, and Angela Dawson, an East Baltimore mother whose home was fire-bombed when she tried to save her community from drug dealers.
Bringing it all home, Parks recalls the personal costs she’s paid for her own identity and captures those moments when she is expected to be all and know all. She challenges readers, mothers, and daughters alike to examine how damaging and rewarding this role can be and to take control of it in their lives.
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Fierce AngelsThe Strong Black Woman in American Life and Culture
By Sheri Parks
One World/BallantineCopyright © 2010 Sheri Parks
All right reserved.
The Sacred Dark Feminine
Before the Beginning, Darkness was everything and everywhere. The Darkness was female, and while she had lain with no one, she was pregnant with all the universe would become. When it was time, she gave birth to the world.
The story of the Strong Black Woman starts at the beginning of the world as we know it. Ancient people observed the world around them, they saw the huge night sky, the dark soil from which plant life sprang, returning to die, decay, and grow again, and the womb from which their own lives began. They found ways to explain to themselves what they saw. They told stories and made statues of the cosmic Dark Mother, and they held her as sacred. Their stories have come down through the generations in many ways, in many forms. If black women are to have some power over their own stories now, they will need to know the ancient stories and how the images they carry have been woven into the collective memory, how they became so common that they are assumed.
The most ancient of myths and the most advanced of the sciences tell the same story—that the primordial darkness existed before anything else and contained within it all that the universe would eventually become. In the science ofparticle physics, the vast dark matter and energy exploded, giving rise to the planets. Researchers are still working to find out how, but they think that dark energy and matter still make up 96 percent of the universe.
The ancient myths—stories passed down, generation upon generation—have always had their own answer as to how. In them, the primordial darkness was female or androgynous. As there was nothing before her, she was the mother of herself. She was alone yet pregnant, and the world began when she spontaneously gave birth to it. For cultures in continents as far flung as Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia, she was the mother of everything that came after— the stars, the planets, and the gods and goddesses. She became the Sacred Dark Feminine, the Mother Goddess—Nana Buruku, the most powerful deity and Mother of the West African gods; the Hindu Kundalini; Tara, the name of the mother for both the European Druid gods and the Asian Buddhas—all dark, all powerful, and fiercely protective. Significantly, the Sacred Dark Feminine usually kept the underworld—the transforming place for death, regeneration, and rebirth—for herself.
Early cultures lived closely with the elements and rhythms of the natural world. Without artificial light, heat, or cooling, they were subject to the dangers and comforts of nature. Darkness—the rest and protection it provided and the danger it threatened—was central to their lives. Most mammals are born at night; after the womb, the night is a second protective darkness, providing quiet and cover from predators. So the stories describing the Sacred Dark Feminine are like the darkness, with both danger and protection at their core. Early cultures also associated the darkness with water. Mammals, including human ones, are borne into the world on a current of water, and to this day the Sacred Dark Feminine is tied to rivers and oceans.
Mortal women were goddesslike because they carried in them potential life and the power of birth. It matters who is godlike. The nature of the darkness, of the night sky, the ocean, the womb, was both holy and necessary. The myths awarded an ancient power to black women. The cosmic Dark Mother had a human parallel in the Mitochondrial Eve, the East African woman whose DNA is in every living human being.
Many ancient cultures saw life and death as part of an ever-running cycle, so that birth, death, and birth again were parts of one grand rhythm, like the growing year. The Sacred Dark Feminine was thought to facilitate these greatest of transformations and so, too, the many smaller transformations of life. Ancient mythologies accounted for the entirety of human existence, and the Sacred Dark Feminine reflected a worldview of life as both pleasant and terrible, with suffering as a part of life (something modern Western life has worked hard but unsuccessfully to suppress). The deities reflected that worldview and so were gentle when they could be and ruthless, even cruel, when they had to be. The Sacred Dark Feminine was fierce, violent, and angry yet also nourishing, gentle, and loving, because it was her job to give life and to protect it. Since her violence was usually protective, she was not “heroic” in the modern sense of the word, not concerned with achievement or superiority. Instead, she was concerned with the business of everyday life, the living, ripening, dying, renewal, and rebirth.
The history explains why the images of the Sacred Dark Feminine and the mortal Strong Black Woman have been so resistant to change. Creation stories are extremely important because they are the base stories from which other stories are built. The Sacred Dark Feminine is an archetype, a central image passed down the lines of generations in various forms. Carl Jung, one of the fathers of modern psychology, who popularized the idea of the archetypes, thought the Sacred Dark Feminine to be the oldest archetype. He believed she was so commonly occurring that she was inherited into our collective consciousness—hardwired into our brain chemistry.
