BOOK REVIEW: ‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women’ By Inger Burnett-Zeigler | 2021 | Hardcover, $25 | Nonfiction, psychology | Available at the Seattle Public Library
In “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen: The Emotional Lives of Black Women,” Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a licensed clinical psychologist, provides a route through the trials and tribulations of being a Black woman in today’s society. Although Black women in America are often talked about as being strong, dependable and unbreakable, that perception has contributed to their deteriorating mental and physical health. Black women are both the highest-educated demographic in the United States and generally underpaid and undervalued in both the workplace and society at large.
Burnett-Zeigler does a good job of taking the reader through these different struggles. She discusses how Black women deal with racialized sexism — called misogynoir — and the way these difficult experiences manifest in Black women. This could be high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
As a Black woman who feels the same pressures that Burnett-Zeigler discusses, there were moments in “Nobody Knows” that spoke deeply to me. Particularly, I felt validated when she discussed the common Black woman’s desire to be seen and loved in a society that places Black women on the bottom of the desirable hierarchy (2014 user data from the dating site OKCupid is often cited in this), the pressures to perform beyond our job descriptions in the workplace for fear of being seen as the problematic worker and the adultification of Black girls. Although self-help is a lucrative industry, “Nobody Knows” is the first book in the genre I’ve read that speaks closer to what I’ve been through.
However, it is not without its flaws. In the 234 pages of the book, queerness wasn’t acknowledged until page 215. This book — like many self-help books — comes from a very cis-heteronormative and Christian background. “Nobody Knows” had the opportunity to be truly inclusive of Black women’s experiences but instead fell flat.
Because the good portions of “Nobody Knows” were so good, the exclusion of queer and trans women was stark on the page. When Burnett-Zeigler talks about relationships, the partners are always referred to as men and with he/him pronouns. Any good editor could have changed these words to be gender-neutral. Instead, it feels like she doesn’t deem queer relationships valid or real.
Burnett-Zeigler also consistently positions the Church as a welcoming, safe and standard place in the Black community. The elephant in the room is that although the Black church can be a wonderful place for the community and activism and for many people to find a home, it is not like that for everyone. The church, across all denominations and racial backgrounds, has also been known to house abusers, promote the patriarchy and lobby against social progression. Burnett-Zeigler is uncritical of this history, discussing the benefits of prayer and saying, “God always finds a way.” She talks about the healing of church and prayer when dealing with trauma but ignores those who have trauma from church.
In this way, Burnett-Zeigler doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Black people can be from any religious background and that many people associate Christianity with colonization and slavery. There are Black Muslims, Black Jews, Black Buddhists and a growing movement of Black people returning to their ancestral worship, such as the Orisha. But, instead, Burnett-Zeigler is largely uncritical of her look at Christianity and its relationship to Blackness.
Since this book advertises itself as a guide for Black women who are tired of always having to be the “Strong Black Woman,” this oversight is demoralizing. I found myself believing I wasn’t part of the desired audience, not really. I am a strong Black woman, but according to Burnett-Zeigler, do I qualify as the “standard” Black woman? I do not expect a cisgender, heterosexual Christian woman to speak directly to my experiences of her in the world, but I do expect to be acknowledged.
In terms of searching for a therapist, it is often joked about in Black spaces that you can pick two out of three options: is Black, takes your insurance, or isn’t Christian. I myself picked two of the three. As a psychologist, Burnett-Zeigler shows why this attitude is so pervasive. While I am glad that Christian patients can have a satisfying faith-based experience, that may not be the case for the rest of us.
“Nobody Knows” has significant merit if you know going into it that there is a very uncritical Christian stance and a lack of queer representation. I cherry-picked the parts of it that I found useful; this line, in particular, stood out to me:
“Society puts pressure on us to be everything to everybody – and we accept the charge. … We fight tooth and nail to defy the negative expectations people have of us and to prove our worth. And yet, it seems like it’s never enough.”
This could not be clearer watching Kentaji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings with Congress and seeing men like Sens. Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz look for any chink in Brown Jackson’s armor, despite their previous willingness to rush through Amy Coney Barett’s own confirmation hearings. Brown Jackson is the embodiment of a strong Black woman: she is more qualified than her colleagues but still put through more hearings so she can be examined as if under a microscope.
Black women are either villainized or idolized, often at the same time. With the external societal pressure, it is very difficult as a Black woman to simply exist, rather than always presenting ourselves as some near-magical being. Whenever we walk into a room, there is a political component. “Nobody Knows” is an attempt to chip away at that immense pressure we place on ourselves to meet this impossible standard of being simultaneously strong, quiet, vocal and respectful.
Confronting the misogynoir that exists in the world can feel overwhelmingly heavy, from my personal experience. “Nobody Knows” has value in showing that at least somebody knows that Black women are not alone in our experiences in the world, even if Burnett-Zeigler hasn’t included the full richness and beauty of the ways we walk in the world.
I would also suggest:
• “Black Queer Hoe” by Britteney Black Rose Kapri
• The documentary “Surviving R. Kelly”
• “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome” by Dr. Joy DeGruy