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Patricia Hill Collins, “Work, Family and Black Women’s Oppression”

“Work, Family and Black Women’s Oppression”
Patricia Hill Collins

Chapter 3, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, 2000. Second edition.

 

Honey, de white man is the 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 tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t
tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so
fur as Ah can see. —Zora Neale Hurston, 1937

With these words Nanny, an elderly African-American woman in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, explains Black women’s “place” to her young, impressionable granddaughter. Nanny knows that being treated as “mules uh de world” lies at the heart of Black women’s oppression. Thus, one core theme in U.S. Black feminist thought consists of analyzing Black women’s work, especially Black women’s labor market victimization as “mules.” As dehumanized objects, mules are living machines and can be treated as part of the scenery. Fully human women are less easily exploited. As mill worker Corine Cannon observes, “Your work, and this goes for white people and black, is what you are . . . your work is your life” (Byerly 1986, 156). 

In general, Black feminist analyses of Black women’s work emphasize two
themes. On the one hand, much scholarship investigates how Black women’s
paid work is organized within intersecting oppressions of race, class, and gender.
Documenting Black women’s labor market status in order to see the general patterns
of race and gender inequality is one primary area of analysis
(Higginbotham 1983; Jones 1985; Amott and Matthaei 1991). This research is
supplemented by studies of Black women’s work during specific historical eras,
such as slavery (Jones 1985; D. White 1985) and the urbanizing South (Clark-
Lewis 1985), and their positions in specific occupational niches, primarily
domestic work (Dill 1980, 1988a; Rollins 1985), in unions (Sacks 1988), and
in the professions (Moses 1989; Essed 1991; Higginbotham 1994). Within
Black feminist-influenced scholarship, African-American women are often presented
as constrained but empowered figures, even in extremely difficult labor
market settings (Terborg-Penn 1985). Studying the conditions of Black women’s
employment, especially racial discrimination at work, also provides new knowledge
on the significance of Black women’s work (St. Jean and Feagin 1998,
40–72). Despite the scholarship’s insights concerning Black women’s resilience,
Black feminist-influenced scholarship points out that for far too many U.S. Black
women, Maria Stewart’s claim that “let our girls possess whatever amiable qualities
of soul they may . . . it is impossible for scarce an individual of them to rise
above the condition of servants” (Richardson 1987, 46) remains true (Omolade
1994). U.S. Black women may have migrated out of domestic service in private
homes, but as their overrepresentation as nursing home assistants, day-care aides,
dry-cleaning workers, and fast-food employees suggests, African-American women
engaged in low-paid service work is far from a thing of the past.

A less developed but equally important theme concerns how Black women’s
unpaid family labor is simultaneously confining and empowering for Black
women. In particular, research on U.S. Black women’s unpaid labor within
extended families remains less fully developed in Black feminist thought than
does that on Black women’s paid work. By emphasizing African-American
women’s contributions to their families’ well-being, such as keeping families
together and teaching children survival skills (Martin and Martin 1978; Davis
1981), such scholarship suggests that Black women see the unpaid work that
they do for their families more as a form of resistance to oppression than as a
form of exploitation by men. Despite these views, investigating how Black
women’s unpaid labor is exploited within African-American family networks, for
example, by boyfriends, relatives, and even government-supported social policies,
remains a neglected topic. In the context of Black family studies that either castigate
Black mothers or glorify them, the theme of how hard Black women work is
often overlooked.

When combined, Black feminist-inspired analyses of paid and unpaid work
performed both in the labor market and in families stimulate a better appreciation
of the powerful and complex interplay that shapes Black women’s position as “de
mule uh de world.”They also promise to shed light on ongoing debates concerning
connections between work and family.

Family and work: Challenging the definitions
When Dan Quayle, then U.S. vice president, used the term family values near the
end of a speech at a political fund-raiser in 1992, he apparently touched a
national nerve. Following Quayle’s speech, close to 300 articles with “family
values” in their titles appeared in the popular press. Despite the range of political
perspectives expressed on family values, one thing remained clear: Family
values, however defined, seemed important to national well-being, and Quayle
had tapped much deeper feelings about the significance of ideas about family if
not actual families themselves in the United States.

Dan Quayle’s and similar understandings of family depend heavily on who
controls the definitions. And the definitions advanced by elite groups in the
United States uniformly work to the detriment of African-American women.
Situated in the center of family values debates is an imagined traditional family
ideal. Formed through a combination of marital and blood ties, “normal” families
should consist of heterosexual, racially homogeneous couples who produce
their own biological children. Such families should have a specific authority
structure, namely, a father-head earning an adequate family wage, a stay-at-home
wife and mother, and children. Idealizing the traditional family as a private haven
from a public world, family is seen as being held together through primary emotional
bonds of love and caring. Assuming a relatively fixed sexual division of
labor, wherein women’s roles are defined as primarily in the home with men’s
in the public world of work, the traditional family ideal also assumes the separation
of work and family. Defined as a natural or biological arrangement based on
heterosexual attraction, instead this monolithic family type is actually supported
by government policy. It is organized not around a biological core, but a statesanctioned,
heterosexual marriage that confers legitimacy not only on the family
structure itself but on children born in this family (Andersen 1991; Thorne
1992). In general, everything the imagined traditional family ideal is thought to
be, African-American families are not.

Two elements of the traditional family ideal are especially problematic for
African-American women. First, the assumed split between the “public” sphere
of paid employment and the “private” sphere of unpaid family responsibilities
has never worked for U.S. Black women. Under slavery, U.S. Black women worked
without pay in the allegedly public sphere of Southern agriculture and had their
family privacy routinely violated. Second, the public/private binary separating
the family households from the paid labor market is fundamental in explaining
U.S. gender ideology. If one assumes that real men work and real women take
care of families, then African-Americans suffer from deficient ideas concerning
gender. In particular, Black women become less “feminine,” because they work
outside the home, work for pay and thus compete with men, and their work
takes them away from their children.

Framed through this prism of an imagined traditional family ideal, U.S. Black
women’s experiences and those of other women of color are typically deemed
deficient (Higginbotham 1983; Glenn 1985; Mullings 1997). Rather than trying
to explain why Black women’s work and family patterns deviate from the seeming
normality of the traditional family ideal, a more fruitful approach lies in
challenging the very constructs of work and family themselves (Collins 1998b).
Understandings of work, like understandings of family, vary greatly depending
on who controls the definitions. In the following discussion of the distinction
between work and measures of self, May Madison, a participant in John
Gwaltney’s study of inner-city African-Americans, alludes to the difference
between work as an instrumental activity and work as something for self:
One very important difference between white people and black people is
that white people think you are your work. . . . Now, a black person has
more sense than that because he knows that what I am doing doesn’t have
anything to do with what I want to do or what I do when I am doing for
myself. Now, black people think that my work is just what I have to do to
get what I want. (Gwaltney 1980, 174)

Ms. Madison’s perspective criticizes definitions of work that grant White men
more status and human worth because they are employed in better-paid occupations.
She recognizes that work is a contested construct and that evaluating
individual worth by the type of work performed is a questionable practice in
systems based on race and gender inequality.

