Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
~ “Mother to Son”, Langston Hughes, 1922
The original title for Lorainne Hansberry’s seminal play, A Raisin in the Sun was “The Crystal Stair”. Though both titles come from the works of Langston Hughes, the change tells you how the focus of A Raisin in the Sun shifted from Lena Younger, the mother, to her son, Walter Lee. Despite this shift, one of the most enduring tropes from Hansberry’s play is the idea of the “strong, Black woman”. Recreated, imitated, parodied, the idea of the strong, Black woman has become an inescapable archetype. A Black woman climbing over torn boards, bare concrete, hands and feet rubbed raw to move those she loves to a place of prosperity. And just like Hansberry and Hughes describe, she is never daunted and often silent.
This Oscar season, Viola Davis and Ruth Negga are up for honors for their stunning performances in Fences and Loving, respectively, and both embody the trope of the strong, Black woman. But their characters, one based on a fictitious every (Black) woman and one based on a real-life woman whose Supreme Court case changed the course of history, manage to illuminate the worth of those women with nuance and care.
Not long before her death in 2008, Mildred Loving was asked about her husband Richard who’d passed about 30 years before her. She simply said, “I miss him. He took care of me.”
When the movie Loving begins, Mildred and her husband are about to be wed. Richard takes her to D.C. and they’re married in a courthouse, and they return to Virginia, where their marriage is considered unlawful by the state. When they are harassed by police, Mildred’s sister even accuses Richard of purposefully getting married in D.C. knowing that they’d be forced to leave. And leave they do, moving further north to raise their family in peace.
Before that move, much of the film is focused on Richard. He has plans to build Mildred a house on land he’s purchased near where they grew up. Richard made the arrangements for their wedding and he even moves in with Mildred’s family. When they are arrested, he tries to get Mildred out of prison. His character, played by Joel Edgerton, is clearly defined. Richard Loving loves clumsily but he loves fully. Mildred, played by Ruth Negga, initially feels like she is just along for the ride. But after they move to D.C. you can see the determination crystalize in Negga’s character. Through little dialogue, Negga illustrates Mildred’s strength. It is evident that Mildred wants to go home and she is going to make it happen. As she watches the Civil Rights Movement begin to take hold, she realizes that their story is a part of the larger movement. It’s Mildred who writes to the ACLU to tell them about their situation and Mildred who sets the appointment and puts on her best dress to meet a lawyer. And when one of their sons is hit by a car while playing in the street, Mildred is waiting silently with their bags packed when her husband comes home because her kids are going to have fields to play in rather than streets and alleys.
As Loving goes on, both Mildred and Richard are thrust into an uncomfortable spotlight, which Richard often shuns, but Mildred sees this as the means to an end. She is supportive and dutiful and fierce. When she is silent, it’s not because she is finding the will to put aside her pain but rather because she is gathering her strength for the fight. Too often the term “strong, Black woman” is used dismissively or to negate the very real pain that Black women endure as part of their existence, but here Negga flips that trope on its head. Mildred is strong because she must be, but every action she takes to show the world that her love is valid, clearly demonstrates that she should not have to go through this injustice just to love her husband and raise her children. It is those moments; when Mildred contacts the ACLU, when she invites the cameras into her home to document their love, that Negga’s quiet power becomes a potent protest of what we’ve been led to think of when we hear the words strong, Black woman. Though Mildred thinks that it is Richard who took care of her, what we come to see is how they took care of each other.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
My mother has had the same container in our bathroom since we lived in a one bedroom apartment in the projects. It’s a dual dish that holds cotton balls on one side and Q-tips on the other. Even though she now lives in a two-story, three-bedroom house, that reminder of my single mother and I living together in a one bedroom apartment endures in cracked dish, holding cotton balls and Q-tips. As Viola Davis’s character, Rose Maxon, shuffles around her kitchen in Fences, I’m reminded that place holds memory. Most of Fences takes place in the Maxon’s backyard or Rose’s kitchen. For the Maxons, those spaces are the center of their lives and Rose is trying desperately to hold that center.
Wilson wrote Fences in 1983, more than 30 years after Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Like A Raisin in the Sun, the focus of Fences is the male character, Troy Maxon, a blue-collar worker who once had dreams of being a baseball player, and now works to keep his family afloat and wants his son to have a better life than he did. While accepting numerous awards for her performance as Rose, Viola Davis has thanked Wilson for writing Fences and elevating the often unseen undereducated, blue-collar Black man. As she said “[This man] had a story, and it deserved to be told, and August Wilson told it.” Davis is right. Wilson took the man who cleans your office, fixes your plumbing and delivers your goods and put him front and center. He honored that man’s voice and showed his flaws. But what struck me about Fences was that Wilson took a trope 30 years in the making and said, Rose will be more than that.
So much of what defines the strong, Black woman archetype, is what she gives up. She siphons off pieces of herself to uplift her family. In the beginning of Fences, Rose is the ultimate uplifter. She has made herself small and quiet so that Troy can be his boisterous, loud self. So that his glory days can still live on in the backyard which has become his world. Rose is the buffer between her son’s dreams and Troy’s disappointments. She gives and gives to preserve her home. Then, Troy detonates a bomb in their lives; he’s been cheating on Rose, his mistress is pregnant, and he refuses to stop seeing her. In the now ubiquitous scene where Troy confesses his infidelity and says he feels like he’s been standing still for years.
Rose shoots back, “Well I’ve been standing here with you! … I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot as you.”
That line, delivered by Davis with an emotion and depth that frankly took my breath away, is the moment when Rose’s character changes. It’s the moment when she stops simply giving away pieces of herself to this man.
While on Bravo’s Inside the Actor’s Studio Viola Davis said that Rose realizes by the end of the play that she has slowly been giving up pieces of herself for her family … and she didn’t have to. That encapsulates how Rose transcends this archetype. It’s the strength she gathers to put her foot down and tell Troy that she will raise his motherless child but she will not be his woman anymore. It’s that same strength that has led to Black women becoming the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs and entering higher education at a greater number than any other group. Davis articulates that shift in the Black female consciousness that no longer equates strength with what you should sacrifice and rather discovers strength in what you can gain when prioritizing yourself. When Rose says, “What about my life?”, it is a profound transference. Though Rose is speaking to Troy she is also giving herself the permission to ask herself the same question. By the end of the film, Rose has claimed her space in the world.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
I watched Fences on a cold, rainy Sunday after catching up with my friend, another Black woman, about our lives. We talked about everything from family and relationships to politics and Blackness. We walked into the theater not expecting to see some of the things we’d just discussed about our own lives, played out onscreen. After the film, we sat silently in the car for a minute. We took a deep breath, and moved on.
Loving and Fences are still playing in select theaters. Loving is also currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Fences will be released on digital platforms February 24th