The old mythologies of the world met in the Americas. The Native Americans had their own ancient Sacred Dark Feminine, including the New Mexico Laguna spider woman and the southwest American tribes’ corn goddess, and all of the major ethnic groups that joined them brought theirs. The black slaves, mostly from West Africa, brought Nana Buruku and the powerful orishas, more local and personal deities that included Oya, the beautiful and fierce deity of rebirth, and Oshun, the deity of love, maternity, and respect for women. From North Africa there was the Egyptian Isis and the Jewish dark Wisdom, and from Europe the miracle-working Black Madonnas, who bore a striking resemblance to Isis and who came to be fused with the native goddesses of South and Central Americas. From India came Kali: the fearsome and loving Dark Mother of Hinduism, the Black Mother Time, who was related to the transitions of death and rebirth, sometimes wearing a black face. From other parts of Asia came the Chinese Matsu, goddess of the sea, and Kwan Yin, the black female Buddha and goddess of mercy and compassion. The most popular dark goddess of all is right under our feet—Mother Earth or Mother Nature—from aboriginal religions and folk myths from New Zealand to Ireland. If we are to understand why the stories about black women being strong, giving, fierce, and selfless have stayed so long in American culture, we must know their roots. So we must begin where they do, at the beginning.
The first statues that humans carved were of dark goddesses and were thought to have been used in ritualistic ceremonies. Ancient people fashioned figures and painted pictures on cave walls of god-women, dark like the stones or the earth from which they were made. The earliest examples date back to 30,000–25,000 b.c. The oldest known written story lines began in Sumeria, sometimes called Mesopotamia (circa 3500–2350 b.c.), in roughly the area of present-day Iraq, where it was thought that the primordial Darkness contained the heavens, the earth, the gods, and the underworld. The being was Nammu, the sea, dark, and explicitly female. There was no mention of the birth of the sea—she appeared to have always existed. She was everything, the original complete being. She symbolized the power of the forces that ultimately shaped all of life and death, of space, time, and matter. She was pregnant, full with chaotic potential—here “chaos” simply meant absence of categories—and when she gave birth, having lain with no one, the world as we know it began. She was the Mother of All, the Mother of life itself and of every form that eventually arose—the heavens, the earth, the underworld, the gods, the good and the evil, the dark and the light, the beautiful and horrible. She was “the womb and the tomb of the world,” the matrix of all life experience, of birth, death, and rebirth, at once ruthless and generous, terrible and wonderful.
Greek mythology is central to Western culture, and the ancient Greek story was much like the Sumerian. In pre-Homeric Greece, the Sacred Dark Feminine had a place of honor. Chaos, the pregnant darkness and the mother of the gods, was there first: “First of all, then, Khaos came to be.” Like the Sumerian mother, she contained everything and delivered the world through a virgin birth. Then came Gaia (earth) and, later, Night. Both the Greeks and the Romans who borrowed from them saw the dark goddesses as transformative, generating order, which both cultures valued, from chaos. Night gave birth to the heavens and day. They retained the underworld function because it was the most pivotal, the most necessary place of transformation, but it was also seen as the most unruly.
By the time Hesiod wrote down the Greek creation story in his Theogony, Greece was already a fiercely patriarchal society; that he wrote of the divine world as female is a show of the myth’s resilience. The Sacred Dark Feminine’s position at the beginning of Western myth has made her a permanent fixture in Western life. The Feminine Darkness is still there in the Hebrew Christian Genesis, in the primordial darkness that existed before the presumably male God did anything. As men gained more power in Western cultures, they changed the stories; many goddesses were killed or married off, their old powers absorbed by men or reduced to female “intuition” and folk belief. That which could not be erased or absorbed was relegated to the alien but permanent black woman.
The Greeks and Romans knew of Africa and something of African cultures, but there were few black women among them. They were free to imagine them any way they liked. Darkness and female power remained fused together, and light women were considered to have been weakened. The Greek and Roman goddess Night, the dark daughter of Chaos, absorbed all of the ruthless anarchy of the old Mother Gods, the concern with death, suffering, and the inevitability of fate. The power of the Sacred Feminine was relegated back to black women because the mythology made them the logical repository. It would have been difficult to see them any other way.
