There’s nothing noble about self-neglect.
When Life Coach and Personal Trainer Sabrina Parr announced the end of her one-year engagement to retired NBA All-Star Lamar Odom, half the internet let out a hearty, “Told you so!” Given Odom’s very public and very problematic marriage to Keeping Up with the Kardashian’s star, Khloe Kardashian, people appeared apprehensive when the pair made their very public engagement announcement. You could say they saw it coming. Not only did Odom’s first marriage expose his affinity for women who weren’t his wife and pharmaceuticals you couldn’t purchase from the pharmacy, his post-divorce recovery appeared to be equally extravagant.
I got to hand it to Khloe, though; she gave it the ole college try. But Lamar’s problems proved too much for her to manage, something Black women often jokingly attributed to her missing melanin. “A Black woman would’ve been got that Black man together.”, read the comments under Khloe’s post-divorce pictures. We were proud of our ability to endure the Black man’s pain to the extent that what fractured other women fueled us. “Who better equipped for him than us?” Black women asked. Enter Sabrina Parr.
As you can imagine, the news of their split didn’t go over well with many of the women who rooted their engagement. Many of them left wondering what kind of weak Black woman walks away from a Black man in pain. A gold-digger, that’s who, people in the comments protested. “Two years isn’t even long enough to know if he’s gonna change.” Another added. “She was just using him to get her business up off the ground. That’s what I think.”
The complex combination of low expectations and even lower self-worth rocked me. I watched Black women wish ill on another because she chose herself and her children over the work of her partner’s pain, something few of us had seen the Black women in our own lives do. Sure, the Black Girl Magic mantra was all fine and dandy, but what did Black women expect this professional, mother of two to do? Ignore her own and the wellbeing of her children just to prove to Black people that she could fix a forty-year-old Black man? Who taught Black women that struggle was the purpose of partnership? Did we genuinely believe that pain was a pathway to love?
Making the Matriarchal Mule
The idea that Black women are durable enough to endure a lifetime of emotional, physical, and psychological labor, and therefore, should, is as old as the plantation it was born on. The year is 1776. Location, Anywhere, USA. Here on the American plantation is where America births their beloved matriarchal mule, the Black American woman. Are you feeling offended? Rightfully so. The matriarchal mule is as much a donkey-horse hybrid as she is the queen of her castle. But try telling her that. By the time the wicked ways of the western world wring her out to dry, she’ll have been convinced that sacrificing her sanity, safety, and self all in servitude to others, somehow made her a martyr.
The matriarchal mule’s role was as much about fueling the American economy as it was about reshaping the function of the African family. Offering a sense of maternal nostalgia, the matriarchal mule represented the human ruins left behind when seas separated Queens from their crowns. Plantation families were rarely ever nuclear, often consisting of elders, adopted kin, mothers, and young children, when permitted. This dynamic remained consistent from the slave quarters to the cotton fields.
While women, children, and physically weaker men, either by age or by injury, were relegated to agricultural responsibilities, strong male slaves were made to take on more skilled jobs such alike carpentry, blacksmithing, or craftsmen work. That, or be sold to another plantation to fulfill some form of physical labor female slaves couldn’t complete. This created an unusual gender dynamic, as both male and female field workers were relegated to responsibilities most often assigned to women in West Africa, hoeing and harvesting. This intentional emasculation established the Black woman as the physical symbol of strength on the field, a designation intended to both praise and punish her.
Just like the mule, the Black woman on the plantation was the load-bearing beast, valued as a work animal, sterile in the sense that slavery rendered her incapable of producing children of her own, only living property of the plantation. The offspring of a female horse and a male donkey, one animal bred for strength, the other for physical endurance, the mule, much like the Black American woman’s plight, was designed with a purpose in mind, production.
It was the Black woman’s versatility, like the mule, her ability to carry out the same physical tasks as her male counterparts, that so impressed and repulsed the white slave-owning class. They’d never seen anything like the Black African woman at work. White women were simply incapable of bearing the same physical burdens as their men, not that she was ever expected to. This comparison earned the Black woman a reputation for having beast-like abilities. And as young male slaves became scarce on the plantation, the female field slave’s prevalence became even more pronounced. We were made for it, or so it seemed.
Rarely permitted to take skilled positions where better food and resources were often available, the Black woman became a principal on the plantation. At one point constituting nearly 60% of the field labor force, and all, yes all, of the domestic labor force. And because a healthy female slave proved more profitable to the plantation, both in terms of physical labor and her capacity for human reproduction, women were more frequently subjected to extended stays under one owner. This made Black women, particularly the elderly, the most revered representatives of our survival in physical form. They were the ones who had survived.
