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Female slaves were de-gendered under the slavery system that fabricated denigrating images about them and constructed them as sexed, though, genderless females. This warping of the Black woman's gender continued into the Reconstruction era, where condescending images were invented by White America to maintain the social subordination of Black women, and through today with the figure of the "welfare queen". However, these images were challenged by Black feminist activists, critics, novelists and artists. Morrison is one of many examples of Black female writers who have resisted derogatory social constructions by White America. I am interested in Morrison specifically because she uses the other-mothering and community other-mothering tradition in her novels in order to disrupt these constructions. In this paper, I examine one case of Black female resistance, Morrison's Sula. I argue that, in this novel, Morrison subverts three stereotypical images of Black women-- the "breeder", the "matriarch" and the "jezebel"-- through West African practices of other-mothering, community other-mothering and biological mothering. I rely on the theories of Stanlie M. James and Patricia Hill Collins to develop my argument. The paper is divided into four sections. The first section discusses how Black females were dispossessed of their gender under slavery. The second section presents the stereotypical images formed about them after slavery. The third section provides definitions of other-mothering and community other-mothering and links these practices to their West African origins. The last section discloses how other-mothering, community other-mothering and blood mothering overthrow the "breeder", "matriarch" and "jezebel" images of Black women in Sula.

The De-gendering of Black Females under Slavery

In her essay "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American Grammar Book", Hortense Spillers evaluates the concept of womanhood and motherhood through the framework of a shared body.[ii] In her examination of slavery in America, she argues that female slaves did not have a similar connection to the maternal as their White mistresses despite the fact that they were capable of delivering children as their mistresses. While White women or mothers were able to nurture their children, Black females were denied this right and were perceived merely as "breeders" by the slaveholding class. Unlike White women whose children belonged to them, Black female slaves did not "own" their children who were instead possessed by their White masters who would separate the children from their mothers and sell them. Spillers makes use of the history of slavery in order to contend that female slaves and their daughters did not have a gender identity similar to that of their mistresses and their daughters. She goes further and suggests that female slaves were divested of their gender. Similarly, Angela Davis contends that women were genderless from the perspectives of the slaveholders who regarded them as a profitable workforce.[iii] As Spillers and David, Elizabeth V. Spelman also talks about the de-gendering of slaves. She states that this concept has existed in the West at least since Aristotle's Politics: "Aristotle does not allow for the possibility of slaves who are women, but only for slaves who are female—for he draws a distinction between woman and slave in such a way that 'woman' can only mean free woman, not slave woman".[iv]

Since female slaves were presented as genderless, they could not be "mothers". Spillers argues that White mistresses, the only gendered females, were the only females who were acknowledged as mothers. In contrast with their mistresses, female slaves were not allowed the choice to mother because they were not perceived as gendered females by the slaveholding class. Female slaves, being sexed females, could give birth to offspring, but, being genderless, they could not "mother" their offspring. Spillers states that slavery made the disruption of kinship bonds mandatory so that property relations were maintained.[v] By retaining property relations, the value of the offspring, which would have been reduced if the offspring had been sanctioned to belong to their slave parents instead of their masters, was also retained.

Instead of being recognized as mothers, female slaves were indeed viewed as "breeders" who, like animals, were capable of giving birth to offspring in an easy manner. The image of the female slave as a "breeder" was propagated by the slaveholding class to defend their intervention in the reproductive life of female slaves and their standpoint about fertility.[vi] For slave-owners, every newly-born offspring stood for a valuable chattel, a worker, and, potentially, a reproducer of more slaves if the offspring was a female. Therefore, female slaves were required to produce offspring, and they were esteemed for their breeding capacity.

Had female slaves been gendered and perceived as "women" rather than "chattel", I posit the slavery system would not have continued for around two centuries. Davis proposes that industrialization in America brought about division between the private and public spheres and reinforced female subordination. Yet, Davis points out that "the economical arrangements of slavery contradicted the hierarchical sexual roles incorporated in the new ideology".[vii]The discrepancy between the economical target of slavery and the hierarchical stratification of sexual roles was solved by de-gendering female slaves and constructing the myth that they were "masculinized sub-human creatures" rather than women.[viii] Slave-owners masculinized female slaves, I argue, to explain the capacity of the latters to perform male roles. In contradistinction to their White mistresses, female slaves were not affected by inhibiting gender roles, and they often did men's work.

