Interrogating the ‘Strong Black Female’ Stereotype

Talking about black womxn as being strong and enduring can be dangerous, Masters student Londiwe Mntambo told students at USKAR on 20 April.

“We have to talk about ubumbokodo in a way that we don’t romanticize [it],” Mntambo said. “It [apartheid] was a fight, it was a war.”  

Mntambo was speaking after an SRC screening of a documentary about the life of Winnie Mandela. The major themes of the discussion were ubumbokodo and ‘black female rage’.

Imbokodo is a Zulu word meaning “rock” and so the noun ubumbokodo refers to the strength and leadership skills shown by black womxn.  But a misinterpretation of this concept can lead to the assumption that “black womxn have no fears,” according to Mntambo.

Black female rage or the angry black woman is a character type often found in films and popular media depicting black women as loud and angry.

Contesting ideas of Winnie Mandela’s legacy have come into focus since her passing. Different labels have been attached to her name from ‘struggle heroine’ to ‘terrorist’. This made her the perfect candidate to start the conversation after the screening.

“Using that particular story to contextualize the discussion, helped us understand… ‘Where does this stereotype of the black womxnhood identity come from?’” said Phumelele Nkomozake, the SRC transformation and activism councillor.   

“It is important [that] we speak about gender and the complexities of gender identity and expression, but more in particular how it is intersectional to race,” she added.

SRC president Nhlankanipho Mahlangu agreed with her colleague on the complexity of the black female identity, stating that at any given moment one has to be all of these things at the same time.

But not everyone was prepared to take this statement at face value.  “I think it’s pretty much obvious that all identities are complex. It makes it seem like black female identities are the only complex identities that exist,” Luvo Mnyobe a second-year journalism student.

Mnyobe did feel however that this fact was inappropriately used to probe Winnie Mandela’s legacy. He noted that recognizing the complexities of black identities and black womxn’s identities shouldn’t be a thing that we do to uncover their darker side.  

words by Xiletelo Mabasa