Mammy, The Mule and Equally Yoked: Black Women as Beasts of Burden

The mule possesses the even temper, patience, endurance and sure-footedness of the donkey, and the vigor, strength and courage of the horse. Operators of working animals generally find mules preferable to horses: mules show more patience under the pressure of heavy weights, and their skin is harder and less sensitive than that of horses, rendering them more capable of resisting sun and rain. Wikipedia

Celebrating the myth of the Strong Black Woman has mistakenly become an aspiration and an inspiration to those in certain demographics of the Black Community. When things are down and out and a black woman is tired, or fed the fuck up, someone, somewhere will remind her that this disgusting and frustrating existence is merely a test of her ability to survive when life is clearly giving her signals that she should make changes.

In recent conversation with a not so suitable suitor, I was accused of being a SBW, I recoiled as if I was slapped. I immediately explained that I am not a Strong Black Woman, and not only that, but that I take offense to being called what I equate to be a visual reference to a beast of burden.

Often times, when a woman becomes frustrated and overwhelmed, rather than offer assistance, there are those around ready to remind her that she is capable of withstanding walking through Hell with gasoline undies on, and I am quick to point out…..I am no mule.

Strong? Yes.

Mule? No.

Others seems very comfortable with subjecting Black women to more than their share of cruelty, disregard and inhumane treatment while patting her on the head as a reward for not kneeling over dead in exhaustion or delirium. Reverence for the Strong Black Woman has great PR; we love that she shows up, it makes everyone else’s life so much easier.

I refuse to be responsible for the continued abuse and invisible presence suffered by Black women because some refuse to be honest enough to express our collective frustration and individual pain.

Many Black women neglect to instill boundaries and communicate their limitations even after they find themselves under a boulder of problems.

Someone please dial 911…..

How did Black woman become synonymous with a hybrid horse and donkey? Her transformation from silent folks lore hero into a a modern day superhero is directly based on the White women’s position as ‘all that is good and delicate in the normal world’.

In the totem pole of racism, Jim Crow and good ol’ fashioned patriarchy, Black Barbie doesn’t get to have a Ken doll to call her very own. And that’s just too dam bad for Black Barbie!

Consider this, White women were so delicate and important (for babies, sex and domestic purposes) that it became necessary to formulate (read: imposed upon) laws and societal rules, which were created by White men, in order to protect (control) her.

In exchange for his protection and  her domestic value, the White woman then became his ideal possession.

This line of thinking implies that Black women, as the White woman’s opposite, require no such consideration, assistance or help from White males.

White men did not believe they needed to extend this perception of feminine value towards Black women because the respectful treatment of Black woman had no direct baring on White men in general.

The Black woman is his possession in a different way, she is his thing purchased and do his bidding, there’s no need for implied respect or concern.

Slavery made it quite easy to remove the Black man’s capacity to protect Black women and in time, White mistreatment of Black women’s minds, bodies and spirits was silently accepted with the persuasive crack of a bullwhip.

It is what it was.

Oppression, racism, sexism, and poverty has continued to beckon the Black woman (and now Latino/Asian WOC) back into the White man’s home to work, leaving her own family to fend for themselves. White men and Black women have a very long history of his ability to influence her personal space (how she comes and goes) and family dynamics (raped and giving birth to the boss’s child).

The Black man, not so much.

Patriarchy created the space for White men to mentally create, and re-create his two unique objects of affection, Black women in servitude projected to fulfill his own devoted mother fantasies and his White female counterpart. Through use of Black woman, who he pretends tirelessly gave and gave of herself without asking for anything in return, he satisfied his need for power and control.

Were it not for a White man providing for her, where would she be? For whatever reason, her racial counterpart has been missing for decades and she’s been doing what she’s doing by herself.

So now what?

“De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” Their Eyes Were Watching God-Zora Neale Hurston.


Published at the tail-end of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston’s famously unpretentious novel is a story of a young black woman’s search for love, spiritual liberation, physical satisfaction, and a way to defy the seemingly immutable laws of gender and race.  As her protagonist resists others’ attempts to script her life on their own selfish terms, Hurston invokes the symbol of the mule to characterize black women’s precarious condition in the United States: she is “worked tuh death,” “ruint wid mistreatment,” yet strong enough to carry impossible “loads” nobody else wants to “tote.”

Nobody wants to be a Black Woman and nobody appreciates Black women but society needs her in order to continue to live at the comfort level that society has enjoyed since the first slave ships hit the shore.

This position of martyr is what causes some Black women to mistake the moniker as something to aspire to, rather than something to run the Hell away from. The desire some women have to pile further strife into their lives is a subconscious way of distracting herself from her own needs and wants, because she thinks her wants and needs will not be met.

The selflessness of the mule role is also a way for her to feel better about herself.

