Letting Black Girls Be Weak and Warriors at the Same Time

Black women have not had permission to be both. We need to be seen for all of who we are.

Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images

FFor a nine-year-old girl, Deborah had a very sharp and opinionated mind. She was curious and perceptive, yet also quite innocent. About a week prior to Deborah’s ninth birthday, her mother brought her to see me for counseling. She wanted Deborah to have someone to share her inquisitive thoughts with outside of her family and friends.

In the time we’d been seeing one another, Deborah and I talked about many things. She often described school as her “happy place.” One could feel the warmth of her big, bright smile when she talked about her friends and her classes. At school she felt safe, con­trary to what she described as feeling trapped at home.

She lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment with her mother and her mother’s boy­friend, who was recently released from jail after two years. Before he returned, Deborah slept in a room with her mother, which she loved because of how close she felt to her mother physically and emotionally. Now she slept in the living room on their big, dusty, brown couch, which she described as old and worn. The middle dipped low when she lay on the couch and she often awoke with her back aching, but her mother thought Deborah was being dramatic when she complained about it.

Deborah’s grievances indicated she felt distance between herself and her mother and no longer had a sense of security and safety at home. Deborah’s mother was usually tired from working most of the day to support herself, her daughter, and her boyfriend. It had been six months since her mother’s boyfriend had moved in, and Deborah didn’t feel comfortable with him in her home. When she told her mother this, her words fell on deaf ears, just like all her other complaints did. Her mother thought Deborah was jealous but also believed Deborah would adjust to the situation eventually.

Deborah had a black-and-white-marbled composition notebook she used as her journal. She didn’t structure her thoughts in a partic­ular way, filling the notebook mostly with pencil-drawn pictures and poems. Knowing these were her private thoughts, I told Deborah she did not have to read them to me. Sometimes, she would bring the journal and have it idly on the desk. Other times, she wanted to read her thoughts from the past week. One day as she read, I glanced into the notebook and saw a picture she’d drawn, but I couldn’t quite make out who or what it was.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Embarrassed, she tried to hide it, but I promised I wouldn’t judge anything she drew or wrote. When she showed me the picture more closely, I was horrified. It was a picture of a girl with a gun to her head and the words “What’s the point? No one cares.” Something inside of me knew Deborah was the little girl. I asked her about the picture, and she said it was an old drawing. Upon seeing the concerned look on my face, she tried to reassure me she’d just been having a bad day when she’d drawn it.

“Why did God make me a warrior when I’m really just weak?”

We sat in silence for a moment while I tried to gather words. Deborah seemed more concerned with my reaction than the actual drawing, and I sensed she didn’t want me to worry. When I finally found the words, I tried my hardest to impress to her that her life was important and that although things were diffi­cult, people loved and cared for her. I also told her she had a life with purpose just like everyone else and God hadn’t made a mistake when creating her. She paused to think about my words and then desper­ately asked one of the most profound questions I’d ever heard.

“Why did God make me a warrior when I’m really just weak?”

I’d explained to Deborah that we would journey through life’s ques­tions during our time together. I’d warned I wouldn’t always have the answers, but we would do our best to find them. This was a time I had no answer.

As our session for that particular day ended, I promised we would revisit her question the next time, which would be the following week. As the intervening days passed, I grappled with her question, unable to get it out of my head.

I was also ashamed to admit I had been in that exact theological crisis more times than I could count. Why did God make me a warrior, when I, just like Deborah, was simply a weak human being?

Numerous challenging moments in my life have led me to question my abilities. When I would outwardly struggle, people would quote, “He will not let you be tempted beyond your ability” (1 Corinthians 10:13). However, my abilities felt like failures. It was — and still is — hard to admit to feeling this weakness, even though I had been in leadership positions before where I had to portray strength. I realized a nine-year-old could articulate one of life’s important questions in a way that I never could.

Nevertheless, I knew I’d have to tell Deborah something more than typical, “You’re not weak — don’t say that. You’re brave and strong.” Why did we respond with this comforting platitude even though it was not the truth for most of us?

A week later, I went to our next session with the intention to pick up where we left off. I waited for her nervously and quietly. Deborah walked into the sparsely decorated room and sat across from me at our usual table. I couldn’t tell if she looked tired because of a long day at school or because of her sleepless nights on her couch at home. I told her I had been thinking about her question all week and I finally had an answer.

As I looked into the face of that troubled yet innocent nine-year-old little girl, I said, “Just because you are weak, doesn’t make you less than a warrior. Warriors can be weak.”

She might not have grasped the totality of that statement, but nevertheless, she looked relieved to know she could still be considered a warrior. Her weakness did not negate her strength.

IfIf our truest selves are not always strong, why do we place such emphasis and privilege on constantly embodying strength? This quandary is a theological and human in nature and one many Black women and girls especially have to face throughout their lives.

We are human; therefore, we are strong and weak. Many of us, particularly Black women and girls, have not been taught how to graciously give ourselves space to live with weakness. Weakness makes us acknowledge our inabilities and surrender to forces outside of ourselves for help. All of this contradicts our understandings of success and strength. We have difficulty seeing power in weakness.

Deborah’s struggles as a young Black girl wrestling with a per­ceived mantle of strength reminded me of similar struggles I’d had my entire life. While I marveled at Deborah’s courage to ask her question, I later realized I’d had to garner my own courage to respond, to admit warriors can be weak and that I can be weak. I, a strong, independent, Black woman, can also be vulnerable and fragile.

Black women have not had permission to be both. We need to be seen for all of who we are. I am proud of the strength in my DNA as a Black woman and warrior, yet I am also grateful for the grace that gives me space to be weak when I need to be.

Deborah made me confront my own weaknesses. I still don’t know why God created us to have both weakness and strength. However, as 1 Corinthians suggests, God uses the weak things of the world to shine a light of truth on the strong. God chose to become incarnate in the weakness of Christ in order to present a powerful gospel of truth to the world. Weakness was the chosen one. Therefore, do not discount weakness. God resides with us in both our strength and our weakness; neither limits God.

From Parable of the Brown Girl: The Sacred Lives of Girls of Color by Khristi Lauren Adams. Reprinted by permission of Fortress Press. Copyright 2020 by Khristi Lauren Adams.

Author of “Parable of the Brown Girl.”