I recently re-read James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. I sat on panel at SXSW with Barry Jenkins, Oscar award-winning director of Moonlight. In preparation, I picked up Beale Street because I realized I could not recount much of the book that I had read in a flurry as a middle schooler. In 6th grade I decided I need to read all the African American literary greats, so I started with Baldwin, then Morrison and ended on Zora Neale Hurston. My scope was limited. But there was still a lot that flew over my teenage head that was just trying to survive as a Black girl in the suburbs in the age of Hanson.
Now, as an established adult (according to Facebook data) the re-read struck a chord. There’s a character in the book that Baldwin’s description of really touched me: Ernestine who is the protagonist Tish’s older sister. In Tish’s voice Ernestine is the strong one or at least people view her as strong.
“People love people in different ways.” “If you look helpless, people react to you in one way and if you look strong, or just come on strong people react to you in another way….this can be very painful”
The way people treat you, particularly as a Black woman, when they perceive you as strong can border on abuse. The various ways people articulate that you are someone they perceive as “strong” are rarely complimentary. “Oh you always figure it out.” “I know you’ll always be okay.” Me at a very low point in my life crying to someone who I believed to be one of my closest friends and their response was: “Of all my friends you’re just someone I never worry about. I never worry about you,” as she shrugs me off. I imagine the person who says these things hear themselves telling the person something warm and fuzzy when it’s really just a slap of harsh cold wind. What we do is absolve ourselves from caring, from having to invest emotionally in the same person we likely heavily lean on emotionally. And as Baldwin says “that’s the way we are and that’s how we get fucked up.”
If you look at all your friends or acquaintances even, who would you feel most okay with disappointing? There have been many times where I’ve been disappointed because close friends have canceled on me, placing me in a hard spot, expecting me to just absorb the letdown and move on. Willingly letting me down because they didn’t want to disappoint other people, “you know how they are, I have to do this.” I always wonder what kind of tantrum I would have to throw for people to realize when that this deeply matters to me. Maybe my words are too monotone. But do we realize what these strong friends absorb, especially when we offer them things only to let them down? I’m not talking about a one-off, because we all have moments where we set expectations we cannot meet. But the constant, consistent let down when we know we’re getting away with doing something to one person that we would not do to another.
One of the most annoying aspects of being seen as a strong friend is when you finally are offended and because you usually don’t take things personally, people are offended that YOU are offended. And this is not just for the “strong” friend, but anyone who likely doesn’t outly wear their emotions. The claim friend, the introvert, the always a good time, the goofy or the jokester friend, we all have to think about how we use people for emotional benefit, because we all do and that’s fine as long as we make the effort to give make to them in ways that they need, in the same we take what we need. And for the strong friends to be a bit more emotionally honest even vulnerable, allowing those who love you, who care to help you — you gotta let the guard down a little bit though.