By Melissa Harris-Lacewell | TheRoot.com
Why some of us aren't falling for it.
Feb. 8, 2008--There's been a lot of talk about women and their choices since Super Tuesday, when African American women overwhelmingly voted for Sen. Barack Obama, while white women picked Sen. Hillary Clinton. Some pundits automatically concluded that "race trumped gender" among black women. I hate this analysis because it relegates black women to junior-partner status in political struggles. It is not that simple. A lot of people have tried to gently explain the divide, so I'm just going to put this out there: Sister voters have a beef with white women like Clinton that is both racial and gendered. It is not about choosing race; it is about rejecting Hillary's Scarlett O'Hara act.
Black women voters are rejecting Hillary Clinton because her ascendance is not a liberating symbol. Her tears are not moving. Her voice does not resonate. Throughout history, privileged white women, attached at the hip to their husband's power and influence, have been complicit in black women's oppression. Many African American women are simply refusing to play Mammy to Hillary.
The loyal Mammy figure, who toiled in the homes of white people, nursing their babies and cleaning and cooking their food, is the most enduring and dishonest representation of black women. She is a uniquely American icon who first emerged as our young country was trying to put itself back together after the Civil War. The romanticism about this period is a bizarre historical anomaly that underscores America's deep racism: The defeated traitors of the Confederacy have been allowed to reinterpret the war's battles, fly the flag of secession over state houses, and raise monuments to those who fought to tear down the country. Southern white secessionists were given the power to rewrite history even as America's newest citizens were relegated to forced agricultural peonage, grinding urban poverty and new forms segregation and racial terror.
Mammy was a central figure in this mythmaking and she was perfect for the role. The Mammy myth allowed Americans in the North and South to ignore the brutality of slavery by claiming that black women were tied to white families through genuine bonds of affection. Mammy justified past enslavement and continuing oppression.
Privileged, Southern white women were central in creating and propagating the Mammy myth. In 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy were nearly successful in lobbying Congress to erect a statue on federal land to honor "the memory of the faithful colored mammies of the South." The desire to memorialize Mammy reveals how Southern white women reveled in the subordinate role of their darker peers. These black women were vulnerable to the sexual and labor exploitation of slaveholders and household employers. These women masked their true thoughts and personalities in order to gain a modicum of security for themselves and their families. The Mammy monument was meant to display black women as the faithful, feisty, loyal servants of white domesticity.
In the face of the Mammy myth, real black women spoke for themselves against the monument. It was substantial, sustained, opposition from organized African American women and the black press that killed the Mammy monument proposal.
Media have cast the choice in the current election as a simple binary between race and gender. But those who claim that black women are ignoring gender issues by voting for Barack just don't get it. Hillary cannot have black women's allegiance for free. Black women will not be relegated to the status of supportive Mammy, easing the way for privileged white women to enter the halls of power.
Black feminist politics is not simple identity politics. It is not about letting brothers handle the race stuff or about letting white women dominate the gender stuff. The black women's fight is on all fronts. Sisters resist the ways that black male leaders try to silence women's issues and squash women's leadership. At the same time, black women challenge white women who want to claim black women's allegiance without acknowledging the realities of racism. They will not be drawn into any simple allegiance that refuses to account their full humanity and citizenship.
Black women want out of the war. Black women need health insurance. Black women need decent schools for their children. Black women need a strong economy that creates jobs. Black women need help caring for their aging parents. Black women want a Democratic win in the fall. Sisters chose Barack on Tuesday because they believe he can deliver these things and that is much more empowering than just having a woman in the White House.
Melissa Harris-Lacewell is associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University.