Work might be better conceptualized by examining the range of work that
African-American women actually perform.Work as alienated labor can be economically
exploitative, physically demanding, and intellectually deadening—the
type of work long associated with Black women’s status as “mule.” Alienated
labor can be paid—the case of Black women in domestic service, those Black
women working as dishwashers, dry-cleaning assistants, cooks, and health-care
assistants, as well as some professional Black women engaged in corporate
mammy work; or it can be unpaid, as with the seemingly never-ending chores
of many Black grandmothers and Black single mothers. But work can also be
empowering and creative, even if it is physically challenging and appears to be
demeaning. Exploitative wages that Black women were allowed to keep and use
for their own benefit or labor done out of love for the members of one’s family
can represent such work. Again, this type of work can be either paid or unpaid.
What is the connection between U.S. Black women’s work both in the labor
market and in African-American family networks? Addressing this question for
four key historical periods in Black political economy uses this broader understanding
of Black women’s work to further Black feminist analyses of U.S. Black
women’s oppression.

The process of enslavement
Historically African-American families have been economically exploited and
politically disenfranchised within the U.S. political economy (Berry 1994). This
neither means that all African-Americans have been poor, nor that most are
today. But diversity among U.S. Blacks in the historical and contemporary contours
of intersecting oppressions of race and class does not erase the funda-
mental relationship of injustice. This unjust context has affected U.S. Blacks as a
group and thus provides a framework for understanding Black women’s work
experiences both in kin networks and in the labor market (Mullings 1997,
20–51).

During the shift to industrialization in the early nineteenth century, White
immigrants, landowners, and Whites of all social classes and citizenship categories
had the legal right to maintain families and, if needed, to work for pay. In
contrast, the majority of African-Americans were enslaved. They had great difficulty
maintaining families and family privacy in public spheres that granted them
no citizenship rights. Enslaved Africans were property (Burnham 1987), and one
way that many resisted the dehumanizing effects of slavery was by re-creating
African notions of family as extended kin units (Webber 1978; Sobel 1979).
Bloodlines carefully monitored in West African societies were replaced by a
notion of “blood” whereby enslaved Africans drew upon notions of family to
redefine themselves as part of a Black community consisting of their enslaved
“brothers” and “sisters” (Gutman 1976).This slave community stood in opposition
to a White male–controlled public sphere of the capitalist political economy.
In this way, the line separating enslaved African women and men from White
women and men stimulated the creation of an important yet subjugated Black
civil society (Brown 1994). This racial divide served as a more accurate marker
delineating public and private spheres for African-Americans than that separating
Black households from the Black community overall.

Prior to U.S. enslavement and African colonization, women in African societies
apparently combined work and family without seeing much conflict
between the two. In West African societies, women’s fundamental family responsibilities
revolved around motherhood, and they routinely combined child care
with their contributions to precapitalist political economies. In agricultural societies
dependent on female farmers, children accompanied their mothers to the
fields. Women entrepreneurs took their children with them when conducting
business in the marketplace. When old enough, children contributed to familybased
production by caring for siblings, running errands, and generally helping
out. Working did not detract from West African women’s mothering. Instead,
being economically productive and contributing to the family-based economy
was an integral part of motherhood (Sudarkasa 1981a). This does not mean that
male domination was absent from such societies (see, e.g., Imam et al. 1997),
only that women’s activities with work and family differed from those they
encountered under slavery.

For African women enslaved in the United States, these basic ideas concerning
work, family, and motherhood were retained, yet changed by two fundamental
demands of enslavement. First, whereas African women worked on behalf
of their families and children, enslaved African-American women’s labor benefited
their owners. Second, the nature of work performed was altered. Women
did not retain authority over their time, technology, workmates, or type or
amount of work they performed. In essence, their forced incorporation into a
capitalist political economy as slaves meant that West African women became economically
exploited, politically powerless units of labor.

Gender roles were similarly shaped under slavery. Black women generally
performed the same work as men. This enabled them to recraft West African traditions
whereby women were not limited to devalued family labor (Jones 1985;
D. White 1985). However, unlike African precolonial political economies, where
women’s labor benefited their lineage group and their children, under slavery
neither men nor women got to keep what they produced. Under U.S. capitalism,
slavery also established the racial division of labor whereby African-Americans
were relegated to dirty, manual, nonintellectual jobs. Despite slavery’s burdens,
African-Americans did not perceive work as the problem but, rather, the
exploitation inherent in the work they performed. A saying among enslaved
Africans, “It’s a poor dog that won’t wag its own tail,” alludes to popular perceptions
among Blacks that Whites were lazy and did not value work as much as
African-Americans themselves.

Black women’s work affected the organization of child care. Perceptions of
motherhood as an unpaid occupation in the home comparable to paid male
occupations in the public sector advanced by the traditional family ideal never
became widespread among the majority of African-American women (Mullings
1997). By denying enslaved African women marriage, citizenship, and even
humanity, slavery provided no social context for issues of privatized motherhood
as a stay-at-home occupation. Instead, communal child-care arrangements substituted
for individualized maternal care—a few women were responsible for
caring for all children too young to work, and women as a group felt accountable
for one another’s children (D. White 1985).

African-American women’s experiences as mothers have been shaped by the
dominant group’s efforts to harness Black women’s sexuality and fertility to a
system of capitalist exploitation. Efforts to control U.S. Black women’s reproduction
were important to the maintenance of the race, class, and gender inequality
characterizing the slave order in at least three ways. First, the biological notions
of race underpinning the racial subordination of the slave system required socalled
racial purity in order to be effective. Since children followed the condition
of their mothers, children born of enslaved Black women were slaves. Forbidding
Black men to have sexual relations with White women of any social class reduced
the possibility that children of African descent would be born to White mothers.
Any children born of such liaisons must be seen as being the product of rape.
Motherhood and racism were symbolically intertwined, with controlling the sexuality
and fertility of both African-American and White women essential in
reproducing racialized notions of American womanhood (King 1973).

Second, motherhood as an institution occupies a special place in transmitting
values to children about their proper place. On the one hand, a mother can
foster her children’s oppression if she teaches them to believe in their own infe-
riority. On the other hand, the relationship between mothers and children can
serve as a private sphere in which cultures of resistance and everyday forms of
resistance are learned (Scott 1985). When Black slave mothers taught their children
to trust their own self-definitions and value themselves, they offered a powerful
tool for resisting oppression.

