black women: perennial caretakers and supreme matriarchs


the washington post’s recent article entitled “for some black women, economy and willingness to aid family strains finances” gives a glimpse into the strain and pressure black women face when providing economic stability for family and friends.  the article features a middle-aged sista whose income dropped dramatically after she was injured on her job and could no longer work. after buying her dream home, the settlement from her employer begin to dwindle, and she has recently faced foreclosure and mounting financial hardship, all while supporting her longtime partner and family members.  as I read the article, i realized i was so accustomed to black women holding family and friends down until i normalized this way of life.  everybody doesn’t take neighbors and friends into their home on a long-term basis?  everybody doesn’t take money from their 401k to save their sister’s home from foreclosure?  not according to a survey commissioned by the washington post.

nearly half of the 800 black women surveyed by the post and the kaiser family foundation revealed they help elderly relatives and more than 1/3 regularly assist friends and family with child care, more than their white counterparts in both categories.  to some, such actions would be considered philanthropic foolishness, especially when black women are twice as likely as white women to report problems making their rent or mortgage payments.  just take the sista in the post story, now living on a substantially reduced income and almost losing her dream home to foreclosure, she continues to give.

now, i’ll say what the post didn’t: black women give because that’s all we know how to do.  our history, not only as partners, wives and mothers, but also as slave bearers and mammies positioned us as perennial caretakers.   we are typecast as supreme matriarchs whose images headline movies such as big mama’s house and tyler perry’s madea dynasty.  it’s no surprise then that we’ll  literally give our last dollar to a relative or friend in need—as the mules of the world (term coined by author zora neale hurston) we’ve been taught undying self-sacrifice.

however, in a society whose hegemonic powers rest upon the myth of rugged individualism, helping others, especially when resources are tight, is not only undervalued but demonized.  mainstream american rhetoric tells us not to concern ourselves with others’ problems.  just worry about yourself.  but, for black women facing interlocking systems of oppression, we know our plight is intertwined; the relationships described in the post article are very often reciprocal.  most importantly, when faced with the need to survive, absent a legacy of wealth or access to credit, we must depend on each other.



  1. I think what you’ve said is extremely important. Black women have a deeeep history of giving of themselves, even when it goes against their desires, or doesn’t support their personal growth.

    Like in the article, Jane buying a house that fit alllll of the people in her life, but may not have been feasible for her and her partner’s lifestyle after it the party was over.

    As women I think we really need to look at what we do and who we invest ourselves into ad see i it’s really supporting who we are and what we’re trying to accomplish. If it’s not–chuck it. And that could mean fabulous trips overseas or saying no to a family member. We can still be a part of someone’s support team, but they must also be ours.


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