In addition to economic reasons, female slaves were denied the right to womanhood due to their supposed lack of purity. Female slaves were portrayed as promiscuous "jezebels" by the slaveholding culture who disregarded whether they were obliged to perform this role or they embraced it freely. Female slaves' presumed promiscuity was in opposition to the meaning of true womanhood which was founded on woman's purity and chastity in the Victorian period. Piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity were the four main virtues which true womanhood was made up of. Purity was deemed to be a quality "as essential as piety to a young woman, its absence as unnatural and unfeminine".[ix] Hence, female slaves, frequently raped by their masters, would not fit into the category of womanhood as defined in the Victorian period.

To justify the sexual violation of female slaves, slave-owners created the image of the promiscuous "jezebel". During the slavery era, Black females were characterized as "sexually aggressive wet nurses".[x] The creation of the "jezebel" image by the slaveholding class aimed at stereotyping Black female slaves as sexually aggressive, a stereotype which justified sexual exploitations by White men. The "jezebel" image also had a second function. It endorsed the "breeder" stereotype of female slaves. Having unbridled sexual desires, female slaves, then, were expected to be highly fertile and give birth to numerous offspring/chattel/labor units. 

The Stereotypical Images of Black Women after Slavery

The ideology of White supremacy that arose after the Civil War constructed interconnected images of the Black woman, updated for changing times and political and social realities. These images are the "mammy", the "matriarch", the "welfare mother" and the "hoochie". These four-fold images best illustrate how Black women are gendered in post-Civil War America as they are the outcome of an intersection between gender and race. Through these images, the traditional good/bad mother and mother/whore binaries are reproduced and Black women are again prevented from holding a normative social position. Each of these images manifests the concern of the dominant group to keep Black women in a subordinate position.

The "mammy" represents the loyal and submissive servant of the house who displays love, care and nurturance to the White family where she serves more than her own and who is aware of her subordination and accepts it.[xi] She epitomizes the ideal relationship between Black females and elite White males from the perspectives of the dominant group. The image of the "mammy" is constructed to rationalize the economic exploitation of Black female servants and justify the place of Black women as domestic servants.

The second image, the "matriarch", represents the figure of the Black mother in her own home as conceived by the dominant group.[xii] While the "mammy" is a symbol of the good Black mother, the "matriarch" embodies the "bad" mother. The "matriarch" is perceived to be contributing to the problems that Black society suffers from because she does not perform the conventional duty of a woman. Being a working mother, the "matriarch" is presumed to be unable to look after her children due to her long absence from home and, therefore, she is deemed to be partly responsible for the failure of her children at school. Also, the "matriarch" is described as excessively aggressive and unfeminine and is accused of emasculating her partner who forsakes her for comprehensible reasons. The image of the "matriarch" functions as a stigma that refers to Black women who renounce the image of the submissive "mammy".

Following World War II, African-Americans obtained rights they were not allowed to have previously, which permitted them to refuse to take the exploitative jobs that their parents and grandparents agreed to do.[xiii] During this time, the "welfare mother" image is developed to criticize Black women who use welfare benefits granted to them by law.[xiv] This occurred at a time when U.S. manufacturing and agricultural sectors were suffering from a decrease in profitable opportunities. Hence, the surplus population, which did not mean cheap labor anymore, became, from the viewpoint of the dominant group, menacing to the stability of the economic and political systems, and it became necessary to this group to limit Black women's fertility. The image of the "welfare mother" accomplishes this purpose by depicting the fertility of Black women as superfluous and threatening to the values of the country. The "welfare mother" is, as the "matriarch", represented as a bad mother. However, the reason behind her stigmatization is different. She is characterized as someone who avoids work and who is pleased to sit down doing nothing, receive welfare benefits and transmit her bad values to her children.

