Self-narratives--the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives that connect personally significant events in the past with our present and future experiences--are a crucial factor in our ability to shape our direction in life, and enable us to achive the goals that we have identified as important and valuable for ourselves. Such narratives--ranging from the story of how our parents met to our first day of school to the senior prom--shape our perception of the world in which we live, and shape our responses to the people that we encounter, as well as shaping our sense of identity.
Perhaps most importantly, the stories we tell ourselves about our lives shape our perceived self-efficacy: our belief about our capacity to achieve, perform, and exercise influence over the events that affect our lives and the lives of others.
Self-efficacy is not only experienced on an individual level--it is also experienced collectively. Entire groups often share a perceived self-efficacy--or, as in the case of many black Americans, a lack thereof. Black Americans have been encouraged to view themselves as a monolith: a collective beset by crime, poverty, immorality, and failure. Any black individual or group of individuals who reject this mentality are subject to mockery for refusing to face "reality," which we are informed repeatedly consists of little more than a whole cloth of pathology--exceptions to the rule purportedly only serve to further prove it.
For black women, the narrative that we are fed combines heavy doses of self-flagellation and unending obligation, and always circles back to the same sad conclusion: we are always somehow "lagging behind." We used to be lazy and welfare dependant; now we are overworked spinsters, robbing black men of the jobs and opportunities that rightly belong to them. Our dark skin, full lips and and curvaceous figures used to be revolting; now that other women openly covet these features, we are simply all obese. We are both failing in our responsibility to unstintingly support the "brothas" in their (of course) infinitely more important and more difficult struggles, and simultaneously enabling those same "brothas" in dysfunction, by embracing thuggery and irresponsible babydaddyhood. As Alice Walker noted in her book of essays, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens:
During the sixties my own work was often dismissed by black reviewers "becuase of my life style," a euphemism for my interracial marriage. At black literature conferences it would be examined fleetingly if at all, in light of this "traitorous" union, by critics who were themselves interracially married, and who, moreover, hung on every word from Richard Wright, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, John A. Williams, and LeRoi Jones (to name a few) all of whom were at some time in their lives interracially connected, either legally or in more casual ways. Clearly it was not interracialism itself that bothered the critics, but that I, a black woman, had dared to exercise the same prerogative as they. While it is fine for black men to embrace other black men, black women, white women and white men in intimate relationships, the black woman, to be accepted as a black woman must prefer being alone to the risk of enjoying "the wrong choice." This means, I think, what the first dismissal meant: that I am a black woman. Something is always wrong with us.
Many visitors to other blogs, who see the terms "mammy" or "mule" used to describe the self-negating black women who have wholeheartedly embraced the "something is always wrong with us" narrative, find such usages offensive--but what is a mammy but someone who places her master's needs above her own? What is a mule but a beast of burden, who staggers to support others as her own spirit flags? These are not pejoratives, they are descriptors. And as with any form of oppression, BW are restricted to mammy/mulehood not through explicit force, but through the perpetuation of self-destructive narratives, repeating loops of negative reinforcement in which BW tell themselves that they have no choice but to accept less than the best in life, that they are cursed to "lag behind," that to see otherwise is to be "unrealistic."
Because the mammy/mule/DBR/"crisis" narrative is not merely a matter of optimism vs. pessimism, of seeing the glass half full or half empty. It is a matter of what you will dare to do with your life. It is matter of what you believe is possible. It is a matter of whether you can even conceive of change--because if you cannot first see within yourself the capacity to be better and have better, you stay stuck. "Failure" and "pathology" become self-fulfilling prophesies.