Zora Neale Hurston famously observed in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” that black women are “de mule[s] uh de world.” This quote offers brutal insight on the multiple oppressions that restrict the life options of black women. To be a mule, as Hurston describes it, is to function as perpetual carrier of everyone else’s “stuff”— often to one’s own detriment. The mule as trope for black womanhood clearly evokes slavery, but it also illustrates the misrepresentation that was, and is, part and parcel of the racializing and sexualizing of black women. To be a mule in this sense is to shoulder the expectations, frustrations and projecting gaze(s) of others. Hurston’s observation is a stark reminder of the interlocking burdens of black womanhood in an anti-black and anti-woman society. Sadly, it seems, this observation remains prescient into the present day.
The recent backlash emerging from Serena Williams’ confrontation with a tennis official over his rulings provides fodder for much reflection on the intersections between race, gender, embodiment and white perceptions of black womanhood.
Australian cartoonist Mark Knight has received widespread condemnation for his artistic rendering of Ms. Williams’ recent match with Naomi Osaka. There, Ms. Williams is shown with with exaggerated bodily features throwing a tantrum and juxtaposed with Ms. Osaka, who is Haitian and Japanese, and in the cartoon has noticeably whitened skin.
The imagery evokes an insidious part of America’s racial legacy: the popularity of minstrel shows, in which white actors would don black face to lampoon African American speech and culture under slavery. Womanist ethicist Emilie Townes discussed this demeaning and extensive portrayal throughout America’s history as the “white fantastic hegemonic imagination”— or the collective assessment of black personhood as lodged and constructed within white America’s racial perceptions.
There is a long history of this mode of discursive dehumanization of African American women — often manifest in stereotypes that were popular in minstrel shows, and in more modern cinematic depictions. Under slavery and into Jim Crow, these stereotypes included the “Mammy,” the “Sapphire” and the “Jezebel.” During the Reagan presidency with its conservative, anti-welfare state platforms, a new racial trope tethered to poor black womanhood emerged in the form of the “Welfare Queen.”
With Serena Williams, another distorted trope is evoked: the Angry Black Woman. Such a representation is typically cast whenever a black woman has the audacity to confront, or not show deference to, male authority. Whether cartoonist Mark Knight realized it or not, his depiction of Ms. Williams was firmly within an historical tradition of insulting and degrading black womanhood. Beyond this, however, Mr. Knight also gave credence to the practice of policing black women’s embodiment — particularly their emotive composure. The lesson from such responses to Serena Williams is this: For black women, if you are angry about something that is impactful upon your experience of the world, shut up and take it. Aside from the double standards pertaining to what is “acceptable” behavior for men and women in professional sports, another consequence of this kind of policing is that black women’s voices are effectively silenced.
Thinking ahead, it might prove fruitful to reflect on what kind of environment we are creating in which we encourage — or in some cases, outright coerce — women of all backgrounds to silence themselves through tactics of public shaming and ridicule when they decide to speak up against circumstances that they deem unjust, unfair or discriminatory. The power of women’s voices is in part why the #MeToo movement has garnered much broad-based support, as it provides a platform for women to be confrontational and address those entities, persons and institutions that have aided in their degradation.
Alice Walker’s “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” noted that womanists embody a courageous self-regard insisting upon one’s personhood, integrity and autonomy. Ms. Walker’s framing addresses the undaunted capacity of black women’s voices to confront the toxic components of their lives. I make no assessments of Serena Williams’ personal identification with womanist thought, but for all intents and purposes, her impassioned and relentless confrontation with the tennis umpire does parallel Ms. Walker’s definition. And to be sure, Ms. Williams paid the price of social, racial, and gendered stigmatization and ridicule. In our context, black female agency and voice is not rewarded.
Serena Williams is a powerful case study of the politics of black women’s assertiveness and willful self-regard. Rather than ridiculing and shaming women’s voices, societally, we should encourage the confrontational spirit that Ms. Williams displayed. For only in women asserting voice can they cultivate the personal and psychical resources to reject and resist the sources of their misrepresentation and dehumanization.
Darrius D. Hills (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of religious studies at Morgan State University.