Finally, controlling Black women’s reproduction was essential to the creation
and perpetuation of capitalist class relations. Slavery benefited certain segments
of the U.S. population by economically exploiting others. As Black feminist intellectual
Frances Ellen Watkins Harper argued, “How can we pamper our appetites
upon luxuries drawn from reluctant fingers. Oh, could slavery exist long if it did
not sit on a commercial throne?” (Sterling 1984, 160). Under such a system in
which the control of property is fundamental, enslaved African women were
valuable commodities (Williams 1991). Slaveowners controlled Black women’s
labor and commodified Black women’s bodies as units of capital. Moreover, as
mothers, Black women’s fertility produced the children who increased their
owner’s property and labor force (Davis 1981; Burnham 1987).

Efforts to control Black women’s sexuality were tied directly to slave owners’
efforts to increase the number of children their female slaves produced. Historian
Deborah Gray White (1985) writes, “Slave masters wanted adolescent girls to
have children, and to this end they practiced a passive, though insidious kind of
breeding” (p. 98). Techniques such as assigning pregnant women lighter workloads,
giving pregnant women more attention and rations, and rewarding prolific
women with bonuses were all used to increase Black women’s reproduction.
Punitive measures were also used. Infertile women could expect to be treated
“like barren sows and be passed from one unsuspecting buyer to the next” (D.
White 1985, 101).

The relative security that often accompanied motherhood served to reinforce
its importance. Childbearing was a way for enslaved Black women to anchor
themselves in a place for an extended period and maintain enduring relationships
with husbands, family, and friends. Given the short life expectancy of slave
women—33.6 years—and the high mortality rates of Black children—from
1850 to 1860 fewer than two of three Black children survived to the age of 10—
enslaved women’s ability to bear many healthy children was often the critical element
in the length and stability of slave marriages (Giddings 1984). Similarly, the
refusal of women to bear children and cases of Black infanticide can be interpreted
as acts of resistance (Hine and Wittenstein 1981).

Deborah Gray White contends that slaveholders’ efforts to increase fertility
encouraged Black women to elevate motherhood over marriage. At the same
time, it paralleled African-derived cultural patterns where women were expected
to provide for their children:

Relationships between mother and child . . . superseded those between
husband and wife. Slaveholder practice encouraged the primacy of the
mother-child relationship, and in the mores of the slave community
motherhood ranked above marriage. . . .Women in their roles as mothers
were the central figures in the nuclear slave family. (1985, 159)

Black women’s centrality in Black family networks should not be confused with
matriarchal or female-dominated family units (Collins 1989; Dickerson 1995b).
Matriarchy theses assume that someone must “rule” in order for households to
function effectively. Neither Black men nor Black women ruled Black family networks
(Davis 1981; Burnham 1987). Rather, African-American men’s and
women’s positions within slave political economies made it unlikely that either
patriarchal or matriarchal domination could take root.

The transition to “free” labor
For African-Americans the period between emancipation and subsequent migrations
to southern and northern cities was characterized by two distinct models
of community. Each offered a different version of the connections between work
and family. The model of community advanced by dominant White society
reflected capitalist market economies of competitive, industrial, and monopoly
capitalism (Amott and Matthaei 1991). Firmly rooted in an exchange-based
marketplace with its accompanying assumptions of rational economic decision
making and White male control of the marketplace, this model of community
stressed the rights of individuals to make decisions in their own self-interest,
regardless of the impact on the larger society. Composed of a collection of
unequal individuals who compete for greater shares of money as the medium
of exchange, this model of community legitimates relations of domination
either by denying they exist or by treating them as inevitable (Hartsock 1983b).

Under slavery, African-Americans paradoxically were well integrated within,
yet excluded from, the economic and political benefits of the market economy
and its version of community. Slave notions of Black community, while Africaninfluenced,
were also supported by the common conditions of exclusion from
the market economy. Upon emancipation, Blacks became wage laborers and were
thrust into these exchange relationships in which individual gain was placed
ahead of collective good. Anna Julia Cooper describes this larger setting as the
Accumulative Period, and challenged its basic assumptions about community
and women’s role in it:

At the most trying time of what we have called the Accumulative Period,
when internecine war, originated through man’s love of gain and his
determination to subordinate national interests and black men’s rights
alike to the considerations of personal profit and loss, was drenching our
country with its own best blood, who shall recount the name and fame of
the women on both sides of the senseless strife? (Cooper 1892, 128)

Cooper’s ideas are key in that they not only link racism, economic exploitation
after emancipation, and the violence needed to maintain both, but they clearly
label the public sphere and its community as a male-defined arena. By asking,
“Who shall recount the name and fame of the women?” she questions the role
of gender in structuring women’s subordination generally, and Black women’s
work and family roles in particular.

During this period, revitalized political and economic oppression of African-
Americans in the South influenced U.S. Blacks’ actions and ideas about family
and community. Racial segregation became legally entrenched during this period
(Berry 1994). Within Black civil society, notions of interpersonal relations
forged during slavery endured—such as equating family with extended family, of
treating community as family, and of seeing dealings with Whites as elements of
public discourse and dealings with Blacks as part of family business (Brown
1994). In a climate of state-sanctioned racial violence, Black solidarity became
highly important and worked to suppress bona fida differences among U.S.
Blacks. As a result, African-American definitions of community emerged that differed
from public, market-driven, exchange-based community models. Whether
adhered to as a remnant of the African past or responding to the exigencies of
political and economic disenfranchisement in the post–Reconstruction South,
Black communities as places of collective effort and will stood in contrast to the
public, market-driven, exchange-based dominant political economy in which
they were situated.

For African-American women the issue was less one of achieving economic
parity with their Black male counterparts and more one of securing an adequate
overall family income. Denying U.S. Black men a family wage meant that Black
women continued working for pay. Motherhood as a privatized, female “occupation”
never predominated in Black civil society because no social class foundation
could be had to support it (Dill 1988b). Communal child care within
extended families continued (Martin and Martin 1978; Jones 1985). Beginning
with the landmark Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision, the legalization of
racial segregation in housing, education, employment, and public accommodations
erected rigid boundaries between African-Americans and White Americans.
At the same time, the more fluid boundaries characterizing the relationships
among households, Black family networks, and Black community organizations
such as Black churches persisted. Within African-American communities social
class–specific gender ideology developed during this period (Higginbotham 1989,
1993).