The fourth and final image is the "hoochie". As the image of the slavery-era "jezebel", such a construction embodies the deviant sexuality of the Black woman.[xv] In the racialized heterosexual society of the U.S., binary male and female sexuality of normative heterosexuality are given a racial character by ascribing sexual activity and passivity to White men and women respectively and excluding Black people from heterosexual normality.[xvi] The perverse sexuality of Black women is established upon the sexual desires of the "hoochie". Having an excessive sexual desire, the "hoochie" is masculinized, because, as a man, she has a desire for sex, and denounced. In a social context where submissive female heterosexuals are largely judged to be feminine, women who are sexually aggressive like men are stigmatized as perverse and unfeminine.

The Tradition of Other-mothering and Community Other-mothering

Black feminist theorists, particularly, Collins and James, represent Black mothering in a way which diverges from dominant group depictions. These theorists elaborate in their work on the traditions of other-mothering and community other-mothering in American Black communities. Collins foregrounds these traditions while examining the connection between "the meaning of motherhood in African-American culture and Black mother-daughter relationships".[xvii] As for James, she employs the traditions of other-mothering to argue that these models of mothering could function as a significant link through which new patterns for social transformation are developed.[xviii]This section introduces the concepts of other-mothering and community other-mothering and connects their manifestations in the United States with their West African roots.

The idea of other-mothering has emerged in Black communities as a result of the increasing need for sharing in the task of nurturing children.[xix] James defines other-mothers as "those who assist blood mothers in the responsibilities of child care for short- to long-term periods, in informal to formal arrangements. They can be, but are not confined to, such blood relatives as grandmothers, sisters, aunts, cousins or supportive fictive kin".[xx] Other-mothers have been fundamental to the tradition of Black motherhood because there has been awareness in Black communities of the indiscreetness of entrusting one person with the entire responsibility for mothering.[xxi] Other-mothers have provided support to both children renounced by their blood-mothers and to blood-mothers who have not been prepared or inclined to take care of their children.[xxii]

While other-mothers usually take charge of looking after children, community other-mothers assume responsibility for caring for the community. James explains that only women who are more than forty years old could attain the rank of a community other-mother due to two reasons. First, community other-mothers have to display over time that they have the virtue of care, a virtue very important to the welfare and continuity of their communities. Second, at the age of forty, Black women would be old enough to have assimilated the tradition and culture of their communities, which is necessary for a Black woman who is a community other-mother.[xxiii] Being respected in the community due to her wisdom and exemplary way of behaving as a mother and/or other-mother, the community other-mother could evaluate the behavior of community members, counsel them on how to behave appropriately as well as appraise the situations that could have a harmful influence on the welfare of the community.[xxiv] She is a person who prompts the progress and carrying out of plans contrived to counteract these adverse conditions.

James argues that the practice of other-mothering originated from the custom of communal lifestyles and the mutual dependence of community members, which characterized West African communities. In addition to being a way to help women with mothering responsibilities, fostering children, according to James, was a way to advocate communal values, protect the possibility of co-operation among members of the Black community, expand children's earliest relationships in their community and "[minimize] what was often viewed as a dysfunctional emphasis on individualism within a communal setting".[xxv] However, during slavery, enslaved West Africans were obliged to forsake their communal values. Despite the fact that it was not possible for enslaved West Africans to reproduce and preserve their traditional values in the new world, some of West African traditions, such as the mutual dependence of social groups, were apparently adapted to help enslaved West Africans handle the severe situations they confronted under the oppressive and exploitative system of slavery. Female slaves' caring for children whose parents were dead or sold makes visible Black slaves' adaptation of the West African custom of fostering children to suit the requirements of the community of slaves in the United States, and James claims it has been since then that the West African tradition of nurturing children has been recognized as other-mothering.[xxvi]

Other-mothering, Community Other-mothering, Blood-mothering and their Political Function in Sula

This section examines how the practices of other-mothering, community other-mothering and biological mothering are manifested in Sula. I argue that other-mothering and community other-mothering, rooted in West African heritage, along with the practice of biological mothering, serve three functions in the novel. First, they affirm the maternal quality of the Black woman and undermine the image of the "breeder". Second, they illustrate how the borderline between male and female roles in matters related to the economic support and the nurturance of children is indefinite in West African culture and how self-reliant Black mothers exhibit feminine qualities to subvert the image of the Black "matriarch". Third, they underline how Black mothering affirms the role of a wife and a mother and, hence, subvert the "jezebel" image of Black womanhood. The images of the "mammy" and the "welfare mother" are not challenged in Sula because there are no Black domestic servants working in White households or mothers living on welfare.

