Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Madness in Myth

Written by: on January 30, 2024

If I had to choose between fairy tales and myths, I’d go with fairies – supernatural elementals that wear just the right amount of glitter, and hypnotize with the hope of magic. The stories I am most drawn to are those that take me out of myself, away from the realities of living in my little part of the world.  I seek inspiration, tales that lift me up easy like fairy wings and carry me off into a forest of wonder. I know I must always return back to my daily “to do’s” and my mess of thoughts and feelings. Still, the break away feels like a mini-victory I can hold onto while doing and being.  

Myths, on the other hand, are a bit too – well – real.  Myths make me feel too much.  They connect on a deeper level, touching close to home.  The conflicts and struggles reflect my own, and can weigh down rather than lift my burdens.  Yet, this is what Joseph Campbell suggests is necessary to break through thresholds. “The problem of the hero is to pierce himself (and therewith his world) precisely through that point; to shatter and annihilate that key knot of his limited existence”[1]  

Campbell makes an interesting distinction between myth and fairy tale that gives some insight as to why I tend to shy away from myth. “Typically, the hero of the fairy tale achieves a domestic, microcosmic triumph, and the hero of myth a world historical, macrocosmic triumph.”[2] The levels of triumph in most fairy tales and myths are matched by equitable levels of defeat, but the defeat in myth can stir up the darkness in me, or as it’s often referred to in today’s culture – it can be a trigger.  I suppose this is part of why myth is so powerful; it pokes at us, needles our subconscious, pushing us to ask critical questions when we see our reflection in the stories.

As I’m beginning my research into the health and wellness of Black women of faith in the nonprofit workplace, I think about the myth of the super strong Black woman. The story that created this myth is both historical and macrocosmic, built into the foundations of complex systems that stretch around the world. In America, this myth is detrimental to our health. For example, the myth suggests that Black women can take more pain than their white counterparts. This myth is backed up by research that finds false beliefs about biological differences between Blacks and Whites, “predict racial bias in pain perception and treatment recommendation accuracy.”[3] 

False beliefs like those found in the healthcare system are maddening, and are just one example of how Black women are the only heroines who are under constant threat of being defeated by their own myth.  Campbell invites me to consider the meaning behind such inequity.  “It has always been the prime function of mythology and rite to supply the symbols that carry the human spirit forward, in counteraction to those that tend to tie it back.”[4] I suppose finding a reason for why things are the way we are is somewhat comforting, but my spirit demands more than comfort. So long as this myth holds true so close to home, if Black women are to carry the human spirit forward, then we must claim a better balance of victory versus defeat while serving this prime function. 

The super-black woman myth is perpetuated in the real world in subtle ways. For example, “You’re so resilient!” should  feel like a supportive affirmation. For me, it feels like a set up.  This is poignantly expressed in flyers that were posted all around New Orleans during the recovery following Hurricane Katrina. The posters quoted Tracie L. Washington who served as co-director at the Louisiana Justice Institute in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. “Stop calling me resilient. Because every time you say, ‘Oh they’re resilient.’ That means you can do something else to me.”  

In an interview on MSNBC, she explains further. “We weren’t born to be resilient.  We were conditioned to be resilient.”[5]  If I lived in a faerie forest, where the cycle of resilience was untouched and allowed to grow as designed, I would appreciate these words as a compliment.  But myth steals that warm, natural, divinely ordained place and shoves us out into the cold, unnatural world where we are conditioned to be super strong if we want to survive. For me, this challenge is mitigated through scripture, (Romans 12:2, John 15:19.) When faced with yet another “something else” it is God’s word that soothes my anger in response to the world’s expectation that I match the myth.

Despite how this myth harms, we are formed by the expectation of meeting the mythological standards. As a result, we are stronger. We’re burned out, mad, and riddled with dis-ease, but according to Campbell, we are placed in a unique position to break free. “Once we have broken free of the prejudices of our own provincially limited ecclesiastical, tribal, or national rendition of the world archetypes, it becomes possible to understand that the supreme initiation is not that of the local motherly fathers, who then project aggression onto the neighbors for their own defense. The good news, which the World Redeemer brings and which so many have been glad to hear, zealous to preach, but reluctant, apparently, to demonstrate, is that God is love, that He can be, and is to be, loved, and that all without exception are his children.”[6] As I live this myth, there may be moments when these words feel like too much glitter, but at the moment they offer a glimmer of hope that my offering to the body of research might help transform the narrative of the super Black woman, so that the heroine doesn’t just survive her story but thrives in it.  Her mission: to confront the myth and break through its limits.  Some might accuse me of fairy tale thinking, but hey, a Black girl’s gotta’ dream. 

