The Twelve Tribes of Hattie author Ayana Mathis
Photo: Michael Lionstar
1. The Choice to Be Strong and Weak
We tend to think that strength is [a] static, constant quality. We think that if somebody is strong, they are always strong. This comes up a lot with black women, especially. In books or on TV, we often see the portrait of the Strong Black Mother, an iron-willed figure who never suffers. This is a kind of stereotype, I think, and a limiting one.

Real strength is not the absence of weaknesses or fear. It’s not the absence of doubt or anger. Real strength includes all of these emotions. It’s when you’re afraid and risking something, not when you’re afraid or risking something. For example, the main character of my novel, Hattie, is deeply flawed. She’s afraid; she is wounded; she’s prone to fits of rage; she doesn’t necessarily understand how to raise her children, but no one would deny that she’s strong.

When you see someone as a person with no weakness, you deny her her full humanity. Nobody goes through life never being afraid, and never doubting, and never being angry.

2. The Choice About Algebra
When I was in high school, English came pretty naturally to me. Math, on the other hand, didn’t. My senior year, I was having trouble with elementary functions—which is some kind of advanced algebra—and basically I said, “I hate this; this is useless for my life; I really don’t need to be bothered.” I was in [a] very angry phase and instead of dealing with my difficulties, I told myself I was not interested.

So...I was failing the class. Luckily, I had an incredible AP English teacher, Ms. Johnson. One day she called me into her classroom and told me to close the door. “Look,” she said, “you need to get yourself together with your elementary functions or I will fail you in my class too.” “But you’re my English teacher,” I said. “You can’t fail me in math!” “I can and I will,” she said.

Ms. Johnson was an amazing woman but not somebody you wanted to mess around with. She scared the bejeebers out of me—so I started working on my math grade. It was a great lesson. Life isn’t only made up of the stuff we’re good at. At some point we have to decide to tackle the difficult and the trying or we’ll remain stuck. (By the end of the semester, I had pulled my grade up to a B.)

3. The Choice to Keep Going
In Catholicism, despair is considered a mortal sin (I’m not Catholic or necessarily Christian, but I read a lot of theology) because it implies that God is powerless to effect change. Religion aside, the concept is still a good metaphor. If you’re in a state where you think even the gods can’t help you, it’s very, very difficult to recover. True despair is an absolute and utter bleakness. This state is different than the various darknesses that most of us experience over time. It’s not just sadness or discouragement or even mild depression. Despair implies a kind of ultimate emptiness, something like a grave—its opposite is life. Triumph over despair is survival.

In my novel, Hattie enters into some very trying places. Her children die. There’s really not a darker place than that, but she chooses to keep going, to keep living, to be among that first generation of people who migrated North and raised their families.

Next: How little indulgences and brutal truths can strengthen you

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