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April 2013

African-American women’s oppression has encompassed three interdependent dimensions. First, the exploitation of Black women’s labor essential to U.S. capitalism—the ‘iron pots and kettles’ symbolizing Black women’s long-standing ghettoization in service occupations—represents the economic dimension of oppression. Survival for most African-American women has been such an all-consuming activity that most have had few opportunities to do intellectual work as it has been traditionally defined. The drudgery of enslaved African-American women’s work and the grinding poverty of ‘free’ wage labor in the rural South tellingly illustrate the high costs Black women have paid for survival. The millions of impoverished African-American women ghettoized in Philadelphia, Birmingham, Oakland, Detroit, and other U.S. inner cities demonstrate the continuation of these earlier forms of Black women’s economic exploitation.

Second, the political dimension of oppression has denied African-American women the rights and privileges routinely extended to White male citizens. Forbidding Black women to vote, excluding African-Americans and women from public office, and with- holding equitable treatment in the criminal justice system all substantiate the political subordination of Black women. Educational institutions have also fostered this pattern of disenfranchisement. Past practices such as denying literacy to slaves and relegating Black women to underfunded, segregated Southern schools worked to ensure that a quality education for Black women remained the exception rather than the rule. The large numbers of young Black women in inner cities and impoverished rural areas who continue to leave school before attaining full literacy represent the continued efficacy of the political dimension of Black women’s oppression.

Finally, controlling images applied to Black women that originated during the slave era attest to the ideological dimension of U.S. Black women’s oppression. Ideology refers to the body of ideas reflecting the interests of a group of people. Within U.S. culture, racist and sexist ideologies permeate the social structure to such a degree that they become hegemonic, namely, seen as natural, normal, and inevitable. In this context, certain assumed qualities that are attached to Black women are used to justify oppression. From the mammies, jezebels, and breeder women of slavery to the smiling Aunt Jemimas on pancake mix boxes, ubiquitous Black prostitutes, and ever-present welfare mothers of contemporary popular culture, negative stereotypes applied to African-American women have been fundamental to Black women’s oppression.


Patricia Hill Collins

This is important. Labor/capitalism, the political sphere and through media/controlling images. All three are critical areas to address in regards to the oppression that Black women experience. Thus, whenever I see a womanist/Black feminist addressing one of these areas at a time, I don’t flip out and start thinking she “should” address “X” instead  of “Y” because all three of these areas impact our lives greatly. Her “lane” might be to tackle labor while another focuses on voter suppression while another focuses on reproductive justice. It never means that they don’t care about the full picture—they LIVE the full picture.

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