For at least 75 years after emancipation, the vast majority of Black families
remained in the South (Jones 1985). Black women workers were confined to two
major occupations. The majority of Black women worked in the fields, with the
male head of the extended family unit receiving any wages earned by the family
unit. Such work was hard, exhausting, and represented little change from the
work done by enslaved African-American women. Sara Brooks began full-time
work in the fields at age 11 and remembers, “We never was lazy cause we used
to really work.We used to work like mens. Oh, fight sometime, fuss sometime,
but worked on” (Simonsen 1986, 39).

Domestic work constituted the other primary occupation for Black women’s
wage labor. Seeing such work as inevitable, families tried to prepare young Black
girls. An 87-year-old North Carolina woman remembers her training: “No girl I
know wasn’t trained for work out by ten. You washed, watched, and whipped
somebody the day you stopped crawling. From the time a girl can stand, she’s
being made to work” (Clark-Lewis 1985, 7). Such work was low paid and
exposed Black girls and women to the constant threat of sexual harassment. One
African-American woman describes the lack of protection for Black women
domestic workers in the South: “I remember . . . I lost my place because I refused
to let the madam’s husband kiss me. . . .When my husband went to the man who
had insulted me, the man cursed him, and slapped him, and—had him arrested!”
(Lerner 1972, 155–56). Even though she testified in court, her husband was
fined $25 and was told by the presiding judge, “This court will never take the
word of a nigger against the word of a white man” (p. 156).

The sexual harassment of African-American women by White men contributed
to images of Black women as fair game for all men. The difficulty of the
environment prompted one Southern Black women to remonstrate:
We poor colored women wage-earners in the South are fighting a terrible
battle. . . . On the one hand, we are assailed by white men, and on the
other hand, we are assailed by black men, who should be our natural protectors;
and, whether in the cook kitchen, at the washtub, over the sewing
machine, behind the baby carriage, or at the ironing board, we are little
more than pack horses, beasts of burden, slaves! (Lerner 1972, 157)

African-American women who were the wives and daughters of able-bodied
men often withdrew from both field labor and domestic service in order to concentrate
on domestic duties in their own homes. In doing so they were “severely
criticized by whites for removing themselves from field labor because they were
seen to be aspiring to a model of womanhood that was inappropriate to them”
(Dill 1988b, 422). Black women wanted to withdraw from the labor force, not
to mimic middle-class White women’s domesticity but, rather, to strengthen the
political and economic position of their families. Their actions can be seen as a
sustained effort to remove themselves from the exploited labor force in order
to return the value of their labor to their families and to find relief from the
sexual harassment they endured in domestic service.While many women tried
to leave the paid labor force, the limited opportunities available to African-
American men made it virtually impossible for the majority of Black families
to survive on Black male wages alone. Even though she was offered work only
as a maid, Elsa Barkley Brown’s college-educated mother was fortunate. From
Brown’s perspective, her mother’s “decision to be a wife and mother first in a
world which defined Black women in so many other ways, the decision to make
her family the most important priority, was an act of resistance” (1986, 11). Far
too many Black women could not make this choice—they continued to work
for pay, and their work profoundly affected African-American family life, communities,
and the women themselves (Jones 1985).

Urbanization and domestic work
Black women’s move to Southern and Northern cities in the early 1900s continued
virtually unabated until after World War II (Marks 1989).Migration stimulated
substantial shifts in Black women’s labor market activities, especially
those of working-class women, as well as changes in African-American family
patterns and community organization. While racial segregation in housing separated
African-American from White Americans, gender relations within Black
civil society separated men from women. Male space included the streets, barber
shops, and pool halls; female arenas consisted of households and churches.
“Women, who blurred the physical boundaries of gender, did so at the jeopardy
of respectability within their communities” (Higginbotham 1989, 59).Moreover,
class differences among U.S. Blacks existed, but were masked by the force of
racial segregation. The vast majority of U.S. Blacks were poor or working class.

During this period, historical employment patterns persisted whereby
African-American men were able to locate higher-paying yet less secure work
while Black women found lower-paying, more plentiful work. For example,
Black men employed in low-skilled manufacturing occupations typically
received wages higher than the wages earned by their wives working in
domestic service. But because Black men competed directly with White male
workers, they were more vulnerable to layoffs. Although Black men made
higher wages when they found work, few guarantees existed that their wages
were consistently available to their families. In contrast, Black women received
substantially lower wages in domestic work, but could count on receiving
them. This classic pattern of exploitation, differentiated by gender, has often
been misrepresented in arguments suggesting that Black women or Black men
have a labor market “advantage” over the other. What these approaches fail to
realize is that both African-American women and men were disadvantaged in
urban labor markets, with gender differences structuring distinctive patterns
of economic vulnerability in employment.

Black women migrants encountered urban labor markets segmented along
lines of race and gender (Amott and Matthaei 1991). For the vast majority of
African-American women, urbanization meant migration out of agricultural
work and into domestic work. One benefit of urbanization was that it allowed
Black domestic workers to shift the conditions of their work from those of livein
servant to day work. A common migration pattern was for Black girls to train
for domestic work in the South by doing chores and taking care of siblings.
Around age 10, they went to Northern cities to assist working relatives (Clark-
Lewis 1985). At first girls might take care of their relatives’ children. They eventually—
often after years of search—found employment in day work. Moving to
a larger marketplace where domestics could leave employers when demands
were inappropriate allowed African-American women to make the transition
from live-in to day work. One 83-year-old respondent in Elizabeth Clark-Lewis’s
study recounts how she viewed this shift as a move toward better working conditions:
“The living-in jobs just kept you running; never stopped. Day or night
you’d be getting something for somebody. You’d serve them. It was never a
minute’s peace. . . . But when I went out days on my jobs, I’d get my work done
and be gone. I guess that’s it. This work had a end” (Clark-Lewis 1985, 1).

While an improvement, the shift to day work maintained some of the more
negative features of the employer/employee relationship. Despite their removal
from the particular form control took in the South, domestic workers in
Northern cities were economically exploited even under the best of circumstances.
At its worst, domestic work approximated conditions the women had left
behind in the South. Florence Rice describes how the 1930s New York City
“Bronx slave market” operated, where women stood in an assigned spot and
waited for employers to drive by and offer them day work: “I always remember
my domestic days. Some of the women, when they didn’t want to pay, they’d
accuse you of stealing. . . . It was like intimidation” (Lerner 1972, 275). Although
sexual harassment was less pervasive, it too remained a problem. Ms. Rice
remembers a male employer who “picked me up and said his wife was ill and
then when I got there his wife wasn’t there and he wanted to have an affair”
(p. 275).