Sula (1974) is Morrison's second novel published four years after the publication of her first novel The Bluest Eyes. Sula, set over a hill called Bottom in the town of Medallion and in a time period which extends from 1919 to 1965, deals with various themes such as African-American oppression, Black women bonding and maternal love. The novel defies racial stereotypes while registering the destiny of a group of Black women in two matriarchal households. It focuses mainly on Nel and Sula, the two characters whose lives epitomize the limited lifestyle choices available for Black women in contemporary America.

In Sula, several characters act as other-mothers, and some of them are old enough to be community other-mothers and judge the behavior of other community members such as Helene Wright's grandmother and Eva. Born in one of the houses of prostitution, Wright, the daughter of a Creole whore, is raised by her grandmother who, acting as a community other-mother, considers that the work of Wright's biological mother as a whore makes her unfit to bring up her daughter. Mrs. Suggs, Eva's neighbor, performs other-mothering. She takes care of Eva's children after Eva entrusts them to her telling her that she will return the next day. She has fostered them for eighteen months without displaying any sign that denotes that she is bothered by the task of other-mothering Eva's children. Like Wright's grandmother, Eva, (whose name is an allusion to Eve, the mother of all human beings), is both an other-mother and a community other-mother. She nurtures her granddaughter Sula after Hannah moves to live with her following the death of her husband. Also, she provides shelter and protection to the three Deweys, children born with physical deformation and rejected by their parents, and Tar Baby, a half white, wine-addicted and anti-social boy, and, as a mother does, she bestows names on them as well. The community other-mothering role of Eva is manifested in the novel through the criticism she directs at Sula's and Nel's behavior, the first of them does nothing to rescue her mother whom she sees burning to death and refuses to marry and have children and the second watches passively the drowning of Chicken Little without trying to save him.

Eva Peace's maternal characteristic is established in the novel even before the action begins to accelerate. Being forsaken by her husband with three children and no money to feed them at the beginning of the novel, Eva leaves her children with her neighbor and comes back after eighteen months with a leg cut, yet with enough money to build a house with many rooms, some of which she rents and uses the others to shelter those who are ostracized by society. Eva's act of self-mutilation by putting her leg under a train to take insurance is interpreted by Terry Otten as a proof of her "ruthless love" for her children.[xxvii] Eva's cruel love is manifested again in the novel when she burns her son Plum to save him from a life he no longer feels interested in living, an act which Barbara Christian describes as "a ritual killing inspired by love—a ritual sacrifice by fire".[xxviii] The violent love that Eva displays in the novel is a sign of the intensity of her maternal love. Yet, as she evinces cruel love, Eva is compassionate and merciful as well. She offers rooms in her house to the Blacks ostracized by society; she gives generously to her granddaughter Sula; she recurrently expresses her abundant love for her children. Trying to rescue her daughter who caught fire, she "smashed the windowpane [...], threw herself out of the window. Cut and bleeding she clawed the air trying to aim her body toward the flaming, dancing figure".[xxix] Eva's love for her children, along with the other-mothering and community other-mothering practices she performs with other Black women, shows the maternal qualities of Black women and, concurrently, disrupts the stereotypical image of the Black woman as a "breeder".