[1] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kelly M. Hoffman, Sophie Trawalter, Jordan R. Axt, and M. Norman Oliver, “Racial Bias in Pain Assessment and Treatment Recommendations, and False Beliefs about Biological Differences between Blacks and Whites,” The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 113 (April 19, 2016): 4296–4301.

[4] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949).

[5] Melissa Harris-Perry, “Unequal Recovery for Those in New Orleans,” MSNBC, https://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/watch/unequal-recovery-for-those-in-new-orleans-515724355991.

[6] Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949).

About the Author

Erica Briggs

11 responses to “The Madness in Myth”

  1. Christy Liner says:


    What a thought provoking post – thank you.

    I’ve not previously considered a person’s resiliency as a license to inflict more harm. This is indeed a symptom of the broken world we live in.

    Thank you for confronting this myth and praying for you as you break through its limits.

  2. Adam Cheney says:

    Campbell mentioned that the hero often has people supporting him along the way. People who give him the advice he needs at just the right time or who help him struggle through the specific challenge he is in. Who are those people in the Black woman’s life? Who is helping them break through the barriers. Do you feel that Campbell’s monomyth incorporates Black women? Or is it more detailed towards white men?

    • Erica Briggs says:

      I can’t speak for all Black women, but for me it is definitely other Black women. I’ve also been guided by complete strangers. In fact, some of the most powerful advice, comfort, affirmation came from transient interactions – while waiting at the airport or standing in line at the coffee shop.

      Campbell does place women in the background of his work. In her book, “The Heroine With 1,001 Faces,” Maria Tatar is “stirring what J.R.R. Tolkien once called the ‘cauldron of story’ in search of the girls and women, some silenced and some forgotten…” [1]

      [1] https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/22/books/maria-tatar-heroine-with-1001-faces.html

  3. Debbie Owen says:

    Erica, what a totally new understanding of the meaning of “resilience”. I’m going to have to meditate on that for a while. I suppose it depends on the context, but now that you mention it, I can see it as a way to continue to put someone down.

    How do you think about resilience as a coping strategy for the ups and downs of life in general though? I think that when I confront something challenging I want to find reserves within myself, I want to be resilient. I don’t want to feel like I’m unable to get up off the floor.

    Is it OK to think of myself as resilient, but I don’t want “them” (a particular group) to think of me as resilient? What do you think?

    • Erica Briggs says:

      You’re right that this is largely contextual and not necessarily tied to the individual but rather the collective demographic to which the individual connects. The myth itself is a macro, culturally constructed narrative that ties to me as an individual. It says, “Those people are resilient, they can handle it,” and thus more is added with the expectation that they’ll just deal with like they always do because they’re resilient. It is somewhat of a contradiction: yes, I am resilient, but that doesn’t mean I should be expected to handle a heavier load, or suffer more, or tolerate a greater pain threshold. Yet, that is what this myth creates – an inequitable expectation that we rise to carry more just because we have historically shown that we can.

  4. Chad Warren says:

    Erica, your blog has challenged me. Being a white male from Northern Montana, I cannot relate to the struggles you describe, but what you wrote is incredibly illuminating! You have given me just a glimpse into your experience, and I can feel frustration welling up inside. Thank you for shedding light on the myth of the “Super Black Woman” and its harmful impact. Is this myth easily identified by others in your community and equally frustrating? How do you think this will be received by those in the broader healthcare community?

    • Erica Briggs says:

      This myth is familiar to people in the community; how each feels or responds to the impact is diverse, some managing better than others. I’m curious to learn what factors influence how it felt and managed, for better or worse.

  5. Julie O'Hara says:

    Erica, Thank you for exposing the myth of the super Black woman – you have been a guide today. Can you share any practices you’ve found helpful in personally resisting this myth?

    • Erica Briggs says:

      That’s a great question. Honestly, I don’t think I practice resistance – it doesn’t feel like an option. The expectation to rise, regardless of the struggles, is too powerful. The call of my ancestors who carried an even greater burden whisper “you must prevail.” I feel a sense of obligation; I do it out of respect for those before me, while also feeling resentment towards the systems that create the need to become the myth. I’ll have to think more about ways I might be practicing resistance to the latter while honoring the former.

  6. mm Kari says:

    This was a thought-provoking post, Erica. You mention the idea that “the heroine doesn’t just survive her story but thrives in it.” This reminds me of Camacho’s idea of each person needing to find their sweet spot where they are thriving in who God created them to be. What is something you have found has helped you thrive in spite of this myth?

    • Erica Briggs says:

      I go to nature. The trees don’t care “what” I am. The birds sing without concern of my socially constructed identity. In the natural world, I can “just be.” This freedom feeds me, and when I am full I can return to the chaos of battle with a piece of peace and order that comforts and soothes the rough, raw edges of the world.

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