Judith Rollins (1985) contends that what makes domestic work more “profoundly
exploitative than other comparable occupations” is the precise element
that makes it unique: the personal relationship between employer and employee.
Rollins reports that employers do not rank work performance as their highest
priority in evaluating domestic workers. Rather, the “personality of the worker
and the kinds of relationships employers were able to establish with them were
as or more important considerations” (p. 156).

Deference mattered, and those women who were submissive or who successfully
played the role of obedient servant were more highly valued by their
employers, regardless of the quality of the work performed. When domestic
worker Hannah Nelson reports, “Most people who have worked in service have
to learn to talk at great length about nothing,” she identifies the roles domestics
must play in order to satisfy their employers’ perceptions of a good Black domestic.
She continues, “I never have been very good at that, so I don’t speak, normally.
. . . Some people I have worked for think I am slow-witted because I talk
very little on the job” (Gwaltney 1980, 6).

Employers used a variety of means to structure domestic work’s power relationship
and solicit the deference they so desired.Techniques of linguistic defer-
ence included addressing domestics by their first names, calling them “girls,” and
requiring that the domestic call the employer “ma’am.” Employers routinely
questioned domestics about their lifestyle, questions they would hesitate to ask
members of their own social circle. Gifts of used clothing and other household
items highlighted the economic inequality separating domestic and employer.
Employers used domestics as confidantes, another behavior that reinforced the
notion that domestics were outsiders (Rollins 1985).

Physical markers reinforced the deference relationship. One technique was to
require that domestics wear uniforms. One respondent in Clark-Lewis’s study
explains why her employers liked uniforms: “Them uniforms just seemed to
make them know you was theirs. Some say you wore them to show different jobs
you was doing. This in grey, other serving in black. But mostly them things just
showed you was always at they beck and call. Really that’s all them things
means!” (Clark-Lewis 1985, 16). The use of space was also a major device in
structuring deference behaviors. Domestics were confined to one area of the
house, usually the kitchen, and were expected to make themselves invisible when
in other areas of the house. Judith Rollins recounts her reactions to being objectified
in this fashion, to being treated as invisible while her employers had a conversation
around her:

It was this aspect of servitude I found to be one of the strongest affronts
to my dignity as a human being. To Mrs. Thomas and her son, I became
invisible; their conversation was private with me, the black servant, in the
room as it would have been with no one in the room. . . . These gestures
of ignoring my presence were not, I think, intended as insults; they were
expressions of the employer’s ability to annihilate the humanness and
even, at times, the very existence of me, a servant and a black woman.
(Rollins 1985, 209)

Some African-American women were fortunate enough to locate work in
manufacturing. In the South, Black women entered tobacco factories, cotton
mills, and flour manufacturing. Some of the dirtiest jobs in these industries were
offered to African-American women. In the cotton mills Black women were
employed as common laborers in the yards, as waste gatherers, and as scrubbers
of machinery (Glenn 1985). With Northern migration, some Black women
entered factory employment, primarily in steam laundries and the rest in
unmechanized jobs as sweepers, cleaners, and ragpickers. Regardless of their
location, African-American women faced discrimination (Terborg-Penn 1985).
For example, Luanna Cooper, an employee for the Winston Leaf Tobacco
Storage company, describes her reactions to the effort to organize segregated
unions in her plant: “They’re trying to have jimcrow unions. But I’m telling you
jimcrow unions aren’t good.They wanted me to join. I told them: ‘I get jimcrow
free. I won’t pay for that’ ” (Lerner 1972, 268).

The shift to day work among domestic workers and the incorporation of
some Black women into the manufacturing sector paralleled changes in African-
American family and community structures. Even though the hours were long and
the pay low in the occupations where Black women remained concentrated, they
did have more time to devote to their families and communities than that available
to live-in domestic workers. During the first wave of urbanization, African-
Americans re-created the types of communities they had known in their Southern
rural communities (Gutman 1976). Racial segregation in housing and employment
meant that African-Americans continued to live in self-contained communities
even after migration to Northern cities. As a result, the public/private split
separating Black communities from what were frequently hostile White neighborhoods
remained a salient feature framing Black women’s work and family relationships,
especially among working-class women.The cooperative networks that
these women created under slavery and that they sustained in the rural South often
endured. Black women domestic workers who rode buses together shared vital
information essential to their survival. On occasion, they attempted unionization
(Terborg-Penn 1985). Neighbors took care of one another’s children, and churches
typically formed the core of many Black women’s community activities (Clark-
Lewis 1985; Dill 1988a)

Black women’s work and the post-World War II economy
As long as African-Americans lived in self-contained albeit racially segregated
urban neighborhoods, Black community institutions aided U.S. Blacks in
responding to changes in wider society. After 1945, a changing global economy
in conjunction with the emergence of a new postcolonial, transnational context
fostered significant shifts in Black civil society. Globally, numerous groups
waged successful anticolonial struggles that resulted in new nation-states in
Africa and Asia.Within the United States, the Black activism of the 1950s–1970s
stimulated the dismantling of de jure and de facto racial segregation. When
combined, these international and domestic political shifts greatly affected the
relationship between work and family for African-American women.

The post–World War II period reflects several contradictions. On the one
hand, the period has been marked by substantial gains in formal political rights
for U.S. Blacks as a collectivity. From the end of the war to the mid-1970s, U.S.
Blacks acquired unprecedented access to education, housing, and jobs long
denied under legal segregation. From the founding of the National Association
for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1910 to the passage of the
landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, U.S. Blacks
pursued a policy of gaining civil rights and equal treatment in housing, schools,
jobs, and public accommodation.This changed political climate led to Black civil
society’s becoming more stratified by social class. The sizable working class that
had long formed the core of Black civil society expanded upward. From this
working-class “center,” many Blacks experienced social mobility into the fledgling
Black middle class.

On the other hand, it became increasingly clear that many problems that U.S.
Blacks faced were not due solely to racial discrimination. While many African-
Americans benefited from the changed legislative climate, many others did not.
Class factors were equally important. Many Blacks endured downward social
mobility from the working-class center. The downwardly mobile—those who
lost their jobs and failed to find new ones—joined a growing population of poor
Blacks that had been on the bottom all along.This growing group on the bottom,
often referred to as the “Black underclass,” was not the cause of Black economic
disadvantage but, instead, constituted one outcome.