Furthermore, the image of the "matriarch" that the dominant group attributes to working Black mothers is overturned in Sula. Morrison foregrounds the haziness of the sex-role boundary, the dividing line between male and female roles, which separates between the sexual category of the provider for the family and that of the nurturer of children in West African culture and emphasizes the femininity of independent Black mothers to bring down the "matriarch" image. White and Black motherhood differs from each other markedly concerning the role expected of mothers: "While the archetypal White, middle-class nuclear family conceptualizes family life as being divided into two oppositional spheres—the 'male' sphere of economic providing and the 'female' sphere of affective nurturing--this type of rigid sex role segregation was not part of the West African tradition".[xxx] Mothering in West African culture, in opposition to mothering in White middle-class culture, is not restricted to the emotional nurturance of children. Instead, it encompasses, along with the care for children, the financial provision for them as well. Both the "emotional care for children" and their "economic support" form "complementary dimensions of motherhood" in West African culture.[xxxi] The blurring of the sex-role boundary between the sexual category which sustains children and that which nurtures them in West African communities is shown very clearly in Sula. After her husband deserts her, Eva is left with no choice but to hold the responsibility of economically supporting their children. Therefore, she decides to mutilate herself to collect insurance money and sustain her family. However, despite her mutilation, Eva is not depicted as an unfeminine "matriarch". Eva's femininity is marked in the novel by her delight in men's company and her care about her appearance. "The remaining [leg] was magnificent. It was stockinged and shod at all times and in all weather. [...] Her dresses were mid-calf so that her one glamorous leg was always in view".[xxxii] Furthermore, Eva is not forsaken by her abusive husband who quits home after five years of marriage for clear reasons as the female leaders of Black families who earn a living are often presented by the dominant group.

Like Eva, Nel takes responsibility for providing for her children after she is abandoned by her husband. Hence, she works as a chambermaid to obtain money and nourish her children. Also, like Eva, Nel is not a masculine "matriarch". Contrarily, she is meek and submissive and she knows quite well the limitations imposed on her as a colored woman, manifested in her conversation with Sula: "you can't act like a man. You can't be walking around all independent-like, doing whatever you like, taking what you want, leaving what you don't".[xxxiii] Likewise, Nel, similar to Eva, is not deserted by Jude for comprehensible reasons. Jude, a Black male, dissatisfied with his job as a waiter in a hotel and aspiring for doing real work he could boast of, betrays Nel with her friend Sula and leaves the house after Nel finds them naked in her bedroom.

The indistinctness of the borderline between the male sphere of financial provision and the female sphere of child-rearing in West African communities is also made apparent through the other-mothering and community other-mothering practices of Black women. Wright's grandmother, a community other-mother, seems most probably the one who works and makes the money she spends on her granddaughter since there is no mentioning in the novel of a man who carries out this role. Likewise, Eva, both an other-mother and a community other-mother, provides a means of subsistence not only to her biological children but also to the ostracized Blacks she allows to stay in her house. Also, she pays for the education of the three Deweys, whom she sends to school, and Sula, who attends college.

Other-mothers, community other-mothers and blood mothers also subvert the "jezebel" image of the Black woman by embracing conventional gender ideology and conveying it to younger generations of Black women. Being herself a mother, Wright's grand-mother emphasizes the value of traditional feminine role to her grand-daughter by distancing her from her mother and the house of prostitution where she is born and "[raising] her under the dolesome eyes of a multicolored Virgin Mary, counseling her to be constantly on guard for any sign of her mother's wild blood".[xxxiv] When Wright grows up, her grand-mother marries her to one of her nephews to make sure that her grand-daughter would not follow the path of her mother and be a whore. Wright, in turn, transfers the traditional feminine role to her daughter, Nel. Worried that her daughter might bear any of the characteristics of her prostitute mother, she represses any quality of creativity Nel has, thus turning her into a person who steadfastly follows conventional norms. When she graduates from school, she marries her to Jude in a wedding ceremony she has spent weeks preparing for. Even after she is abandoned by her husband, Nel, like Eva, refuses to transgress conventional gender boundaries. As Eva, she chooses to repress her sexual desires and dedicate her life to raising her children rather than resigning the maternal role she is expected to perform. The only woman in Sula who challenges restrictive norms, rebels against the role of a wife and a mother attributed to women in a patriarchal society and seeks a new definition of herself is Sula. However, she is shunned and deemed a whore by society. By espousing a conventional feminine role, passing it on to younger Black women and ostracizing those who search for new roles for themselves, Black mothers, other-mothers and community other-mothers reproduce the wife/whore binary and subvert the stereotype of the Black woman as a "jezebel".