But make no mistake, this was no making of a matriarch, which takes more than a few mulled women to establish. Not to mention, a matriarchy moves at the behest of its’ maiden, who alone sets the social and moral makeup of her community. Nowhere on the plantation did the Black woman possess such power. Instead, her place was the caretaking of her people for the sake of their survival and the caretaking of everyone else for her own. A painful life of labor and self-sacrifice, one even her great-granddaughters would inherit.
The Cranky Caretaker
Reconstruction didn’t bring with it a role rearrangement, at least not one that the Black community could claim. Instead, we packed up our poison and propped up our own plantations where the women played the same positions as before. It was the way we had all been socialized, a source of sameness that replaced memories of a once-beloved motherland. Social dysfunction had become our new normal. Only now, Black women had one less owner to answer to. Black men, by design, wasted little time picking up the slack.
In the spirit of white supremacy, plantation owners identified innovative ways to keep their unpaid workforce at work. Many Black American men were simply physically forced to work the fields, either that or be killed. Some were falsely convicted of crimes and sentenced back to slavery. If caught without work, others were charged with vagrancy and forced into unpaid field labor, i.e., slavery by another name. Even in the face of what was intended to be his freedom, the Black man found himself fundamentally incapable of exercising his portion of privilege. This both enraged and humiliated him, having no outlet for this fury outside of the communities. And after a government promised piece of land and a mule proved to be another one of the white man’s scams, Black men entered into unbreakable land labor rental agreements known as sharecropping, bringing Black women right back with them onto the plantation.
During this point in American history, it’s inferred that Black women shifted their collective focus from social survival to making certain the Black man had a soft place to land, being that this newly found freedom was hard to navigate. This demonstrates the burden placed on Black women’s backs that we would completely sidestep the wounds she’d sustained in the war and demand she tends to the men. Self-sacrifice had become the expectation Black men had for their female companions, and why not? After so many generations engineered on the plantation, Black men had internalized the benefit of the white man’s behavior, even if only subconsciously. If we, Black women, could work the fields, cook the meals, raise the children, and willingly be of sexual service to master without a word, indeed doing the same for someone we loved wouldn’t feel nearly as much like labor.
Here we see the inception of the cranky caretaker. The Black woman strong enough to do it all and pissed that she has to. She shouldn’t have to. She’s exhausted and wishing someone would take notice. Their willingness to turn a blind eye has embittered her. Ideally, her male companions would have compassion enough to identify that demonstrating an ability to endure is not reflective of a desire to continue doing so. Instead, they too watch Black women in awe. Both impressed and repulsed by her ability to bloom while in ruin. Never taught to see us beyond our repurpose on the plantation, the matriarchal mules birthed to bear heavy loads, them.
Slavery instilled in the Black man a sense of authority over the Black woman, equipping him with an air of entitlement to the benefit of a Black woman’s work — her work in the home, her work in the world, her work in the womb. Over time, the Black man would become convinced that the benefits associated with this behavior were well worth the blisters they caused. And again, for his benefit, he expected Black women to wound. The expectation was that we labored in love, suffered silently, consented to the politics of plantation patriarchy, only this time, for the betterment of Black men, a far more personal purpose. The expectation was that we smiled to show gratitude for grace and eagerly prayed over whatever scraps were left on our plate, the same way Massa once made us. “You need to smile more, baby girl.” Black men remind us regularly. Still believing Black women owe them the appearance of peace with their predicament-how audacious of us to appear unappeased.
Black men left the plantation, having borrowed the belief that being a man meant maintaining social dominance by whatever force you felt necessary. Physical violence, intimidation, rape, sodomy, murder, war, etc. were all within a man’s right to regain power. Black men aspired to one day inflict this type of violence as they believed it to be a beacon of their progress towards patriarchal dominance. Convinced that the white man was the moral standard for male behavior, Black men modeled their treatment of Black women after his. Taking issue with her unwillingness to overlook how much he echoed their overseer. How dare we dictate to Black men how to be men, or even more egregiously, get in between them and their gender-driven obligations. Black men wouldn’t accept that it was patriarchy as an institution itself that presented the problem. They wanted their swing at-bat. And the Black woman was blocking home base.
