This is Us (NBC): Strong Black Woman Syndrome

This Is Us: Season 3, Episode 13: “Our Little Island Girl”

After 49 episodes and 3 ½ seasons of This is Us, Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson) gets a long overdue backstory (and the entire hour of the show). Beth’s story is told, in classic This is Us fashion, via flashback and present day. In the flashback scenes, we learn that Beth’s mother Carol (the one and only Phylicia Rashad) literally snatches teenage Beth’s dream of being a professional ballerina right out of her hands. Carol forces her to take a traditional, corporate route so that Beth can live a “safe” life.

Beth Pearson (Susan Kalechi Watson) Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Via flashback, we see that Child Beth (Akira Akbar), “the child who could dance before she could walk,” dreams only of dance. Beth applies to a prestigious ballet school behind her parents’ back. She gets accepted much to their surprise. Her Jamaican father, Abe (Carl Lumbly), is 100% behind “our little island girl’s” dreams and is willing to work overtime to pay for her training. Mom is not having it. Dance is not practical. Carol is a pragmatic woman and does not believe Beth can ever be a principal ballerina. Abe is convinced, so Carol goes along with what he wants.

Vincent Kelly (Goran Visnjic) and Young Beth (Akira Akbar)
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Fast forward to teenage Beth (Rachel Hilson). Her dance teacher Vincent Kelly (Goran Visnjic) tells her she no longer has a dancer’s body and that she must work ten times harder. Then Mr. Kelly brings in a new dancer. She is also black and built like a teenage brickhouse. (This girl did not have a ballerina body. I think Mr. Kelly just gave up on Beth.)

Teen Beth (Rachel Hilson) Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Concurrently, Beth is told her father is dying of lung cancer. Beth blames herself for her father’s illness because he worked so hard to pay for her dance training. He dies while she is competition for the lead in Swan Lake. After Abe’s death, Beth discovers she did not get the lead. That’s when Carol swoops in and says, “You are never going to be a professional dancer. I’m not going to pay for dance academy anymore. By the way, here’s a list of colleges. Pick one.”

Back in the present day, Beth and her cousin Zoe (Melanie Liburd) travel to Washington, DC to convince Carol to retire from her high school principal duties after she is injured. Mom shoots down retirement quick, fast, and in a hurry.

Beth, Carol (Phylicia Rashad), Zoe (Melanie Liburd) Ron Batzdorff/NBC

While visiting her mother, Beth has a moment with her father’s memory. She’s afraid she has forgotten the dreamer and dancer side of herself. “I can’t be me without you. How could I be?” she tells his empty chair. Abe was her dreamer, her faith, her promise, her believer. Without her dad, Beth has abdicated the role of Dreamer to her husband Randall, who is a man of faith, passion, and big dreams.

Beth finally confronts her mother at 3:00 a.m. Carol can’t sleep. All she wants to do is help a laid-off Beth find a new job. Beth says neither she nor her siblings can breathe around her. There’s no air. Carol says, “I promised my mother I’d push my kids as hard as she pushed me. At least I know you all are okay.” “No. I am not okay, “Beth says. “You took away my dream.” And we find out no one was allowed to grieve Abe’s death. The family just moved on like it never happened.

The next morning, Carol tells Beth that her own father didn’t think girls should be educated. Her mom felt different and pushed Carol toward excellence. Carol pushed so hard that once while she was in college, Abe literally fed her because she wouldn’t stop studying. Abe was Carol’s emotional counterbalance. Without him, her air was gone too. She admits she took dance away from Beth too quickly.

Beth and Carol
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

At the end, Beth decides she wants to be a dance teacher. Carol goes back to work using a walker (surprise).

Everything in Carol Clarke’s being is Strong Black Woman. Emotionally stoic. Distant. Forever suffering. The family rock. The disciplinarian. Handling her business. Always in control.

Big Mama and Carol focused only on their children’s education and professional development because they felt that was the only choice they had. Being a person of African descent in the United States can be dangerous. Being “strong” is necessary because you never know when you’ll be attacked, shot, raped, or killed because of your race. But being “strong” is not the same as being “safe.”

Beth breaks free of the Strong Black Woman persona by pursuing her professional dance dreams. She’s still a wife and mother. She’s also creative and needs to express that side of her.

I still got it!
Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Hallelujah is all I have to say. Beth has broken a multi-generational belief and set herself free. A huge thumbs up for a quality hour of black women on television and to episode writer Eboni Freeman.

This is Us airs Tuesdays at 9:00 pm EST. New episodes return March 5th.