During this period, Black civil society underwent considerable change,much
of it influenced by gender-specific patterns of Black incorporation in an increasingly
global political economy (Brewer 1993; Squires 1994;Wilson 1996). In
general, work for Black men in manufacturing disappeared. Black women could
find work, but it was often part time, low paid, and lacking in security and benefits
(Wilson 1996). Moreover, the introduction of crack cocaine in urban Black
neighborhoods in the early 1980s incorporated men and women into the informal
economy in gender-specific ways. Drugs became a major employer of young
Black men, and young Black women looked to these men for financial assistance.
Many young U.S. Blacks grew up in communities that were markedly different
than those prior to the 1980s. Extended family networks weakened (see, e.g.,
Kaplan 1997), and while U.S. Blacks became more class stratified, the racial segregation
in housing that fosters inequities of education and employment also
persisted (Massey and Denton 1993). Many young Black men came to see their
futures only in terms of being rap stars, basketball players, or drug dealers. Many
young Black women saw few options other than motherhood. Overall, young
Black men and women could not see the optimism of the diverse antiracist social
justice projects of the 1950s and 1960s but instead encountered the pessimism
of shrinking opportunities. Ostensibly the beneficiaries of the previous generation’s
Black activism, they learned to live with new forms of control introduced
by an expanding criminal justice system (Davis 1997) and a punitive social welfare
bureaucracy (Brewer 1994). For many young U.S. Black men and women,
access to African-American intellectual and political traditions, feminist and otherwise,
remained elusive. Instead, they found themselves living in impoverished
economic and intellectual environments.

Several factors stimulated these and other dramatic changes in Black civil
society that in turn have affected African-American women’s work and family
experiences. At the center of these changes is a restructured global political economy.
Job export to nonunionized American and foreign markets, job de-skilling,
the shift from manufacturing to service occupations, and job creation in suburban
communities all allow firms to find cheaper substitutes for Black American
labor (Wilson 1987, 1996). As Black feminist sociologist Rose Brewer points out,
“Capitalist firms do not have to depend upon black labor, either male or female.
Low-wage, low-cost labor can be found all over the world” (Brewer 1993, 19).
Moreover, legal victories did not mean that all segments of U.S. society were willing
to enforce antidiscrimination legislation. Beginning in the 1980s, and
throughout the 1990s, conservative politicians advanced a series of racial projects
designed to limit if not eliminate the social gains of the 1960s (Omi and Winant
1994). White backlash also emerged as a formidable factor, some of it crystallizing
in the growth of new White supremacist organizations (Daniels 1997; Ferber
1998). When combined with deeply entrenched patterns of racial segregation in
housing that reflect an “American apartheid” (Massey and Denton 1993), worsening
and chronic unemployment in many Black urban neighborhoods persisted.

Overall, Black political activism of the 1950s and 1960s in the context of a
changing global political economy fostered the emergence of a comfortable yet
vulnerable new Black middle class. It also led to the growth of a reorganized
Black working class segmented by its ability to find steady, well-paid work.

Just holding on: working-class Black women
A crucial factor in contemporary African-American civil society is not simply
Black men’s marginalization from work but changes affecting Black women’s
paid and unpaid work (Brewer 1993). Two major changes affect U.S. Black
women’s paid labor. The first is Black women’s movement from domestic service
to industrial and clerical work. The second is Black women’s integration into the
international division of labor in low-paid service work, which does not provide
sufficient income to support a family. When combined, these two factors segment
Black working-class women into two subgroups. African-American women
holding good jobs in industry and the government sector constitute the core of
the Black working class. Black women who can find only low-paid, intermittent
service work become part of the working poor, that segment of the Black working
class most likely to end up in poverty. Both groups work, and the nature of
the jobs they hold determines their work and family experiences.

More Black feminist–influenced studies that examine how intersections of
race and gender influence the work experiences of working-class Black women
are sorely needed. In this regard, Rose Brewer’s (1993) analysis of Black women’s
participation in Southern textile industries illustrates how examining Black
women’s participation in one industry reveals how U.S. Black women have been
affected by global economic restructuring. Barbara Omolade (1994) points to a
framework of new relationships among African-American women, one that she
calls a “three-tiered Black female work site: Black female professionals who supervise
Black female clerks who then serve Black female clients” (p. 62). Black working-
class women “clerks” sandwiched between the professionals and their clients
may find themselves subject to deference relationships reminiscent of Judith
Rollins’s (1985) study of Black domestic workers.Yet these relationships among
U.S. Black women across social class differences break entirely new ground.
Consider Alice Walker’s experiences when trying to visit Dessie Woods, a Black
woman incarcerated in the Georgia penal system for defending herself against a
White rapist. Walker describes her arrival at the prison, where she was turned
away, not by White male guards, but by a Black woman very much like herself:
We look at each other hard. And I “recognize” her, too. She is very black
and her neck is stiff and her countenance has been softened by the blows.
All day long, while her children are supported by earnings here, she sits
isolated in this tiny glass entranceway, surrounded by white people who
have hired her, as they always have, to do their dirty work for them. It is
no accident that she is in this prison, too. (Walker 1988, 23)

Barbara Omolade advances a similar argument: “Unlike the slave plantation,
which brought different kinds of workers together in an oppositional community
of resistance, today’s triple-tiered, Black female work site does not foster
community” (1994, 63).

The disappearance of well-paid manufacturing jobs for Black working-class
men suggests that young African-American women view the dual-income, working-
class family as a hoped-for, albeit difficult-to-achieve, option. The alternative
open to past generations of Blacks—intact marriages based on reasonably steady,
adequately paid jobs for Black men and reliable yet lesser-paid jobs for Black
women—is less available in the advanced capitalist welfare state. Black workingclass
women, especially those employed in the government sector as clerical
workers, are more likely to find steady employment. But the income of Black
working-class wives cannot compensate for the loss of Black men’s incomes.
Despite expressing support for dominant “family values” ideology, Black workingclass
women may find themselves as single mothers. Aggravated by Black men’s
inability to find well-paid work, rates of separation and divorce have increased.
More significantly, many young Black women do not marry in the first place. For
many Black working-class families, the economic vulnerability of Black men is
one fundamental factor spurring increasing poverty among Black working-class
women (Burnham 1985).

Despite its size and significance, the Black working class has been rendered
mostly invisible within contemporary U.S. Black feminist thought. While many
factors stimulate this outcome, Rose Brewer points to one important definitional
concern: “Although there has been an assault on the Black working class, there is
still a working class. It is conflated with the working poor. It is highly exploited
and has experienced heavy assaults on its wage. It is a class which is often poor
and female” (Brewer 1993, 25).

The new working poor: Black single mothers
Black women who work yet remain poor form an important segment of the
Black working class. Labor market trends as well as changes in federal policies
toward the poor have left this group economically marginalized (Zinn 1989).
Ironically, gender differences in the jobs held by working-poor Black women and
men are becoming less pronounced. On average, approximately one-third of
Black women and men who find employment work in jobs characterized by low
wages, job instability, and poor working conditions. These jobs are growing
rapidly, spurred by the increasing need for cooks, waitresses, waiters, laundry
workers, health aides, and domestic servants to service the needs of affluent middle-
class families. While plentiful, these jobs are mostly in neighborhoods far
from the inner-city communities where poor Black women live. Moreover, few
of these jobs offer the wages, stability, or advancement potential of disappearing
manufacturing jobs.

