ABSTRACT

Honey, de white man is the de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. —Zora Neale Hurston 1937, 16

With these words Nanny, an elderly African-American woman in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, explains Black women’s “place” to her young, impressionable granddaughter. Nanny knows that being treated as “mules uh de world” lies at the heart of Black women’s oppression.Thus, one core theme in U.S. Black feminist thought consists of analyzing Black women’s work, especially Black women’s labor market victimization as “mules.” As dehumanized objects, mules are living machines and can be treated as part of the scenery. Fully human women are less easily exploited. As mill worker Corine Cannon observes, “Your work, and this goes for white people and black, is what you are . . . your work is your life” (Byerly 1986, 156).