This post is part of the Gender and Domination Course in OOPS.

The black American woman resides in a conceptual space that exhibits a profound and complex network of interwoven modes of oppression. Throughout “Mammies, Matriarchs, and Other Controlling Images” from Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Patricia Hill Collins identifies the varying stereotypes and culturally legible positions that black American woman are forced to occupy. Whereas “angry black woman” is noticeably absent from Collins’s taxonomy, the following are included:

  • Mammy: desexualized, domesticated, and harmless
  • Black lady: asexual or masculinized, beneficiary of affirmative action (unworthy of her position), uncaring
  • Matriarch: bad mother, emasculator, catalyst for culture of poverty
  • Welfare mom/queen: overly sexualized, lazy, conniving, catalyst for culture of poverty
  • Hoochie: only sexuality, emblem of compulsory heterosexuality, deceptive (72-82)

These categorical constructions clearly attempt to deny subjective agency to black women by turning all available avenues of self-identification into sites of oppression. That is, thought together, these labels form an ever-expanding discursive net that aims to capture all modes of black female agency, reducing them to categories that are subsumed under (and reflective of) the hegemony of patriarchal, white supremacist culture.

To combat these controlling images, implementations of oppressive social structures and traditions, Collins discusses the process of “emerging.” Specifically, Collins writes that the “emergent Black women” in the literature of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, and Alice Walker point toward a possible way in which Black women “[carve] out new definitions of Black womanhood” (95). For Collins, the emergent black woman’s path toward positive, agentive, self-actualization is never a given; obstacles, both internal and external, will always be presented along the way. These can take the form of a denial of one’s social position or alliances; escaping reality via drugs, alcohol, religion, or madness; or internalization of controlling images and ideologies (93-94). However, even in the face of such opposition, Collins maintains that it is viable (and necessary) for black women to resist the force of these images.

Collins’s analysis relies on knowing which images, constructions, and vehicles of oppression to resist. Indeed, at the beginning of her analysis, after sketching the tripartite structure of black female oppression (economic, political, ideological), Collins states, “on some level, people who are oppressed usually know it” (8). Collins is not necessarily committing herself to any epistemological claim with this statement, deliberately hedging with the phrases “on some level” and “usually.” But even this level of commitment poses problems.

If the hegemonic nexus of racism and sexism is as pervasive as it seems, if it can find an oppressive category to structure the identity of black women no matter their actions, how can we be sure that “knowing” one’s oppression is possible, let alone sufficient? That is, how can people be sure that their resistance to one image or ideology (or even a series of images or ideologies) is not backing her into another? Thinking of the black woman as an emergence, as a process, is certainly a powerful vehicle for resisting such a problem. The individual conceptualized not as a reified subject but instead as an ever-evolving process may be capable of resisting the stereotypical strictures that Collins examines. But Collins’s analysis of emergence is (at least in these chapters) limited to fiction. To understand the emergent black woman as a potentially emancipatory identity, Collins needs to be able to map this process onto the lived identities of subjects, not just within the (powerful and illuminating) works of Walker, Morrison, and Hurston. This critique is not meant to suggest that such an abstraction is impossible (nor to negate the generative potential of literature), but merely that, in these pages, Collins does not take such a step.