The work performed by employed poor Black women resembles duties long
associated with domestic service. During prior eras, domestic service was confined
to private households. In contrast, contemporary cooking, cleaning, nursing,
and child care have been routinized and decentralized in an array of fastfood
restaurants, cleaning services, day-care centers, and service establishments.
Black women perform similar work, but in different settings. The location may
have changed, but the work has not. Moreover, the treatment of Black women
resembles the interpersonal relations of domination reminiscent of domestic
work. Mabel Lincoln, an inner-city resident, describes how the world looks to her
as a working woman:

If you are a woman slinging somebody else’s hash and busting somebody
else’s suds or doing whatsoever you might do to keep yourself from being
a tramp or a willing slave, you will be called out of your name and asked
out of your clothes. In this world most people will take whatever they
think you can give. It don’t matter whether they want it or not, whether
they need it or not, or how wrong it is for them to ask for it. (Gwaltney
1980, 68)

Many Black women turn to the informal labor market and to government transfer
payments to avoid being called out of their names and asked out of their
clothes. Many Black women over age 16 are not employed, in many cases
because they cannot find jobs, because they are in school, have children to care
for, are retired, or are in poor health. A considerable proportion support themselves
through varying combinations of low-wage jobs and government transfer
payments.

The employment vulnerability of working-class African-Americans in the
post–World War II political economy, the relative employment equality of poor
Black women and men, and the gender-specific patterns of dependence on the
informal economy all have substantial implications for U.S. Black women who
find themselves among the working poor. One effect has been the growth of
families maintained by Black single mothers. As the testimonies of numerous
African-Americans raised by their mothers suggest, such families are not inherently
a problem. Rather, the alarming trend is the persistent poverty of African-
American women and children living in such households (Dickerson 1995a).

The increase in unmarried Black adolescent parents is only one indication of
the effects that changes in the broader political economy are having on work and
family patterns not just of poor Black women but of many other segments of the
U.S. population. Rates of adolescent pregnancy are actually decreasing among young
Black women. The real change has been a parallel decrease in marital rates of
Black adolescents, a decision linked directly to how Black teens perceive opportunities
to support and sustain independent households. A sizable proportion of
families maintained by Black single women are created by unmarried adolescent
mothers. This decline in marital rates, a post–World War II trend that accelerated
after 1960, is part of changes in African-American community structures overall
(Wilson 1987). The communal child-care networks of the slave era, the extended
family arrangements of the rural South, and the cooperative family networks of
prior eras of Black urban migration have eroded. These shifts portend major
problems for African-American women and point to a continuation of Black
women’s oppression, but structured through new institutional arrangements.

The effects of these changes are convincingly demonstrated in Ladner and
Gourdine’s (1984) replication study of Tomorrow’s Tomorrow, Joyce Ladner’s
(1972) study of Black female adolescents. The earlier investigation examined
poor Black teenage girls’ values toward motherhood and Black womanhood. The
girls in the original study encountered the common experiences of urban poverty—
they became mothers quite young, lived in substandard housing, attended
inferior schools, and generally had to grow up quickly in order to survive. But
despite the harshness of their environments, the girls in the earlier sample still
“had high hopes and dreams that their futures would be positive and productive”
(Ladner and Gourdine 1984, 24).

The findings from the replication study are quite different. Ladner and
Gourdine maintain that “the assessments the teenagers and their mothers made
of the socioeconomic conditions and their futures are harsher and bleaker than a
similar population a generation ago” (p. 24). In talking with young grandmothers,
all of whom looked older than they were even though the majority were in
their 30s and the youngest was age 29, Ladner and Gourdine found that all
became single parents through divorce or had never married. The strong Black
grandmothers of prior generations were not in evidence. Instead, Ladner and
Gourdine found that these young grandmothers complained about their own
unmet emotional and social needs. They appeared to feel “powerless in coping
with the demands made by their children. They comment frequently that their
children show them no respect, do not listen to their advice, and place little value
on their role as parents” (p. 23).

Sociologist Elaine Bell Kaplan’s important (1997) study of 32 teen mothers
and adult women who were once teen mothers reports similar findings. By the
1980s, reports Kaplan, so many young Black girls were “pushing strollers around
inner-city neighborhoods that they became an integral part of both the reality
and the myth concerning the sexuality of Black underclass culture” (p. xx).
Kaplan describes a threadbare, overstretched Black extended family system where
Black mothers could not support the emotional needs of their daughters. In the
absence of support, teenagers got pregnant and decided to keep their babies. Just
at a point in life when young Black girls most needed affection, many felt
unloved by their mothers, ignored by their schools, and rejected by their fathers
and boyfriends. The girls’ mothers had their own needs. Often in poor health,
anxious, distracted, and generally worn down by the struggle to raise their families
in harsh urban neighborhoods, mothers routinely saw their daughters’ pregnancies
as one more responsibility for them to bear.

Middle-class Black women
Increased access to managerial and professional positions enabled sizable
numbers of African-American women to move into the middle class in the
post–World War II political economy. Members of the new middle class work for
corporations and in the government sector, just as blue-collar workers do, and
may earn generous incomes and enjoy substantial prestige. This new Black middle
class occupies a contradictory location in the American political economy. As
is the case for their White counterparts, being middle class requires U.S. Black
professionals and managers to enter into specific social relations with owners of
capital and with workers. In particular, the middle class dominates labor and is
itself subordinate to capital. It is this simultaneous dominance and subordination
that puts it in the “middle” (Vanneman and Cannon 1987, 57). Like owners, it
exercises economic control. Professionals and managers also exercise political
controls over the conditions of their own work and that of workers. Finally,
members of the new middle class exercise ideological control of knowledge:
They are the planners of work and framers of society’s ideas.

On all three dimensions of middle-class power—economic, political, and
ideological—the Black middle class differs from its White counterpart. Persistent
racial discrimination means that Black middle-class women and men are less economically
secure than White middle-class individuals (Oliver and Shapiro 1995).
Members of the Black middle class, most of whom became middle class through
social mobility from working-class origins, may express more ambivalence concerning
their function as controllers of working-class employees, especially
working-class Blacks. While some aspire to manage working-class Blacks, others
aim to liberate them from racial oppression and poverty, while still others aim to
distance themselves from Black working-class concerns. Similarly, though many
middle-class Blacks defend dominant group ideologies, others challenge race,
gender, and class ideologies and practices.