The Celebrated, Worn Woman
Now would be a good time to ask why. If Black men have decided they have no use for the Black woman in their lives outside of the uses established by white men in power, why would Black women continue to engage? Suppose Black men are unwilling to consider that just maybe it’s not some secret “homosexual agenda” or even the school to prison pipeline that maims their manhood, but instead, the inherited oppression of their women. Why haven’t Black women decided they’ve had enough? Perhaps, because we haven’t. It would be intellectually dishonest to suggest that slavery molded Black men’s minds but left the women unscathed. Black women left the plantation equally programmed, marked by an unshakable sense of martyrdom to Black men. And while our bodies were burdened under the load, our brains had become fully affixed to the new reward system.
It wasn’t the men on the plantation speaking with authority; it was the women with wisdom. Men were incapable of holding together what little remains of our once nuclear families remained; they couldn’t prevent their families from feeling the effects of the selling and relocation of relatives seeing as they were the ones most frequently bought and sold. It was the women who seemingly provided the support and the structure for the sustenance of all life around them. And while it wore them to ruins, it became a great source of psychological pride, highlighting the beautiful burden of becoming a feast for your people to feed on.
Why would anyone want to be a celebrated, worn woman? Well, where else can a young Black girl go to see a Black woman receive her standing ovation? Certainly not in the delivery room where she ushers Black life into the world against immense odds. And not in the workplace where twice the work earns her half the respect and a discounted check. Not in artist renditions of what it means to be regal, not in the love songs and sonnets that Black men sing, not even in films about infatuation, including the ones featuring Black women. Where does a Black girl go to see a Black woman receive her roses, be loved, honored, and handled with concern? She goes to her grandmother’s house, where she’ll see a celebrated, worn woman in all her glory, the beloved matriarchal mule of the family.
But there’s nothing glamorous about that glory. For it is as symbolic as it is synthetic. The celebrated, worn woman is no different than the matriarchal mule she’s modeled after. She’s just as tired as she was on the plantation, only now she’s working to the tune of applause. It’s as if the world is surprised that she survived. It is her resilience they’ve come to respect, if anything. But their treatment of the Black woman hasn’t changed a bit; the expectation of self-sacrifice painfully persists.
She might still be in the industry of servitude, raising grandchildren or grown men, whoever needs her most. Or she’s fussing at the “Man of the House”; cooking and cleaning around his feet after four decades together. “That’s a good woman, right there. I love that woman to death.” He’ll proudly proclaim while watching her work, unmotivated to move a muscle. Neither of them wears wedding rings despite their decades-long courtship, mainly because granddad decided that level of commitment wasn’t worth the effort. She’ll roll her eyes in response to his praise as her granddaughters look on silently, absorbing the energy of the exchange, studying their grandmother, the celebrated worn woman.
She cloaks her exhaustion in attitude, but she refuses to lay down her load. The adoration, even if only an act, is enough to make her feel loved, finally. She accepts that it is through their neediness the people she loves love her back. Therefore, it must just be her divine purpose to pour into others even if pouring from an empty pot; why else would the universe gift her all that girth?
And what do her granddaughters gather from all this? What then do they internalize as their destiny, if not for a life of emotional, physical, and psychological labor in exchange for the delayed affirmations and affection of Black men, whether they be her sons, brothers, or lovers? We have been taught that the wages of labor are love, that we earn affection in the “free world” the same way we did in the fields, by burdening our bodies for it. Our outlook on romantic relationships is no different, in the sense that we’ve wielded our worthiness to our willingness to work. If you love a man, any man, the proof is in your pain. And it’s through that submission to sacrifice that we demonstrate our deep desire to be loved.
What woman doesn’t desire the same? Especially on this part of the planet where a man’s adoration is the highest form of affection a woman can achieve. Misogynoir, the ingrained dislike, and distrust of Black women makes these milestones that much harder to reach. Arguing that Black women are least deserving of the standard of treatment that other women struggle to enjoy. Plantation patriarchy taught enslaved West Africans one crucial thing; leverageable lineage was passed paternally, making the male more valuable, even with his Black skin. Black women, however, possessed no such saving grace. There was nothing inherently good about being a woman, and certainly nothing salvageable about being Black.
It was understood that west African children couldn’t benefit from the practice of patriarchy in the same ways that white children could, i.e., through the inheritance of land, resources and physical freedom, but, by and large, we attributed that to our Blackness. Patriarchy, in and of itself, was presented to be a positive thing. It was our skin that relegated us to our slave status. Still, apart from that shared sin, Black men inherited patriarchy’s institutional privileges, even if their ability to exercise those privileges was systemically suppressed.