Black women are the darlings of the Western world’s love/hate relationship with power and control no matter the color or the race of the men involved. Being a Strong Black Woman is directly related to the either the (imagined or real) perceived weakness of Black men.

n 1979, almost two decades after Hurston’s death, the black feminist thinker Michele Wallace created a firestorm of controversy when her Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman caustically exposed the dynamics of misogyny in the black power movement and deconstructed the mythology of the strong black woman image.  By examining its historical origins, its functions over time, and its harmful psychic and physical impact on black women, Wallace brazenly asserted that “strength” was a pernicious stereotype that had resulted in a conspiracy of silence about black women’s disenfranchisement and exploitation, within both black communities and the larger white-supremacist society.  Like Hurston, Wallace became a victim of vitriolic backlash from black men and women who accused her of disloyalty to the black community.

This ‘strength’ comes with the unspoken rule that those considered strong, such a SBW, shouldn’t complain. Those considered strong, like these certain Black women, don’t complain. A complaint would indicate that someone, somewhere, is causing her a problem.

By implying that Black women are capable, we take away her option of allowing herself to be incapable, or unwilling to carry extreme burden. By removing her ability to complain about her circumstances, we convince ourselves that she’s actually happy going about the daily business of suffrage.

As with anything else, her silence condones the abuse.

Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman makes similar points about the historical antecedents of what Beauboeuf-Lafontant calls present-day “mammification.” “Although no longer limited to domestic service, employed Black women too often are treated as modern-day mammies, prized for their fortitude, caring, selflessness, and seeming acceptance of their subordination.” Assumptions about black womanhood, she argues, began with slavery, as black women were viewed as the antithesis of white women to justify harsh labor, brutal whippings, and rape.  Some of those old assumptions have since been embraced and given redeeming qualities by blacks themselves.

I’ll even go as far as to say that some Black women not only behave, but also dress, the part of Mammie when employed. They appear as matronly, dowdy and awkwardly conservative while their non-Black counterparts appear more feminine. And it is this femininity, or loss thereof, that additionally adds to the perception that Black women aren’t ‘real women’.

For both writers, black women are culpable, as they invest in the appearance of invulnerability.  They wear masks, live lies, keep up appearances, perform superhuman tasks, and take care of everybody else, while sacrificing their own feelings and needs, to the detriment of their health.  While women of other groups are also caretakers, for black women, strength too often has meant taking care of other families in addition to, or instead of, their own.

The historic professional track of Black women as caretaker is influenced by her former position as a domestic slave to the White family. With the house and cooking tended to, all White wives, who had husbands who could afford ‘hired help’, were left to do was to cater to their husbands or enjoy their children.

With the Black woman out of the house during the day, and up until early evenings, her own home and family were often neglected until she made her way home to a waiting house, husband and children that expected and required her to do what she’s been doing all day for pay…for free.

If she has a husband, she may find that he now occupies all his free time at the table, or bed, of another woman because she’s so busy taking care of ‘White folks’. His inability to find employment (due to racism) left him both depending on the money she bought home, and resenting her need to work because he didn’t.

It didn’t take long for his bruised ego to send him scurrying away from his feelings of inferiority; welfare programs stepped in to assist with his departure. The daughters of married couples where the father caused more dysfunction and drama than he did security and stability may grow to believe that having a man around isn’t worth the time or effort.

An older female child may take over her household responsibilities, though this substitution of parental roles may play a part in why Black females are often left unsupervised and which makes them readily available for sexual exploitation.

This may be a hint as to why some females pursue motherhood with no father in the picture, as a path to adulthood, rather than academics or education.

Through her mother, she’s been raised to ‘take care of kids’ whether they are hers or not. Going to work, it seems, may just be an extension of the caretaker role that Black women have come to accept as their own.

A woman has enough energy to tend to your family because she gets paid to show up; but when this women drops the ball, it won’t be the one that feeds her or her family.

Beauboeuf-Lafontant maintains that “strength advances a virtuous claim about any Black woman whose efforts and emotional responses defy common beliefs about what is humanly possible amidst adversity.” Strength springs from the social imagination, and its real function is “to defend and maintain a stratified social order by obscuring Black women’s experiences or suffering, acts of desperation, and anger.” But strength is also a personal strategy, as black women “act as if they were invulnerable to abuse…. Black women present themselves as capable of weathering all manner of adversity,” even as they unconsciously collude in their own oppression.

Kids with no parental structure may run wild, husbands may blatantly have affairs or they may bail for greener pastures, in hopes of finding a ‘better woman’ leaving her to continue doing what she was doing, on her own.

No matter how much her employers may praise her, she has not been compensated with the same human courtesy as everyone else. While White women have the option to need additional help (in the form of a Mammie/hired help), the Black woman is left to live with the reality that for her there is no help.

The SBW is overwhelmed but who does she complain to when she is the backbone of all things in space and time?

When a Black woman decides to complain she is called Angry. When a Black woman decides to choose her needs over others she is called selfish. When a Black woman demands to be cared for and exercises her option to the easiest path that satisfies her demands  she is called a sell out.

I’ve been called a lot of things in my day, but a mule…also known as a Jackass, isn’t one of them.


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