The early mythic Mothers were androgynous, encompassing traits we now consider “masculine” and “feminine,” and they were more powerful for it. They were whole, and their wholeness encompassed other traits we now tend to see as separate: creation and destruction, warmth and violence, care and rejection. They combined nurture and suffering, life and death, not as opposites but as parts of one whole. They were balanced, fluid, beyond category. An idea that shows up in many cultures is that the whole is stronger than the split halves. To the extent that the Dark Feminine was considered to be without category, she was also assumed to be strong. As the mythology progressed, the Greeks further reduced the role of the Mother and completed the process of gender separation. “Civilization” included elevating certain elements at the expense of others. The Greeks had a decided preference for the elements of the day—light, order, and air—which they came to associate with maleness. Zeus, the male supergod concerned with order, control, and light, became the supreme ruler and god of the sky.
Night, though, still scared him. She was his ancestor, and Homer wrote in the Iliad that every god, including Zeus, was afraid to transgress upon Night or the children still under her protection. One challenged the dark goddess or those under her protection at one’s own peril, because her mother anger was protective and horrible. But there was a catch, and it was a big one, one that would reverberate through the centuries—Night was respected but not widely worshipped. Few signs of temples or worship to her have been found. Fierce maternity was effectively shoved from center stage. After occupying an early and central role in the organization of the universe, after being described by Homer as so strong that no god would challenge her, Night and her mother, Chaos, were left largely undeveloped in Greek mythology. She became the necessary and functional fringe figure. She contributed to the appearance of control and order because she was seen as holding the mysteries, the parts of the world that could not be predicted or controlled—irrationality, the strongest and most uncomfortable of human emotions, and the chaos of death and the underworld. Night and Chaos stood away, strong, formidable, and alienated, a bank for all the untamable forces of the universe.
But myth is resilient, and established stories almost never die out. The primordial darkness and her formidable daughters survived. Physically dark or darkness-related goddesses still dotted the early mythology of Greece and Rome, later to be picked up by the masterworks of Western culture by writers such as Shakespeare and Milton and the pre-science of alchemy. Nature, night, and disorder—as fullness came to be defined—continued to be associated with femaleness. In Greek myth, Rhea, the mother of Zeus, was represented as a black stone. The Romans had dark Cebele, the mother of the gods. The Greek Gaia, or earth, infinitely wise and fierce, was black since she was simultaneously the physical soil.
The Romans borrowed much of the Sumerian–Greek mythology and carried it with them when they invaded the Germanic tribes, including the Celtic people of England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and other parts of Europe. There the stories met up with the Celts’ mythology, which had its own dark and dark-related goddesses, who were later carried to America with the Irish. The Celts held an attitude toward religion that was still more tied to ordinary life rhythms and still very involved with the divine feminine and darkness. The Angles—the future English—worshipped Nerthus, Mother Earth, who was concerned with both war and peace. They believed that she took an interest in their affairs and rode among them. She and other female divinities were whole, capable of revenge, war, or generosity. The Germanic tribes believed that mortal women carried with them an element of the holiness and prophecy, and women were asked for advice. Plutarch wrote that Celtic women often acted as ambassadors in battles and rivalries between the Celtic tribes and sat on peace councils when disputes were discussed. The prophetesses often accompanied troops into battles, gave advice and strategies, and helped to broker peace.
The Celts’ and other ancient goddesses could be violent, lethally so. But they continued a trend that would be carried by the Dark Feminine through the ages. They were usually violent only when necessary to protect their people or to avenge harm done to them or their people. Their rage was compassionate. Cerridan (Cauldron, or Fortress of Wisdom) was a prominent goddess. She was physically black and gave birth to a son as black as a raven. Other Celtic goddesses sometimes hid themselves in darkened bodies. Celtic goddesses had the ability to shift shape and color, and it was common for them to turn into animals with black coloring. In another link that would become important in America, they would disguise themselves as old and poor women.
Fierceness was associated with blackness, and some Germanic goddesses turned black when they were angry. The Celtic mothers became blackbirds, ravens, crows, vultures, or cormorants when they had to be fiercely protective. Morrigan would take the form of a black battle crow, a raven or other large blackbird, or sometimes a long black eel. The Arthur legends that would travel around the world retained Morrigan as the whitened Morgan Le Fay, the Lady of the Lake; she was usually depicted with dark hair and living underwater, keeping the relationship between darkness and water. As world religions changed and masculine images became more dominant, the Sacred Dark Feminine has remained continuously in some form.
Excerpted from Fierce Angels by Sheri Parks Copyright © 2010 by Sheri Parks. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Sheri Parks, Ph.D., is an award-winning teacher and public speaker, currently on the faculty at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsweek, and on NPR, MSNBC, CNN, NBC News, and she is a regular contributor to the Baltimore Sun and WYPR-FM. She currently lives with her family near Baltimore, Maryland.
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