Behind Coretta's Veil: Black Women and the Burdens of Loss

Melissa Harris-Perry

Forty years later there are two particularly poignant and enduring images associated with Dr. King's assassination. The first is the circle of men surrounding Martin's body on that Memphis balcony as they point in the direction of the shooter. The second is Coretta Scott King's mournful and resolute face beneath her widow's black veil.

Both images capture the radicalizing power of Dr. King's murder. Together they reveal how responses to racial terrorism are often gendered. Many black men are like contributor Professor Michael Dawson, who found his authentic political voice emerging from the ashes of his beloved, burning city in the aftermath of King's death. Like the men on the balcony, they became the vocal and visible leaders of the continuing movements against injustice.


Many black women swallow their pain, gird their loins and persist against impossible odds when the men they love are destroyed. They are like Medgar's Myrlie, Malcolm's Betty, and Martin's Coretta. Much less visible and vocal, these women become the symbols of strength and endurance in the aftermath of men's murders.

This does not mean that all brothers or all sisters responded in the same way to Dr. King's death, only that gender is as critical as race in marking the experience. King's assassination was one incident in a long campaign of domestic, racial terrorism aimed in specific ways at black men. Race riots, land theft, agricultural peonage, castration, mutilation, postcards of human sacrifice, and lynching pierced by the smell of burning flesh constitute the terrorism that black communities have known throughout the twentieth century.

Even today, black men die young. They perish from violence and from poor health. They vanish from communities due to joblessness and incarceration. Their absence means that black women are often left alone to raise children, to sustain neighborhoods and to battle for rights.

In their solitude, black women face enormous obstacles. Women heads of households are twice as likely to live in inadequate housing. They earn less than their male counterparts. Fewer than half of black women have bachelor's degrees and the unemployment rate for black women is more than double that for white women. More than 1 in 4 black women live in poverty.


Babies born to black women in the U.S. today are two-and-a-half times more likely to die before their first birthday than white babies. Black women have higher rates of hypertension and diabetes and are more likely to die of breast cancer than are white women. On the whole, black women face lack of education, underemployment, poverty, racism, disease and isolation. Survival itself seems miraculous. It is no wonder that we praise black women by calling them strong.

Despite the significant challenges faced by women, black cultural vocabulary and collective memory have often understood black men as uniquely vulnerable to the violence of American racism. Dr. King's assassination is part of that story. Today, we often speak of endangered black men, point to the challenges facing black boys in public schools and rail against the prison industrial complex as a modern system of slavery.


While we must mobilize around the continued attacks against black men and boys, I worry that this particular formulation leaves little place for black women's brokenness and it can encourage us to silence black women's concerns. The assumption is that the "endangered black man" needs the "strong black woman" to protect the community in his absence. But what are the costs to black women?

The strong black woman must confront all the challenges, persevere against the impossible, provide unlimited encouragement and always be prepared to do what needs to be done for her family and her people. She must be sacrificial and suppress her own emotional needs while anticipating those of others. She must have an irrepressible spirit unbroken by a legacy of oppression, poverty and rejection.


My point is not that black women actually are stronger than any other group of women, but that the idea that black women are strong and that they need to be and should be is an imperative. Strength is a kind of racial rule for black women. To be a real black woman, you have to be a strong black woman.

I have spent the last several years studying how the strong black woman ideal has real and measurable consequences for the mental and physical health of individual black women.


The imperative of the strong black woman icon generates a set of expectations that black women aspire to achieve. When the material realities of black women's lives militate against the mythical of unwavering strength, the resulting sense of failure and disillusionment has real effects on their emotional and physical well being.

There are political consequences too. Seeking to sustain their position as backbones of communities and pillars of strength, African-American women too rarely demand the resources to meet their needs. Areas where black women have the most personal and critical needs are often the places where black politics is silent.


We rarely discuss black women's incarceration and its effects on families. We don't know what to do about black women's accelerating deaths from HIV-AIDS. We are completely silent about the sexual victimization that so many black girls and women endure.

As sisters pick up the broken pieces left behind when black men are ripped from communities, they find themselves struggling at the intersection of many forms of marginalization.


So it is hard. When I look into Coretta's face in that photo I am proud of her. I know that she will take on the burdens of family and of movement with everything in her.

But I am also so sad for her. I know that black women's political labor often leaves them less mentally and physically well. I know that there are few places where a black woman can weep and be comforted; few places where she can be broken and find help; few places where her voice maters much to others.


I believe the challenge is to create a new political legacy that acknowledges black men's vulnerability without ignoring black women's needs. We must give voice to the attack on brothers without silencing sisters. We must not be seduced into believing that patriarchy will save us.

Melissa Harris-Lacewell is an associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University.

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