Under that institutionalized oppression, our perception of freedom became filled with the inverted images of our oppression. Black men internalized that once they obtained their freedom, they too could feel the pronounced perks of patriarchy. But Black men quickly learned where they could and couldn’t flex their sexist muscles. The recourses of racism proved inescapable. While generally recognized as members of the male sex, Black men found themselves unable to fend off the cannibalistic claims made against Black manhood. This all but ensured that Black men would never entirely escape the systemic erasure of their humanity.
So, it was mainly within the community’s confines that Black men beat their chests and demanded their testicle-tied dominance. After all, they were still men, remember? And under the practice of patriarchy, that meant something. Well, it meant something for Black women to, who by existing at the intersection of Blackness and womanhood, experienced a double degradation. Sexism supports patriarchy by promoting the idea that women are inherently inferior to men, thereby making patriarchy a practice that just makes sense. Then misogyny creates safeguards around this sentiment, threatening those who dare to oppose. Finally, misogynoir creates further separation within the sexes, reinforcing a race-based hierarchy wherein white women occupy the highest tier and Black women line the lowest levels.
These checks and balances behave like an invisible playpen, separating Black people from power while providing Black men just enough window to witness the width of their privilege through the lives of white men who are free to exercise it fully. This horse and carrot recreation lends itself to the apparent frustration Black men experience with their stunted status. What could be more frustrating than to be a man who lacks access to might and means? This leaves Black women who exist in that invisible playpen with them in a significantly compromised position. Not only do we suffer the fury of the Black man’s frustrations, but Black men also demonstrate time and time again a willingness to use our backs to boost themselves up and over the side, where they believe the real rewards for manhood exist.
Black women, in many Black men’s minds, are a right, not a reward. But the exaltation of whiteness through the vehicle of white supremacy makes white women valuable by default. This is what makes a white woman inherently more valuable as a housewife. It’s what makes the 50–50 financial conversation such a hot button issue in Black households and nowhere else. It’s what makes a marriage license a meaningless, useless piece of paper, but not a lease, a license, or a bank loan. No other race of women is expected to bear burdens simply because their backs are strong enough to do so. No other woman is expected to labor her whole life in exchange for love, only the Black woman, who is considered inherently undeserving anyway. Go figure.
Perhaps, Black women need a new love language; everyone knows we speak fluent strength. Plainly put, laboring hasn’t earned us the love we deserve yet, and yes, people can love you a little too late. We are not the Black man’s backbone; we are his glorified punching bag. Generations ago, somebody taught us wrong. But our realities are real enough to drive home the point. We’ve built everyone but ourselves, and what has it won us? I’ll wait. Let’s not be fooled into fearing that loving ourselves more will result in our abandonment by Black men. For starters, we’ve already been abandoned. Secondly, any man who has benefited from our emotional, mental, and physical labor for as long as Black men have doesn’t get to guilt us for wanting to share in the benefits he’s been hoarding.
How many ‘Ride or Die’ men do you know? Yet how many of these same men want Black women who ascribe to this self-sacrificing ideology? It’s time we acknowledge that we cannot earn affection with emotional endurance; else, we’d have more of it than any other woman walking the earth. It’s not even affection Black men are offering in exchange for our eternal devotion. It’s tolerance, which is nowhere near enough. Affection is freely, willingly given by those who believe you deserve it. Otherwise, you become affected by the displaced burden of proving your worth to someone who’s admittedly unwilling to see it.
Black women, we have become affected, tricked into believing there was a love worth sacrificing ourselves, embittered by the recurring reality that we’re wrong. Black men who have become accustomed to our servitude, to our dedication, to our selflessness, to our torrential pain tolerance cannot be counted on to suddenly decide that our peace is their priority. Let’s be real; we can barely get Black men to commit to our protection, but these are the same Black men who would throw themselves on the physical and metaphorical front lines in defense of white men and women. While not responsible for how the institution of white supremacy has waged war on the Black household, Black men are responsible for the side they choose to fight for. It is not the responsibility of patriarchy that Black men are after, it is the reward, and that foggy focus will always force Black women to the back burner.
If ever there were a love worth laboring for, it would be our own. That is the only love today’s Black women should be looking for. Yes, I said it. There’s nothing noble about self-neglect. In fact, it defies the first law of nature, which is the unapologetic preservation of the self. Most Black men will reject that sentiment, and to be honest, most Black women will too. Affixed to that old objective that says a Black woman’s highest achievement is that of a Black man’s steppingstone. They’ll see it as selfish, the idea of a Black woman loving herself enough to love herself first, they’ll struggle to imagine a world where the Black man isn’t the winning prize at the end of a Black woman’s race. I unashamedly say it is about damn time. That’s the world I want to see.