Everyone called her "Big Mary," my grandmother who was only 5 feet tall and about 110 pounds.

She was one of the strongest, most independent black women I've known.

Big Mary was the matriarch of the family; my father's mother. Angry grown men simmered down when Big Mary spoke.

She was not afraid of anyone -- not intrusive insurance men, not young men arguing, not sneaky little grandkids who took puffs on her pipe as she nodded in her rocking chair.

But she was God-fearing, loving, nurturing and always encouraged you to do your best.

She prided herself on doing things well. As a domestic worker, she would show us how to wash dishes correctly. Wash the forks prong by prong, she would say. (Lord, if she could see my kitchen now.)

She was a role model -- with little education but lots of wisdom.

I have tapped into her strength over the years as her oldest grandchild, a girl to help raise my sisters and brothers; the first person in my family to go to college; and a career woman living single.

Lives of black women

Following a recent survey by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, a spotlight is on the lives of black women -- who they are, their strengths and vulnerabilities.

While I never set out to remain single, my parents and grandmother always told us to get an education and learn how to do things for yourself because a man might not be there to help you.

Valinda Littlefield, the University of South Carolina's director of African American Studies, said many black women in their 40s, 50s and 60s were taught early to be strong, get an education, prepare for the future and not wait for a man to "complete you."

Littlefield grew up among strong women, especially her grandmother and great-grandmother, who instilled a need to get an education and lead a fulfilling life.

Littlefield has been married for 24 years. She said women were taught that it is good to have a spouse, but he is not necessary to have a good life.

She said black women are interested in romance, but "we are realists. We are competing with the number of men in jail, leaving a shallow pool." If romance and marriage do not happen, "your life is still worthwhile."

Education as protection

Historically, she said, black women were pushed to get an education so they could get away from domestic work and the possibility of being raped and sexually harassed. It was many parents' way of protecting their girls.

Conseula Francis, director of the College of Charleston's African-American studies program, said black women generally feel good about themselves and optimistic about their futures. She does.

However, there are a lot of pressures: "the pressure to perform, the pressure to live up to expectations, the pressure to lift others up. I think we grossly underestimate the damaging effects of that kind of pressure."

Littlefield encourages women to take time for themselves. Go to places like Duke Gardens in North Carolina, where she grew up, or a nearby park and spend time by yourself, read a book.

To alleviate stress, she said, spend time with like-minded women. Go away for a weekend or a week.

Both agree that religion is important to black women. Littlefield's husband told her she is happier when she comes home from church.

Church provides that "supportive armor. I get reaffirmed, that I am important. I can make a difference, and I am here for a purpose."

As for being an "angry black woman," well, "we have a lot to be angry about," Littlefield said. However, because of that image, "you have to put a spin on things, put another face on it. It's frustrating."

She said if you say too much, you are dismissed as an "angry black woman."

Bernard E. Powers Jr., C of C history professor, said women noted in the survey that it is a good time to be black, yet they are still dealing with racial stereotypes.

If Michelle Obama, as first lady, is stereotyped as an "angry black woman" because she is strong and independent, then certainly the average woman deals with it.

(Everyone remembers S.C. GOP activist Rusty DePass' Facebook comment likening the first lady to a gorilla.)

Culturally and historically, women are the churchgoers who set the standards and values for the home, the children, the men and the black race as a whole. And men aspire to protect them, Powers said.

"If you denigrate women, you have tarred and feathered the whole race. If you say that women are damaged goods, then you have said that the men are no good."

Racism "is still alive and well," Littlefield said.

She points to the January confrontation between the president and Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. She would never have pointed her finger at George W. Bush or Bill Clinton or any other president.

Culturally, you never point your finger in someone's face.

"It's a hot-button issue. It says you are treating someone like a child, that you think they are inferior."

Littlefield said she and her girlfriends joke that Brewer "had better be glad it was not Michelle."

Patricia Williams Lessane, executive director of C of C's Avery Research Center, said she identifies with several aspects of the Post/Kaiser survey, "especially feeling like you have to work hard to beat the stereotypes about black women; feeling like no matter how hard you work and how good you are at your job, that it is never taken as seriously as the work of your white counterparts, especially if your work revolves around African-American culture."

Lessane said black women also worry about not being able to pay for their children's college education and stress about work and home -- and juggling the two.

Reach City Editor Shirley A. Greene at 937-5555 or sgreene@postandcourier.com.