Black feminist theorist Barbara Omolade’s (1994) three-tiered Black female
work site not only explores the needs of the clerks and clients, it points to the
new demands placed on Black women professionals. According to Omolade,
these women’s work involves a new version of “mammification,” one where the
legacy of Black women’s work in domestic service weaves itself into the very fabric
of professional Black women’s jobs. Elizabeth Higginbotham (1994) notes
that Black women professionals are disproportionately employed in the government
sector, making them especially vulnerable to political changes such as government
downsizing of the 1980s and 1990s. Moreover, within this sector, their
work can resemble that of “modern mammies,” namely, the care of the personal
needs of the destitute and the weak in public institutions. Black women professionals
are expected to fix systems which are in crisis due to underfunding, infrastructure
deterioration, and demoralized staffs. As Barbara Omolade (1994)
points out, “New mammies, especially those educated after the civil rights movement
era, have a hard time pointing to the source of their alienation and depression
or clearly identifying with a base and constituency within the Black community.
Black professional women are often in high-visibility positions which
require them to serve white superiors while quieting the natives” (p. 55).

Elaine Kaplan found the Black professional women she interviewed who
worked with Black adolescent mothers expressed ambivalence about their jobs.
By the time Kaplan finished her fieldwork at one counseling center, most of the
White staff had left, and it was being run by a predominantly Black staff. Kaplan’s
description of the reactions of the Black staff to their new status echoes
Omolade’s arguments about mammification:

The Black staff also wanted to leave but felt they would have difficulty
finding other jobs to match their skills and expertise, a problem they
attributed to racist White employers. Several Black women were promoted
at the Center as a result of the turnover.The newly promoted women also
feared the neighborhood, but for them the central issue was one of being
disadvantaged while at the same time having to work with the disadvantaged.
(Kaplan 1997, 154)

When the traditional gender differences in Black employment patterns are combined
with the economic, political, and ideological vulnerability of the Black
middle class caused by race, some interesting patterns emerge for African-
American women. Black women and men alike are more vulnerable than Whites
to being excluded from professional and managerial occupations. Fewer Black
men have such positions, but those who do have them are in higher-paying,
higher-status jobs. Greater numbers of Black women than men work in professional
and managerial positions, but theirs are lower-paying, lower-status jobs.
For Black women, most of whom are not born into the Black middle class
but who have recently arrived in it through social class mobility, dealing with the
demands of work and family as well as those of Black civil society can be unsettling
(Dumas 1980; Higginbotham and Weber 1992). Consider the case of
Leanita McClain, an African-American woman journalist raised in segregated
Chicago public housing who eventually became a feature writer for a major
Chicago newspaper (McClaurin-Allen 1989). In a widely cited piece titled “The
Middle-Class Black’s Burden,” Ms. McClain laments, “I am not comfortably middle
class; I am uncomfortably middle class. I have made it, but where?” (1986,
13). A substantial source of Ms. McClain’s frustration stemmed from her marginal
status in a range of settings. She notes, “My life abounds in incongruities.
. . . Sometimes when I wait at the bus stop with my attaché case, I meet my aunt
getting off the bus with other cleaning ladies on their way to do my neighbor’s
floors” (p. 13). No wonder Ms. McClain felt compelled to say, “I am a member
of the black middle class who has had it with being patted on the head by white
hands and slapped in the face by black hands for my success” (p. 12).

U.S. Black professional women report increasing difficulty in finding middle-
class Black men interested in marrying them. The smaller number of Black
men than Black women in professional and managerial positions represents
one important issue facing Black heterosexual women who want to marry Black
men. Given that separated and divorced Black women professionals are much less
likely to remarry than their White counterparts, higher rates of separation and
divorce may become a special problem for married Black women professionals.
When faced with the prospect of never getting married to a professional Black
man, whether by choice or by default, many professional Black women simply
go it alone.

Black feminist questions
In prior eras, African-American women’s relegation to agricultural and
domestic work more uniformly structured Black women’s oppression as “mules
uh de world.” At the turn of the twenty-first century, work still matters, but is
organized via social class formations that often place working-class and middleclass
women in new, uncharted territories. Black women’s ability to cooperate
across class lines for collective empowerment is not new, but the ways in which
those class lines have been redrawn within a global political economy is. All
African-American women encounter the common theme of having our work and
family experiences shaped by intersecting oppressions of race, gender, and class.
But this commonality is experienced differently by working-class women such as
Mabel Lincoln and by middle-class women such as Leanita McClain.

Large numbers of U.S. Black women in the working poor are employed as
cooks, laundry workers, nursing home aides, and child-care workers. These
women serve not only U.S.Whites, but more affluent U.S. Blacks, other people of
color, and recent immigrants. Dependent on public services of all sorts—public
schools for their children, health-care clinics for their checkups, buses and other
public transportation to get them to work, and social welfare bureaucracies to fill
in the gap between paychecks and monthly bills—these women can encounter
Black middle-class teachers, nurses, bus drivers, and social workers who are as
troublesome to them as White ones. Far too many Black single mothers living in
inner-city neighborhoods remain isolated and encounter middle-class Black
women primarily as police officers, social workers, teachers, or on television.
How will these working-class Black women, many of whom feel stuck in the
working poor, view their more privileged sisters?

Middle-class women face a distinctive set of challenges in thinking through
this new social context so profoundly restructured by class. In prior eras the precarious
political and social position of the small numbers of middle-class Black
women encouraged them to work on behalf of “race uplift” and fostered Black
solidarity among all African-American women. But contemporary middle-class
Black women seem to have a choice.Will they continue to value Black solidarity
with their working-class sisters, even if creating that solidarity might place them
at odds with their proscribed “mammification” duties? Or will they see their
newly acquired positions as theirs alone and thus perpetuate working-class Black
women’s subordination?

There has never been a uniformity of experience among African-American
women, a situation that is more noticeable today. What remains as a challenge to
Black feminist thinkers, working-class and middle-class alike, is to analyze how
these new structures of oppression differentially affect Black women. If this does
not occur, some U.S. Black women may in fact become instrumental in fostering
other Black women’s oppression.

Categories: child care, histories, race
  1. April 27, 2016 at 5:31 am

    There is no doubt about it that black women are definitely instrumental in fostering other black women’s oppression. Most of the managers where I work as a support worker are black women and most of the people they manager are black women and the majority of them micromanage – meaning they want TOTAL CONTROL of the work we do; they don’t allow us any say and we are literally their “mules”. It saddens me to see black women acting this way towards other black women but it has also made me understand why black people continue to be “at the bottom”.

  1. November 15, 2012 at 12:53 pm

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