In this paper, I argue that Morrison uses the tradition of other-mothering and community other-mothering, in addition to the practice of blood mothering, to overthrow the stereotypical images of Black women created by the dominant group. Bringing to the fore the maternal characteristic of Black women, Morrison overturns the "breeder" image of Black women. Morrison also brings down two other images of Black women in Sula, the "matriarch" and the "jezebel". She makes apparent how the sex-role boundary that sets apart the male breadwinner from the female nurturer is obscure in West African culture and how self-supporting Black mothers display feminine traits to topple the image of the "matriarch" and she knocks down the image of the "jezebel" by exposing how Black mothers, other-mothers and community other-mothers take on the conventional feminine role and transfer it to their daughters or the Black women they nurture. Morrison's subversion of three stereotypical images of the Black woman in Sula is a significant political act because it shows the deconstructive role of literature and the function it could play in dismantling racist and denigrating images White supremacist culture propagates about the Black woman and, hence, acts in resisting racism in American culture. Morrison's literary resistance founded on West African traditions is also important as it introduces larger audiences to the traditions of African-Americans and encourages them to re-examine the stereotypical ideas implanted in them about Black women.


[i] Angela Davis, Women, Race & Class (New York: Random House, 1981), 7; Eugene D. Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974), 458.

[ii] Hortense Spillers, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American grammar Book," Diacrtrics 17, no. 2 (1987): 64-81.

[iii] Davis, Women, Race & Class, 5.

[iv] Elizabeth V. Spelman, Inessential Woman: Problems of Exclusion in Feminist Thought (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988), 42.

[v] Spillers, "Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe: An American grammar Book," 75.

[vi] Patricia Hills Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (New York and London: Routledge, 2000), 78.

[vii] Davis, Women, Race & Class, 12.

[viii] Bell Hooks, Ain't I A Woman: Black Women and Feminism (Boston: South End P., 1981), 71.

[ix] Barbara Welter, "The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860," American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1966): 5.

[x] Cheryl Clarke, Jewell L. Gomez, Evelyn Hammonds, Bonnie Johnson, and Linda Powell, "Conversations and Questions: Black Women on Black Women Writers," Conditions: Nine 3 no. 3 (1983): 99.

[xi] Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 72-73.

[xii] Ibid., 75.

[xiii] Ibid., 78-79.

[xiv] Ibid., 78.

[xv] Ibid., 81.

[xvi] Ibid., 83.

[xvii] Patricia Hills Collins, "The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother-Daughter Relationships," in Double Stitch: Black Women Write about Mothers & Daughters, eds. Patricia Bell-Scott, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Jacqueline Jones Royster, Janet Sims-Wood, Miriam DeCosta-Willis, and Lucie Fultz (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991), 42.

[xviii] Stanlie M. James, "Mothering: A possible Black feminist link to social transformation?" in Theorizing Black Feminisms: The Visionary Pragmatism of Black Women, eds. Stanlie M. James and Abena P.A.Busia (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 46.

[xix] Ibid.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Collins, "The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother-Daughter Relationships," 47.

[xxii] Ibid., 48.

[xxiii] James, "Mothering: A possible Black feminist link to social transformation?" 48.

[xxiv] Ibid., 48-49.

[xxv] Ibid., 47.

[xxvi] Ibid., 48.

[xxvii] Terry Otten, "Horrific Love in Toni Morrison's Fiction," MFS Modern Fiction Studies 39 no. 3&4 (1993): 665.

[xxviii] Barbara Christian, Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980), 159.

[xxix] Toni Morrison, Sula (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 75-76.

[xxx] Collins, "The Meaning of Motherhood in Black Culture and Black Mother-Daughter Relationships," 45.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Morrison, Sula, 31.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 142.

[xxxiv] Ibid., 17.