“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de Black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man to pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule of de world as fur as Ah can see.”
—Zora Neal Hurston
This prolific passage, penned by famed Harlem Renaissance writer and anthropologist, Zora Neale Hurston in 1937, aptly depicts present-day, public presentation of Black women through white eyes—as a monolithic collective lacking autonomy, except to serve the aims of the power structure that desperately needs our exploited labor in order to remain intact. The mule, an animal noted for its particularly terse workload, is assigned to Black women in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, as a socio-political observation of the racialized gendering of female Afro-descendants, whose nurtures the needs of others while disregarding her own. The passage speaks of an early 20th century metaphor, yet still applicable to Black women in the throes of political struggle in the millennium.
Such a characterization of the Black-woman-as-mule figure is the Mammy archetype, a racist trope created in the aftermath of slavery, while utilized in anti-Black literature, as well as minstrel shows. Mammy, boisterous, loud, and full-figured, was a warm shoulder whom whites turned to for maternal comfort—among other Black folks, she was terse and rough-around-the-edges, but emitted a sense of safety for white folks to turn to without complaint. Mammy’s only aspiration was to cater to the needs of her white masters. She wasn’t concerned with developing her own passions or developing her own talents in regards to her own liberation. Her sole existence was to meant to assuage white feelings and white fears, thus maintaining the social order of white supremacy. This minstrel archetype remains embedded in America’s subconscious, rather that dissipating.
Black women are compartmentalized in social and political life—either we are demonized or praised as political “saviors” of a nation. The latter, while seeming complimentary in comparison to the former depiction, is an outcome of a particularly vehement gendered-racist trope that positions Black women as subservient to the desires of a white majority—a majority which refuse to acknowledge us as a collective with a myriad of our own interests for liberation, deplete of socio-political agency outside maintaining the illusion of democracy within American political institutions. While liberal white folks publicly assail us with gratitude, they routinely disregard our pleas for liberation struggle that would ensure our survival, while exploiting our labor.
Most frustrating is the hesitancy of white liberals to support more radical liberation struggles that center Black women, as opposed to merely voicing their indebtedness to us. While Black women are hailed as the Democratic Party’s most “loyal” base, fewer place their absolute faith in the party, signaling a change in how they viewed the political group represents their interests. Black women’s more radical political activities outside of mainstream progressive politics are met with less support from liberal whites; various grassroots organizations led by Black cis and trans women challenging the prison industrial complex, policing, neocolonialism, gentrification, the-school-to-prison-pipeline, the criminalization of sex work, and poverty are rarely met with the same enthusiasm in terms of receiving wide-spread white liberal support. Such neglect of revolutionary organizations run by Black women suggest that the only resources wider communities support are the ones where Black women are directly assisting in campaigns that benefit them, not us.
Centering Black women in liberation struggle is not merely giving us empty praises. We are in a world where rampant capitalism is seeking every possibly avenue to erode our autonomy. Resources are needed in order to ensure our survival. Employment is a must in order to keep a roof over our heads before we consider which candidate we’re voting for. No longer content playing political pawns, we are among the most politically radical, forward-thinking population content on challenging the world with our creativity, brilliant theories, and bold actions. No longer are we workhouses for the revolution—if you want in on the revolution, come correct.